The ‘one-step flow’ theory involves a communication mechanism in which the mass media speaks directly to the broad audience without the Opinion leaders filtering the message. The theory illustrates both a transition in technologies for communication and fundamental changes in individual-society relationships.
Opinion leaders that played a vital role in the two-step theory are less inclined to “lead” as they appear more liable to affirm latent opinions than to contextualize them. And, as the mass media are increasingly differentiated and fragmented in the one-step flow, they add to the individualization process through decreasing audiences, demographically driven programming, news spin, and transmission of political advertising.
The concept of Elihu Katz and Paul F. Lazarsfeld’s study (Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communication) best explains the hypothesis of the “two-step flow of communication.” During the first phase, mass media send messages to what is just about a homogeneous mainstream market, to everyone. In the second, countless small group conversations guided by members of horizontal opinion perceive and contextualize these filtered communications for their members, who then interiorize the resulting information. The final result is an interpretation of the message’s meaning somewhat divided through different social borders. It was a non-trivial finding.
To society as a whole, the consequence is that there were limitations to the possible impact of indirect communication— limitations imposed by the information channels and social interactions of each person, some of which could be systemic, and some were fortunate products. At the same time, however, mediated communication has been possible so essential to social interaction— supplying it with both stimulation and information, that it was no longer possible to distinguish the two. It implied that mass society can never be completely diverse, but that human social settings can never be wholly isolated from mass impact.
The communication mechanism is directed at the person or direct communications of organized networks with similar demographics in several ways today. The role of mass is still relevant, but more as a validating echo chamber rather than a system of social cueing. Polling and focus grouping is always appropriate; however, they are gradually being expanded or substituted by large databases targeted at defining and classifying members of the mass audience and relaying messages directly in the most effective and narrowest available medium to these individuals. Whether that medium is targeted telemarketing, recipient-sensitive Websites, customized email lists, direct mail, or some other method, the aim is the same — to suit the message to the wants, needs, aspirations, and tastes of the audience. Such signals may, in aggregate, constitute a global declaration of intention or action, but just the most essential and possibly convincing parts of that global body are available to the specific members of the audience. To the degree that communicators are successful in reaching that goal, they should replace their current audience selection and targeting expertise with the position previously delegated to group interaction for all practical purposes. On transmission, the delivery and quality of each communication will form to predict and substitute the portion of the two-step flow’s social interaction. This is the one-step communication flow.
We think the fundamental interactions between people, culture, media, and communications are changing in areas that indicate the need to devise a new approach to communication.
Models of communication are entrenched in assumptions about social systems occupied by the studying groups and individuals. Researchers may not systematically theorize these deep social systems, but in designing works and analyzing findings, they depend on assumptions regarding them. For example, the two-step flow is based on speculation about a communication social structure that both brings the model’s logical recognition and guides its analytical applications. Such beliefs could have been rational in 1950, but today they tend to be less intelligent. We argue that somehow the model is best suited to analyzing information movements in American society from about the early decades of the twentieth century to the 1980s, a time that numerous scholars correlated with the rise and fall of the civil society characterized by social group federations from national service groups to bowling leagues (Putnam 2000).
Since after the wave of research indicating clear mass media impacts including framing, agenda-setting, and priming, amongst others, society and media have continued to evolve. Another change involves traditional mass media targeting smaller audiences, while niche media absorbs large numbers, making it more challenging to deliver secure universal messages, but easier to address targeted messages. Another shift is that people have taken on more responsibility to manage their own emotional and cognitive experiences in fractured late modern societies, sometimes apart from processes of group influence (Giddens 1991; Bennett 1998; Mutz 1998). This suggests less emphasis on interpersonal impact, especially in the area of public and political affairs, a trend that can correlate with the diminishing relevance of politics to many citizens and the propensity to avoid talks of politics in many social relationships (Mutz 1998; Eliasoph 1998).
All this indicates that we are at a significant moment in the history of communications to think carefully on (1) how we interpret the frameworks that could be the next norm and (2) how to handle these information systems. Some advice is provided from accumulated experience with the old mindset. Although we think there were, however, certain broad correspondences among the two-step flow and the United States’ observable social system, we do agree that essential warning tales need to be learned.