The world has been marked by surprising transformations that have fundamental impacts on the world economy. The fast development of IT, especially the Internet, over the past decade has radically changed the global economic outlook. It allows businesses and economies to be less local and more global in keeping with long-term trends toward market liberalization and reduced trade barriers (Brynjolfsson & Kahin 2000, p. 2). In addition, the emergence of the Internet has permanently changed and even transformed the way of conducting life by people, providing an access to worldwide communication and allowing people to be interconnected with each other.
Media institutions produce and structure messages to attract audiences. Media consumption “is about consuming signs – of wealth, status, life style” (Hobart 2007, p. 4). These signs engage audience members and stimulate them to think about messages in certain ways. As media companies encourage citizens to interact with media, media scholars should consider the growing importance of the Internet as media to understand the ways in which people are learning to employ this important new technology. In the contemporary society, the internet technology is considered as powerful commerce and communication medium (Delone & Mclean 2003, p. 10). Aside from the business and economic benefits it provides, it also makes life easier and more convenient: online shopping, distance education, accessible information, entertainment, online booking, online banking, etc.
Few homes were equipped with a personal computer just 15 years ago. There are currently about 460 million Internet users in Asia, 338 million in Europe, 235 million in Northern America, 116 million in Latin America, 44 million in Africa, 34 million in the Middle East, and 19 million in Oceania/Australia (Internet World Stats 2007, p. 1). The usage growth rate from 2000 to 2007 is staggering: 920.2% in the Middle East, 874.6% in Africa, 540.7% in Latin America, 302.0% in Asia and the world total is 244.7% (Internet World Stats 2007 p. 1). This trend has attracted increasing attention from scholars and practitioners interested to the studying the Internet audience.
For more than a century, media audiences have been a concern of social critics and businesspeople. Audiences are the raison d’etre for mass media organizations, including television, radio, print, and the Internet. As a matter of fact, it is difficult to imagine any type of media studies that is not about audiences. According to McQuail (1997, p. 1), “it is a term that is understood by media practitioners and theorists … and it has entered into everyday usage, recognized by media users as an unambiguous description of themselves”. However, easy use of the term opposes many different connotations. In a period where technology is constantly evolving, the idea of an audience is less settled than at any time in the past.
In this light, this paper tackles how new media audiences challenges and makes an impact to study audiences. I will discuss in the first part of the paper how people get gratification from the Internet, focusing on the fact that Internet audiences actively participate in obtaining gratification. The second part presents bloggers as audiences with different set of needs from that of audiences of older media with examples of global popularity of weblog. The third part discusses the business aspect in studying business audience, that is, the connection between advertising/ratings and Internet audience.
Gratification and the Internet User
One area of audience research that needs new thinking is how audiences get gratification from the media. People utilize the Internet in receiving the same type of gratifications they get from older media such as television, radio, and newspaper. While older media forms provide gratification passively to people who use them, in the Internet, people get gratification actively. The Internet provides audiences with a sense of companionship by allowing them to take an active part in virtual communities. It provides audiences the opportunity to engage in virtual online adventures and games. The virtual shopping mall enables customers to go on shopping sprees 24 hours a day. Because the Internet provides such varied offerings, it quickly became a major competitor for the time and attention of the consumer. In addition, the Internet has become a place that is used in a innumerable of ways to produce a variety of gratifications.
As I have stated earlier, one major difference between the Internet and older media is the degree to which a user must become actively engaged to achieve maximum benefits. One must navigate the web using search engines and key words to get information or visit various locations. In addition, one can assess the quality of information contained within homepages and the accuracy of discussion in chatrooms or information posted on virtual lists. Internet users must invest the time to consider the opinions, attitudes, and beliefs of other people to benefit from online discussions. The benefits obtained from using the Internet appear to be closely aligned with the amount of effort that one applies to utilize it. Large media companies have taken a keen interest in the Internet for a variety of reasons. First, the Internet offers access to consumers and promises to provide an economical distribution system for media products such as books, music, and, ultimately, video. Second, the remarkable rate of adoption of the Internet exceeded all earlier predictions. Media programmers and companies invested heavily in the Internet and the web, and both are destined to be important sources for marketing, information, and entertainment for years to come.
People use the Internet to satisfy a wide range of communication gratifications, including staying in touch with family and friends, exchanging ideas, collaborating on a journal article with colleagues at other universities, obtaining a road map before taking a trip, or finding out what other people think about popular TV programs. In many respects, the Internet and the WWW satisfy the same needs as older technologies such as the telephone or television. As with television or the telephone, the Internet is capable of satisfying multiple needs at the same time.
