The following is the bulk of the presentation I will be giving this Friday, October 11th, at the Midwest Popular Culture Association conference in St. Louis. For all of you (which is the majority of the world) who cannot be there to hear the presentation, I give you what it is all about — my first full study testing my minutia reception studies method.
“Making sense of the American superhero film:
Critical engagement and cinematic entanglement”
Today I am presenting the first full fledged study to utilize a method I have been developing to measure a film spectator’s engagement with a film on a moment-by-moment basis. I call it the “minutia reception method”, and I hope that when applied it can help us understand how people make sense of a film – what they draw on to interpret the film, what they focus on in the film, and what is their overall impression of the film. I employed this method as part of a larger study; this part focuses on how people engaged with American superhero films. The analysis I am presenting here seeks to understand how their making sense of these films involved becoming entangled in it whilst simultaneously or alternatively being critical of it – and how the one does not preclude the other from occurring.
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.
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.
[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.
Methods for understanding the moment-by-moment reception of interactive media
Oftentimes in media studies that focus on understanding media reception by the audience or the user, there is a focus on reception writ large and post-hoc. That is, there is a tendency to consider the reactions to a media product by the audience/user after the engagement has occurred and as an aggregate of engagements instead of specific situations of engagement. Such has been the tradition of self-reports that rely on recalling the experience of engaging with the media, with the oft-discussed problems of recall bound into the results: chiefly, the loss of focus on specific aspects of the engagement, due to faulty memory, inattention, or social desirability. The unique flavors of specific situations of engagement are further lost when audiences/users are asked to speak about their engagements “on average”, reducing differences in situations with the assumption that the differences within individuals are less important than the differences between individuals. Perhaps these problems were not as egregious in the era of non-interactive media.
However, when media require higher amounts of interaction, such that each choice becomes a potential pivot point for change in an engagement, then the differences within individuals can be as important as the difference between individuals. To that end, method/ologies that address how to measure media engagement within specific situations as they occur could become more desirable. Drawing on empirical applications, this paper makes the argument for learning from such method/ologies in order to understand the minutia or moment-by-moment reception that occurs when engaging with interactive media.