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Interactions: Studies in Communication and Culture Volume 1 Number 1

© 2009 Intellect Ltd


Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/iscc.1.1.111/1

Audience Studies 2.0. On the theory,


politics and method of qualitative
audience research
Joke Hermes INHolland University, Netherlands

Abstract Keywords
Audience research, this paper suggests, is an excellent field to test the claims of audiences
Media Studies 2.0. Moreover, 2.0 claims are a good means to review qualitative fans
audience research itself too. Working from a broad strokes analysis of the theory, civic research
politics and method of interpretative research with audiences, it is argued that the cultural studies
new media ecology demands new roles of researchers, and an open approach to Internet communities
‘audiencehood’ as practice and innovative research method. The paper ends with researcher roles
a case study of the co-creation project of a research team and a Moroccan-Dutch
Internet community-writing team working together on an Internet telenovela.

Web 2.0 is an attitude, not a technology.


(Tim O’Reilly in 2005, referenced by Munster and Murphie 2008)

Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the
move to the Internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for
success on that new platform. Chief among those rules is this: Build applica-
tions that harness network effects to get better the more people use them.
(This is what I’ve elsewhere called ‘harnessing collective intelligence.’)
(O’Reilly, blog, 2005, http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2006/
12/web_20_compact.html)

Web 2.0 is a topology: ‘Objects’, ‘subjects’ and ‘content’ are disappearing on


a massive scale far larger and faster than in their much-touted postmodern
demise and ‘environments’, ‘context’ and ‘worlds’ become the key modes of
online generation and production.
(Munster and Murphie 2008)

Web 2.0 is a whole new world: ‘of P2P music, film and TV; video-clips; home-
made mobile porn; customised avatars; graffiti, funwalls and superwalls;
tagging, texting, messaging, sheep-throwing, bitch-slapping and virtual pen-
guins that we’re struggling to keep up with.’
(Merrin 2008)

If anything web 2.0 is a new reality: in terms of standards, aspirations,


environments, practices and products. If anywhere, web 2.0 is of key

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importance to media and media studies. It has brought new content and
new carriers: it has changed dissemination of existing genres and content,
and the relation between providers and takers. It is seeping into all kinds
of long-existing media practices. It would seem entirely reasonable, there-
fore, to move to Media Studies 2.0 (Gauntlett 2007; Merrin 2008). Were we
to do so, literally, rebuild our agenda for research and teaching, we would
need to seriously reconsider the need for audience studies. The moment
audiences are producers and co-creators, as a 2.0 perspective suggests,
they hardly need the mediating voice of research to tell them how what they
are doing has meaning. In point of fact, Media Studies 2.0 could be taken
to suggest that audience research has only ever been in the business of
explaining audiences to interested parties that rarely included audience
members themselves. After all, who reads our work? To whom do we sell
research and reports?
Distinguishing between Media Studies 1.0 and 2.0 is useful as a rhe-
torical move, intended to spark reflection on how to rewrite post-broadcast
era media studies. In the spirit of a distinction that hardly holds up to the
historical reality of the cultural side of media research, I would grant that
when it comes to audiences there is a huge rift between Media Studies 1.0
and 2.0. While 1.0 Media Studies are to do with audiences versus publishers,
broadcasting organisations, governments and other disseminators, Media
Studies 2.0 does away with such a linear distinction between consumers
and producers (Gauntlett 2007). Making life even more difficult for the
audience researcher, is the fact that other notions are likewise on their
way out. Such as the idea that texts (whether newspaper articles, televi-
sion programmes, novels, pop songs etc.) have clear-cut boundaries and
thus can be distinguished from their context, or stand out in a flow
(Munster and Murphie 2008). We appear to have lost both the audience
as identifiable entity, and reception of particular genres or texts as
researchable media practice. Engaging with changing media and social
realities is not only useful, it cannot be avoided.
The lists that are drawn up to give a firmer sense of how our media
systems and ecology are shifting, all suggest that audience studies is on
the wrong side of the divide. We side with those who are interested in
audiences not with audiences themselves. Whether we see audiences as
consumers or citizens, publics, masses or (representatives of ) social groups,
they are of interest to media organizations, governments and critics in
terms of: control; markets; social relations; civic behaviour. Depending on
background and measure of idealism, audience researchers can choose to
foreground specific practices or social groups and make an effort to make
marginal voices heard. Across the board however, and as we have been
aware for a long time, critical and administrative research position the
audience researcher between ‘ordinary people’ and the powers that be.
Cultural studies has a long tradition of reflecting on the power relations
inherent in audience and other types of fieldwork research (see Ang, 1990,
1991; Brunsdon 2000).
Not only are audience researchers on the wrong side in terms of theory
(the 1.0/2.0 divide) and politics (the more powerful/less powerful divide),
there is an even more worrying development. In recent fieldwork, it
seems that older markers of what is and is not significant to informants in

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interview situations, such as fandoms, or ethnic, gendered or age-related
allegiances, work less and less well as means to unlock the world view,
ambitions, hopes and worries of those we approach. Questions of how
media practices are meaningful to audiences-as-practitioners need rephras-
ing and, at a guess, other forms of contextualization. The theory, politics
and method of audience studies all need careful rethinking then. I will
evaluate each in turn to see how audience studies might be saved for
Media Studies 2.0.

