One of the most persistent cultural and political phenomena of recent years has been the emergence of the ‘digital age’ and its impact on the field of the mass media. Central to this challenge has been the quest to understand media audiences in a global village of proliferated digital technologies. A major schism exists between the previous understanding of the mass audience with the traditional media, and today’s media in the age of the internet. Amalgamating the two theories has almost become an impossible endeavor. The reality is that a revert to the past audience stands in stark contrast to the present and future privileges. In other words, the old understanding of the mass audience as sharing similar characteristics and consuming the same message is outdated. The audience now is determined not by geographical boundaries, but by how much they identify with a certain ideology. For example, the 2014 Pew data indicated that the audience in the United States were highly polarized between two political parties: The Democrats and the Republicans.
Debates about mass media audiences in both cultural and mass communication studies are punctuated by social changes propelled by technological innovations (Livingstone, 1999). The ‘mass audience’ has over time, become embedded within the literature characterizing mass communication studies (Mosco & Kaye, 2000: p.33), centering on the ‘sender vs receiver’ framework. Such an understanding continues to inform the contemporary phenomena and the dynamics of interactive media and user-generated content in today’s discourses. The central argument lies on how the digital age recast the notion of the audience. The initial understanding of the audience was rooted in a broader theoretical notion of the ‘mass society’ (Wirth, 1948) that perceived the audience as an aggregate of passive individuals who were highly susceptible to mass-mediated messages (Ball-Rokeach & DeFleur, 1976; Peters, 1996).
Such an understanding of the audience has received a lot of retraction in a changing environment, even as early as the 1970s. In one of his seminal works, Maisal (1973) asserted that ‘we must begin to think of, and study, the individual society as a communicator having access to powerful sets of media tools and as a recipient of a wide range of equally enriched communications directed to him by others’ (p. 170). The impetus behind this argument became realized around the 1980s and 1990s when cable and VCRs and the internet started proliferating in people’s homes. This proliferation inevitably facilitated the growth of interactive forums and increasingly began to challenge the traditional media whose main role was to disseminate large content to homogeneous audiences. The reality is that the mass audience and the media became heterogeneous (Neuman, 1991; Chaffee & Metzgar, 2001). The content was no longer unanimous but emerging from various sources including the mass audience themselves (Shoemaker & Reese, 2014).
In her recent study, for example, Nirit Weiss-Blatt (2015) examined the impact of news and bloggers on the mass audience by integrating two research traditions: McCombs & Shaw (1972)’s agenda Setting and Katz & Lazersfield (1955)’s two-step flow of communication. By treating the bloggers as part of the mass audience, Nirit Weiss-Blatt found out that there was a reverse in the flow of agenda. Previous studies (e.g. Gomez-Rodriguez, Leskovec & Krause, 2010), as well as the most recent ones (Vargo & Guo, 2015; Guo & McCombs, 2015; Meraz, 2015), suggested otherwise that there was media agenda flows from the mainstream media to the audience; indicating that the bloggers agenda were influenced or driven by the mainstream media agenda. However, Nirit Weiss-Blatt’s findings indicated that the new media agenda flows from the audience to the mainstream media. This suggests a reversed system of the audience now actively participating in the creation the media agenda.
The idea of the mass audience in cultural studies is still underpinned on Antonio Gramsci (1967)’s theory of hegemony; Hall (1974)’s ‘Encoding & Decoding’ theory; James Carey’s (1995)’s cultural approach to communication; Fiske (1998)’s polysemy and popularity argument, and advanced in recent studies by scholars such as Shoemaker & Reese (2014). Central to their arguments is the idea that the media promotes dominant power structures to encourage the audience to consent to and support the status quo of the governments, capitalists and patriarchal corporations (Ramos, 1982). The irony is that while studies of the media audience are emerging in many fields, cultural studies tend to be moving away in the face of criticism. Lindlof (1991) asserts that the poor regard with which cultural studies have approached the study of media audience is underscored by the detest for the profound quantitative/qualitative divide that underscores the rest of communication research. For this reason, some scholars have suggested the recognition of other domains of theory and research not necessarily in tune with cultural studies that seek to address a broader perspective.
