Media richness in demos

20.12.2008 Tuomas Niinimäki


This article is based on my presentation in Demoscene seminar held in co-operation with Finnish Academy of Fine Arts and Alternative Party. In the presentation and this article, I share my ideas and conceptions of demoscene as a medium for communication and expression reflected via concept of media richness theory by Daft and Legnell (Daft & Lengel 1984, Daft & Legnel 1986).

The main driving question for this article is to understand the effect and role of medium constraints to the expressiveness, contents and orchestration of the message in context of demoscene productions. The main focus of interest here lies in comparison of “old school” platforms and state-of-the-art platforms used in delivering the productions in demoscene.

Media richness as a concept

In many cases, there are several ways (media) for delivering the same message. These mediums have typically vary in the extent they restrict or constrain the possibilities to express, deliver and present the idea. Such constraints can be either due to the medium’s ability to address different human sensory systems (e.g. audio-only medium vs. text-only medium), medium’s ability to represent the intended message (e.g. sample rate of audio channel or resolution for graphics), the message producing capabilities for the medium (e.g. restrictions in creating content for given computer platform), the social “constraints” of given medium (e.g. availability of certain platform for audience) and so on.

These restrictions most probably have several effects on both the contents of the message itself, as well as the author’s choice of medium for certain message. However, while many of these limitations are explicit, and thus known to both the author and the audience, there may be even more limitations in demoscene medium that are more implicit in nature, and thus may not reveal themselves to some (or all) parties in demoscene production experience.

Media richness is a theory crafted by Daft and Legnel during early 1980’s. The media richness theory has a solid foundation in organizational theory and communication studies within professional organizations and teams. The studied organizations are typically intensive on knowledge work, and the main function for such organizations is to acquire, manipulate, process and represent information within the organization and beyond its boundaries. In addition to organizational theories, the media richness theory also lends to Shannon’s technical model of communication channel, and tries to reveal the factors behind media choice in cases there are multiple communication channels available for certain message.

Shannon’s model for communication describes the act of communication being affected by five components: the sender, encoding of the sent message for communication channel, the communication channel itself, decoding of the message from communication channel, and the recipient of the message. Shannon’s model suggest that in between of any of these phases of communication, a number of message distortion can occur. Depending on the communication channel (the amount of distortion, and affected phase of communication) and the characteristics of the message the communication can be more or less hindered by this distortion.

The media richness theory tries to assess what characteristics of a message and a medium lead to successful communication. The theory attributes four characteristics for the communication medium: the medium’s capability to immediate feedback, the number of cues and channels available, the language variety, and the degree to which intent is focused on the recipient. Based on these four properties, the media richness theory and related subsequent research suggest face-to-face communication to be typically the richest medium for communication, followed by video (visual + auditive communication) and audio-only communication.

Text-only mediums are typically considered to be the less rich, or leaner, medium for communication. In addition to categorization based on purely sensory basis, the theory also suggest differences in medium richness based on intended audience for the message: more directed or addressed medium (e.g. personal letters, or one-to-one discussions) are considered richer than unaddressed media (e.g. bulk letters, reports, or lectures from one-to-many).

For the message, the media richness theory suggests two characteristics to consider: message uncertainty and message equivocality. Message uncertainty is a factor derived from the difference between information already possessed by the individual (or organization) and information required to certain task or activity. Message equivocality is a concept for message ambiguity, caused by conflicting interpretations about e.g. a situation or environment.

Information richness is the ability of information to change understanding within a time period. Communications that can overcome different frames of reference and clarify ambiquous issues to promote understanding in a timely manner are considered more rich, while communications that take a longer time to convey understanding are less rich. As such, information richness can be considered as a product of the properties of communication medium and the message delivered through the medium.

The media richness theory implies that sender should ideally use the richest possible medium for the message. In reality, this is however often not possible. In these cases, the sender should consider the purpose and intent of the message, and select the appropriate medium accordingly. On the other hand, it is also understood that a richer medium typically requires much more involvement and attention from audience. Especially in the context of professional knowledge-intensive organizations, the attention is a scarce resource, and this further restricts the availability and feasibility of richest possible medium for communication. In the selection of medium for a message, the theory specifically suggests, that leaner medium should be used for unequivocal and/or certain messages, while more abstract, equivocal and/or uncertain messages should be delivered via richer means. Furthermore, the richer medium is, the more immediacy, warmth and togetherness it can provide.

Demoscene and media richness theory

Demoscene is a computer art subculture, which main purpose is to create productions presenting technical and artistic skills of their authors. A demoscene production is typically non-interactive, stand-alone, and real-time generated presentation of audio, visual and/or textual expression. Demoscene productions are often considered to be non-commercial, i.e. being produced and consumed by non-commercial authors and audiences, and very seldom promoting any entity outside the community. Another very noticeable factor in the evolution of demoscene as a culture is its little to none interaction with other subcultures, especially in sense of respect or actualization of demoscene production authors from people outside the community. This has probably affected many conventions and dynamics the demoscene has as a subculture and as a community.

