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An Encoding-Decoding-Recoding Model of Media Studies

This blog posts continues the dissection of my dissertation that I began by introducing the topic of gendered media engagings earlier this year. This post focuses on a model I used in my dissertation to understand the array of media studies conducted to investigate the ways in which gender is involved in how people engage with media products. As with so many interested in understanding audience reception of the media, I have been highly influenced by the late, great Stuart Hall’s work on what has become known as the “encoding/decoding model” in media studies. Now, I, with much humility, wonder if this classic model could be improved with one more step: recoding.

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The Study of Gendered Media Engagings (Part 3): Why It Matters

This is the third part of my dissertation’s first chapter.  The first part was on defining gendered media engagings.  The second part was on defining gender.

Why studying gendered media engagings matters

Thanks to the work of scholars such as Dallas Smythe, we are aware of the central role of advertisement in most media industries (Smythe, 1995).  Television, radio, newspapers, internet, magazines, comic books, and even to an extent digital games and films, are reliant on the revenue generated by consumers using media products to spread advertisements.  The industry does not receive this revenue if they cannot guarantee to the advertisers that there will be someone consuming the media product with that particular advertisement.

In order to make this guarantee, the media industry needs to generate an audience for that media product.  Audiences are conceived as a mass of people that need to be addressed and organized (McQuail, 1997).  The industry then sells that “audience commodity” to the advertisers.  In order to generate the audience, the industry needs to have control over how a complex mass of potential individuals can be divided up and packaged so as to be attractive to advertisers.

In order to create these audiences, media producers create media products they feel will confidently attract a specific type of people they can sell to advertisers most interested in that type of consumer (Turow, 1997).  The more precisely you can target a person with a product that the person sees as relevant or best-fit, then the more likely that person will consume/engage with that product.  One of the most common ways of segmenting people into potential audiences and consumers is along the gender line.

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Using the concept of what women and men are expected to prefer, based on sociocultural definitions of masculinity and femininity, media producers create media products with these features.  The traditional construct is that men will identify more readily with masculine features, and vice versa for women.   Femininity is constructed around emotionality, nurturance and community, while masculinity is constructed around rationality, ruthlessness and individuality (van Zoonen, 1991). Based on these polarized characterizations, feminine features include romantic interests, comedy, fashion, musical numbers, and handsome men, while masculine features include competition, science and technology, violence, politics, and sexy women (Austin, 1999; Bhatia & Desmond, 1993; Calvert, Kondla, Ertel & Meisel, 2001; Cherry, 1999; Jacobson, 2005; Kuhn, 2002; Nyberg, 1995).  The individual who agrees with the construction of gender as directed to their biological sex — that is, the gendered individual — is expected to desire the media products meant for his or her gender and to accept such gendered media without question.  In this way the symbolic differences are transmitted through the mass media and into the everyday lives of the people of that sociocultural environment.

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However, shifting to a dialogic approach, individuals, en masse, have the ability to restructure the structure.  Any new interpretive/performative act by individuals, whether material or ideological, could result in the institutionalization of a new common knowledge.  Such institutionalization is even more likely if enough individuals amass around this new act, thereby forming an alternative society or subculture to challenge the predominant structure (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Hebdige, 1979).  A new form of fashion, new sense of humor, new sensibility for sex, all could be the result of the acceptance of a new, alternative mode of interpretive/performing.  While the actual numbers of individuals necessary to generate such a restructuring is an empirical question, theoretically once this critical mass is reached, hegemony enters.  Because hegemony is a “moving equilibrium” (Hebdige, 1979), should the dominant structure wish to remain as such, it must shift to accommodate the shift in individuals.  From a dialogic perspective, this give-and-take between agents producing and structures institutionalizing may take generations or even centuries.  Or it could only take years in a media-centric, post-industrial society such as the modern United States.

Consider, as a theoretical thought experiment, the increase in media fragmentation (Napoli, 2003).  The structure, here the capitalist media industry, began to introduce new texts, channels and technology that increased the range of potential media engagings.  However, because the amount of total time available to spend with the media cannot likewise increase for the majority of people, that means the media user has to make more active choices in what media would be used when and where (Livingstone, 1999; 2003; 2004).  To the industry’s viewpoint, this means their potential audience was fragmenting.  By giving people more things to choose from, the industry had simultaneously reduced the number of people who were likely to be consuming one specific product at any given time.