Part I. Theory: Fans, identity and audiencehood as practice


In proposing we move to Media Studies 2.0 both David Gauntlett (2007)
and William Merrin (2008) suggest that we review how we want to
understand the audience. Writing from a cultural studies perspective that
for a short period was referenced as ‘The New Audience Studies’ (Corner
1991), I see two major issues in how the audience was theorized by
critical, qualitative audience research strongly committed to proving that
popular culture was worth our attention. The first is the notion that audi-
ence research is relatively easy to do and can be done in a limited amount
of time. Everyday media use yields its investments and meanings only in
the long run and through theoretical refraction. Using the best of the
earlier work (Ang 1985; Morley 1980, 1986; Radway 1987 [1984]) as a
jumping board, much of the research conducted over the last two decades
focuses exclusively on questions of identity starting from a specific text or
genre. The underlying suggestion is that identity construction and specific
media texts or practices are linked via viewer or reader fandom. The
insight that such links are not direct but part of discursive webs of mean-
ing reaching far outside the individual media text seems to have been lost.
In the studies quoted above we find careful theorization of e.g. the ideol-
ogy of mass culture; the melodramatic imagination; of power relations in
middle and working class households; of constructions of masculinity.
Theorization in these studies comes out of and is woven back into analysis
of audience materials. In recent work such theoretical sensitivity is very
very rare.
It is not necessarily wrong or misguided to suggest that audiences
shape themselves by interacting with particular media texts. On the con-
trary, the substance of such interactions should not be reduced to a pseudo-
theory of media influence. However, in everyday life there is a huge range
of texts (and other activities and practices) we engage with. Only a few of
those we would consider ourselves ‘fans’ of, if at all. The likelier outcome
of researching media use is to find traces of other commitments or discur-
sive structures. In as far as we want to know about a genre or a series,
such work needs careful contextualisation, grounding and theorization,
which is not, usually, offered. On the contrary, while audience studies of
popular genres became part of ‘normal science’, audiencehood was theo-
retically flattened.
The second issue, apart from the under-theorization of everyday ‘audi-
encehood’, has to do with theorization and the status of the ‘fan’. The fight
against the undeservedly low status of popular culture in general (not dis-
counting individual cases of outright trash) was most famously fought via
the foregrounding of fans as cultural experts of types of culture that are not

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held in high regard. Fandom itself had long remained suspect as a form
of pathology (Jensen 1992). As ‘early’ as The Beatles touring the United
States almost half a century ago, examples of girls going berserk over ‘boy
bands’ are well known (Douglas 1994; Ehrenreich, Hess and Jacobs 1992).
Countering the image of sick fascination, early fan research focused on sci-
ence fiction fan conventions to provide an altogether different portrait of
popular culture users as active, inventive, engaged users and producers in
a cultural field (Jenkins 1992; Bacon Smith 1992).
Fan studies accorded well with the then political engagement of cul-
tural studies audience research. Often those undertaking research were
and are themselves fans, sharing a fascination on which they reflected
through academic research and writing. ‘Buffy studies’ (focusing on Buffy
the Vampire Slayer, a commercial television series running from 1997 to
2003) is a case in point (Wilcox and Lavery 2002; Amy-Chinn and
Williamson 2005). However, fandom should not be confused with every-
day media use in general. Nor does it, at first sight, provide much help in
theorizing more mundane forms of media use.
Cultural studies audience research was never about critical distance or
productive distrust of audience members. Rather, ethnography was its
ideal and the long interview the method most used. Interestingly, the line
between audiences and producers was never a very hard one. Stuart Hall’s
schematic encoding-decoding model (1980) can be read as a version of
a sender-receiver model, so common in social science communication
departments also doing media studies. It does not need to be read in such
a mechanical manner. It can e.g. suggest, as is clear from the later circuit
of culture model (DuGay 1997) that media producers are also audience
members. Likewise in fan studies, and before, researchers figured as audi-
ence members. Janice Winship’s study of women’s magazines (1987) can
certainly be read as an in-depth study of one reader. Ien Ang offered reac-
tions to her own viewing of the prime-time soap series Dallas for others to
comment on their feelings about the series.
However, the divide between audience and others (whether producers
or researchers) was certainly more permeable top-down, than the other
way around. Even science fiction fans writing their own versions of favour-
ite shows and characters (‘filking’) required interpretation. It is not unfair
to say that the relation between audiences and their researchers has always
been unequal. While perhaps less than elsewhere, in qualitative audience
research too, the audience was primarily seen as ‘Other’. Hierarchical
difference between some viewers and others is further normalized by the
cultural logic of distinction in marking out and understanding fandom.
Fandom is appreciated for its specialized knowledge and affective invest-
ment, related to moods, feelings and attitudes. Everyday media use, by
comparison, is the lower form, which requires no other investment than
fleeting attention. Although the celebration of the fan appeared to be a
moment of liberation for ‘ordinary’ culture, rethinking the fan came at a
price. While intended to boost popular culture’s reputation as an alterna-
tive cultural circuit, the concept is as easily used to redraw the boundary
between worthwhile culture and trash. Fan studies are attractive and prob-
lematic in equal measure. They opened the door to a renewed elite-logic in
popular culture. They gave a sympathetic face to studies of popular culture

