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Research Project: The Online Audience

Research Project: The Online Audience

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Published by phunkstar
How do institutions define and maintain audiences in cyberspace?
How do institutions define and maintain audiences in cyberspace?

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Published by: phunkstar on Nov 04, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Commercial- and governmental institutions have been generally unsuccessful inreaching out to media audiences online because they have failed to see theInternet as a mass medium with its own genres of discourse. The main reason isa problematic definition of what an audience is and how these differences applyonline. Symptoms could include underestimating how much gamer fans expect tobe involved in the development of games and software, and the use of theInternet to illegally copy and download music and film.Although it would be fruitful and interesting to explore these symptoms, thisproject will focus on arguing for a new type of audience online: the cyber-audience. This denotation is used to indicate that different sets of audiences thatexist online must be understood from other points of view other than thetraditional models that have been used on audiences in ‘old’ media, liketelevision broadcasting or newspapers. The cyber-audience is significantlydifferent from traditional media audiences and this project will illustrate this bygiving examples of some of the symptoms and concludingly recommend thatinstitutions (be it commercial or governmental) should skew their view towardsaudiences from a Public Relations-point of view, as
; groups of people thatare essential for an organisation’s survival and subsequently positiverelationships must be created and maintained.
1.0 How do institutions define and maintain audiences incyberspace? 
Governance and participatory genre
This first section will take a look at audience theory, with particular focus on thegovernance cycle, as it is helpful in explaining the relationship between thosewho produce media content and those who consume it. The second section willalso look into the concept of virtual communities and explain why it is morehelpful to look at virtual communities as ‘participatory genre,’ as ThomasErickson calls it.Audiences exist where media texts meet with people’s social experiences andknowledges and are used as a cultural resource. John Hartley claims it’s sillyaudiences exist, but rather that of invisible fictions - a construct producedinstitutionally in order to justify their existence (Hartley 1992). Previousdiscussions have resolved around a focus upon audience research as a form of social \ ideological control, ergo an assumption that the media is bad. MarkBalnaves and Tom O’Regan suggest a ‘governance-cycle approach,’ whichfocuses on the strategy, plans of action and the ethical relations of managingaudiences. It turns out audience research techniques are rarely analysed or understood. Much policy is based on assumptions on effects of the media. Theseassumptions enable groups to make claims about what an audience is or how itfunctions. Balnaves and O’Regan claim that ‘[k]nowledge about media audiencesis integrally tied up with the strategies and plans of action of industry players,professional campaigners and interest groups who take up and apply this
knowledge to prosecute their own agendas (Balnaves in Balnaves et. al 2002, p.10)’. One example of this might be the trend for government agencies tocommission private media agencies to participate in the development of socialmarketing campaigns, like the ‘Quit’ campaign of 1997-98 in Australia or the‘Every k over is a killer’ campaign of 2001-02. What Balnaves and O’Reganpropose, is a governance cycle that enables theorists to analyse this process,that includes a socially productive and ethical character: According to Balnaves and O’Regan’s model, institutions are managers andprovide or regulate services. They become audience-minded when they definetheir audiences in the form of media typologies. They then switch to research-modality in order to find out how to reach their audiences. The institutionsbecome campaign-minded when they execute their tactics in order to reach theaudience. They then evaluate the campaign, and the audience recognises itself as a citizen, a governed and self-governing subject. The premise behind thistheory, although implicit, is that there is a clear distinction between mediaproducers and media consumers.So far, there are certain things that are comprehensible about audiences:
Audiences only exist after being defined according to a certain ideology or motive.
Audience members are made up of individuals, but one thing that thegovernance approach implies is that individuals exist, but are defined as aspecific typology in order for an institution exploit that segment and tomake a profit.
Since there is a correlation between certain strategic motives of mediaproducers and audience research, the governance cycle approach ishelpful because it creates distance and allows for empirical analysis.
1.2 Virtual community as participatory genre
This second section will briefly discuss virtual communities and suggest aframework of genre, proposed by Thomas Erickson will be helpful inunderstanding the cyber-audience.
Terry Flew, in his chapter on virtual cultures, uses a quaint definition of virtualcommunity by Howard Rheingold (Flew 2002, p. 76), but this project will limititself to define virtual community as
long term, text-based, computer-mediated communication amongst large groups on the Internet.
Flew traces therelationship between this project’s discussion about audiences and theassumptions ‘about the virtues of community, or of the ‘online’ and ‘offline’ worlds(Flew 2002 p. 94)’ claiming that Internet research is very much empirical. If that isso, this means that scholars researching the Internet are much more aware of ideology and how it is manifested online, which is exactly what the governancecycle tries to deal with. Implicitly, Flew argues that because the Internet is ahighly interactive medium with the option for users to be anonymous, political andcommercial ideologies are lucid in these communities. Flew’s conclusion to hischapter on virtual cultures is proof of a point of view that is very much aware of the ideological problem:
‘…the challenge of virtual cultures is the question of how to positively engage with the visible and active expression of difference, heterogeneity, and sometimes incommensuratemoral and social values, as new media technologies developin ways that move such questions from the ‘back stage’ of tothe centre of contemporary politics and culture.’ (Flew 2002, p. 95)
The main motive for Erickson to move away from the notion of virtual communityto what he calls ‘participatory genre,’ is the use of the concept for understandingthe underlying discourse: ‘[g]enre shifts the focus from issues such as the natureand degree of relationships among ‘community members’, to the purpose of thecommunication, its regularities of form and substance, and the institutional,social, and technological forces which underlie those regularities (Erickson1997)’. Erickson does, however, recognize that the concept of genre is limitedbecause ‘whereas most genres have a distinction between producer andconsumer, or author and audience, in on-line discourse the distinction betweenthe producer and the consumer is blurred (Erickson 1997).’Because the concept of genre deals with the underlying discourse of communication on the Internet, it is possible to draw parallels between issuesraised by post-modern scholars, particularly Michel Foucault, and include them indiscussing the nature of the cyber-audience. Since this discussion has mostlybeen focused on political and commercial motives behind audience research andfinding ways to look at audiences empirically, this works well with post-moderntheory, as post modernism is a very useful tool when analysing the language of power that exists in certain events, or texts. It looks at how realities can becreated where ‘truths’ can be stabilised by suspending it in a certain discourse of power upheld by grand narratives.

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