Audience Evolution and the Resuscitation of "Mass Communication": Implications for Communications Policy and Policy Research
Perhaps the greatest challenge confronting communications policymakers and policy researchers is effectively adjusting their analytical frameworks to account for the dramatic changes taking place in the contemporary media environment. We saw this quite vividly, for instance, in the FCC’s media ownership proceedings, in which decision-makers and researchers grappled with questions related to if and how the Internet should be incorporated into assessments of the competitive conditions and diversity of local media markets (see, e.g., Napoli & Gillis, 2006).
Today, with the emergence of what is commonly referred to as Web 2.0 (Mabillot, 2007), many of us in the communications field – and not just those of us dealing with policy issues – are confronting further changes in the media environment that have the potential to dramatically affect established theories, research methods, and policy frameworks (Benkler, 2006).
Of particular importance is the rise of user-generated content and the associated uncertainty about what it means (in terms of both challenges and opportunities) from a research standpoint (e.g., Croteau, 2006; Fonio, et al., 2007). For those of us focused on the intersection of communications research and communications policy, this evolution of audiences from primarily being receivers of content to also being producers and distributors of content (see Napoli, forthcoming) points us in particular directions in terms of research and policy concerns. These new concerns are the focus of this essay.
“Mass Communication” Revisited
First, however, it is important to ground this discussion in a broader consideration of what these developments in the evolution of media audiences mean for the field of communication. What seems particularly striking about this current direction in the evolution of audiences is how, somewhat paradoxically, it essentially resuscitates the concept of “mass communication” that has been largely dismissed (or at least marginalized) in the communications field.
The logic behind the decline of mass communication as an orienting term, which began in the late 1980s and picked up increased momentum in the1990s, was that the new media environment, with its ability to facilitate the targeting of small, homogenous audience segments due to increased media fragmentation, and its ability to facilitate increased opportunities for one-to-one communication via the emergence of email and mobile telephony, was one in which traditional notions of mass communication, involving the one-to-many dissemination of content to a large, heterogeneous audience who simultaneously received the content, represented an increasingly rare form of communication (see Chaffee & Metzger, 2001; Neuman, 1991).
Of course, the extent to which one saw the concept of “mass communication” as having diminished relevance depended upon what one saw as the concept’s key defining characteristics.
An early definition focused on three elements: a) content is directed toward large, heterogeneous, and anonymous audiences; b) content is transmitted publicly, and often reaches audiences simultaneously; and c) the communicator tends to be, or operate within, a complex organization that may involve great expense (Wright, 1960).
Other approaches to defining the term have downplayed the centrality of simultaneous delivery, given that the long shelf life of content allows it to aggregate audiences over time (Webster & Phalen, 1997). Similarly, the centrality of an undifferentiated, anonymous audience has been criticized as more ideal-typical than realistic, given the long history of efforts to segment audiences according to identifiable criteria (Webster & Phalen, 1997; see also Napoli, forthcoming). Other assessments of the term have emphasized the industrialized production and distribution of content. From this perspective, mass communication is defined as originating from an institutional communicator (Turow, 1992).
From “Mass” to “Media”
Clearly, the concept of mass communication has been subject to reassessment and reinterpretation over time. Over the past two decades many academic departments renamed themselves, abandoning the mass communication label in favor of terms such as “media studies” or “telecommunications.” In 1996, one of the field’s major international academic associations, the IAMCR, changed its name, from the International Association for Mass Communication Research to the International Association for Media and Communication Research (Nordenstreng, 2008). In 2001, one of the more prominent journals in the field, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, similarly changed its name to Critical Studies in Media Communication. Clearly, then, the concept of mass communication has been on the wane.
The concept, however, seems poised for a comeback, though in a somewhat reconfigured form. Specifically, when the term “mass” is conceptualized a bit more inclusively, to account not just for the receivers of content but for the senders as well, then the concept of “mass communication” in fact perfectly captures much of what is taking place in the new media environment. Via representative Web 2.0 applications such as YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and Flickr, the masses are communicating to the masses (see Fonio, et al., 2007).