The Internet is unique as a new technology because it continues to progress. Older technologies like radio and television have changed little over the years. The development of FM radio afforded radio programmers the opportunity to introduce stereo and present a high-quality signal, which in turn the way for the advent of talk radio on AM stations. Similarly, the advent of colour improved the quality of the programming on television and enhanced the viewing experience. However, the basic ways in which people use these mediums have changed little over the years. On the contrary, the Internet and the WWW continue to change as people develop new and innovative uses.
The popularity of the Internet and the WWW indicate that both may become a primary means which people interact with other people. These new uses will determine what gratifications are derived from the Internet. Furthermore, new digital media forms such as the Internet need new ways of thinking about audiences in that the traditional characteristic of media as public is being challenged. The arrival of the Internet has allowed audiences to conduct their activities in private. The following question clearly illustrates the point: “Will families, through increased reliance on TV for different kinds of entertainment, be drawn closer together by the common source of amusement…? Or will there be a trend towards the increased acquisition of TV sets and accessory equipment (e.g. video recorders, home computers, etc) with each family member having access to a personal ‘home entertainment system’ which they use privately, resulting in increased isolation of family members from each other?” (Gunter and Svennevig, 1987, p. 36, cited in Morley, 1992, p. 254).
Bloggers: The New Media Audience
The new digital media forms, especially around the internet, require new ways of thinking about audiences in that they do not conform to the traditional relationships fostered in such media forms as television and radio. Blogging provides a new kind of relationship among Internet audience. The term “blog” is a shortened form of “weblog,” a personal Internet diary (Rosenbloom 2004, p. 31) which is updated periodically by writers regarding their life experience.
A computer-mediated communication tool among people, blogs serve as online homes for different communities, incorporating various platforms which are interactive and provide links to information articles, photos, and videos. The major function of a blog is the presentation of everyday life, providing users with an Internet platform to record life experience, share personal information, and be creative (Rosenbloom 2004, p. 32). Blog have been widely adopted across the world with their emphasis on sharing personal ideas and stories with others (Blood 2002, p. 27).
Blogging was designed to be a means for a new specific Internet user to record their life experiences, and that practice gradually carried over to the general public (Blood 2002, p. 29). Blog services for satisfying blogger daily needs are growing at a rate that will have substantial influence in the larger information infrastructure. However, it is unclear the blog will realize that influence such as users’ utilization, and performance. In the same way with the rate of growth in the blog presence in business, organizations and information providers is the rapid growth of access and usage of the internet at home, and anywhere. The blog is now competing with e-commerce and information service by providing an alternative way for individuals to satisfy their needs, both in work or non-work activities.
In order to generate highly adaptive content for internet users, the use of intelligent personalized application is provided to collect and analyse blog activities and transaction. For example, Amazon.com greets returning customers with a personalized message and offers a hyperlink to book recommendations corresponding with their past purchases. Google search engine generates side banners of related items in real-time based on key words entered by the users. While there is a lot of production about delivering personalized services over the internet, little is known about the effectiveness of individual blog and the link between the information provider and the effects it applies on users. The result is a shift of information control to users, allowing them to specify and control their interactions with others users.
Blogs serve as a communication tools among people through computer-mediated communication that allows users to overcome some the barriers of new media: friendly, two-way communication, and interaction with others (Gibbs, Ellison, ; Heino 2006, p. 154). It is not clear what level of success is begin experienced by bloggers in utilizing the blog for information-based activities and how user behaviour has changed and what benefits, if any, have been derived from the change. Blog services are generally perceived as being successful, but there has been little evaluation of how well the blog meets its users’ primary information requirements such as individual needs and desire.
This vast and rapidly growing number of the Internet audience has lead to the gathering of new possibilities in providing Information System and services, implying a number of new aspects to consider why designing, and designing with, those systems and services. Bloggers profiles may be less similar than earlier and therefore their needs are harder to define. Basically, when Internet audience talk about blogging, the themes of self-expression and community development emerge. Self-expression is an important theme among some bloggers, who find the same opportunity that talk shows in television afford their participants. This opportunity is the opportunity to tell their stories in a mediated forum to a large, although distant and invisible, audience.