The structure modified the agency, but then the agency modified the structure as the industry adjusted to this fragmentation by targeting their products to specific types of people, as well as changing the features of media products to encourage active engaging.  The more the industry offered, the more the media user became active, and the more the industry saw them as fragmented and thus became determined to address them as such, thereby reinforcing them as being active and fragmented.  Similar examples of this dialogic model can be found in analyzing: the relationship between shonen manga (Japanese comics for men) and the marketplace (Shiokawa, 1999); the relationship between media producers and the Internet (Roscoe, 1999; Siapera, 2004), which includes changing how media producers engage with media consumers (Napoli, 2008; Reinhard, 2008).

Just as the dialogic model could predict the reifying of traditional gendered boundaries, it could also predict changes in these definitions (Jacobson, 2005).  Operating within symbolic boundaries on what is gender, moving between accepting and resisting these boundaries, the individual engages with media that may be more or less gendered, and more or less meant for their gender.  Individuals who more routinely engage with media meant for their gender may unknowingly reify this gendering process — their repeat media engagings and participation in the targeted audience reinforce both the media producers’ felt pressure to create such targeted media, and how the sociocultural environment defines what each gender supposedly prefers, based upon the actions of actual gendered individuals.  Thus through the actions of individuals, media producers, societies and cultures can be affected, thereby completing the circle.

Understanding that a critical mass of agents can, through their reaction to the structure, restructure it reaffirms those activists who seek to change the symbolic differences structured into the sociocultural environment.  Among feminist scholars, it is often been a question of the representation of gender in the media, and whether or not that representation reflects the reality of the sociocultural environment, and to what extent the representation creates that reality (van Zoonen, 1991).  This consternation and debate is the backbone of their activism, to impress upon media producers the need to change the representation.  However, such a direct assault is more persuasive if there is a groundswell consensus among media users who resist the gendered media products — for what is more persuasive to a capitalist system than actions that affect profit?  Operating from a dialogic model, activists could encourage agentic negotiation or resistance to gendered media through media literacy programs and their assumptions about gender, thereby mobilizing the masses to join the brigade (Jacobson, 2005).

Gender commonalities versus differences.  Livingstone (1990) argued the mainstream media, in reporting minor significant differences without clarifying this distinction, artificially polarize the public’s notion of gender.  The fall-back position in our society or culture may be a biological or sociocultural explanation that is reductionist, essentialist and deterministic, over-simplifying a complex process and promoting courses of actions that prove to be ill-advised, unfeasible, and detrimental to individuals.

Investigating commonalities could have two practical implications: one psychological, and one economic.  Janet Hyde, in discussing her gender similarity hypothesis, highlighted the various ways touting gender differences as a positivistic fact impairs both men and women in many facets of life, from interpersonal relationships to psychic well-being to occupational progression (1994, 2005).  By looking as much, if not more so, for commonalities, we uncover the means for deconstructing symbolic differences that prove psychologically and materially damaging to people.

From an economic viewpoint, finding new strategies to build audiences is increasingly important given the current atmosphere of fragmentation (Napoli, 2003).  Fragmentation creates specialized media products for specific types of people, largely based on demographics (age, gender, ethnicity) or preferences (sports, movies, music) that are highly correlated with demographics (Turow, 1997).  The practice focuses on differences and reinforces them by creating the impression circulating in a media environment that certain products are more appropriate for either gender to engage with.  If a media producer is interested in expanding the consumer base, that producer should be focusing on the commonalities of engagings that elide over the differences.

Even before the rise of fragmentation, there were media products that contained more features that would be thought more preferred by women (ex. the soap opera, the “weepie” film) and others that were thought to be more preferred by men (ex. the western, the war film ).  And yet, there were still many texts that contained both masculine and feminine features to develop a cross-gender, and thus much more sizeable, audience (ex. I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, The Cosby Show).  Even in the modern United States, with its plethora of media products, shows like American IdolDancing with the StarsHouse, and Desperate Housewives are examples that have both male and female fan bases, which translate into large ratings and audience shares.

