Media, community, and zones of consumption
Graeme Turner / University of Queensland
For some time now I have been working in collaboration with several colleagues1 on a project investigating the role television and new media now play in building communities. The initial provocation for this was the expansion of the multichannel environment which appeared to reduce television’s role in building national communities while, at the same time, many were claiming that alternative, more open and contingent, forms of community were emerging as a product of the interactive capacities of online digital media. In recent years, much of the industry and academic discussion of the shifts in television and media has focused on precisely this – emphasising the difference between these forms of community (virtual, transnational, customized to the consumer’s preferences) from those constructed by, for instance, a national broadcaster (located, national, and with limited flexibility).
There are indeed important differences between the capacities of broadcast and digital media, but we need to question whether they have in fact led to the development of new forms of community. The term, ‘community’, itself has been used relatively loosely in media and cultural studies; sometimes it is, in effect, offered as a form of analogy – suggesting that what is being described works a bit like a community rather than arguing that it really is a community. The term ‘virtual community’ was coined back in 19932, and focused on the early online capacities emerging at the time such as multi-user online gaming, for instance. As other participatory platforms developed – MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube in particular—the term was carried over into their description as well. There were good reasons for this, since community is such an unequivocally good thing to create. Consequently, this became a card that was played in optimistic readings of the potential of digital media; if they could create community, clearly these were pro-social technologies.
Although media and cultural studies have not much interrogated the idea of community, its usage has gone through significant shifts in the social sciences. To simplify, where once it might have referred specifically to those living in a physically defined location – a specific village or neighbourhood, say—it is now also commonly used to describe a form of consciousness, a focus of belonging or identification. A sense of community is also widely used to invoke a mode of belonging that is thought to be in some way organic but to be under threat from other less ‘authentic’ or less located forms of identity. Businesses, for instance, invoke community as a discursive strategy to link their commercial objectives with those of society. Some regard the particular kinds of community constructed via digital media—that is, bottom-up and user-generated – as a welcome corrective to the less participatory models that preceded them. The advocates of convergence culture in the US, for instance, argue that, as television relinquishes much of its capacity to construct the national community, convergent media forms have emerged to reclaim that capacity while also directing it more accurately to the needs of the individual. This leaves us with the paradox that the revival of community is located in a highly individualized practice of consumption.
We have become accustomed to thinking of the nation as an imagined community, but we should be more circumspect about accepting the idea that what is constructed around, say, an online fan discussion site also constitutes a community. There are significant differences. The mass mediated national community is externally structured, but it has the potential to affect all aspects of one’s everyday life — even if it only sporadically enters one’s consciousness and even if each of us has reservations about how thoroughly we seek to belong. As a community, the nation is managed by extensive lines of association, entitlement and obligation but they vary significantly in intensity from place to place and between individual subjects. The online fan community, on the other hand, is marked by strong lines of affinity organised around shared tastes and knowledge, but for most of those who belong to such a community its imbrication into the full range of the practices of everyday life will be limited. The specific connections between the members may be stronger, more focused and perhaps even more in the foreground of their everyday lives, but they may also be even more localised than those constructed via national institutions. As we used to say about television audiences, we are only the consumers of our preferred media for a part of our daily lives.
There are similarities as well, however. Communities constructed by all of these media platforms are marked by the ways in which a form of co-presence (the imagined simultaneous presence of the wider audience) contributes to the experience of consumption. This is not a new idea in relation to broadcast television, of course, but it is also relevant to other media that are not necessarily consumed at the same time by all members of their audience. Time-shifting of television is the obvious example of this, although we know that most people only time-shift a few hours and so may still have that old-fashioned ‘water-cooler’ experience at work the next day. Online media also produce multiple moments of co-presence through sharing their media experiences via social networks. The co-presence this creates has a feedback loop that is potentially more immediate and extensive than the water-cooler conversation, and relies far less upon an imagined presence of other users than is the case with the simultaneous consumption of broadcast content. Arguably, then, the online experience might be seen to create a more palpable sense of community than is available through television.
All of that considered, it still seems that we may be projecting too much onto this experience. While there are community-like aspects to the interactions concerned, this is still primarily about enhancing the individual’s experience of consumption rather than about building a community. Jennifer Gillan3 has examined how television in the multichannel environment now builds numerous ancillary platforms to expand the experiences provided by the program: there are interviews with the production team, video outtakes, fan discussion sites, mobile phone applications and so on, all bolted on in order to convert a program such as Lost into a franchise rather than a single stand-alone event. While the online environment offers similar capacities, they tend to be explored more independently by the individual at the keyboard. There is interactivity in both models, although it is easy to overstate how common this is in most people’s media consumption. Nonetheless, even if the online consumer never posts a comment and never uploads their user-generated content onto YouTube, their mode of consumption is more personalised, individualized and, I suspect, more committed than most of their engagement with television. However, this is more about the construction of identity than the construction of community.
There may be evidence that new media has helped us to find new ways to build social networks. I don’t think there is strong evidence yet that they have helped us to find new ways to build communities. Even if we define community as a form of consciousness rather than as a physical space, the model of the online community still involves a relatively narrow range of activity. What is mostly shared among their members – and sharing is a key activity in the construction of community– is either content itself or recommendations about or responses to media content. As a result of digital media’s provision of interactivity, the proliferation of choices and the varying playlists of preferences with which we can now interact, the niches into which we can now direct consumption have become more densely populated and far noisier. However, I think it is more useful to describe these niches as zones of consumption rather than as communities. This shifts the emphasis onto examining more thoroughly where consumption occurs and how that location is actually framed by its own specific determinants – such as patterns of cultural affinity, industrial and regulatory structures, as well as the particulars of place—before we rush too readily into sticking the label of community onto an emerging media formation.
Please feel free to comment.
- Sukhmani Khorana, Anna Cristina Pertierra, and Jinna Tay. Anna Pertierra and I are currently collaborating on a book from the project, entitled Locating Television Today: Zones of Consumption, to be published by Routledge. [↩]
- Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. A revised version was published in 2000 (London: MIT Press) in which Rheingold acknowledged that ‘social networking’ might have been a better descriptor for the phenomenon he was investigating. [↩]
- Television and New Media: Must-Click TV, Routledge, New York and London, 2011. [↩]