Allor (1988) in his ‘Relocating the Site of the Audience’ a Critical Study in Mass Communication argues that “The concept of audience is more importantly the underpinning prop for the analysis of the social impact of mass communication in general’. Within the last few decades, the extent at which the audience participates with new media has shifted dramatically, this shift is directly correlated with the recent influx of new technology and social media networking sites. “The audience that once blindly accepted mass media in a form of passivity has become a more active, engaged, participant or ‘prosumer’ in creating and participating in new media for themselves” (Harrison cited in Moe, Poell & Van Dijck 2016)
As of recent decades the concept of mass communication has transformed from a process that once restricted the audience to passively approach their media content to a practice that now invites the audience to be an active participant of media. The conventional notion of mass communication, in its simplest form, refers to the flow of communication that extends ‘from one to many’ often reaching a global audience through mediums such as books, newspapers, television, radio. Traditionally mass communication has been viewed exclusively as television during prime time, the radio that wakes the individual up in the morning or newspapers read on a Sunday morning. Recipients of this media in the past have only had the capacity to participate as passive bystanders restricted by one-way communication to now having the opportunity to collaborate in an atmosphere of two-way communication, where users of media can now engage with the content and control what is being broadcast to them. Audiences now are still engaging in these traditional forms of content but are not limited by it. Furthermore, the individual is given the opportunity to personalise their content due to new media and more specifically social media networking sites. For example, the news that was once a dry, old fashioned, stale form of mass media communication is now up-to-date, personalised and tailored to the individual (Conboy & Steel 2008). Social Media has directly facilitated this, transforming and evolving audiences into active participants or ‘prosumers’ of mass communication (Moe, Poell & Van Dijck 2016). Thompson (1999) comments that “The shift from analogue to digital systems of information codification, combined with the development of new systems of transmission are creating a new technical scenario in which information and communication can be handled in more flexible ways.” This flexibility has progressed mass communication from a ‘one to many’ approach to both ‘one to one’ and ‘many to many’ encouraging increased user engagement (Livingston 2004). Although it is important to note here that this recent influx of engagement did not just evolve itself but has been the result of “mediated interaction in a growingly complex ecosystem of connective media” (Van Dijck 2013).
Driven by new technologies, the user is now occupying the space between old and new media demanding the right to participate in culture. By combining the role of producer and consumer the audience has now become a ‘prosumer’ that actively engages in new media content. This new digital environment expands the scope and reach of what the consumer is able to achieve. Van Dijck in Users like you? Theorising agency in user-generated content states that “since the 1980s, the term ‘prosumer’ has been deployed by various academics to denote how users’ agency hovers between the bipolar categories of producer versus consumer, (Van Dijck 2009). An example of the scale at which audience engagement has sky rocketed can be seen in Van Es’s (2015) analysis of social media’s effect on the broadcasted network of NBC’s television program ‘The Voice’. In the initial seasons of the show producers were faced with such high user engagement that it challenged the narrative needed to keep the audience coming back. Consequently, producers took back control and scaled back the viewers’ potential to interfere with the program. This example showcases just how far mass communication has transformed from the passivity of times held before, Thompson (1999) articulates “We must abandon the assumption that the recipients of media products are passive onlookers whose senses have been permanently dulled by the continuous reception of similar messages”. This example of ‘The Voice’ showcases the magnitude as well as the consequences of high active user engagement.
Allor (1988) explores this engagement issue further “The audience, as it is used as a concept within mass communication research is such a chaotic conception of the whole. As the site of the problematic of mediation between the individual consciousness and the social sphere, it reproduces the tradition of abstract conceptions of totality that extend from population to the public, the crowd, the mass. The popular, and the subject”. With an almost straining high amount of audience participation poses the question, what really is the role of the audience if we are all engaged with the content that we in part create? Allor argues this concept further “the audience exists nowhere, it inhabits no real space, only positions within analytic discourses.” On the other hand, a positive example of the intensity of user engagement is When Time magazine announced ‘You’ meaning the audience, the individual as ‘Person of the Year’, Van Dijck’s (2009) articulation of this states “In doing this the magazine recognised “the millions of anonymous, productive contributors to the web – a tribute akin to the badge of honour bestowed upon the unknown soldier. This powerful but contrived metaphor has come to define the concept of user agency as it dissipated into academic and professional discourses. Notions of ‘participatory culture’ tend to accentuate the emancipation of the engaged citizen, who unleashes her need for self-expression and creativity onto the digital spaces created expressly for this purpose” (Van Dijck 2009) In doing this, Time Magazine presented a well thought out recognition of user engagement in new media. A take on audience engagement that encompasses all of the previous ideas is Fiske’s thoughts that, “Without people’s physical and hence visible participation in the process of communication, there will be neither text nor reception in the first place. Hence, while the nature of ‘audiencing’ is surely changing, just as surely will audiences remain central to the analysis of the new communication environment (Fiske 1992). It is examples like the above that depict a world that is positively evolving alongside new media and further encouraging audience engagement.
Audiences of the new media are quickly becoming increasingly active, selective, self-directed, producers, as well as receivers of texts (Livingston 2004). Van Dijck (2009) comments that “media use was and still is strongly defined by evolving group identities, as individual viewers tie in their personal taste and lifestyles with shared ‘mediated’ experiences”. Furthermore, Thompson states that “by enabling individuals to communicate across extended stretches of space and time, the use of technical media enables individuals to transcend the spatial and temporal boundaries characteristic of face to face interaction (Thompson 1999). In this world where media content is constantly transforming, the role of the prosumer is changing, and user engagement is more involved than ever before. The question now is – how does the new media evolve alongside these changes in audience? Couldry (2011) states, “the fate of ‘the media” is indeed closely tied to that of ‘the audience”. An example of the way the media world is shifting in a positive way due to new media and encompassing the role of the prosumers can be seen by the broadcasted network the BBC as it is ‘rethinking its relation to the audience in a digital age’. Livingstone (2004) comments “No longer is the elite and powerful mass broadcaster seeking to inform, entertain and educate the nation. Instead, BBC hopes to be ‘connecting communities’, ‘a facilitator of communities of interest online’, seeking to address and – significantly – to invite or ‘mediate user generated content’ from a diversity of audiences, local and global, according to their specific interests and across a range of platforms including broadcasting and the Internet” (Livingstone Cited Childs 2003). The BBC’s response to new media as a whole is incredibly important, by remodelling their ideas the network has the power to construct a community in which the audience feel’s a sense of being heard further facilitating user engagement. Not only this but by being such a large-scale network, other networks will be put in the position to follow suit. Couldry (2011) states that by having “an open-minded, practice-based approach to whatever it is that people are doing with, or around, media is likely to serve us best in these uncertain times for audience research.” The audience as a construct will always be of key importance for media research and particularly for understanding contemporary medias social consequences in society.
To conclude, audiences are in fact enormously actively engaged in new media, as they are actual participants in understanding the media and are now able to create their own meaning through their personal beliefs and social contexts. New media has shifted the audience’s reliance on mass media such as newspapers and the 6pm nightly news and now invites the individual to engage with media instantly through social media networks. The audience like never before now has the opportunity to comment on elements of the media immediately and engage with live events as they happen. Studies of this have suggested that social media facilitated this transformation of audiences into active “prosumers”. (Moe, Poell & Van Dijck 2016)