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There are also people who cross the gendered boundaries in their daily lives by engaging with media not targeted to them.  Studies have examined women who engage with the largely masculine-directed media of superhero comics and digital games.  While these women thoroughly enjoy these media, some say they engage as a resistance to gender stereotypes, while others feel like they are trespassing (Nyberg, 1995).  Likewise, men who watch soap operas or other feminine media typically feel awkward discussing their enjoyment of the text, with very few feeling they can openly express their interest in such products (Jewkes, 2002).

At this time, it appears more acceptable for women to cross the gendered boundaries than men.  While not a completely sanctioned act, such transgression by women is due to feminist calls for women to be the equal of men in how they are treated (Jacobson, 2005).  However, there has not been a similar call for men to be the equal of women — to be the stay-at-home dad, to cry openly, to prefer fashion over sports, and so forth (Harris, 2007; Jhally, 1999).  As such, there continues to be higher cultural sanctions against men for gender transgressions, which would also apply to men enjoying media meant for women.

While some cross-gender products are more gender neutral due to the balancing of feminine- and masculine-directed features, more recently traditionally masculine texts are being created with some feminine features to bring in the female audience (Buttsworth, 2002; Ferguson, Ashkenazi & Schultz, 1997).  This move can be seen in the relaunch of BBC’s Doctor Who, where the Doctor’s female companion became more of a love interest than in previous incarnations.  Elevating the actress to essentially a co-star role, the show provided a female audience with a stronger female character to identify with while also providing romantic tension.  The result has been a science fiction show, traditionally masculine-directed, that now has a rather large and active female audience.  This move has been seen across a variety of science fiction and fantasy texts (ex. Star Trek, Terminator, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc), and has also been seen in other male-dominated genres, such as sports, horror and superhero comics (Nyberg, 1995; Shiokawa, 1999).

Populating traditionally feminine texts with masculine features is less common.  Keeping media meant for women free of masculine features provides a space in which feminine qualities can be propagated as the most beneficial method for success.  For example, the movies on the cable network Lifetime showcase female heroines overcoming obstacles using feminine characteristics, instead of resorting to aggression like the female heroines of male-directed horror movies.  Unfortunately, this decision may reinforce the idea that feminine texts are for women only, which could hurt the potential for a male audience.  Without a shift in the sociocultural structure to alleviate the pressure against men consuming media meant for women, male consumers may continue to suffer in silence.

Focusing on commonalities would provide insight for media producers to create and promote gender-inclusive media products, having both male and female audiences, by focusing on what people liked or disliked about the product regardless of gender.  This way of categorizing audiences potentially allows for people to be segmented and studied based on processes of gratification, evaluation and utilization, instead of their sociodemographic memberships or psychological traits (Domzal & Kernan, 1983; Napoli, 2008; Ruggiero, 2000; Schrøder, Drotner, Kline & Murray, 2003).  By promoting how a media product would be liked by anyone, media producers can expand their consumer base for any specific media product by showing why men would like certain things in traditionally feminine media product and vice versa.  Learning more about the processes underlying engaging with a media product – the selecting, interpreting, and utilizing of the media product — and the patterns of these processes across a variety of media engagings will prove more informative and predictive towards this goal.

On Transgressing Audiencehood: Web 2.0, Interactivity, and Becoming What We’ve Always Been

I think I have now determined what my main research trajectory will be, and I wanted to take the opportunity to organize these thoughts to provide the beginning of a structure for how to organize my research, past, present and future.

For awhile now, I’ve been convinced that how the new media has affected our understanding of “audience” is by highlighting certain behaviors that have always been a part of being an audience, or “audiencehood”, but were not due to the media technologies they engaged with and the sociocultural formations that influenced how they could behave.  We’ve heard of how the audience was characterized as being passive, as required to consume and not talk back.  This conceptualization was found in the early days of media studies, with the heightened concern about media effects on vulnerable populations.  This conceptualization was found in the traditional approaches to US broadcasting, positioning the “audience-as-consumer”, to be packaged and sold to advertisers.  While there was acknowledgement that people had the agency to choose, that agency was often thought to be lessened when in an era of restricted choices in media output.