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and earned it scathing critique for being populist, celebratory and uncriti-
cal. Fan studies are in many ways typically 1.0 Media Studies, even though
sympathy for the field suggests otherwise. Key figures in fan studies, not
surprisingly, seem to be heading towards new investigative fields.
Henry Jenkins, quite possibly the best-known researcher of fandom,
moved from fandom understood as a subculture, a form of social organiza-
tion, to new forms of appropriating what is felt to be of interest in the
offerings of the media industry. In his earlier work on Star Trek fandom
Jenkins famously portrayed fans as poachers (1992). The fan via Jenkins’s
intervention became visible as creative producer. In his more recent
Convergence culture (2006) the argument shifts. Jenkins argues that we are
witnessing a collision between old and new media. Whereas 2.0 media are
platform and co-creation based, old media are firmly ensconced in neo-
liberal notions of ownership.

At the moment we are on a collision course between a new economic and


legal culture which encourages monopoly power over cultural mythologies
and new technologies, which empower consumers to archive, annotate,
appropriate, and re-circulate media images. The recent legal disputes around
Napster represent only a skirmish in what is likely to be a decade long war
over intellectual property, a war which will determine (…) the nature of cre-
ative expression in the 21st century.
(Jenkins 2003)

The fan is no longer a key figure here, nor is the social community that
allowed individual fans to produce fandom as a practice, instead we are
presented with empowered consumer-producers, and mediated networks.
Much like the shift in youth culture research, from ‘subculture’ to ‘scene’,
fandom is overlaid by a different type of cultural practice that has web-
sites as its nodal point. Like ‘scenes’ (Bennet and Kahn-Harris 2004;
Hesmondalgh 2005; Williams 2006), 2.0 media use is thematically organ-
ized. Sites are not something you necessarily belong to, instead they are a
place to visit, to attach to temporarily. They do not necessarily bestow an
identity, and if they do, it is likely to be fleeting, one among many other
identities which have been temporarily put on hold.
Neither Jenkins nor others would argue that site visitors, or even the new
figure of the former-audience-member-become-producer, as in the case of
beta testing or game development, is an economically or politically power-
ful figure (Humphreys 2008; Nieborg and Hermes 2008). It cannot be
argued either that the involvement of ‘new media user-producers’ leads to
a critical practice. Gamers, for example, tend to be highly involved, but
not interested in gaining a larger span of control. Academic fan research is
not much help in this regard either; it has hardly focused on the limits of
fandom as this leads to familiar negative representation of media use or
well-known worrying about young people and the media (but see Hills,
2004 for his argument on the ‘mainstream cult’). While I am sympathetic
to 2.0 scenarios that suggest we favour collective intelligence over indi-
vidual or elite-based authority, we need to think long and hard about the
retreat of contextualisation and critique, based as such abilities are in open
social networks that hold together over longer periods of time. Media

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studies 2.0, meanwhile, needs to theorize audiencehood as a layered
palette of activities, attachments and investments, widely differing in
intensity and importance, especially paying attention to how audience-
hood is caught up in everyday social relations.

‘Audiencehood’ as sensibility
Audiencehood, then, is a practice that changes over time and according
to context. In 1992 Larry Grossberg suggested that we might want to
think of our attachment to specific texts or artists in terms of affective sen-
sibility: that term, and its theoretical underpinning, do seem to still hold.
Audiences, Grossberg states, make their own cultural environments from
the resources that are available to them, often quite aware of their own
implication in structures of power and domination, and of the ways in
which cultural messages (can) manipulate them (Grossberg 1992: 53).
Audiences do not passively accede to media texts. We might want to call
the relationship ‘that binds cultural forms and audiences, “a sensibility”.
A sensibility is a particular form of engagement or mode of operation’
(Grossberg 1992: 53). He then relates sensibility to ‘mood’ or ‘affect’.

