Tag Archives: audiences

The Addressable Audience: The Decline of a Communication Model

Greek Theater in Syracuse, Sicily Wikipedia.org
Greek Theater in Syracuse, Sicily        Wikipedia.org

 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, http://tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com/2009/07/17/moonwalk-draws-125-million-viewers-cbs-and-cronkite-win-big/

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu


The Problem of the Unintended Audience


The unintended audience is the new norm.  And with it, we have burdened ourselves with the worry of not knowing where our communications might surface.

Nothing represents the challenges of connecting with others better than the ease with which a person can use newer media to eavesdrop on messages not intended for them. The digital revolution has led to popular media platforms favoring content that started as private communications. Some of this visual and textual material is used as digital clickbait, feeding our appetites for the kinds of gossip that used to exist mostly in supermarket tabloids.  Some intrudes more awkwardly, as when a forwarded e-mail goes to more eyes than it was supposed to.

In simpler times it was possible but awkward to listen to someone’s conversations through a wall or a shared party line. Broadly speaking, our secrets were more easily kept. Physical spaces usually created privacy.  And we didn’t have access to tiny recording technologies such as smartphones, or permeable channels of communication such as social media.  Privacy was an attribute an individual could choose.  It made life easier.  It was not something we planned to give up as citizens swept up into the digital world.  After all, if we wanted a peek into the private lives of others, we had theater and then film. Even in Shakespeare’s day audiences could spend hours witnessing the sordid backstories of Europe’s kings and queens.

The absence of the fourth wall is key to drama’s attraction. But what was once mostly limited to the theater is now a feature of everyday life, as cameras and mics invade most spaces. Few television police procedurals or legal narratives would be complete without the exposure of private communications that somehow contradicts claims of innocence. They reflect the fact that real life investigative bureaucracies regularly seek permission to eavesdrop, using off the shelf technologies that now make digital searches relatively easy.

The right to access personal data is at the core of the current legal battle that pits Apple against the federal government. The FBI wants to hack data from the cellphones of criminal suspects, like those who murdered innocent citizens in San Bernardino last year.

In recent decades we have added to the expectation that there is entertainment value in witnessing events not originally intended for public view.  Most reality television shows gain attention by using the camera to capture moments of private humiliation or subterfuge. Think of the hapless business people who open their professional lives to public view in exchange for help and cash from reality “stars” like chef Gordon Ramsey or hotel consultant Anthony Melchiorri.  Add in a range of other factors, including the natural habit of the young to be careless in their monitoring of their digital posts, and it’s easy to see how a multitude of messages can quickly verge out of their lanes. Remember the turning point in the 2012 presidential election?  A private fundraising event hosted by Mitt Romney was secretly recorded by a hotel employee. In his spiel to potential contributors Romney wrote off much of the nation as lazy and unreachable, writing off his electoral chances at the same time.

Privacy was an attribute an individual could choose.  It made life easier.  It was not something we planned to give up as citizens swept up into the digital world.

It is now the rare individual who has managed to hold on to the presumptive right touted  in many European countries to not be observed.

All of this is a reminder that as rhetorical creatures we are less able to select our own audiences. There is no longer a clear connection between who we wish to address and who actually receives our messages.  An assumption that others can eavesdrop into personal and professional communications complicates what used to be a source’s prerogative to clearly target receivers without unwanted blowback from outsiders.

So the unintended audience is the new norm.  And with it we have burdened ourselves with the additional worry of not knowing where our communications might surface.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu