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New Face at COM Focuses on New Media

James Katz heads new division, first doctoral program

James Katz, Director, Division of Emerging Media Studies, Boston University BU College of Communication COM

James Katz is the Feld Family Professor in Emerging Media and director of the College of Communication’s new Division of Emerging Media Studies. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Cell phones are now as essential as air for most people, yet it wasn’t that long ago that they were an expensive status marker for the hyper-busy. James Katz remembers those days, and he remembers one meeting at a Bell Communications Research center in the late 1980s where a lab scientist made the far-fetched claim that people would soon carry in their pocket a device allowing them to talk to anybody in the world.

“It seemed absolutely fantastic,” says Katz, sitting in his less than completely furnished office at the College of Communication. “And it seemed well worth studying how this was going to be changing the lives of people, their social relationships, and their daily routines.” Katz, the Feld Family Professor in Emerging Media, is the first director of COM’s new Division of Emerging Media Studies.

At Bell, where he headed the social science research unit at BellCore/Bell Communications Research, Katz was able to study people’s behavior and conduct national surveys of early cell phone users to understand, as he says, “to what extent they were liberated by the technology and to what extent they were changed by it.”

Now, more than two decades later, he is known around the world as an expert in how people interact with new media technologies and how they change, and are changed by, that interaction. He has authored more than 50 journal articles and several books, most based on his research, and he has won fellowships at Princeton, Harvard, and MIT. BU recruited him this past summer from Rutgers, where he chaired the communication department and founded the Center for Mobile Communications Studies.

“The impact Jim has made throughout his career, both as practitioner and teacher, has been transformational to the way we approach and think about communicating, from the internet to social media and cellular technology,” says University Provost Jean Morrison. “We are excited for the energy and ideas he brings for new research and the opportunities this program affords our students to compete and succeed in so many arenas.”

COM Dean Tom Fiedler (COM’71) says the focus on emerging media became a priority for the college three years ago during its strategic planning process. He uses a Wayne Gretzky analogy to explain the college’s thinking. “When asked what separates a good hockey player from a great hockey player, Gretzky responded, ‘A good hockey player skates where the puck is; a great hockey player skates to where the puck is going to be,’” says Fiedler, who thinks the same is true for COM. “If we built our structure around what the tools of communication technology are today, then we would immediately begin falling behind.”

Katz says most people can easily wrap their brains around existing technology like the telephone, radio, or television, but things get trickier with media that is “emerging.” He looks for answers to questions like, “How is it that media technologies get created? How are they in some cases adopted or ignored? What are the effects of these new technologies on people’s lives? To what extent are the technologies remade by the users, and what new products are created through these technologies?”

At Rutgers’ Center for Mobile Communications Studies, Katz and doctoral students studied how mobile communication technologies affect social relationships. They found some surprising answers. For example: women in traditional areas of India often felt greater pressure to adhere to gender roles once they owned a cell phone—bucking popular perception—because their husbands called with specific instructions about how and when dinner should be prepared. When they examined college students, they found that those with cell phones gained greater independence from their parents, but at the same time grew closer to them.

COM plans to relocate Katz’s center to BU, where it will serve as a research hub for his latest interest: how images and visual culture interplay with emerging media—a topic, he thinks, the University can exploit with its expertise in fine arts, film, television production, and photography.

The Division of Emerging Media Studies will bridge COM’s three departments, Fiedler says, and offer courses taught by faculty from journalism, film and television, and mass communication, advertising, and public relations. One such class might be advertising’s search engine optimization course. Graduate courses in the new division will be the base of COM’s first doctoral program, which will be headed by Katz, and could welcome its inaugural cohort of students as early as fall 2014.

“This program fits very much with the evolution of BU from a commuter college to a top-ranked research university,” says Katz. “It’s front and center in terms of human life in the 21st century.”

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Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
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