(A)ffect is (…) organized; it operates within and, at the same time, produces
maps which direct our investments in and into the world; these maps tell us
where and how we can become absorbed – not into the self but into the world –
as potential locations for our self-identifications, and with what intensities.’
(Grossberg 1992: 57)

Audience research needs to reconstruct ‘mattering maps’ and follow


affective energy to understand how and where it – temporarily – creates
identity, (cultural or even social) authority or indeed disinterest and
uncritical laisez-aller.
Crucially, from such a perspective it is not all that important to distin-
guish between fandom, audiencehood and new practices that connect
producing and consuming media fare. The foundational act for audience
studies 2.0 is to undo the difference between fan and ordinary audience
member, and between ‘the audience’ and ‘the public’ as not an a priori
important starting point. Such unifying concepts as ‘audience’ or ‘public’
have less and less to do with practices of media production and control
over content. Media texts will also be produced from places other than
global media corporations, public broadcasting organizations or other
state-funded places. Increasingly place-bound denominations and identity
markers can make room for new distinctions that may well bequeath cul-
tural power in other places and at other moments. Debates, conversations
and communities to which the older set of terms were entrance tickets are
changing as we speak. Practices, energies and investments (or the lack of
the last two) need to be our point of departure, not identities.

Part II. Politics: Researcher roles, goals and benefits


in audience research
Other issues present themselves when taking the position of the audience
researcher. On the one hand, we have wanted to set free the audience of
downgrading preconceptions about class or popular taste. On the other,

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audience research has banked on the wish of others, whether govern-
ments or the industry, to obtain a firmer hold on audience behaviour
(with fans a fringe benefit), allowing researchers to pursue shared pas-
sions and to write up good stories. Audience ethnography, with its long
interviews, developing friendships and relations of trust, falls in the first
category. Despite other claims, it is not a method that has often been
used to any meaningful standard. Marie Gillespie’s work in east London
on television, ethnicity and social change (1995) is one of the few true
and widely quoted examples. Gillespie’s standing in the Punjabi commu-
nity as a schoolteacher was of enormous importance to making contact.
Her motives were beyond reprove and she had time. Contact with the
group studied clearly depended on being available to audience members
over an extended period of time and on suspending the notion that
as researcher you are studying the group rather than becoming part of
the scenery.
As researcher, the ethnographer ideally becomes a ‘confidante’ who
in turn depends on key informants to provide entry into social networks
and, in the case of media studies, into the layered organization of cultural
knowledge available to those studied. Having built mutual trust, there is
the possibility to theorize what presents itself as haphazard, unrelated
and trivial snippets of evaluation. These snippets can then be arranged in
patterns that tell a story about the meaning of texts or practices, about
desires, denouncement or criticism. In short, it becomes possible to draw
multi-faceted mattering maps that allow the experience and place of
media practices to be cast in more general and unifying terms. In point of
fact, media practices might only be a way in to reconstruct the ‘habitus’
of specific social groups or, for instance, the discursive structuring of
gender. Gillespie’s study, for example, both illustrates how different televi-
sion genres are used by Punjabi Londoners and it evokes the tension,
identified by Homi Bhabha (1994), between ‘tradition’ and ‘translation’.
The ethnographer has two personae. She or he is both a confidante, a
good friend and, later on, a commentator who uses the lives of others to
translate their lives into grounded theory or cultural criticism. Commenting
on his extraordinary ethnography of a boxing club, Loic Waquant (2005)
likens his role as ethnographer to apprenticeship; literally as he learned to
fight, and metaphorically as he learnt to understand the ‘habitus’ of working
class Chicago males (Waquant 2005: 465/6). This resulted in his portrait
of ‘the gym as civilizing and masculinizing machine’ (Waquant 2005:
458). Only after the death of DeeDee, his mentor at the Woodlawn Boys
Club, Wacquant finds he can be an interpreter and writer. Body and Soul
(2004[2000]) is, he says, a labour of mourning ‘because it has entailed
closing a chapter of my life that I wish would have remained open indefi-
nitely, even if only in fantasy’ (2005: 472).
Good ethnographic research requires a selling of one’s soul, twice.
Enormous social skills are needed to engage and befriend others who are
also your object of study. Enormous energy is required to take stock of
what this social investment has delivered, and to do so in a manner that is
respectful, critical and truthful. Academic knowledge can easily translate
into unequal power relations rather than be a force of liberation, suggest
Meaghan Morris (1988) and Larry Grossberg (1988). As researchers, they

