Part Four: Audiences & Identity
40 Audiences and Audience Research
This section discusses the different ways we think about receivers, audiences, and users, and how communication and media scholars might approach thinking about and studying audiences. It is worth breaking these concepts down into separate components to try to understand them. However, these concepts are artificial constructs, and the line between receivers, users, and audiences is becoming increasingly soft and blurred and they may have faded in their usefulness.
When dealing with one-to-one or one-to-few communication, we usually use the label of receiver to describe those whom the message targets. As articulated in the transmission models of communication, a receiver can also be a sender, but for now, it’s easiest to start with the simplest articulation of a receiver, where a receiver can be defined as anyone targeted for or taking in information or communication. Leaving the reality that receivers often become senders aside, we can still regard receivers as not merely passive sponges of information – they can interpret material, bring to bear their own experiences, and ‘read’ messages in a number of different ways.
In terms of information received, we can generally say that information is decoded in three ways. There is the dominant reading, where the message intended is the message received. There is a negotiated reading, where the receiver accepts some of the intended message, and rejects other parts of it. Finally, there are oppositional readings, where the reader completely rejects the message intended. And of course, there is also the possibility that the message is not received – through miscommunication or a failure to communicate. It is also worth remembering here that communication is never ideologically neutral.
All of this forms the core of Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model. Hall argued that any piece of information can be encoded in multiple ways, and every message has more than one meaning. We refer to this as the polysemy of messages – literally, the ‘many meanings.’ Therefore, communication is always subject to decisions made within the context and systems employed – meaning-making is not natural but cultural. There isn’t such a thing as a ‘right’ way to read a message, only the preferred way within a particular context.
16 Rude and Interesting Gestures around the World – Standard Youtube License (Video uploaded by SkyscannerLtd)
The cultural aspect and interpretation of a message shows in the different non-verbal signs described in the video above. The depend on national, thus cultural backgrounds and might have different meanings in other cultures or might simply not be understood. Also, each gesture would only make sense in a certain context.
When thinking about mass communication, and broadcasting to a large number of people (many-to-many communication), we need to ask whether or not an audience is just an aggregate of receivers. Is there anything special about an audience?
It’s a surprisingly difficult question. A very basic view might see the audience merely as a group of people who are receiving the same message at the same time, whether it be a musical performance or a TV show. But the breadth of communicative options these days quickly exposes the problems with such a simple definition. If one person records a show on MySky™, another downloads the show off a torrent, another watches it when it is first broadcast on ‘free-to-air’ TV, and another buys the DVD, are they collectively still an audience? They’re all receiving the same text, but in different modes and at different times.
We might instead try to think about audiences both as cultural constructs and as responses to particular media or texts. We can define audiences in terms of location (such as the spectators at a rugby game), by population demographics (for example, children), by medium or channel (such as television or Youtube), or by message content (political speeches or soap operas), as well as by time of transmission or reception.
How we perceive audiences has also changed over time, from passive to active to fragmented. We started off in pre-modern times thinking about the audience in terms of the public. Publics, such as those at agora and fora, were generally constrained in time, space and culture. That is, they tended to be in the same place, at the same time, with participants sharing similar values and culture. It wasn’t until the rise of the media and mass communication that audiences started to become more dispersed and hetereogeneous. It is this mass audience that is perhaps more relevant to media scholars.
The mass audience is an interesting phenomena, given how dispersed they are. For much of the 20th century, the mass audience was characterized by a lack of self-generated identity – only with a few rare texts, like certain bands, or shows or sports teams – did people share a common identity in belonging to that audience. For the most part, members of the mass audience, particularly the mediated mass audience, were dispersed across time, space, and culture. Furthermore, what identities they did have were classified by externally generated markers such as demographics, like age, gender (and perhaps most importantly in capitalist media markets,) economic profile.
This era of audience research was very much focused around marketing demographics. Leaving aside public service broadcasting for the moment, a lot of information captured about audiences, and indeed the language we used to describe audiences, came from marketers and program buyers, who determined which mass media texts made it into general circulation based on what kind of audience it would attract (children, housewives, retirees) and therefore what kind of advertising they could sell on it.
Is the idea of the audience still relevant for the 21st Century? A simple test might be to think about what you did last night? With an increasing plethora of channels, modes, and sources of information and entertainment, our existing notion of the mass audience is fractured more than ever.
While the audience still has some use as a concept, particularly as we define the demographics of our audience more tightly, a new concept has come to the fore in communication research. There are a few different labels given to similar concepts, so let’s start with the idea of the user. A user has a number of definitions given the context, but to start with, we can define a user as an active agent who uses available tools to interact with information.
A user is of interest to us because they move through a number of different communicative positions simultaneously. They can be both senders and receivers, audiences and producers, engaged in interpersonal communication that is also public performance. Users form networks, and act as nodes which both pass on and reinterpret information taken in from multiple sources, often other users. Users interact with other users to form networks along which information is not only sent and received, but also modified and interpreted.
These messy networks quickly go beyond any simple, linear model that we might use for understanding audiences. The rise of the user in both the interpersonal and mass communication landscape has been enabled to a large extent by information communication technologies such as the internet and mobile phones. But a lot of the interplay between users that we’ve been seeing reflects other, small scale social networks, such as the pre-modern idea of the village. What has changed is the scale and speed of the network connections, and the idea of memory – an interpersonal network can subjectively remember things. In an electronic network, the exact words, content or message can often be recalled long after the interaction has ceased – a good demonstration of this is searching for yourself online (egosurfing) to find old posts and messages you had long forgotten.
As an aside, it is interesting to use the ritual view of communication as a lens through which to think about the social network of users as a group of communicators. If users can be both senders and receivers, produce and consume (and reproduce) texts, and always have, at least in theory, equal capacity of channel to play either sender or receiver, then the flow of cultural capital is not only sped up, it is also partially removed from the hands of capitalist content producers (i.e. those producing content to sell advertising around or for monetary gain). We’re currently seeing the early shockwaves of this change playing out in the copyright battles of the TPPA, SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and s21a.)
- Why has the internet changed the concept of audiences?
- Find examples that state your theory.