Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “New Media

Communicating Interest and the Interest of Communication

In “That’s Interesting! Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology” Murray Davis outlines a number of variations on a single theme:  the reversal of established expectations constitutes the basis for an “interesting” finding. Although Davis adequately details of why a particular publication or study may hold interest for an audience, we must be careful not to equate interest with value (or, as Davis notes, with accuracy).

Additionally, we might note how Davis’ construction of binaries may struggle to find resonance is a post-modern world. While the core of Davis’ argument may continue to hold true, the language may benefit from a slight alteration:  instead of “X” versus “non-X” we may consider how interesting studies may contrast “always X” and “not always X.” For example, we might point to interesting developments in audience studies that argue against the passive nature of consumers. Although we see the emergence of agency and active audience, this phenomenon exists alongside passive viewing suggesting that our dominant assumptions about the audience need to be refined but also that an either/or binary must give way to a model that incorporates a both/and stance.

However, regardless of minor issues, we can apply Davis’ notion to a host of current theories in order to assess the relative level of interest that they may hold. Media theories, for example, may be considered “interesting” as they often unpack and denaturalize adopted or learned practices. The great potential for theories of mass media or media and culture to be considered “interesting” lies in their ability to challenge the simplicity of the everyday (e.g., watching television, reading a newspaper, or browsing the Internet), arguing that media is both impacted and consumed in incredibly complex ecologies. For example, we readily see that theory like that of the knowledge gap lends itself to the conclusion that the same media artifact can hold vastly different amounts of information for various populations (with extensions of this to media literacy) and, from there, it is a short leap to the notion that various groups may respond to, or be affected by, media in different manners.

The realm of media also invokes questions about the ways in which communication is affected by information and communication technology. Ranging from issues of presence to uses and gratifications and computer mediated communication, this cluster of theories attempts to investigate the ways in which communication aided by technology may in fact be a more complex process than originally thought. Put another way, these theories question the assumptions made around the design and use of communication technologies challenging the notion that the protocols surrounding technology adoption and implementation are in any way natural.

Similar to media, of which the average person typically has an intuitive or common sense understanding, we can consider how theories of persuasion and advertising may be deemed “interesting” as they cause us to reconsider something that we rarely contemplate because it is ever-present and, on some level, simply assumed to be part of life. Alternatively, we see that persuasion theory can also be interesting as it deflates the sensationalism of catch phrases like “subliminal advertising” and explores how the process of priming actually works. This field has also seen a minor resurgence after the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink with regard to the process of decision making for we have been exposed to the idea that our choices may not be entirely up to us (and who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory?).

Ultimately, although we see that Davis provides one method for determining whether a project is “interesting,” we must also remember that not everything that is of interest is also significant. Using novelty as a guide may give us a place to start our investigation but we must also think carefully about the import of the cultural assumptions that surround our questions. As scholars, we must also challenge ourselves and our work to go beyond a threshold of “interesting” and be relevant and meaningful.

Between the New Medium and the Old

Author Mark Andrejevic begins his book with a brief depiction of reality television’s history in an attempt to develop a context for the way in which the medium has affected contemporary culture. Although Andrejevic makes some astute observations about the nature of reality television, he also overemphasizes the power and presence of interactivity within the medium itself. Most notably, I would suggest that the “interactive” component of reality television rests on the ability of the broadcast medium to respond to viewer input primarily through text message votes, which inherently represents a number of limitations for any sort of feedback beyond voting.[1] In fact, the recent rash of interactive spots on reality television (ostensibly designed to keep viewers from channel switching and to feel a connection to the program) often take the form of a viewer poll that has no real effect on the content of the show itself, unless the show is specifically designed to include viewers’ votes as part of the process.

Moreover, Andrejevic’s initial mention of Ana Voog is counterproductive as it blurs the line between social media and reality/interactive television; this overlap is something that Andrejevic continually attempts to sort out throughout his chapter without ever clearly differentiating. For example, reality television understandably presents the image that fame is achievable by all, through its elevation of the “everyman”—which in and of itself may be a contrivance—but Andrejevic aligns this democratization with the leveling power of social media which promotes access in a different way for different reasons. Andrejevic does however correctly speak to the ways in which social media has the potential to redistribute power in society (e.g., consumers are no longer passive and are, in fact, also the producers) but misses the larger idea that true power now rests in the hands of those who control the means and modes of distribution; platforms like Google, YouTube (which happens to be owned by Google), iTunes, and the discussion surrounding net neutrality indicate that filters and access represent the current revolutionary battlegrounds[2].

Further muddling the issue, Andrejevic’s argument for the “work of being watched”—that the same technology providing us with a more personal experience (labeled “participatory interactivity”) can be used against us (“productive surveillance”)—is not untrue but also aligns much more closely with social media than reality television, with one notable exception (2004).[3] Andrejevic accurately describes reality television’s ability bargain with its viewing audience:  fame and fortune can be had in exchange for access to personal details and a sense of intimacy. This point is not insignificant as when looking around at the current media landscape, we can see that we have entered into a culture of mediated confession, where individuals treat their secrets, tragedies, and identities like commodities to be sold on the open market.[4]

[1] Contrast this with the growing ability of television shows to respond to and adapt based on Twitter feeds (as one example), which represents a form of social media. This potential to interact in a practical way does not manifest meaningfully in the area of reality television as a stand-alone construct, unless, again, we consider voting as a meaningful expression of voice.

[2] Even though YouTube had not been launched when Andrejevic’s book was written, the debate surrounding Napster should have indicated that control over distribution and access was going to be a point of contention that incorporated many of Andrejevic’s points regarding consumers as the new producers.


[3] The debacle with Facebook’s Beacon and other forms of tracking outside of reality television seem to possess much more of an ability to develop modes of interaction and also commodification of our personal information for marketers.


[4] Consider talk shows like The Jerry Springer Show and Maury Povich along with reality fare like Extreme Makeover:  Home Edition and it becomes increasingly difficult to deny that we have become a culture that rewards the exploitation of personal tragedy. I would also add that Extreme Makeover:  Home Edition has the unfortunate side effect of raising the social norm for adversity with its constant portrayal of incredibly devastating circumstances.