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have failed to see the Internet as a mass medium with its own genres of discourse. The main reason is a problematic definition of what an audience is and how these differences apply online. Symptoms could include underestimating how much gamer fans expect to be involved in the development of games and software, and the use of the Internet to illegally copy and download music and film. Although it would be fruitful and interesting to explore these symptoms, this project will focus on arguing for a new type of audience online: the cyberaudience. This denotation is used to indicate that different sets of audiences that exist online must be understood from other points of view other than the traditional models that have been used on audiences in ‘old’ media, like television broadcasting or newspapers. The cyber-audience is significantly different from traditional media audiences and this project will illustrate this by giving examples of some of the symptoms and concludingly recommend that institutions (be it commercial or governmental) should skew their view towards audiences from a Public Relations-point of view, as publics; groups of people that are essential for an organisation’s survival and subsequently positive relationships must be created and maintained.
1.0 How do institutions define and maintain audiences in cyberspace?
1.1 Governance and participatory genre This first section will take a look at audience theory, with particular focus on the governance cycle, as it is helpful in explaining the relationship between those who produce media content and those who consume it. The second section will also look into the concept of virtual communities and explain why it is more helpful to look at virtual communities as ‘participatory genre,’ as Thomas Erickson calls it. Audiences exist where media texts meet with people’s social experiences and knowledges and are used as a cultural resource. John Hartley claims it’s silly audiences exist, but rather that of invisible fictions - a construct produced institutionally in order to justify their existence (Hartley 1992). Previous discussions have resolved around a focus upon audience research as a form of social \ ideological control, ergo an assumption that the media is bad. Mark Balnaves and Tom O’Regan suggest a ‘governance-cycle approach,’ which focuses on the strategy, plans of action and the ethical relations of managing audiences. It turns out audience research techniques are rarely analysed or understood. Much policy is based on assumptions on effects of the media. These assumptions enable groups to make claims about what an audience is or how it functions. Balnaves and O’Regan claim that ‘[k]nowledge about media audiences is 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 to commission private media agencies to participate in the development of social marketing 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’Regan propose, 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 and provide or regulate services. They become audience-minded when they define their audiences in the form of media typologies. They then switch to researchmodality in order to find out how to reach their audiences. The institutions become campaign-minded when they execute their tactics in order to reach the audience. They then evaluate the campaign, and the audience recognises itself as a citizen, a governed and self-governing subject. The premise behind this theory, although implicit, is that there is a clear distinction between media producers 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 the governance approach implies is that individuals exist, but are defined as a specific typology in order for an institution exploit that segment and to make a profit. Since there is a correlation between certain strategic motives of media producers and audience research, the governance cycle approach is helpful 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 a framework of genre, proposed by Thomas Erickson will be helpful in understanding the cyber-audience.
Terry Flew, in his chapter on virtual cultures, uses a quaint definition of virtual community by Howard Rheingold (Flew 2002, p. 76), but this project will limit itself to define virtual community as long term, text-based, computer-mediated communication amongst large groups on the Internet. Flew traces the relationship between this project’s discussion about audiences and the assumptions ‘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 is so, this means that scholars researching the Internet are much more aware of ideology and how it is manifested online, which is exactly what the governance cycle tries to deal with. Implicitly, Flew argues that because the Internet is a highly interactive medium with the option for users to be anonymous, political and commercial ideologies are lucid in these communities. Flew’s conclusion to his chapter 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 incommensurate moral and social values, as new media technologies develop in ways that move such questions from the ‘back stage’ of to the centre of contemporary politics and culture.’ (Flew 2002, p. 95) The main motive for Erickson to move away from the notion of virtual community to what he calls ‘participatory genre,’ is the use of the concept for understanding the underlying discourse: ‘[g]enre shifts the focus from issues such as the nature and degree of relationships among ‘community members’, to the purpose of the communication, its regularities of form and substance, and the institutional, social, and technological forces which underlie those regularities (Erickson 1997)’. Erickson does, however, recognize that the concept of genre is limited because ‘whereas most genres have a distinction between producer and consumer, or author and audience, in on-line discourse the distinction between the 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 issues raised by post-modern scholars, particularly Michel Foucault, and include them in discussing the nature of the cyber-audience. Since this discussion has mostly been focused on political and commercial motives behind audience research and finding ways to look at audiences empirically, this works well with post-modern theory, 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 be created where ‘truths’ can be stabilised by suspending it in a certain discourse of power upheld by grand narratives.
From this section, there are a number of things that are helpful in uncovering the nature of the cyber-audience. Virtual communities are highly interactive and the basis for communication is often produced by those who consume it, thus blurring the boundaries. Internet researchers are very aware that producers of content are motivated by ideology of some kind Looking at virtual community as participatory genre is useful when looking at the underlying discourse of Internet based communication.