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continue, we have a choice of roles to occupy. Amongst others, they iden-
tify the tour guide, the detective and the tourist travelling to the alien
world of the natives. In different ways these roles point to the politics of
cultural research and the pitfalls in assuming that research can be free of
social power relations. Appropriating these terms for my purposes, the
tour guide is easily identified as one who exoticizes the life worlds of others
for her or his own benefit. The perspective of the detective suggests over-
interpretation of everyday media use. The tourist is hopelessly naive in not
recognising the front and back stage to other people’s lives while attempt-
ing to make the strange familiar rather than the other way around
(Goffman 1959).
Ideally as intellectuals, we would be able to appreciate the materiality
of otherness. We would be able to map an empirical field by understand-
ing the effectivity of practices. To do so, the role of the ethnographer as
‘good friend’ does not suffice. Although I mostly avoid the term on princi-
pal, some measure of ‘objectivity’ is needed in making sense of cultural
practice beyond individual idiosyncrasy. Ideology, politics and the logic of
culture all matter and are rarely visible from the premise of friendship that
the other is OK. Distance and engagement: critique and appreciation
make up strong empirical audience research in equal parts. Temporary
co-travellers, then, is the best we can achieve. Not a bad point of depar-
ture for 2.0 audience studies, if hardly as comfortable as it sounds.

From researcher roles to modes of storytelling


Field roles give way to positions taken up in writing. Here too, there is a
set of political question that need reflecting on, now that we are aiming to
navigate a changing, more and more fully interconnected world. Inspired
by Charlotte Brunsdon’s (1997) review of the positions taken up by femi-
nist intellectuals in debates about television, we could distinguish between
three kinds of ‘scripts’ for audience studies: advocacy, autobiography and
the chronicle as basis for offering feedback (Hermes, 2006a).
Advocacy is a means of giving a voice to others. It is a politically
motivated, tightrope act between listening, being of service to others and
paternalism. Janice Radway’s (1987 [1984]) study of romance reading
ends with a statement on the crypto-feminism of reading romances. While
the entire book is built on respect for romance readers, suddenly Radway
shifts gears and suggests that romance reading would not be needed if
patriarchy were to come to an end. She thus dismisses the fake solution of
romance reading in favour of a more adult choice for feminism, a choice
her readers are not up to.
Advocacy can still be a good way to write up audience research, but its
value is diminishing in a world where many different groups are finding
their way to the Internet. Politically, giving a voice to other groups is done
most convincingly while understanding audience research as a project of
emancipation. Methodologically such work had best remain fairly descrip-
tive. The more it is theorized, the more the authentic heart of the work
can be compromised. As a result, theoretically, it can be a bit boring.
Autobiography links advocacy to a hegemonic position; speaking from
personal experience the author-researcher has gained new insight that
offers the possibility to counter myths from an engaged speaking position.

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While fan studies would appear to offer good examples, often the author’s
position as fan is used to gain entry rather than to structure the analysis.
The real use of a hegemonic position is not so much the fact that it is
embedded in autobiographic detail but in demythologizing common mis-
conceptions about popular media.
In my own research on reading women’s magazines (Hermes 1995),
there were three clusters of false understanding I wished to address. The
silliness of women’s magazines is one. A second myth was the notion that
everyday media use can be accessed via fan use. Not all media use is
highly meaningful. On the contrary, much of it is routine filling of empty
time. While as readers we might hope or even expect to pick up some-
thing of interest, this is a low key, background motivation not a structur-
ing element in most of women’s magazine reading. A third myth was the
common notion that informants are either lying or speaking the truth.
Often, I found, they do neither, they offer a guess at what an interviewer
might want to hear or reiterate customary strategies of legitimating their
use of a little valued genre. Going beyond trust or paranoia, interview
transcripts offer clues, pieces of a larger puzzle, suggestions that only
deliver their significance when read against other transcripts and, impor-
tantly, against the background of immersing oneself in the practice of
magazine reading. Endless talk and endless comparing of stories of readers
(or viewers) are needed to get a sense of the more mundane forms of
media use as practice.
Countering myths about genres such as women’s magazines or about
researching everyday media use will not offend many. Countering myths
can clash, however, with the agendas of others. Undoing the notion that
young people are shallow might rob them of a strong strategy of calcu-
lated ignorance. To be an incomprehensible breed with bad taste, can be
to a teenager’s advantage (Davies, Buckingham and Kelley 2000). Myths
of sexual prowess might not be unwelcome to black rappers either.
SnoopDogg will not be particularly grateful to hear it argued that he is
basically performing subservience to a set of cultural codes and that really
he is a poodle. As an artist he has a serious investment, indeed makes his
living out of showing himself to be tough and in control.
It is in research for policy and policy development that countering
myths is most of all a strong and potentially emancipatory strategy. David
Buckingham’s work provides a case in point here. Whether for academic
or for policy purposes, Buckingham upholds and proves that young people
do discriminate between types of content (while following their own rules)
and are ‘active meaning makers’ to use an older label (e.g. Buckingham
1999). Methodologically and theoretically, myth makes an excellent start-
ing point to theorize social life and uses of culture. It binds readers, brings
focus to a study and it easily bridges audience research with the analysis
of key texts, for example as suggested by informants. Last but not least,
deconstructing myth offers the best of reasons to move away from straight-
forward description, as it needs theory to help understand how a particular
myth works.
While countering myth is a useful position for a researcher to take up
in audience studies 2.0, feedback is by far the best of the three positions
that have developed over the last decades. It is the scariest of all three,

