Read the second part of this text here.
There is little doubt that brands and mainstream media have seen their audiences migrate in favor of newer alternatives, but the tools we use to track them tell us surprisingly little about audience interaction.
Today, when thinking about technology and how we as users experience the world, process and experience are implicated in one another and the digital craft continues to evolve. Because of this there is a need to develop systems and frameworks to establish foundations and set a common understanding about the interactions made of the user and how these interactions may create or change groups.
This text reviews what we know as audience fragmentation, talks about the interactions between the subjects and speculates on the dynamics in which the message connects with the digital user, interactions. By the end of this text I propose a simple framework to set a common language and understand by this model a campaign based on the interactions. Also for the Part II of this text I use the term “userness”, to describe the entity “user” with a binary state, capable of switching from a passive state to a promoter-persona state, because the result of the interaction.
The factors that shape fragmentation
As more offerings are delivered on media and more choices are available on-demand, patterns of consumption become more widely distributed. Some celebrate these changes as they mean more responsive market and robust public sphere. The fragmentation means the end of a common cultural forum, the birth of media groups and communities that interact.
“Fragmentation results from the interaction of media and audiences. In a nutshell, we see media as providing resources (media providers) that agents (media users) appropriate to accomplish their purposes. To do this effectively, both parties rely heavily on information regimes (media measures) to monitor consumption. This is a recursive process in which users both reproduce and alter the structural features of the environment”.
Giddens A., (1984). The constitution of society: Outline of the theory of structuration. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
The most obvious cause of fragmentation is a steady growth of media services and products competing for public attention. This happens when established media, such as television, expand or when newer media, such as the Internet, enter the competition.
These could be categorized as intra and intermedia fragmentation, as digital technologies make it easier for both content and users to move across platforms, such distinctions seem less important. Whatever their means of delivery, media providers work to attract the attention of users. Attention has traditionally been monetized in a “dual-product” marketplace, where media providers sell content to consumers and “eyeballs” to advertisers.
Adding to the choices and gaining their own share of attention are new offerings referred to as “social media”. These include social networks such as Facebook, other like user-generated content such as YouTube, and content aggregators such as Netflix, Amazon and Google. Unfortunately, the supply of public attention is limited and, given the endless number of claimants, scarce.
“This has led many to characterize the information age as an “attention economy” in which attracting an audience is a prerequisite for achieving economic, social, or political objectives”.
Davenport T. H., & Beck J. C., (2001). The attention economy: Understanding the new currency of business. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
That is certainly the logic that governs the media marketplace, and it is a recipe for audience fragmentation.
What media users do with all those resources is another matter. Most expect them to choose the media products they prefer. Those preferences might reflect user needs, moods, attitudes, or tastes, but their actions are “rational” in the sense that they serve those psychological predispositions. Whether people use the growing options to consume a fixed diet of their preferred genre or to sample a diverse range of materials is an open question.
Many people are aware of people’s predisposition for selective exposure particularly as it applies to news. In the extreme, selective exposure could produce highly focused audiences who have been variously characterized as “enclaves”, “gated communities”, and “spheres”.
In reality, rational choice is “bounded” in two ways. First, the vast abundance of the digital marketplace makes perfect awareness impossible. The number of options and places where the user consumes makes impossible to advertisers to reach all the users in all the places, even with big budgets the result will be a saturation of the message and still it will not reach all the channels or users.
Second, media products are “experience goods” characterized by “infinite variety”. Users cannot be sure that even familiar outlets or brands will deliver the desired gratifications until they have consumed the offering. Users deal with these difficulties in different ways. They often have “media repertoires” that limit their choices and minimize their search costs. They also rely on recommendations.
The myth of enclaves
One type of audience behavior that is often implied on fragmentation is the inclination of users to build like-minded “groups”. These audience formations are labeled communities, spheres, chambers, red media–blue media, niches and microcultures. All suggest highly segmented markets.
“Long Tail forces and technologies that are leading to an explosion of variety and abundant choice in the content we consume are also tending to lead us into tribal eddies. When mass culture breaks apart it doesn’t re-form into a different mass. Instead, it turns into millions of microcultures”.
Anderson C., (2006). The long tail: Why the future of business is selling less of more. New York, NY: Hyperion.
Assuming that fragmentation across highly specialized outlets must mean the existence of highly specialized audiences. The picture that results is one of powerful audience loyalties that bind users to their preferred niches. If that were so, we would indeed be confronting a segregated world of media groups and microcultures. But that does not appear to be the case. There is no direct evidence about the relationship between niche media and audience loyalties.
There are very high levels of audience overlap. All-in-all, there is very little evidence that the typical user spends long periods of time in niches or enclaves of like-minded speech. Alternatively, there is also little evidence that the typical user only consumes hits. It is more likely that we will have a massively overlapping culture. For two reasons. First, there is growing evidence that despite an abundance of choice, media content tends to be replicated across platforms, if something is popular, it will appear in many other channels, all of them competing for attention. Second, while no two people will have identical media repertoires, the chances are they will have much in common. Those points of intersection will be the most popular cultural products, assuming, of course, that popular offerings continued.
Maybe it is better to compare it with a network of relations, which somehow makes us as beings and in which each being emerge as one node among others out of the densiﬁcation of the network. This network, however, has no clear borders. Some relations reach further than others.
One could also describe this as the cotransmission of parts of our own space to the outside world, through this continuous creative production of spaces the “community” protects itself from the naked outside world, but also creates an identity which enables communication and interaction with the outside world, therefore a new and bigger space, where by the unfamiliar and distrusted outside is transformed into the familiar and trusted, extending the “comfort zone”. This space is referred to as Sphere by Peter Sloterdijk in his concept of Spheres.
One aspect of this concept is that human beings taking part in this sphere are usually taking part in other spheres as well and thus are also actively involved in the transmission between these spheres.
Spheres, therefore, mediate between the inside and the outside. They are inner worlds which enable the human being to inhabit the outside world. Being born into this world in this respect is a primordial catastrophe, which is the first event for all later destructions and transformations of spheres, we become footloose and homeless, which causes our lifelong search for new relations by interacting with other spheres.
“The longing for the perfect union in the bubble of the primordial sphere (uterus), throughout the subject’s lifetime compel her to travel, create, and dwell in many different spheres”.
Nieuwenhuis M., (2014). Taking up the challenge of space: New conceptualizations of space in the work of Peter Sloterdijk and Graham Harman, Continent, no. 4.1, 17–37, http://www.continentcontinent.cc/index.php/continent/article/view/171
From that moment, as human beings, we are involved in many different practices on different scales and in many different frames, we as human beings are continuously creating and taking part in different spheres and thus are interacting in many ways to expand, join and build our spheres, we make sense of the world through our bodily senses and through our bodily movements and observations, we experience this sense in the form of experiences and meanings around our bodily being.
Read the second part of this text here.