As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.
In discussions with cultural and literary theorists I sometimes get the sense that work investigating online modes of communication, ARGs (alternate reality games), video games, television, etc., is somehow a sort of trick. That is, the subtext seems to be that academics should be engaged in serious work(tm), analyzing high literature and art, and that those that work on film, modes of internet discourse, ARGs, video games, television, and so on are folks that have managed to game the academy so as to find a way of meshing their cheeto eating tendencies (pop-cultural fluff) with their academic work. Although there is certainly a lot of fluff out there in the ever growing body of pop-culture research (just as there is in literary studies), I think this severely misses the point.
If these things are worthy of investigation, then it is not on the premise that somehow all cultural production should be approached in an egalitarian fashion that treats them all as having equal merit (an aesthetic judgment), but because these things have become dominant modes of communication that pervade our entire lifeworld and which constitute the dominant mode of symbolic activity for humans. Although I have myself engaged in quite a bit of semiotic analysis of pop-cultural entities like films and television shows, what really interests me is not so much the content and meaning of these things, as the technologies themselves. As always, the work of Walter Ong and Friedrich Kittler are invaluable here. What they both investigate, in their own way, is the manner in which writing technologies transform the very nature of our cognition. Thus, for example, differential calculus is literally unthinkable prior to the advent of writing. Where the primary mode of cultural transmission is oral in character, the use of equations divested of narrative and rhythmic content simply cannot get a foothold in the world due to how our minds are put together. With the advent of writing it becomes possible to think the world and relate to one another in an entirely different way. As Vernant notes in his ethnography of the Greeks, the inscription of laws on public buildings in the market place changed the nature of the law by transforming something that could shift from speech act to speech act across time, into an enduring persistence standing there as something literally written in stone.
This is the significance media studies. Not only is there the issue of how the Gutenberg printing press transformed the nature of the world, but in our own historical context, there is the issue of how different forms of computer programming, telephone communication, satellite communication, internet communication, visual and auditory forms of communication such as we see on television and in film, structure the nature of social relations and cognition in very different ways.