2.0 How are ideologies (or motives) evident in a new media environment?
This section will seek to bring the pointers identified in the two preceding sections together, and with the additional basis of post-modern theory it will discuss the notion of a cyber-audience, contrasting with examples from case-studies. 2.1 Power lies in numbers So far, the project has shown that the traditional view of the audience is a oneway communication process. The placement of power is usually with the institutions that need audiences to accumulate power. In an online setting, this view is not sufficient. The most important feature of post modernism is the refusal to believe in a centralization of power and grand narratives. What describes the current view of the audience could be best described as fragmented. Sue Turnbull in her text Figuring the Audience (Cunningham & Turner, 2000) acknowledges that the concept of audience-ship is truly post-modern and describes the major problem as ‘how to pin the audience down: just how can an entire range of media practices in which people engage be limited and defined (Turnbull in Cunningham & Turner, 2000, p. 86)?’ Because of this it is possible to claim that media abundance is the very source of audience fragmentation. John Banks argues that online communities use totally different ways of constructing ‘practices, expectations, materials, tools and technologies (Banks is Balnaves 2002, p. 189)’. He speculates that the reason for the failure of online community building between institutions and online audiences can be because of the paradigm of one-way communication in order to influence and create audiences. What is implicitly argued is therefore that one has to develop larger degrees of interactivity with audiences. The question is, are institutions ready for this? One thing seems sure, the development of a more interactive and dialogue-based approach is unavoidable. This is especially evident in the development of games, in this case, The Sims, as Bank also has noted: ‘The Sims game provides an excellent case study of the computer game industry enlisting and leveraging the online community fans into a commercially successful network (ibid, p. 198).’ Hard-core gamers increasingly expect that companies will listen to, engage with
and support the fans that build around titles. This new gamer audience follows a logic that is similar to the discourse of power that is explained by Foucault. The way he sees it, power is not centralized to one place. He explains that knowledge is power, and therefore, those who control the knowledge, have the power (Defert et al 1994). With fragmentation comes a cluster of small institutions that know that power lies in numbers. As a result, the larger the audience, the more power. In this case, the power balance has been divided up more evenly; the gamers themselves have realised that they are an institution and have the capability to influence existing power structures. 2.2 Reality vs. the Imaginary If we follow Foucault’s argument further, he says that a text is real because it is actively produced through discourses of power, in other words the way language is structured around an event by the groupings that are the most influential. Baudrillard argues that we are now a hyper-real society, no longer ‘real.’ It no longer has to be rational, ‘since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instances (Baudrillard 1988, p. 168)’. Instead, we simulate reality. Jason Sternberg, researcher at the Creative Industries Research and Applications Centre at Queensland University of Technology, has also noted this when exploring the issue of ‘how audiences are ‘created’ and subsequently used as the basis for public commentary and market development (Balnaves in Balnaves et al 2002, p. 3)’. He explains how marketers used the concept of ‘Generation X’ to create an audience to which it was possible to market to, but paradoxally enough, resists definition. Sternberg argues that it is ‘a textual site created by those power structures that can then be ‘peopled (Hartley 1999, p. 21)’ at certain times to serve certain purposes (Sternberg in Balnaves et al 2002, p. 84). The implication of this (which Sternberg also notices) is that it can be said that Generation X only ever really existed within media discourse. Therefore, the paradox of Generation X’s resistance to any type of definition is a definable characteristic of the concept. As Sternberg explains: ‘one of the key features of Generation X as simulacra is the blurring of distinctions between truth and falsehood and reality and the imaginary (ibid, p. 95)’. To summarise this section, there are some important pointers to bring further: The contradicting fact that media abundance is the source for the fragmentation of audiences is important because it implies that on one hand, it is more likely for an individual to use a specific medium if it is more available, and on the other hand, does it mean that the same notion can be transferred when looking at how audiences are manifested online; is it conceivable that content abundance is the very source of audience fragmentation online? It is very likely that very interactive audiences online, like the hard-core gamer audience, are very involved in the development of content. So involved, as a matter of fact, that they see themselves as such a group to
be reckoned with, that the success or failure of games or software is based on how interactive the developer is with its audience. It is also possible to argue that an audience, which on a basic level of reality does not exist, can be created by actively produced through certain discourses.