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closer to the consultant than to the independent academic. Its bottom line
is the recognition that we can find others in shared identities, pleasures
and criticisms but that these do not fully define us, as I argued above in
setting out how audiencehood might be theorised in 2.0 terms. In a
webbed world, feedback could be the answer of the audience researcher
against her imminent demise as translator of knowledges and literacies
that are, today, arguably, more widely shared than ever before. To com-
bine such literacy with the power of strong ethnographic work could make
for fascinating and challenging analysis, and theorisation of identity and
cultural practice.

Civic research: bringing method to politics


To be of service to communities is quite a change from the earlier self-
chosen assignment to give others a voice. It requires more specialised
advice e.g. as to how the system might best be manipulated in order to
gain access or to apply successfully for grants. It puts older assumptions
about media and identity construction on its head. Understanding the dif-
ferent layers of identity construction at play within a community can be
crucial in understanding what type of media genre might be useful: as a
means of communication or attracting attention. Rather than use given
patterns or practices of media use, connecting with communities gains
precedence over charting their media use. After all, communities have a
choice in using media to build a collective identity or to communicate with
one another. There is ultimately no need to make use of already existing
texts, genres or media, although they may be used as sources of inspira-
tion or for individual or incidental use.
The key challenge for audience studies 2.0 is to concern itself with how
audiences might benefit from audience research, both in the short and in
the long run. All methods in audience research rely on audience mem-
bers themselves. Now that audiences have gained a better position,
audience research needs to ‘sell’ itself to them, if we do not want to go out
of business. There is and always has been audience research that provided
meaningful encounters between informants and researchers. ‘A good talk’
is rare enough in daily life, outside therapeutic circumstance. In a good
interview, you work towards a form of closure whereby both the researcher
and the informant feel they have exhausted the subject and have come to
a contextualised understanding of each other’s point of view. In that sense
ethnographically inspired research is always a mutual learning experience.
Where audience research has been singularly unsuccessful is in selling the
end product to larger audiences. When I had a chance I did return inter-
views, and discussed my developing framework with informants, which,
at times, provided strong feedback both ways. More usually, I have to say,
I have produced articles and reports and the occasional journalistic piece,
which will hardly ever have reached my informants.
The long interview is not the easiest form to employ in research. There
are good examples of other, ‘sexier’ methods. David Gauntlett’s work
shows how having informants work with video cameras, or even using as
simple a means as Lego building blocks, makes research both exciting
and a moment of reflection for participants (Gauntlett 2007b). Earlier
work by Kirsten Drotner in Denmark, using video and amateur theatre

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techniques, likewise underlines that creative methods are fun for those
involved and a good means for researchers to make contact (Drotner
1989). Obvious uses are in media education and literacy projects
(Buckingham 1998; Sefton-Green and Buckingham 1998), and in
research on identity construction (Duits 2008). Most of these projects are
small-sized. While it is hardly possible to generalize this to larger popula-
tions, they do yield transferable theoretical insight. They also suggest the
necessity of being able to contextualize key questions and observations,
and to train the ability to justify and legitimize research, a key compe-
tency for 2.0 audience researchers.
Inspired by David Gauntlett’s artlab work, I am also trying to broaden
my own methodological outlook beyond interviewing and participant
observation. I have become convinced that it should be possible to develop
‘sustainable’ audience research that is relevant, in the short and in the long
term, to media audiences and to the various groups of ‘takers’ of research
alike. We call it ‘civic research’ (Hermes 2006b). Instead of approaching
audience members as research subjects, our team at INHolland, a Dutch
multicultural polytechnic, works with them. Researchers and researched
are all participants in what we modishly call ‘co-creation’. The design
principles involved follow 2.0 standards (openness, sharing, flexible design,
improving what you are doing while you are doing it, co-ownership) and
feel familiar to the young people involved as a logic of media use and com-
munity building. We are hoping they will also prove success factors for
good audience research.