Thanks to the increasingly global reach of the Internet, any notion of the relevancy of the concept of mass communication being undermined by the fragmentation of the media environment and the fragmentation of audiences holds a lot less water today than it did 15 years ago.
Masses to Masses
As fragmented as the media environment may be, it is still relatively commonplace for a home-made video produced by an individual sitting at his computer to be watched by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people world-wide via YouTube, or for a song produced by a garage band to attract a similarly large listenership via on-line distribution. A recent study by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company indicated that the primary reason that people post user-generated videos on-line is to achieve fame and recognition (Bughin, 2007). Clearly, the intention here is to reach as large an audience as possible – not to target narrow niches. In the contemporary media environment, the masses seek to reach the masses.
Why does this resuscitation and reorientation of the mass communication concept matter to the intersection of communications research and communications policy? It matters because it highlights the fundamental new element of the process of (mass) communication requiring the attention of both researchers and policymakers. Specifically, the process of mass communication as newly constituted now prominently features a much more – though far from completely – egalitarian communication structure, in which the “masses” operate alongside the traditional institutional communicators in the process of reaching audiences. We are still in the relatively early stages of understanding the communications policy priorities that should be highlighted by such reconfigured dynamics (see, e.g., Benkler, 2006).
Access to Audiences
At the general level, the new media environment is one in which many of the separations and privileges associated with the traditional institutional communicator that long have been embedded in our regulatory structure need to be reconsidered. This is particularly the case in terms of the issue of access. Traditionally, the institutional communicator was separated from the audience largely by the institutional communicator’s level of access to the means of communication.
Television stations, radio stations, cable networks, cable systems and the like all represented media to which only a limited few had access. Such inequality was seen as an inevitable byproduct of the economic and technical characteristics of these media, not as free speech or public policy issues in need of remedy. Efforts to carve out a more egalitarian right of access to the media (see Barron, 1967) gained some limited, and largely temporary, traction (Napoli & Sybblis, 2007) (Consider, for instance, the rise and fall of the Fairness Doctrine.)
However, it may very well have been the case then, and it is increasingly the case now, that the focus of communications policymakers and communications researchers should not be on the issue of access to the media, but on the issue of access to audiences (see Napoli & Sybblis, 2007). What is the difference?
Rights to Express and to Be Heard
The difference is that the notion of access to the media essentially stops with access to the means of producing a message. Access to audiences picks up where access to the media leaves off by encompassing the extent to which such access is accompanied by the capacity to reach potential recipients of the message. Thus, access to audiences goes beyond the speaker’s right to express herself; it also encompasses her right to be heard. It is the distribution of speech that is at the core of the notion of access to audiences.
Two speakers with access to the media can vary tremendously in their level of access to audiences. A broadcast licensee in New York City traditionally has bad much greater access to audiences than a licensee in Omaha. A cable network available in 80 million homes traditionally has had much greater access to audiences than a cable network available in 10 million homes. A musician signed with a major record label traditionally has had much greater access to audiences than a musician signed to an independent label.
Levels of Access
Clearly, there always have been different levels of access to audiences, even among those with access to the media. These differences generally seldom have been thought of as violations of anyone’s speech rights, or as policy problems requiring attention. This is somewhat surprising when we consider that there is, in fact, a much longer and more robust First Amendment tradition protecting speakers’ rights of access to audiences than there is protecting speakers’ rights of access to the media (Napoli & Sybblis, 2007).
The courts have, for instance, upheld speakers’ rights to canvas door-to-door, to approach and offer information and ideas to citizens in public places, and to wield signs and banners, all in the name of protecting the basic First Amendment right that a speaker has to access audiences (see Napoli & Sybblis, 2007). In all of these instances, the key question involves whether speakers’ access to audiences is being protected and promoted to the extent guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Audiences, Access and Policy-relevant Research
Communications policymakers only occasionally have emphasized access to audiences in their analyses (Napoli & Sybblis, 2007), but need to start doing so more frequently; and research can help make that happen. Now, imbalances in speakers’ access to audiences are much less a function of the unavoidable technical or economic characteristics of the media. Today, thanks largely to the Internet, an exponentially larger proportion of the population has access to perhaps the most significant medium of communication, and in that regard stands on equal footing with the traditional institutional communicators in terms of their access to the media.
