A dynamic and changing relationship

The relationship between media and audiences continues to change. New technology and media convergence has changed the nature of media production, distribution, consumption and reception. Although new and traditional forms of media continue to exist side by side in a hybridised landscape, new technologies and platforms have changed the power dynamic between media and audiences, challenged power hierarchies, given increased agency to audiences and, as Henry Jenkins notes, changed the way audiences fit into “networks of capital, both economic and cultural.” In The Culture Industry and Participatory Audiences, Emma Keltie notes in a potential future of participatory culture “the space between producer and consumer lessens and the positions of power become closer.”

It is useful to think about this changing relationship by thinking about changes in production, distribution, reception and consumption. 

Production: Institutions, individuals and crowds

The way media is produced is changing. In the twentieth century, media production was dominated by large commercial media institutions. According to Eli Noam in Media Ownership and Concentration in America, the emergence of broadcast radio and television was initially dominated by large commercial companies. During this time, however, it is important to note that motivated individuals and communities were creating their own media, including newspapers, fanzines, community radio and community television.  

The rise of new media technology and social media platforms means that the tools to produce media are available to more people than ever before, enabling individuals to create their own media. While audiences have always exerted some agency what they use and how they use it, social media provides greater opportunities for creating and sharing media. Platforms such as Facebook and YouTube provide individuals with the ability to publish and distribute, potentially reaching an audience of millions. In Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture, Henry Jenkins calls this participatory culture and writes that it is characterised by “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novice.” According to  Jenkins, the practice of creating and sharing media, is nothing new.  In the nineteenth century, the Amateur Press Association allowed people to create and share their own publications through a national distribution network. This tradition continued through the twentieth century with science fiction fanzines, punk rock publications and the riot grrrl movement. Recent developments in technology have simply amplified these practices. Dr Axel Bruns of Queensland University of Technology coined terms like ‘produsage’ to describe the power audiences now have to create their own content. He argues that the distinction between producers and users is now virtually insignificant: “Users are always already necessarily also producers of the shared knowledge base,” he explains, “regardless of whether they are aware of this role – they have become a new, hybrid, produser.” 

In 2008, writer and lecturer Clay Shirky released the book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. In the book, Shirky explores how individuals use online tools to work collaboratively without organisational structures. In 2009, Clay Shirky explained to WNYC radio: “What we’re increasingly seeing—with models like Wikipedia, the collaboratively created encyclopaedia, or open source software like the Linux operating system—is that groups of people operating without financial motive and outside of an institutional framework that directs their work, are able to create an enormous amount of value.” Professor of media studies at University of Brighton, Tara Brabazon, has criticised the idea for omitting any discussion of the barriers that exist to creating content. In ‘Nothing to lose but our mobiles’, she writes: “The great absence in the book is any mention of information literacy, or the excluded “everybodies” that may not have the latest phone or the time and ability to join, gather and collectivise online because they are managing analogue injustice. His assumption that “we” can learn about technology from technology – without attention to user-generated contexts rather than content – is the gaping, stunning silence of Shirky’s argument.”

Further reading

Distribution: Distribution, contagion, stickiness and spreadability

During the twentieth century, large media organisations exerted control over the distribution of media products. The equipment and infrastructure required to distribute media to a mass audience was expensive: television broadcasts, for example, required expensive broadcast towers. While ideas of contagion, stickiness and spreadability all help to explain how modern media circulates, it is important to remember that media institutions continue to play an important role in media distribution. By early 2021, Netflix had 207 million paid subscribers across the globe. New media platforms, such as Facebook and TikTok, also exert significant control, shaping the flow of content on their sites through algorithmic curation and content moderation. In the contemporary media landscape, distribution is a hybrid of top down distribution and grassroots sharing.

There are several ideas and theories that help to describe how content circulates on social networks, including: contagion, stickiness and spreadability.

Contagion refers to the idea that media messages spread like viruses. The metaphor of viral contagion has a long history. A number of theorists and writers have promoted the idea, including Douglas Rushkoff in Media Virus!: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture and Seth Godin in Unleashing the Ideavirus. Rushkoff argues that media messages that capture audience attention and spread are viruses, they have protein shell—“an event, invention, technology, system of thought, musical riff, visual image, scientific theory, sex scandal, clothing style or even a pop hero”—that catches the attention of the audience. In Unleashing the Ideavirus, Godin explores how messages spread from the perspective of marketers and advertisers suggesting that they should “tonight consumer networks and then get out of the way and let them talk.” Godin suggests that smoothness is required for the successful spread of an ideavirus. Smoothness could refer to the click of a button or a particular phrase because a product that is “easy to recommend is often a product that’s easy to get hooked on.” In the book, he suggests that ‘sneezers’ are people who are more likely to spread a message and that marketers should actively try to target these people. Sneezers are trusted friends who have credibility because they are trusted friends who wouldn’t recommend something that doesn’t make the lives of their friends better. 

