Audience Theory:

Clay Shirky: The End of Audience

To bring this summary of different audience approaches towards a conclusion, would be to look at Clay Shirky‘s notion of the end of audience. Because what could happen if, instead of the choice of three subject positions as offered by the theory of preferred reading, there were limitless, individual subject positions available to all of us, at any time, in any place, from any perspective? A position which allowed us to produce our commentary and communication on the outside world, while still maintaining the ability to comment, feedback, accept or deny those who choose to interpret the outside world for us?

In many ways, Shirky is not too removed from the work of Hall, prioritising the power of individual agency in the relationship between audiences and institutions, for example, recognising how the audience can be both producers and consumers of media text. This can be realised in the realm of new (interactive) communication media, where individual communications can be made in what appears to be beyond State or commercial control and interest.

In a TED talk from 2013, Shirky stated that, ‘the more ideas there are in circulation, the more ideas there are for any individual to disagree with.’ In other words, Shirky makes claim for the emancipation gained from new media technologies, liberating individual consumers from the behavioural management techniques of the State that were positioned as problematic by Hall, Althusser, Chomsky and others. A position that is the revolution of new media technologies, which in many holds similarities with the introduction of the printing press in the 1500’s, a potential to transform the working machinery of public discourse and to reinvigorate democracy (re: Habermas and the Transformation of the Public Sphere).

Shirky’s ideas are supported by Henry Jenkins, another advocate of participatory, on-line communication, which he sees as providing new spaces for individuals to become active and creative in the process of mass mass media. ‘We may not overturn entrenched power . . . What they are talking about is a shift in the public’s role in the political process. . . toward the collaborative concept of a monitorial citizen‘ (2008, p. 219).

New Technologies. Old Tricks?

However, as many are now coming to recognise, although, ‘it was impossible to imagine the means of behavioral modification as anything other than owned and operated by the government‘. Very few saw that the project would ‘resurface in a wholly unexpected incarnation as a creature of the market, it’s unprecedented digital capabilities, scale, and scope now flourishing under the flag of surveillance capitalism.’ (Zuboff, 2019 p.325)

TASK: watch The Great Hack on Netflix as a way of familiarising yourself with some of the pertinent issues surrounding data profiling, data management and the invidious encroachment into behaviour modification, which has been well documented through the use of Facebook data, mined by Cambridge Analytica for commercial purposes. You should also watch this TED talk by Carol Cadwalladr as she discusses the threat of new media communications to democracy and freedom.

The arena of digital intrusion, of excessive, experimental and at times, unlawful, data mining is the subject of another post. It is enough perhaps to end on this lengthy quote from Zuboff, which seems to summarise the current concerns around media communication technologies, the role of those in power to adjust and manipulate our behaviour and ultimately the future of human freedom and individual liberty.

Today’s means of behavioural modification are aimed unabashedly at “us.” Everyone is swept up in this new market dragnet, including teh pscyhodramas ofordinary, unsuspecting fourteen-year-olds approaching the weekend with anxiety. Every avenue of connectivity serves to bolster private power’s need to seize behaviour for profit. Where is the hammer of democracy now, when the threat comes from your phone, your digital assistant, your Facebook login? Who will stand for freedom now, when Facebook threatens to retreat into the shadows if we dare to be the friction that disrupts economies of action that have been carefully, elaborately, and expensively constructed to exploit our natural empathy, elude our awareness, and circumvent our prospects for self-determination? If we fail to take notice, how long before we are numb to this incursion and to all the incursions? How long until we notice nothing at all? How long before we forget who we were before they owned us . . . (p. 326)

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