Part III. Method: Co-creating an Internet telenovela as civic


research
Quite some time before we started work on the telenovela, I met with the
guys who built Marokko.nl. Via a mutual friend, they had offered to advise
me on do’s and don’ts in setting up an open forum website. While the
website I had intended to build as a place to find and place interview
material on a wide range of lifestyle, social and cultural topics never mate-
rialized, it was the start of a work friendship. While they updated my scarily
outdated knowledge of teenage youth culture and computer-mediated
community building, I, in turn, offered the possibility of the history of
the community to be written up, as well as a link to recent notions and
debate about youth, news and media.
Marokko.nl is one of those web communities that are extraordinarily
successful, landing ten times the number of unique visitors per day of their
closest competitors, with almost 150,000 members in 2008 and 50,000
unique visitors per day. The secret of their success was partly in timing,
and partly in the fact that the Dutch Moroccan community does not have
a comfortable social position. Like other web communities (e.g. gay sites)
from the early days, they thrive on having a very clear-cut, monolithic
identity. They are the quintessential place of Dutch Morocanness. They
could take on such a ‘hard’ identity because young second and third gen-
eration Moroccan-Dutch are cut off from the Arabic world. Although they
might speak some Arabic, they don’t write it and therefore cannot use ‘old
country’ media easily, as will Turkish migrants. In Dutch society Islamic
fundamentalism, as elsewhere, became an issue with explosive potential

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after the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh on 2 November 2004 by a
misguided fanatic (Buruma 2006). Marokko.nl was available for heated
discussion not just among young Moroccans but for everybody who
wanted to join in, with moderators only deleting discussion (threads)
when they really got out of hand. Afterwards Marokko.nl returned to its
broad forum self, remaining true to its earliest form – a site for young
Moroccan women (Yasmina.nl). Even amidst the fiercest political debates,
the site continued to offer the usual chat rubrics that range from talk
about schools and education to a dating list, the best weddings, and of
course the story corner – the most visited part of the site – where commu-
nity members post serial narratives. Protecting the integrity of its brand,
the continuous and open line to the community and its wishes, is key to
everything Marokko Media (Marokko.nl’s publisher) do.
Having grown to some 81,000 members in 2005, Marokko.nl was
financed via commercial activities (banners on the site) and by subsidies
and grants for specific projects. Putting in for a grant from the Dutch Press
Fund, Marokko Media proposed to build a news site, especially targeting
the young people who visit Marokko.nl. They are a mix of Dutch-Moroccan,
‘urban’, that is more interested in shared lifestyle and music preferences
than in ethnic denomination, and religious oriented people. We advised on
the grant proposal and suggested that the news site be made more attrac-
tive by offering a telenovela. In a fictional, ‘soap opera’ format, characters
could reflect on current affairs, social and political issues. The most popular
part of the website, the story corner, was the place to find talented writers.
Although Marokko Media received the grant, the Press Fund was not
happy with the telenovela. Great idea, was their comment, do please do it,
but not with our money. Together, Marokko Media and our INHolland
research group decided to follow through. We have been working on the
telenovela project since 2006. With a further grant from Nike to develop
the telenovela around sports as a means of emancipation for young
Moroccan women, we started recruiting writers via the story corner. From
spring 2007, one of our research team started coaching the writers as a
team. While the news site was launched in June 2007, the telenovela
project has turned into a long-term venture, part research project, part
creative workshop. A grant from the Amsterdam Culture Fund financed a
script-writing course. In summer 2008, the again extended team (now
including a film and television producer, a scriptwriter and representatives
from an interested public broadcasting organisation) received a further
grant from the Dutch Cultural Broadcasting Fund. The unique composi-
tion of the team working on the series made them decide in favour of our
proposal.
Clearly, this is no ordinary research project. Funded by a range of
grants, none of which are primarily meant for research, it has meant that
we’re developing other roles. The timeline is too long for young people to
remain committed. We continue to coach, did some interviews (difficult
but worthwhile), while meeting with the group more informally has been
the most difficult to achieve. Contact between Marokko Media and the lec-
torate (the INHolland research group) has spread to other projects for
which we do research, or offer advice. Careful balancing just about pays
for everybody’s work time, while the ambition to see the telenovela either