Stickiness is an idea, primarily used in advertising and marketing, which describes media products that engage audiences. As Malcolm Gladwell notes in The Tipping Point, stickiness is “primarily a property of the message.” In the book, Gladwell calls this The Stickiness Factor. He suggests that some content creators have become “specialists in stickiness” and are capable of creating engaging content that will spread on social networks. Gladwell emphasises that there is a difference between stickiness and contagion. Stickiness describes the product whereas contagion is a “function of the messenger”. In Spreadable Media, Henry Jenkins disagrees with how the concept of stickiness, as interpreted by advertisers and marketers, because it devalues the role that audiences play in spreading media: “It privileges putting content in one place and making audience come to it so they can be counted. Such “destination viewing” often conflicts with both the dynamic browsing experience of individual internet users and, more importantly, with the circulation of content through the social connections of audience members.”

Instead, Jenkins promotes the idea of spreadability. He dismisses notions of vitality because it suggests that audiences are reduced to “involuntary “hosts” of media viruses” while promoting the notion that “media producers can design “killer” texts which can ensure circulation by being injected directly into the cultural ‘bloodstream.’” According to Jenkins, in this model “audiences play an active role in spreading content: their choices, their investments and their actions determine what gets valued.” Jenkins and Green go onto explain that media can be reinterpreted and re-contextualised when it is spread: “As content spreads, then it gets remade, either literally through various forms of sampling and remixing, or figuratively via its insertion into ongoing conversations and interactions. Such repurposing doesn’t necessarily blunt or distort the original communicator’s goals. Rather, it may allow the message to reach new constituencies where it would otherwise have gone unheard. Yet by the same trek, it is also not necessarily reproduced uncritically, since people have their own varied agendas for spreading the content. No longer “hosts” or “carriers”, consumers become grassroots curators and advocates for personally and socially meaningful materials.” Spreadability represents a shift in the power dynamic between media and audiences. As Jenkins notes in ‘Henry Jenkins: Spreadable content makes the consumer king’: “It’s not the agency of the network that pushing the content, it’s the consumer that’s engaging other consumers with that content.” In Spreadable Media, Jenkins explains that peanut butter is a good metaphor for how media spreads: it is inherently sticky but still requires users to spread it. 

Further reading

Reception and Consumption

Scheduled viewing, instant access and bingeing

The IBM report Beyond Digital found: “Today’s connected consumers are empowered, demanding instant access to personalized content on their own terms.” In Rerun Nation, Derek Kompare describes how audience is driving changes in the media industry towards new modes of consumption that are based upon “individual consumer choice, and marked by highly diversified content, atomized reception, and customizable interfaces.” Media technology and convergence is changing the way we experience television. Binge viewing, which involves watching multiple episodes of a television series one after the other, has become the new normal. In 2019, a Radio Times survey of 5,500 people found that 57% of people regularly binge. Half of respondents said their longest binge was eight episodes at a time. 80% of people said they’ve lost sleep to watch television and 18% called in sick to work so they could keep watching their favourite television show. While television seems to be moving away from scheduled programming to a more personalised, atomised experience, it would be simplistic to suggest that scheduled programming is dead. In Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty, John Ellis predicted that unlimited, unscheduled access to television would result in, what he called, time famine and choice fatigue. In reaction to this, a number of networks and streaming services have opted to release content weekly rather than all at once. 

Further reading

Rating and analytics

Traditional media afford limited opportunities to measure audience engagement. These metrics include measures such as television ratings, box office revenue and circulation figures. The rise of social media and streaming services means that commercial media institutions can now analyse the minutiae of audience consumption. Netflix closely monitors consumption, including searching, starting, stopping, restarting and reviewing. Likewise, social networking sites collect an immense amount of data about users and how they interact with sites. 

Curation and Algorithms

One aspect of media consumption is changing is the way that content is presented to audiences. In traditional media, content is curated for audiences. Web 2.0 sites, such as Facebook and TikTok, present content that is curated by an algorithm based on your preferences and interests. Services like Apple Music, however, insist that human curation of content is key to providing audiences with the best experience.

Further reading

Big screens, small screens, second screens

New media is changing the way audiences consume screen content. This has led some to suggest that we are witnessing the death of cinema, at least when it comes to cinematic juggernauts like Star Wars and Marvel. Audiences are increasingly watching content on small, handheld devices, such as tablets and phones.  According to a recent Australian survey, 59% of people binge watch in public, 34 percent use Netflix during their daily commute and 8% admit to watching TV while using public toilets. In addition to these changing practices, the smartphone has become a ‘second screen’ that is transforming our TV viewing experience as we post, tweet and message while we’re watching these programs. A 2019 Nielson survey revealed that 45% of US viewers use their phone while watching television. As Tech Crunch notes, the remarkable thing about this shift is that viewers are generally using this technology to augment the experience of watching TV rather than to interrupt it.

Further reading

Photo by Ola Dapo from Pexels.