The Addressable Audience: The Decline of a Communication Model

Greek Theater in Syracuse, Sicily
Greek Theater in Syracuse, Sicily

 Are we a nation that is still addressable as a society that coheres?

Since the early democracies in Sicily a person or group with specific persuasive goals has been said to be locked in to the requirement to formulate messages that build on community attitudes. This idea is a central canon in communication studies. For most scholars in the field, the study of public persuasion would be unmanageable without this convenient notion. We understand an audience to be the generative source of successful persuasion attempts.  It’s from their views that a persuader fashions ways to connect with them.

Yet this basic assumption is increasingly problematic. We still lean heavily on the belief that we can lump individuals together in cohesive groups with demographic and lifestyle similarities (age, sex, income, region of residence, and so on). Traditional media outlets such as television networks often “sell” their audiences to advertisers based on some of these features. And virtually every music, film and television producer is convinced they know their “market.” Even so, the concept of the audience rarely works as well in fact as it does in theory. In their study of The Mass Audience, James Webster and Patricia Phalen remind us that “audiences are not naturally occurring ‘facts,’ but social creations. In that sense, they are what we make them” (p. xiii).

There are two problems with this core idea the audience. One is that with the proliferation of “new” media choices contained in the Internet as a gateway supporting many “platforms.” In this environment audiences turn out to be neither uniform nor very predictable. Even the motives of those who self-select themselves into the same group can be surprisingly diverse. For example, it would be risky to infer much about the audience for content on Snapchat or any of the thousands of sites that stream video and audio content for free. Even analysts at The Nielsen Company—the nation’s most visible audience research firm—would concede that it’s extremely difficult to come up with reliable metrics especially for “one-off” events.

The second problem is even more daunting. The structural changes in our newly dominant media make individual usage far more scattered and fragmented. Aristotle wrote one of the first studies of human communication (The Rhetoric, circa 335 BC) with an eye on the challenges of addressing a few hundred citizens within a small city. Today, by contrast, audiences are sometimes defined in the millions, with messages delivered to them on a host of platforms that increasingly muddle the question of what makes a message “public” or “private.” We may still assume that most men do not read Cosmopolitan or Vogue. But beyond recording “hits” to a site, even popular message aggregators like the Daily Beast or similar news sites cannot be easily defined by their audiences. The impact of their customizable messaging is difficult to access.

Consider just two snapshots of current media use:

  • Digital devices of various sorts get about ten times more attention than newspapers and magazines. Most of these devices are accessing the web, where the average time spent on a single page is under a minute.
  • Among American teens who will shape future discourse, texting has become a time-consuming preoccupation, with an average of 60 separate messages a day, and 6-hours at social media sites over the same 24 hours.

Usage patterns like these hint at the paradoxes about the nature of modern discourse. Does our dependence on digital devices borne from imagistic platforms (graphical interfaces loaded into virtually all digital devices) disallow the kind of thinking about uniform attitudes that is thought to be needed for message development? Put another way, if modern life now proceeds as continuous exposure to a series of visual riffs in broad-based and space-restricted media such as U-tube or Google Plus+, is there any chance to create a series of appeals that speak to the needs of their heterogeneous users?

Is the fraying of our faith in a true national community one of the prices we will pay for the fragmentation of our media?

Beyond our love of shopping malls, mass market films and television, do we share anything like the common civic culture that was easier to see in the pre-digital age?

When Americans witnessed the first moon landing in 1969 there were just three national television networks that made up what some media historians have called “the national hearth.” Together they had a 93 share, representing about half of the nation’s total population.1 Are there still universal values and ideals that define our national life? In classical terms, is the collective polis still addressable as a common unit?

Some social theorists have noted that we are less a “melting pot” that blends away our differences than a culture that more or less accommodates them. If that is the case, the older idea of an audience sharing the same property of a common culture may be simply a fiction of media and communication disciplines. Should that turn out to be even partially true, we need to ask what a viable alternative model of communication that is not based on assessing audience-oriented appeals looks like. There is growing evidence that we already see the withering effects of undirected communication: for example, rhetorical bomb-throwing for its momentary thrills. “Trolling” in the “comments” section of news site is just one symptom.

All of these concerns may appear rather abstract. But they have real consequences. We traditionally assume that effective messages usually get their energy from appeals that trigger a sense of identification with a source and their message. We also assume that communication failure can often be attributed to messages that have “boomeranged,” meaning a piece of discourse has actually alienated those who received it.  But, of course, you have to care about the effects of your words. So a fading tradition that assumes our words are chosen to match the needs of a given audience raises practical questions about whether enough Americans have the will to function in a society that coheres.


193 percent of Americans watching television were tuned to this event.  TV By the Numbers, July 17, 2009,