3.0 The Cyber.Audience In this conclusion, this project will bring together the points from the previous sections and discuss whether it is possible to extract a notion of the nature of the cyber-audience. One of the points of the previous section is very important to this discussion: that media abundance is the very source of audience fragmentation. As effects-theory has been divided between theorists, dependency theory can be useful in this setting because it attempts to investigate the relationship between different systems and how they affect audiences in how they use media. Sandra BallRokeach and Melvin DeFleur first proposed dependency theory. Dependency, they say, develops when ‘certain kind of media content are used to gratify specific needs or when certain media forms are consumed habitually as a ritual, to fill time, or as an escape or distraction (Littlejohn 1996, p. 348)’. Needs, they say, are not necessarily personal, but may be shaped by ‘culture or by various social conditions (ibid, p. 350)’. That means that outside aspects act as limitations on what and how media can be used and on the availability of alternatives for non-media. Consequently, The lower the socio-economic status, the more dependent an individual is on one segment or medium, and the more they will be affected cognitively, affectively and behaviourally by that segment. This argument also implies one thing that Terry Flew explores in great detail; the digital divide (Flew 2002, p. 84). Following the discussion above to this, it is now possible to ascertain that: 1. Most members of a cyber-audience are located in developed countries with high-income economies. Since audiences online have been identified as being highly interactive and expect to enter a two-way communication dialogue with media producers it is possible to say that: 2. Most members of a cyber-audience are motivated by certain ideologies when they are active online, and they are aware of it. Because of blurred boundaries between producers of content and consumers of content, and because the level of knowledge is equalised, it is possible to argue that:
3. Most members of a cyber-audience see themselves on a more equal level with producers of content. Because it is possible to create an audience that in reality does not exist, by framing it in a certain type of discourse (or as this project has identified it as: genre), much like Generation X, it is possible to argue that: 4. The cyber-audience’s primary demographic characteristic is it’s diversity, and because of its ‘semiotic excess (Sternberg in Balnaves et al 2002, p. 95)’ the fact that it cannot be properly defined is a defining characteristic.
These characteristics identified about the cyber-audience share very similar characteristics with how Public Relations practitioners define their publics: ‘people who are somehow involved or interdependent with organisations and social entities (Cutlip et al 2000, p. 2)’. In fact, the normal four-step PR management process bears striking resemblance to Balnaves and O’Regan’s governance cycle model (ibid, p. 341). An important thing to remember is that PR programs are very much a part of the plans of action institutions implement to pursue a certain ideology. Nevertheless, looking at how PR is defined, as ‘the management function that identifies, establishes, and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and the publics on whom its success or failure depends (ibid, 2000)’, can illustrate that when interactivity is increased and an audience has developed expectations towards involvement and decision-making, it becomes a relationship. As stated in the introduction, there are many aspects of the topic that would be fruitful and fascinating to continue exploring. Because of the limitations of this project, however, it will conclude by strongly suggesting that to understand audiences online, an empirical, interdisciplinary approach is needed.
Balnaves, M. and O’Regan, T. (2002), “Governing Audiences,” In Balnaves, M. O’Regan, T. & Sternberg, J. (2002), Mobilising the Audience, pp. 10 – 28
Banks, J. (2002), “Gamers as Co-Creators: enlisting the virtual audience – a report from the net face,” In Balnaves, M. O’Regan, T. & Sternberg, J. (2002), Mobilising the Audience, pp. 213 – 234 Baudrillard, J. (1988), Selected Writings, Cambridge: Polity Press Cutlip, S., Center, A., Broom, G. (2000), Effective Public Relations (8th Edn), Prentice Hall Defert, D., Ewald, F. (1994), Dits et ecrits: 1954-1988 / Michel Foucault; edition etablie sous la direction de Daniel Defert et Francois Ewald avec la collaboration de Jacques Lagrange, Paris, Galimard Erickson, T. (1997), “Virtual Community as Participatory Genre,” in Proceedings of the Thirtieth Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, January 610, 1997, Maui, Hawaii Flew, T. (2002), “Chapter 4: Virtual Cultures,” In New Media: An Introduction, Oxford Press, pp. 76 – 95 Foucalt, M. (1979), The history of sexuality, vol. 1, London, Penguin Hartley, J. (1992), Tele-ology: Studies in Television, London: Routledge Littlejohn, S. (1996), Theories of Human Communication (5th Edn), Wadsworth Sternberg, J. (2002), “I didn’t get it, but I liked the name:” Generational Profiling through Generation X,” In Balnaves, M. O’Regan, T. & Sternberg, J. (2002), Mobilising the Audience, pp. 81 - 103 Turnbull, S. (2000), “Figuring the Audience,” In Cunningham, S. & Turner, G. (Eds), The Australian Television Book, Chapter 12
Contents: 0.0 Introduction 1.0 How do institutions define and maintain audiences in cyberspace? 1.1 Governance and participatory genre
1.2 Virtual community as participatory genre 2.0 How are ideologies (or motives) evident in a new media environment? 2.1 Power lies in numbers 2.2 Reality vs. the Imaginary 3.0 The Cyber.Audience 4.0 Recommendations 5.0 Bibliography
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