After ‘abandoning’ the blog part of this site in early 2022, I embarked on a foolish newsletter endeavour called Shift Lock. It was fun and/or sustainable for a handful of posts, but then life got in the way. Over the next little while I’ll re-post those ruminations here for posterity. Errors and omissions my own. This instalment was published April 1, 2022 (see all Shift Lock posts here).
To take a uniquely Web 2.0 perspective, one might say that ‘there is no longer such thing as a passive audience.’ It is undoubtedly true that new tools, technologies, and modes of communication have made it relatively straightforward to communicate one-to-one or among one’s networks. The result is a kind of town square both ad infinitum and nauseum, where memes and weekend warriors abound, a post-truth, “postpolitical cornucopia” where we all “fish, film, fuck, frolic, and fund from morning to midnight” (Miller 2009) In the social media age (Miller’s polite rage at user-generated content seems delightfully quaint now, in a ‘oooh, the teacher said fuck!’ kind of way), it can feel like we’re drowning in immediate reaction, and reactive opinion. In the immediate aftermath of the Will Smith slap incident at the 2022 Oscars, Ryan Broderick called it “viral pre-exhaustion”, the dread that the latest trending issue or moment will saturate feeds and streams and columns for days to come.
I used to even watch award shows or televised live events hoping for this kind of thing to happen. But now, the very thought of having the same “have you seen X meme or Y take” conversation, which now happens both online and off, feels completely draining. (Broderick 2022)
Saturation and a feeling of existential dread linked to said saturation is not a product of COVID, but the pandemi-moore certainly hasn’t helped. The distance between home and work, or study, or restaurants or, you know, outside, and the resultant necessary movement, meant that there was at least some forced breaks between the mindless absorption of hot takes. While stuck at home, that boundary, between brain and reactive opinion, between independent, critical thought and the feed, broke down as easily as that between work and life.
If global internet usage increased by a whopping 40% as a result of the pandemic (Sandvine Inc. 2020) some of that at least has to be users who specifically joined some kind of social network to rage about X or Y pandemic trending topic. Or perhaps they were already raging, and the panini simply allowed them more time and justification and reasons to do so.
It’s easy to look back and say times were simpler. Some have built careers out of it. And, sure, some of the diagrams we had when I first studied audiences were lovely.1
There has always, however, been a private and public sphere. It’s been a long time since I read my Habermas, but the notion of the latter sphere solidified around some kind of arena where debates could be had, grievances aired, authority ridiculed, speech could be free. The concept, at least according to Habermas, emerged after the Renaissance, with the opening up of global trade passages and an increased interest in ideas, creativity, and independent thought.6 What fascinated me most as a rookie media scholar was that I was seeing these 40+ year old ideas playing out live in — get ready for a flashback — the blogosphere. This was the pre-social media height of public and independent discourse, where anyone could publish whatever they wanted to their Livejournal, Blogger or WordPress, and the comments section was where the real conversation kicked off — believe it or not, they used to be rather civil.
Habermas was also partly responsible for my hybrid interests of media and film, in part because he suggested that it was in media that much of these deliberations, debates, grievances, could be encoded. While I read this, of course I was blogging about films, TV shows, and chatting about them in my uni classes: my own little filter sphere, of course, but a neat micro-example of Habermas’ thinking.
Over a decade later, and looking back over the evolution3 of internet technology and screen-based cultures, the public sphere seems at first glance to have evolved into a chaotic mess of bad takes and half-baked thinkpieces. The usual culprits cajole and dominate their target demographics, and the filter bubbles seem to close around everyone to an isolation-fuelled zenith. Social media is fragmenting into similar bubbles — e.g. monolithic Facebook/Twitter into Parler, Telegram, etc. — with little interest in public-facing discourse, and more in a kind of gated echo chamber where fringe ideas aren’t actively encouraged, but they certainly aren’t grounds for expulsion.
The mechanics of Web 2.0 still exist as we shift to web3, web2S 3D, or whatever comes next. It’s still very straightforward to set up some kind of public site for oneself and spout whatever nonsense you like (welcome to Shift Lock). But the unfortunate combination of the web of commerce/apps and the post-truth era means a siloing off: a splicing of the spheres.