Livingstone (1998) suggests some approaches that cultural studies should embrace for it to ascertain a broader impact: The need for re-centering the understanding of media audience theory around a more empirically viable model of media studies. In his statement, Livingstone observes that as cultural studies try to ‘shift social and political theory away from the dominant approaches that restrict their perception of media audience, they need to acknowledge that the audience in the digital age ‘works through its relations with the state and economy, but also as a communicative space for the imaginative construction and reconstruction of more diffused, but equally important, collective identities and solidarities’ (p. 197). Alexander and Jacobs (1987) assert that the media offers polysemic texts to heterogeneous audiences for whom influences, identities, and solidarities that determine their relationship with the media. This, therefore, suggests a symbiotic relationship between the media and the audience.
Does the emergence of the ‘digital age’ significantly alter audience research?
It is unarguably true that the emergence of the new media technologies has altered significantly the approaches that media and cultural take to explain audience research. James Curran (1996), among others, has charged that cultural studies, especially, tend to ignore its historical approaches of audience research. This according to Curran, has led to cultural studies scholars being contented with the loose and vague concepts of ‘active audience’ without superseding it. In the same way, approaches of media studies on audience research have equally been inconclusive in the digital age because of their failure to critically combine, ‘in a mutually informative way, a theoretical framework, working concepts, methods of inquiry, research implements and paradigmatic studies’ (Baker, 129). However, the hope is not lost. In order for media and cultural studies to have a viable impact, there is a need for both studies to embrace and apply what Baker considers as ambitions for the field of audience research.
Essentially, the above statement is especially targeted towards cultural studies that hesitantly employs administrative research. While acknowledging the need for interpretive research, Baker argues that in the digital age, it is especially challenging to determine how people end up belonging to a particular audience without empirical research. The degrees of commitment to an audience can only be measured through empirical research.
According to Baker, most research on media audience for both media and cultural studies, tend to focus only on how a particular audience works on its texts with an assumption that the audiences work in isolation, and unaware of each other. Baker suggests that both media and cultural studies research on the interconnectedness of audiences and how they shape each other. This study is not new to the media as perceived by Ying (2017) and Vargo & Guo’s (2017)’s Intermedia (NAS) agenda setting theory. There is a dearth of research on the interconnectedness of audiences.
To understand the audience in the digital age, there is a need to understand how it is formed. Recent studies, and 2014 pew data, for example, perceive the audience as polarized and divided between the political boundaries. Media ownership and control has shifted into the hands of politicians, thereof, dividing the audiences, not into uncluttered communities, but polarized between the Republican and Democratic parties. The same is not true for other countries. Therefore, how audiences become relevant for audience research.
Essentially, this assumption counteracts the ‘effects tradition’. According to Baker, it is not enough to ascertain effects on the audience without stating with precision the effects of other intervening variables such as culture. Studies in the media have especially taken this approach to understanding audience research with less regard to the influence of other things on the audience. The US 2016 presidential election campaigns have yielded such studies with the inflated assumption of media influence.
All in all, the legacy of this argument lies in the implicit construing of the audience as participants in the beneficiaries of a new democracy, or as victims of a new and highly manipulative panopticon. This understanding poses a challenge to media research and its quest in trying to measure public speculation. Questions such as those dealing with cyberfriendship (Ando & Sakamoto, 1999), ‘the information poor’ (Tichnor, et. al.,1970) or participatory democracies resort to abandoning media theory as its starting point, to embracing various public imagination concerns of the audience. Nonetheless, the digital age has posed a challenge number of studies, especially those directed towards audience research. Some studies have goes as far as predicting the fall of many theories. However, many other studies hold to what Weimann (2014) insisted on, that the ‘old communication theories never die, just readjust’. The reality is, therefore, that media audience research theory is still relevant and has not been completely altered in the contest of communication research. It has readjusted to suit the new environment.
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