What is an audience and, moreover, what makes an audience passive versus active? Mosco and Kaye (2000) famously called the audience “one of the most hotly contested” governing ideas in mass communications research (in Hagen and Wasko, 2000, p.31). They also defined it as, “an assumed entity, unknown and certainly unquantified which, while objectified in word, remains amorphous, still defined as the Assembly of Hearers, albeit as anonymous assemblage” (p. 35). Mosco and Kaye also note that the term audience is not an analytic category, like class, race or gender, but, rather, a product of the media industry. In this sense, an audience is a commodity—a very commercial one—whose very existence reaffirms mass communication models, from Lasswell to Lazarsfeld.
The idea of passivity versus activeness has been well documented in scholarship throughout the social sciences. Of note, uses and gratifications theory attempts to explain how audiences use media to fulfill their own individual wants, needs and desires. It’s more about “what people do with media,” rather than “what media does to people” (Katz, 1959). But do today’s audiences fall into such black and white categories? Is a media consumer either a) passive or b) active, or something entirely different?
To move forward and reimagine mass communication models of the past, it may serve scholars well to position audiences as schizophrenic, rather than exclusively passive or active.
The schizophrenic audience is one who lives is a hyper-mediated, fragmented, polarized and commercially mediated world whereby the time or effort to absorb/digest/respond/repeat to mediated communication simply isn’t afforded. The schizophrenic audience is at once democratized and oppressed. It is from this position where scholarship into the effects of media should operate.
Let’s interpret and reinterpret Lazarsfeld’s two-step flow communication model as insight into today’s schizophrenic audience. The two-step model posits that media messages are communicated to opinion followers by an opinion leader. Here, the opinion leader holds the power to shape the public sphere by telling followers what to think about. Rather than assume that opinion followers are exclusively passive, we can say today’s opinion followers are also active (e.g. online commenters), which is an extension many scholars have afforded the orginal model. But does this go far enough? I don’t think so. I think today’s audiences are schizophrenic—they’re both active and passive when they feel like it, and are a whole slew of other adjectives like apathetic and exhausted, too.
Take the storied op-ed column in the New York Times as an example. The Times is arguably the newspaper of record for the U.S. with some of the most influential op-ed columnists shaping the public sphere on a weekly basis. Columnist Paul Krugman used to be authoritative, the credible voice of economics for the newspaper. In the new media era, however, Krugman’s followers suddenly have the agency to talk back. Today’s op-ed audience has the agency to subvert the argument of the columnist, to challenge the column’s merits, to cite opposing facts—and all on display for other readers and all at the whim of the individual reader. While it’s the active audience member who takes the time to talk back (i.e. comment with a convincing argument), the passive audience member is still influenced by this new communications ricochet; they may be passive, but they’re still exposed to the reality created by the new media era.
Lazarfeld’s two-step communications model doesn’t wholly apply in the new media environment of today because it doesn’t take into consideration followers, or the audience, as something more than passive receivers of messages. While some scholars have tried to make the model more relevant by allowing followers to be active, it still comes short. The study of mass media and its potential effects must rethink today’s audience as less of an “Assembly of Hearers” and more as an assemblage of changing moods and investment. Today’s schizophrenic audience may be just as amorphous as yesteryear’s passive/active audience, but it’s definitely more colorful.
Hagen and Wasko, 2000. Consuming Audiences? Production and Reception in Media Research. Hampton Press: Cresskill, New Jersey.
Katz, 1959. Mass communication research and the study of culture. Studies in Public Communication, 2, 1-6.
Image courtesy Music Pixels, Ayumi Hamasaki (浜崎あゆみ): AUDIENCE.