The main driving factor within demoscene productions for the context of this article is its goal to expand and break technological barriers and limitations. One of the main purposes for demoscene competitions and releases is the presentation of novel and innovative ways of pushing the technologies to the extreme, both in order to indicate technical excellence but also to provide more possibilities for artistic expression.

Reflecting this purpose of demoscene productions to the implications made by the media richness theory is interesting as the idea inherently leads into contradiction: one of the main driving factors for delivering messages is to announce advancements within the communication medium, and thus selecting other than the announced medium for such message is out of the question. However, even from the early days of demoscene, there has been always interest also in the artistic excellence, and for this purpose, the question of media choice is more relevant.

The demoscene has traditionally been divided into genres by medium. There are different sections for audio productions (e.g. tracked music), visual productions (e.g. graphics) and orchestrated productions (demos and intros). In comparison to other, established fields of artistic expression, demoscene in general lacks division based on the content, at least in similar sense as this may happen in e.g. motion pictures or traditional musical arts. On the other hand, similarities with some traditional artistic fields, most notably literacy, can be seen in the division of demoscene in platforms and other “artificial” limitations, such as size limitations (e.g. intros and demos vs. short stories vs. novels). Even though this kind of division occurs in demoscene, it would require more comprehensive study of the productions and the community to understand its effect on the contents and platform choice for certain message.

When analysing the individual genres within the demoscene, it can be noted, that graphics and music have generally less limitations as separate genres than in demo/intro context. In essence, the standalone graphics and music, at least in more limited platforms, are able to exploit the full potential of the platform, and thus become richer medium than the orchestrated productions, such as demos and intros, on that platform. The lack of limitations may thus lead into possibility of more expressive and abstract messages in these genres. Another factor affecting the genre richness is the size limitations, most commonly introduced in intro genres, but also being introduced in other genres, such as tracked music.

The impact of media richness can be most clearly seen when analysing the concurrent oldschool demoscene. While the style of expression and concise content of the productions are constantly reaching the state-of-the-art demos, the explicit limitations of the platform require more focus on what can be presented at single point of time, and in which way. In many cases, the overall richness of the platform is low, at least from the bandwidth/resolution point of view, and this may force the authors to focus in expressing their message in more leaner medium.

In general, oldschool demos tend to include more textual content than state-of-the-art platform productions, while non-textual medium is used to provide atmosphere and ambient for the production. Whether this is caused by the medium itself, by the author’s choice of medium for the message, or by the selection of authors for certain platform, cannot be of course determined by this very light analysis of the community.

In addition to sole artistic expression, one significant purpose for demoscene productions, at least in the past, seems to have been the communication about the community itself. In this sense, many messages related to authorship, community member merit and respect, and community and group membership announcements, are in fact very unambiquous, and thus can be expressed in very lean medium in productions.

Implications and conclusions

What can be said about the effects of media richness in demoscene? First of all, it seems that productions in leaner platforms and genres have a greater tendency to be more explicit and concise in their message. The productions aim at delivering their message in certain and unequivocal way. While the causality is difficult to completely determine, more limited platforms seem to be leaner medium for demoscene productions, as predicted by the media richness theory. On the other hand, more versatile platforms provide more degrees of freedom for the message, and can thus be used for more uncertain and equivocal messages, such as providing ambient or feeling for the production. This can be clearly seen in oldschool productions, where audio and static graphics are used to provide the overall ambient for the production, while textual messages are used to deliver the concise message.

There is hardly any differences in the topics covered in different genres of demoscene, but it seems there is a lot of variation and evolution of the topics presented in demoscene in general since the beginning of the community. This might imply there is “hidden” richness accumulated in and by the community in the form of shared visual, auditive and textual concepts and ideas, which are used to link new productions into the continuum of existing productions. In this sense, the new productions are always aiming to overcome and radically expand the existing conceptions of what a demoscene production is.


Daft, R.L. & Lengel, R.H. (1984). Information richness: a new approach to managerial behavior and organizational design. In: Cummings, L.L. & Staw, B.M. (Eds.), Research in organizational behavior 6, (191-233). Homewood, IL: JAI Press.
Daft, R.L. & Lengel, R.H. (1986). Organizational information requirements, media richness and structural design. Management Science 32(5), 554-571.
Shannon, C.E (1948) “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”, Bell System Technical Journal, vol. 27, pp. 379-423, 623-656

Borzyskowski, G. (2000) “THE HACKER DEMO SCENE AND IT’S CULTURAL ARTIFACTS”, School of Design, Curtin University of Technology