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on Internet or on public television (a significant force in the Dutch media
landscape) is keeping the project alive. Audience research is what we
appear to be doing alongside other tasks, such as coaching and writing
grant proposals. At the same time, spending time with our writers (second
and third generation children of migrants from Morocco and other North
African countries) is offering us unique insight in their life worlds and
outlook. We are building a fairly unique expertise, helped in great meas-
ure by working in a multicultural polytechnic where issues of diversity
and multiculturalism are everyday fare.
Co-creating an Internet telenovela is not an easy tap into the minds and
energies of audiences. It is a learning process for all involved. The exchange
in this case is for our knowledge of script writing and narrative develop-
ment, while from the writing team we receive a layered view of the Dutch
Moroccan community and, more generally, of young people, media and
multiculturalism. While not exactly an insider view, we are offered close-
ups and, in turn, are coached in how to approach a social group that live
double lives, within and outside of the community.
From the interview material, transcripts of meetings and notes from
incidental encounters, it is clear that the media, generational and ethnic
diversity, and ambition are closely interwoven. The story that we see
unfolding, however, has primarily to do with the rich social texture and
multiculturalism of a monoculture. It also has to do with feeling responsi-
bility without having any power, and the uses of hypocrisy over truth and
normalization in pressure cooker processes of emancipation. It will take
more time and more space than is available here to do justice to how the
highly educated youngsters we are making contact with are torn between
observing religious rules, respect for their parents and taking responsibility
on the one hand, and ‘making it’ in the world out there. While studying
for very practical degrees that will land them jobs, they invest in creative
work to find magical solutions for their split lives. In the narratives they
write too, fairytale mechanisms mix with rules of television script writing.
What we are witnessing, we feel at times, is the birth of a new cultural
form. Whether a strong and well-theorized ethnography will come out of
this work, remains, for now, to be seen.
Currently, as researchers we are in ‘chronicle mode’, recording how
cultural logics and knowledges change and adapt, and how an Internet
community may be both forum and jumping board for that to happen.
The chronicle offers us ample feedback opportunities to demythologize the
existing image of the Moroccan community. Veils do not necessarily sig-
nify a lack of emancipation or ambition. Moroccan men do not approve of
the criminal behaviour of youngsters from the community. This is not to
say that we are feeling all that successful in really making contact. The sim-
ple reality of changing youth cultures, changing means of communication
and expression, and not being ‘one of us’, will be used against us, despite
our by now quite extensive cultural sensitivity. From time to time we are
unmasked as infiltrators: ‘That’s not how we do things’, one guy told me
who was a potential producer/director for the telenovela in the early days
of the project. Or, our writing coach, was taken aback to be told, unfairly,
that she didn’t have a clue about the Ramadan after she tried to reschedule
a writers’ workshop.

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In conclusion
Civic research starts from a colleague-ial world view. Instead of an audience,
there are platforms and users and means to harness collective intelligence.
As in all research, the issue remains that you need to make real contact,
that there needs to be ‘rapport’. After that, teamwork is what is needed.
That does indeed mean: exit the individual audience researcher, or audi-
ence research that serves a single goal. As web 2.0 and the convergence
culture thinkers tell us, we need to acknowledge that we are smarter as
knowledge communities than as individuals.
The wisdom of crowds stands in contrast to the strange mix of
sophistication and naiveté that we find when talking with individuals.
Although overall media literacy is high, it also remains the case that to
use that literacy in arguments is not a widely distributed skill. Trans-
media storytelling, as in co-creating a telenovela, might be a way of
remedying flagrant differences in levels of skill and knowledge. We will
have to see. Likewise, it is, at this moment, entirely unclear where the
glass ceilings and cardboard floors are in convergence culture. We are
depending on grants that ask us to argue artistic quality in experiential
art forms, possibly looping us back into older logics and classifications
that in time will undo what we are trying to achieve in terms of making
contact and providing the opportunity to showcase the changing face of
a new Dutch community.
Clearly, understanding media power and audience agency remains as
important as ever and perhaps more, now that we are gaining some
understanding of how the world is changing. That leaves me with one
good reason for the audience researcher to remain. Wittingly or unwit-
tingly we are not just chroniqueurs, we are coaches in media literacy. We
ask people to think about what media they use and how. Whether for
individuals, for groups or for communities, we are in the business of initi-
ating reflection on the media.
What audience research does, at best, is give pause for thought. When
successful, it shifts categories, norms and assumptions. That said it also
silences those it speaks for, reducing them to anonymous quotations. It
may well demythologize myths that happened to be dear to others’ hearts.
Audience research combines reconstruction of cultural logic with reflec-
tion on the vantage point from which empirical data are gathered and
interpreted. It will continue to require, first of all, strong reflexivity on the
part of the storyteller-researcher. As researchers, secondly, we should be
open about how we benefit from research. What texts, products or pay
come our way for doing it and do others benefit as well? To do so is not
common practice. Research needs be accountable to society and it needs
‘free space’ to develop and to show how it can foster understanding and
reflection. In moving forward and reinventing media studies, the balance
needs to be made up: what might audiences ‘need’ us for, and what do we
need the audience for? Older idealism and new pragmatism can rebuild
the discipline.

Note
I would like to thank Robert Adolfsson for feedback and thinking through and
developing civic research.

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Suggested citation
Hermes, J. (2009), ‘Audience Studies 2.0. On the theory, politics and method
of qualitative audience research’, Interactions: Studies in Communication and
Culture 1: 1, pp. 111–127, doi: 10.1386/iscc.1.1.111/1

Contributor details
Joke Hermes is a professor of applied research in Media, Culture and Citizenship
at INHolland University, Netherlands and she teaches television studies at the
University of Amsterdam. As an audience researcher she published Rereading popu-
lar culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005) and Reading women’s magazines (Cambridge:
Polity Press, 1995). She is also one of the three founding editors of the European
Journal of Cultural Studies.
E-mail: joke.hermes@inholland.nl

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International Journal of
Digital Television
ISSN 2040-4182 (3 issues | Volume 1, 2010)

Aims and Scope


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