However, this conceptualization has been repeatedly challenged since the 1970s.  In the academic realm, this challenge came from critical-cultural theories and uses-and-gratifications models that sought to empower the audience as meaning-makers in their media engagings.  With increases in media output, due to cable and satellite technologies, nichecasting began to replace broadcasting business models.  New technologies gave more control to the audience for deciding what to watch and when.  These “new media” helped to drive academic and public discourse on “audience activity”, moving away from passivity models and into physical and interpretive activity as moderating and mediating variables in media effects.

The focus on audience activity increased with the digital revolution, especially as it involved the evolution of the Internet into the central communication network for distributing and exhibiting media output.  Because the Internet, and more specifically the World Wide Web, allowed for people to connect to one another and form communities, they were able to build fan communities online across time and space in ways that they could not in the physical, pre-Internet world.  Academics, and the industry, turned their attention to the Internet and other digital media technologies, such as DVR, for empowering the people by requiring them to be active in order to gain content from their media technologies.  Fan-scholars in particular began to celebrate the ability for people to organize and vocalize their affection and activities online.

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The paradigmatic shift into Web 2.0 has, on the one hand, heightened this discourse of empowering people by turning them into produsers or prosumers, but on the other hand it has also been met with increased calls for reducing the celebratory approach and a sometimes implicit technological deterministic approach.  The idea of the Internet spawning these activities has been challenged by media historians conducting research into how fans of film, television, radio, and comics have always been engaged in the types of activities for which the online fan communities are lauded.  The historical approach has helped us to understand that fan activities have always existed as they currently do — they may only be modified in how they are presented due to the technology through which they are produced, distributed, and exhibited.

Now, I am not saying that there are no differences between media technologies.  Obviously they are.  Each has a unique interface and a specific combination of communication channels that impact how the content is produced and engaged with for that technology.  However, I do not agree that the “new media”, which has been code for digital media technologies, produce as different of engaging situations as some new media scholars may assert.  While there are going to be differences, such differences should not be assumed to be primary and always there.  Similarities should be sought for as much as differences.

I make this assertion because of the historical research into media technologies that asserts that every medium was a “new medium” at the time of its introduction; that each new media technology underwent a period of revolution-evolution that, in some ways, show similar patterns for how people, individually and collectively, come to engage with it.  Being a new medium indicates that these technologies are undergoing a period of flux as societies and cultures determine how to “manage” them through developing rituals and conventions of use, and integrating the technology into the delicate, malleable and fluctuating fabric of societies and cultures.  As people develop practices and arrangements for using the new technology, it becomes more accepted into the people’s daily lives.

Now the main thing here is that people learn how to engage with the media, either through their own personal experiences or via instruction that comes formally or informally, such as through popular cultural portrayals of the technologies.  Each technology has a learning curve — and the newer the technology, the more unfamiliar the person is with it, then the steeper that learning curve may be if there are no analogs that the person can draw upon to help them engage with it.  But regardless of what type of media technology, whether it is “old media” or “new media”, we should be able to discern this learning, or sense-making, by investigating the sense-making within situations of engaging with that technology and its content.  I believe that by conducting such investigations would help us to understand the similarities as well as the differences in how people engage with and are affected by media technologies.

I believe that the Web 2.0 paradigm and the concern about interactivity as a dividing line between “old media” and “new media” has provided the opportunity to explore how people engage with all media to understand just what separates the new from the old.  I believe that we will find more similarities than we had expected by conducting such investigations into how people make sense of the media they engage with.  I believe that the notion of transgressing audiencehood, which some will claim has happened because of the Internet and more recently Web 2.0, because of empowerment through interactivity, happens with other media as well, drawing us back to the 1970s critical and cultural models of people interpretively interacting with media content.

Overall, I want to understand how the interactivity of the digital media and the Web 2.0 paradigm shift has changed: how the industry responds to the audience, how audience activity is defined and understood, and how people have actually always been engaging with the media, through their sense-making and appropriating, as we celebrate them for now.  I have started this trajectory with work: on gameplay marketing and experiments in interactive television to understand what the industry is doing; on virtual world television production, online fan identities, and gender negotiation in fandom to understand what is now audience activity; and on sense-making in a range of media technologies, from films to virtual worlds.

