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The brave new world of social media has captured the attention of academics and media industry players around the world, in large part due to its spectacular growth and the public attention commanded (Perez-Latre et al 2011).
Social networks such as, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have broken the conventional communication mode, bringing about a humanized point-to-point communication which is not only intensifying the connection between subjects and objects by turning communication into interactive discourse (Xie & Sun 2011), but also availing a relatively easy and financially reasonable method to offer information to a wide audience (Stefanone et al 2010).
Not surprisingly, therefore, there has been a growing need from media scholars to gain insight into how differing theoretical paradigms have conceptualised audiences with respect to these forms of media (Lester 2012). To expand on this critical research thread, the present paper aims to critically analyse how existing models of audience research inform debates on the use of social media.
The paper will proceed as follows: First, a brief description of the ‘audience research’ concept will be provided, followed by an equally concise description of the ‘social media’ concept.
Following this, the paper will detail two models of audience research – Encoding/Decoding Model and Uses and Gratifications Theory – and how they inform debates on the use of social media. Every attempt will be made to compare and contrast the models with respect to how they inform debates on the use of social media. The paper will conclude by outlining in brief some of the salient aspects arising from the discussion.
Audience Research & Social Media
Though used in everyday discourse, media scholars and other commentators are in agreement that the word ‘audience’ is ambiguous and complex to define, in large part due to differences of meanings and conceptual disputes. Therefore, this paper provides an outline of what audience research entails with the view to comprehend, in later sections, how differing theoretical paradigms have conceptualized audiences and how these conceptions shape debates on the use of social media.
McQuail (2010, p. 403) notes that “…since the audience has always been a contested category, it is not surprising that the purpose of doing research into audiences is varied and often inconsistent”. In the media context, audience research can be defined as a systematic study done by media corporations with the view to gather knowledge about the ‘audience’s’ habits, tastes and dispositions to facilitate the targeting of certain audience segments with a programme or textual strategy (Nightingale 2011, p. 105).
Lester (2012, p. 117) defines social media as “…a communication medium that is devoted to or characterized by interaction between participants or consumers of the medium”. Stefanone et al (2010) expand this definition by arguing that it is a form of media intended to engage the public and generate social relationships along the continuum ranging from participation, openness, and conversation, to community and connectedness.
For social media, according to Lester (2012, p. 117), “…every message is a work in progress that can be read or heard, updated at will, and often edited or commented upon by the recipient”.
A strand of existing literature demonstrates that the technologically-based form of communication has transcended both time and space to transform the media landscape and provide new possibilities to a wide audience (Stefanone et al 2010), but especially to younger generations for content delivery, design, and use (Nightingale 2010, p. 5; Brandtzaeg et al 2010).
Models of Audience Research & Social Media: An Analysis
One of the most contentious and pressing issues concerning media in recent years is identifying viable models of audience research that could be used to form the basis for social media use and sustainability. These models, it is thought, could inform and influence debates on the use of social media, particularly in light of the fact that many media analysts are highlighting the swing away from traditional media towards internet based social media (Nightingale 2011, p. 7).
A recently concluded IBM study cited by Lester (2012) found that people now spend more personal time interacting on social media than watching television. It therefore, becomes of essence to evaluate how models of audience research inform debates on the use of social media.
British cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s seminal paper Encoding/Decoding (1980) provides a densely theoretical account of how media producers ‘encode’ meanings into media texts, which carry a ‘preferred’ reading intended for the audience; that is, the production of meaning that takes place through a multiplicity of ways of using language and images (Philo 2008).
Incorporating a semiotic framework into his analysis and borrowing heavily from the social constructionist perspective, Hall asserts that the active audience do not merely absorb messages encoded by the media producers; rather, they ‘decode’ meanings depending on their cultural identity, gendered identity or class position (Spigel & Olsson 2004).
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Indeed, Hall argues that the content of the media is always polysemic; implying that it always has a number of potential meanings depending on the social and cultural orientations of the intended audience (Philo 2008).
But when Hall’s ‘hegemonic viewpoint’ is analysed, it is evident that the Encoding/Decoding theoretical model does not presuppose that texts or messages are open to an endless number of interpretations as they remain ‘structured in dominance’.
On the contrary, the model is clear that there exist three viewpoints by which the audience can decode a message: 1) dominant hegemonic position – audience accepts the meaning as encoded by the producer, 2) negotiated position – audience might accept the meaning at a general level, but seek particular exceptions with reference to their own social and cultural beliefs, and 3) oppositional code – audience decodes a totally contrary message to that intended by the media producer (Philo 2008).
Hall’s hegemonic viewpoint, however, continue to draw criticism, with Schroder (2000, p. 236) arguing that the “…set of three presupposes that the media text itself is a vehicle of dominant ideology and that it hegemonically strives to get readers to accept the existing social order, with all its inequalities and oppression of underprivileged social groups”. But overall, the model remains one of the most widely used in audience research.