In this regard, the traditional access to the media disparity has been dramatically improved. Now, for this new media environment to reach its full potential in terms of its ability to achieve greater equality in the allocation of speech rights, we need to focus attention on the issues that arise after access to the media has been achieved. That is, what are the impediments to greater equality in access to audiences? Do any of these impediments involve inappropriate institutional restrictions on speakers’ rights of access to audiences? Since audiences are now themselves producers and distributors of content, these questions reflect particularly pressing concerns, since they now affect so much of the population.
Relationship between Access and Distribution
These concerns reflect the fact that the issue of access to audiences is largely an issue of distribution. It continues to be the case that in user-generated content discussions, the focus is often misguidedly on the user’s ability to produce content. Even the term, user-generated content, reflects this emphasis.
This is not really the aspect of contemporary developments that is new or of the greatest significance. Users’ capacity to generate content has been around for quite some time, due to the long-established availability of production technologies such as home video cameras, personal computers, and home recording equipment. What is different today is the ability of users to distribute content, to use the Web to circulate their user-generated content to an unprecedented extent.
Making sure, however, that these producers and distributors of user-generated content are able to operate on equal footing and identifying impediments to this, must be a point of focus for communications policymakers and communications researchers. While it is certainly the case that the new media environment offers a more egalitarian level of access to audiences than was the case in years past, it is important to emphasize that our media system should never be assessed primarily in terms of its performance relative to points in the past.
Rather, it should be assessed in terms of the extent to which it is reaching its current potential. Today, technology has given us the potential, within certain communications platforms, to place the individual and the institutional speaker on more equal footing. And policymakers and policy researchers should work toward ensuring that this potential is met.
Network Neurality, Ownership, and Other Urgent Issues
The issue of access to audiences is central to many of today’s most important communications policy debates. The net neutrality issue is essentially an access to audiences issue, as the discriminatory mechanisms that network service providers can employ to selectively block, disrupt, or slow the flow of Web traffic are essentially mechanisms for creating differentiated levels of access to audiences amongst speakers. In this regard, the net neutrality issue is as much about speakers’ rights to reach audiences as it is about audiences’ rights to receive information.
The media ownership issue is essentially an access to audiences issue, as greater concentration of ownership of media outlets creates further inequalities in access to audiences across speakers (see Napoli & Sybblis, 2007). The protocols in the operation of Web search engines raise significant access to audience issues, as the placement order of Web sites in search engine listings is a key factor in determining the level of access to audiences enjoyed by different sites (see Napoli, 2008).
Beyond Conventional Policy Research
It is important, as economist Bruce Owen (2004) notes, not to conflate success with access. That is, just because some speakers are reaching larger audiences than other speakers does not mean that access to audience imbalances requiring policy attention exist. Some speakers simply are more popular than others.
However, determining whether the patterns we are seeing are a reflection of success or access is not always clear. Parsing out these differences, identifying situations where access to audiences is being inappropriately impeded, assessing the mechanisms and justifications, and developing potential solutions, all should be points of focus for communications researchers. Such research feeds into the increasing importance for policymakers to understand the dynamics of the production, distribution, and consumption of content, something that communications researchers certainly are well-positioned to do.
But here again, as has been the case in the past (see Napoli & Gillis, 2006), it is necessary for communications researchers who might not normally consider themselves policy scholars per se to consider the policy relevance of their work. As should be clear from this discussion, researchers looking, for instance, at a wide range of issues related to the production, distribution, and consumption of user-generated content are conducting research that can potentially enhance our understanding of the contemporary dynamics of access to audiences, and can thereby feed into informing the ongoing transition to communications policy frameworks that extend far beyond the traditional institutional communicators and that instead account for the masses as mass communicators as well.
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