I am just beginning a significant revamp of my course “Mass Media and Society” for next year; the course will be retitled “New Media and Society” (with a humble nod to the journal of the same name) and will be a course that serves both the Communication department and the program in Information Science here at Cornell. The idea will be to introduce students to some of the classic questions addressed by sociological approaches to media, and address them to emerging new media forms. Do the old concerns persist, or do they need to change?
So as I go, I’m going to use this blog to highlight what I find to be compelling work in this area. This is not intended to exclude readers who aren’t academics; one of the criteria for selecting essays to point to here (and for inclusion in the syllabus) is that they speak clearly to a much wider audience who just happens to be interested in such things.
Much of the academic scholarship that addresses new media and society suffers from one or several of the following failings: (1) embracing the hype around new media and technologies, at the expense of critical and thorough scholarship, (2) accepting uncritically the distinction between “new” and “old,” thereby presuming that the history of these forms and the research that addressed them have nothing to offer to current cases, (3) making the opposite assumption, that nothing of substance has changed, (4) merely attempting to document the phenomenon without any attention to the context, the implications, the shifting paradigms, (5) leaning uncritically on quantitative methods merely because digital tools allow so much data to be gathered automatically, and (6) falling back on reductive versions of the ‘effects’ approach to media that existing communciation scholarship has already shown to be problematic and ideologically fraught. It is surprisingly difficult to gather a semester of readings that avoids all of these pitfalls, both because of the sheer quantity of this clumsier work, and because the stuff that does succeed in tackling these questions with subtletly and insight tends to be scattered acorss mutliple fields, approaches, and topics.
Turow, Joseph. 2005. Audience Construction and Culture Production: Marketing Surveillance in the Digital Age. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 597(1): 103-121.
This essay comes from a special issue of the Annals, edited by Eric Klineberg, on “Cultural Production in a Digital Age,” and the entire issue is excellent, including notable pieces by Gina Neff, Phil Howard, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Mimi Ito. But Turow’s piece stands out for me
because it skillfully makes an argument about change without fetishizing “new media,” it maps a coherent history connecting mass media forms to the current moment, and it highlights technological change without slipping into determinist thinking. It also offers one insight into a phenomenon that I think is one of the most pressing questions of media and society in the current moment.
Turow’s premise is that the practices of advertisers are changing in part because their notion of who the audience is and what their doing is changing. Marketers once focused on simply reaching the largest possible audience for their pitch, a tactic both driven by and reinforcing the move towards national brands. This fit well the belief that radio and television were bringing together a single audience. This tactic shifted in the latter half of the 20th century, as marketers began to fret that the increasing proliferation of media choices meant they would never again reach the massive audience they once did. Their anxiety about narrowcasting and niche audiences became a strategy: market more accurately to exactly the demographic or interest group you want, reaching, if a smaller audience, than an audience more likely to be interested in and willing to buy the particular commodity being pitched. This “market segmentation” led, in Turow’s view, to advertisers thinking of audiences not as a mass, but as an increasingly complex diversity of publics and interests groups.
With the rise of TiVo, DVRs, online file-trading, pop-up blockers, and the like, marketers began expressing a new anxiety: viewers were skipping the ads altogether. Once again, the concern led to a re-framing of the audience itself: marketers began describing audiences as fickle, as having little allegiance, as lacking in attention span, as unwilling to be sold to. This frame also begat a strategy: address individuals, enlist their participation in an ongoing relationship, wall them into branded spaces — and most of all, encourage them to give up valuable personal information by turning privacy into a commodity: for the right “price” (discounts, personalized content, entry into a social network), consumers will reveal their buying habits, preferences, and financial resources. This data can be used to develop personalized ads and promotions that seem to speak more directly to their wants and desires, that maintain consumers as life-long buyers, and that feel less intrusive by comparison.
Clearly, traditional commercial forms in conventional media still represent by far the most prevalent approaches in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, marketers in the early twenty-first century believe firmly that the genie is out of the bottle. They insist that the difficulties of targeting in a hypersegmented media world combined with new digital technologies that allow for the elimination of commercials mean they must be prepared to use new ways to ensure that consumers attend to their electronic solicitations. Increasingly, they are turning to alternatives to standard advertising as instruments to force consumer attention.
As these separate sets of activities develop, they are coming together in a new industry strategy for reaching the public that holds important implications for information privacy and ad-induced anxietiesâ€¦ American consumers, they say, are willing to allow advertisers and media firms to collect data about them and track their activities in return for relatively small but useful benefits that make their frenetic, attention-challenged, self-centered lives easierâ€”discounts, entries to media channels, or similar special attention. Converging media and marketing activities based on this proposition are leading to an emerging set of strategic logics in favor of an emerging culture-production system in which surveillance marketing is deeply embedded. (112-113)
Turow’s essay sheds light on a troubling phenomenon that many have noticed but few have explained — the willingness of consumers, especially the young, to volunteer private information with little concern for how it might be used, and their seeming naivete about where that information may end up. Despite an increasingly vocal criticism of the privacy implications of digital, networked culture, there seems to be a significant disconnect for younger users. Much of this, I believe, has to do with the way personal information has been reframed as a commodity, as a passkey to rewards, even as a necessary ticket to entry into social life. The economic bargain offered is not new: sign up for the frequent flyer program or the reward card at the grocery store, and get discounts; the fact that your purchase habits are tracked and recorded is easily overlooked. The value of posting a detailed, revealing profile in Facebook or MySpace is something more. This act of self-presentation is seen as a communicative gesture to a circle of friends — more than a “public” proclamation, as is painfully clear when high schoolers are shocked to find their parents can read their diary-like confessions, college graduates are shocked to find that potential employers have seen their photos of drunken parties at school — and is a small price for entry into the social networks that follow. The more honest detail you offer, the more you are automatically placed into circles of common interest, the richer the interactions with people there can be. Turow’s essay situates this impulse in an commercial paradigm shift that makes this invitation an increasngly valuable, and seemingly necessary commercial strategy.
Turow’s essay also helps advance our understanding of the discourse that surrounds new technology. I find that an attention to discourse is a vital element of the study of new media: the shifting paradigms that situate who users are, what technologies are for, how things are changing, help reveal why technological and economic “imperatives’ fail to explain the particular paths these phenomena take. But, it is easy to look only at the general talk about new technology, and let the high-gloss claims in places like Wired spin you back into the superficial, utopian musings that have surround these new technologies from the start. What Turow does is consider discourse around new media in a particular context, and how the frames adopted by (in this case) marketers, spurred by technological change but inflected by their own particular economic and ideological outlook, leads them to behave in particular ways — ways that shape the very media we’re trying to understand.