It is evident that the Encoding/Decoding model has the capacity not only to inform but also direct debates on the use of social media. When users compose their personal profile on Facebook or Twitter, for instance, their friends always have to do with a complex process of active meaning making in line with the model’s polysemic orientation and hegemonic viewpoint (Lindgren 2012, p. 5).
The former implies that the personal profile composed will have a number of potential meanings to the other profiled users depending on their social and cultural context, while the latter suggests that the social media will decide the profile composed under three viewpoints – dominant hegemonic (take the meaning of the profile as the truth); negotiated position (believe in the profile but have some reservations depending on social and cultural context), and; oppositional code (refuse to buy the meaning of the profile) (Philo 2008).
Stefanone et al (2010, p. 508) expand this view by noting that new communication platforms such as, Facebook and YouTube “…diffuse throughout a population, navigating a social environment of mediated identities becomes an increasingly important communication skill”. These assertions demonstrate how the Encoding/Decoding model informs debates on the use of social media.
Arguably, the ‘blogger’ or the ‘twitter’ or any other user of social media is actively making sense of the world in particular but contingent ways through acts of representation (Lindgren 2012, p. 6).
The meanings are contingent in that they could have been different; that is, the profile composer in social media could have chosen to emphasize other sections of their resume or personality in line with social constructionist view that forms the basis of Hall’s model. Indeed, this is what leads Hall to assert that representation is the pipeline connecting meaning and language with culture.
Uses & Gratifications Theory
Through the pioneering works of Alan M. Rubin, Uses & Gratifications theory (hereafter U&C) “…gradually evolved from psychological and sociological models of indirect media effects” (Haridakis & Whitmore 2006, p. 767). One of the major tenets of U&C, according to these authors, is that the audience is perceived as purposive, goal-oriented, and motivated in their use of the media with the view to satisfy their social and psychological needs and wants.
In his inclusive overview of this viewpoint, Rubin (1994) cited in Ruggiero (2000) summarised five principal presuppositions of a contemporary view of U&G as follows: 1) communication behaviour, including the choice of media and use, is goal-oriented, purposive, and motivated, 2) The audience takes the initiative in selecting and using the media to gratify felt needs or desires, 3) a host of social and psychological factors mediate the audience’s communication behaviour, 4) the media compete with other forms of communication for selection, attention, and use to gratify the needs or wants of the audience, and 5) the audience are characteristically more influential than the media in the relationship, but not always.
The U&C, in its element and scope, has the capacity to inform debate on the use of social media. Stefanone et al (2010, p. 509) are of the view that the Web 2.0, which forms the backbone for social media, has “…set the stage for a major shift in the way individuals perceive their role in the contemporary media environment…
Rather than simply being targeted by mediated messages, they can see themselves as protagonists of mediated narratives who actively integrate themselves into a complex media ecosystem”. The audience, rather than being subjected to mediated messages by organizations using social media to post profiles or results, takes the initiative to select and use the media to gratify their felt needs or desires.
We can therefore, draw parallels between U&C viewpoints and Hall’s negotiated position in his hegemonic viewpoint, but both models demonstrate how they inform debate on the use of social media.
It is indeed true that some social media tools such as, Twitter and MySpace have been used by marketers for branding and promotion. Available research demonstrates that these tools are responsible for the erosion of television revenues as marketers prefer using them due to their growing popularity, as well as their expansiveness in size and diversity of audience (Greer & Ferguson 2011). Consequently, these tools must be viewed in light of effective marketing tools.
Borrowing Rubin’s five presuppositions, it becomes clear how U&C could be used to inform the marketing debate in social media forums. For instance, marketers using social media tools to sell their products should in the first instance know which site to recruit in line with the perspective that the choice of media and use is goal-oriented, purposive, and motivated (Stefanone et al 2010).
Similarly, in line with U&C, they should know that consumers using social media to purchase products take the initiative in selecting the type of social media to use to satisfy felt needs or desires.
It is also notable how American politicians have from 2006 used MySpace to befriend voters and candidates (Ancu & Cozma 2009). From U&C perspective, a host of social and psychological factors mediated U.S. politicians’ communication behaviour in a manner to use the social media to sell their policies to other users.
Borrowing Hall’s hegemonic viewpoint, there were those who accepted the message as wholesome and agreed to be bought via social media (dominant hegemonic position), those who accepted the message but sought exceptions with reference to their own social and cultural beliefs (negotiated position), and those who blatantly refused to be bought through the messages on MySpace (oppositional code) (Philo 2008). Undoubtedly, the two models can therefore, be used to inform political discourses through the social media.
From the analysis, it is clear how both Encoding/Decoding model and Uses and Gratifications theory could be used to inform debates on the use of social media. Indeed, the paper has demonstrated how, for instance, users composed their personal profile on social media using polysemic orientation and hegemonic viewpoint – exemplars of Hall’ Encoding/Decoding model.
Similarly, it has been shown how bloggers use acts of representation to make sense of the world around them through contingent ways. The Uses and Gratifications theory could also be used as an exemplar to inform debate on acts of mediation, marketing and politics in the social media.
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