So where, what, who is ‘the audience’? Is it still possible to think of a ‘public’ as a homogenous entity in the era of the platform? Ida Willig tracks this shift within media agencies, and the move from scatter-shot TV and print campaigns to tracked and targeted exposures based on behaviours. As they write:
When the media agency executive … speaks about ‘behaviour’, it is of course not our offline life he is referring to, nor is it any person in the sense of an identifiable human being, but the activity of a given IP address. This is a fundamental shift in how media agencies think about and work with consumers, and not least a fundamental shift in the knowledge that lies behind the construction of different target groups. (Willig 2022)
Despite the best efforts of corporations over the last century to assure us that ‘we’re not a number’, turns out we are after all. It makes things so much easier. In the past, salespeople would spin out an ad with no concrete idea of number of exposures or conversions to sale. Willig uses the example of a car:
With digital media, media agencies can sell ad space directed at people who are in the market for a car, or even a car of that specific brand, and track their exact online behaviour from interest to final buy. (Willig 2022)
For academics, particularly of the humanities stripe like myself, this is tricky. We’ve done our best to shun spectatorship, and the figure of the singular ‘audience’ is pretty much totally poo-pooed now in cinema studies (that took some work). But even if we shift the conversation in textual analysis to potential interpretations, we’re still treating the audience as a known unknown, or worse still, simply hiding ourselves and our own interpretations.
The subject of surveillance capitalism is treated as an individual with its own desires, needs, modes of engagement and routines. This sounds like progress until you remember that this system only cares about individuation so long as it makes you buy stuff.
For media-makers, this is a problem, too — the majority are interested in getting as many people to watch, read, listen to, play, or engage with their creation as possible. Individuated, niche segments, tiny custom campaigns direct a handful of IP addresses in predictable ways. In creating a perfect system for advertising, we have destroyed many concepts, spaces, that could be viewed as a public sphere in the Habermasian sense. Perhaps there never was a monolithic mass media audience in this way, but it was helpful to have that in mind when thinking through how media works.
So where does the public conversation play out? Instagram stories? TikTok? Whatever is trending on Twitter? Films and TV? Sure, in part. The public sphere is not just one thing, and that’s the point. It’s probably best to think of it in terms of the notion of media landscape discussed previously: a web or mesh of technologies, platforms, tools, companies and individuals, sending, receiving, storing. Add to that mesh several little silos or bubbles that have minimal connection to others, and some bubbles that encompass enormous sweeps of three-dimensional space. Conceivably, we can map The Conversation4 according to the number and frequency of connections between nodes in the mesh, drawing out themes and big issues accordingly.
This is what algorithms are built to do: they map the mesh and find the best routes to take. What they carry along those routes might be commerce-driven or content-driven, but the goal is still to get it in front of a node (person, feed, platform, screen) who’ll use it. Algorithms are the new media agencies; the more things change, etc etc.
Below the divider
At the end of each post I’ll try to link a few sites, posts, articles, videos that have piqued my interest of late. Some will be connected to my research, some to teaching and other parts of academia, still others will be… significantly less so (let’s keep some fun going, shall we?).
- ‘Night Shifts’, by Michael W. Clune, at Harper’s Magazine.
- ‘Of course we’re living in a simulation’, by Jason Kehe, at WIRED.
- ‘How SiriusXM bought and bungled a beloved podcast network’, by Ashley Carman, at The Verge.
Broderick, Ryan. ‘It’s just Oscars takes all the way down.’ Garbage Day, 29 March 2022.
Miller, Toby. “Media Studies 3.0.” Television & New Media, vol. 10, no. 1, SAGE Publications, 2009, 5–6, 6.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Great Brit: Polity Press, 1989, 17-18.
Sandvine Inc., Global Internet Phenomena Report: COVID-19 Spotlight, May 2020, Waterloo, Canada, 5.
Willig, Ida. “From Audiences to Data Points: The Role of Media Agencies in the Platformization of the News Media Industry.” Media, Culture & Society 44, no. 1 (January 2022): 56–71, 63-4.
1 illustration from Lanigan, Richard L. 2013 ‘Information theories’ in Paul Cobley and Peter J. Schulz (eds.),Theories and Models of Communication, Berlin: De Gruyter, Inc., pp. 59-83, p. 65.
2 I knew I was lost to media theory/academia when I actually found his Structural Transformation (see Habermas 1989) interesting as a second-year.
3 Yes, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I still believe the internet is an evolution, thanks in part to Hank Green.
4 As in The Conversation™ aka The Discourse, not to be confused with the academically-inflected publication of the same name.