I hope to do more to strengthen this trajectory and this central idea: that we have always been active audience, interpretively and physically, regardless of the media technology we engage with to reach the content, but that the technology does certain impact the parameters of that activity for how we are active.  I hope to understand these parameters and how they impact what we are supposed to do, what we can do, and what we have to do to do what we want to do.

The Whats versus Hows of Film Spectatorship

[What follows is a 2007 paper I wrote for a graduate level course on film studies.  It was this paper that started me thinking about what I've come to term minutia reception studies.  I've edited the paper for length, and I've included a picture of the reception worksheets my brother filled out as part of this "study".  The full paper can be found here.  I hope to be able to start doing more research on this topic soon, starting with a paper using part of the Virtual Worlds Entertainment project to do so.]

Since the arrival and construction of the “new” media, it seems that the variety of disciplines that have at some point in their history theorized and researched the relationship between human beings and works of fiction and nonfiction are converging.  However,  from social sciences and the humanities there still fall two different dimensions that dissect the fields on how they approach the study of the person-text relationship.  The first dimension carries the active-passive debate.  While few see the person as always active or always passive, the variation along this dimension still serves to separate research.  The second dimension carries the implied-actual debate; simply stated, this dimension concerns the extent to which research focuses on the reader as implied by the text versus the actual reader who exists external to the text.

The purpose of this essay is not to further differentiate how these dimensions are at work in the variety of disciplines studying the reader-text engagement.  This essay takes such distinctions as the current state of affairs and operates instead from a particular position on both dimensions to further an argument about the reader-text relationship when the focus of the research is the spectator-film engagement.  I shall stake my claim on being further into the always active and actual reader approaches, which places me in a camp surrounded by “uses and gratifications” media scholars, information scientists, cognitive scientists, new media scholars, and cultural studies scholars.  It is from this position that I shall argue for the need to understand the actual reader engaging with the film text in order to expand the ways in which this engagement can impact overall reception of the text.  My thesis will be supported by a preliminary empirical study that is also intended to promote a possible means for studying moment-by-moment spectator-film engagement in order to see the process of reading and its relation to overall reception.

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The Story of The Dark Knight and Its Brethren

Back in the spring of 2007, like other Batman fans who loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, I was eagerly awaiting his follow-up, The Dark Knight. When the “I Believe in Harvey Dent” website went live in May, I was there with others.

However, not long after the original website went live, some digitally scrawled graffiti all over it, in a style highly reminiscent of Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker. On this website you were invited to enter an email address, with no indication of what would happen when you did.

So, of course, I entered my email address. I received an email with a code. In returning to the website, I was invited to enter the code. And, as many had done before me, this led to a pixel being removed from the picture…until…

The first image, official or otherwise, of Heath Ledger as The Joker appeared.

This series of events was important for two reasons. First, the casting of Ledger and the portrayal of The Joker had been questioned in the fan community since the knowledge of what Nolan was planning first became known. Fans, including myself, were concerned what a more realistic take on The Joker would mean for how he was represented. Having us play a game by collectively inputting codes to reveal the picture was a way to tantalize us and have us be involved in the canon of the film — two things fans really like.

Second, this was the beginning of what would become a massive alternate reality game organized by 42 Entertainment to market the upcoming sequel. By itself, this marketing campaign was significant for its size and scope, flawlessly mixing real world students and scavenger hunts with online games and websites to promote or represent, as realistic, fictional businesses, people and organizations. However, this campaign also represents a rise in similar marketing campaigns that in some way attempt to co-opt the rise in how active fans and audiences can be due to the Internet.

Along with The Dark Knight, I followed several other campaigns: Leverage, Cloverfield, Heroes, Lost, and still more. I’ve been collecting information and screenshots of the activities whenever I can. You can find the collection of screenshots here:

Examples of Gameplay Marketing

I’ve written several papers on this topic, with one being published by the International Journal of Communication.

For me, the researcher, these new gameplay marketing campaigns are interesting for the innovation in advertising they are, as well as changes in how Hollywood is conceptualizing the position of the fan and the audience in the production and marketing of television shows and motion pictures.

For me, the fan, these campaigns give me the chance to engage with the material I love in all new ways, and to feel, if fleetingly and wrongly, that I in some way matter to bring what I love to air or to keep it circulating.

The big question is: do these marketing campaigns work?

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