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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.

Web_2.0_Map.svg

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 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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