In blogging, people mark both their commentary and their linking as means of self-expression; in other words, blogs foster a definite attitude, a unique voice, and a clearer motivation (Graham 2002. p. 36). In addition, blogging is aimed to explore old interests and discover new ones. According to Blood (2000, p. 1), as bloggers express their views and opinions this new awareness of their inner lives may develop into a trust in their own perspective. Having used to expressing their views in their website, the bloggers will be able to more fully articulate their opinions to themselves and to others. Moreover, bloggers will eventually become impatient with waiting to see what others think before they decide, and will begin to act according to their inner voice instead.
The self-expression theme in blogging matches the functions of self-discovery, which are self-clarification and self-validation; blogging raises self-awareness and confirms already-held beliefs. Through blogging, the writers are allowed to “value [their] own words and thoughts and not worry about the reactions to them by others” (Elbow 1999, p. 157). Self-expression also matches well the functions of self-discovery. Basically, social control and relationship development are external functions that use self-discovery to build connections with others; such functions can also be used to manipulate opinions of others. These dimensions of blog support community building. While blogs are used to clarify and validate the self, they are also intended to be read. Maintaining link and traffic statistics are very important to bloggers, and many of them encourage the readers to comment either by posting directly on the blog or through email. As a result, there is a frequently expressed tension between a blogger’s desire to be noticed by large numbers of readers and his or her desire to be valued by a few loyal fans.
In most cases, blogging is considered as a way of developing relationships with an online community. According to Hourihan (2002, p. 1), the linking that is happening through blogging creates the connections that bind people from one another. They also manage those relationships through commentary and linking, which become forms of signs of approval, social control, acceptance, and value. According to Blood (2000, p. 1), bloggers position themselves in the community of bloggers, indicating through their links the group to which they wish to belong. Both commentary and linking create the hierarchy that structures the social world of blogs. For Clark (2002, p. 1) the blogosphere is a culture of upward mobility based in the desire for approval and recognition.
Facebook and MySpace are some of the examples of Social Networking Services. Basically, Facebook collects, integrates and processes the descriptive data from various individuals in actual communities and permits those individuals from connecting with other individuals whom they have a personal relationship thus creating a so-called social network. The contact pathway connecting two individuals within the social network. Their second and third level friends in Facebook can be displayed in the system thus allowing the users of the system to easily reach the individual they are searching for. Similar to Facebook, MySpace allows web users to interact virtually to any individual. It contains personal profiles of the members, blogs, groups, photos, music and videos. Users also have the option to customize their profile, add music and post bulletins. They could also create a group where users share a common page and message board.
The advent of the Social Networking Services opened more doors for the redefinition of its audiences. While the old paradigm perceived the audiences as passive receiver of information coming from the new digital media forms, a new approach refused the old paradigm. Audiences are now being viewed as both receptive and proactive receivers of information. They are receptive in the sense that they embrace the development, innovation, transformation and updates in any form of digital media. On the other hand, they are considered as proactive since they can contribute in the distribution and production of the content of these medium.
Moreover, unlike the traditional one-to-many communication in media forms such as TV, radio and print media, the Internet and the WWW allow for a one-to-one and many-to-many communications. In blogging, for example, a blogger may choose a friend as his audience, setting his site so that only the friend views his or her profile (one-to-one). Or, a group of businesspeople may opt for a teleconferencing with other group of businesspeople (many-to-many). According to Livingstone (2004, p. 78): “[W]hat is intriguing and challenging for audience research is the ways that new interactive technologies put interpretative activities at the very centre of media design and use.”
Overall, “interactivity” is one of the major keywords in studying the Internet audience. According to Cover (2006, p. 140): “The interactive and digital nature of computer-mediated communication results in several new tensions in the author-text-audience relationship, predominantly through blurring the line between author and audience, and eroding older technological, policy and conventional models for the ‘control’ of the text, its narrative sequencing and its distribution.” For example, audiences change, modify, and manoeuvre a textual narrative, say a blog entry; these actions make the audiences co- authors since they are themselves participants in producing the text. Cover (2006, p. 140) adds: “In developing theories around interactive media, it is important to look not only at how this contestation is new, but how the development of interactive technologies can be seen as a new field of engagement in a much older struggle around the concepts of author, text and audience.”
Advertising and the Internet Audience
New meanings of communication is no longer conforming the local and national division that conventionally characterised media markets. In the past few years, advertisers have come to recognize a new opportunity for reaching their audience in WWW. This dramatic growth necessitates audience information to sustain the sale of advertising. As a matter of fact, just as the development of commercial audience research for television and radio was driven by advertiser needs, audience measurement on the Internet is shaped by those who want to purchase its audiences.
Large views of the audience as public or market are popular in media industries where the notions of target group and audience are being integrated. Looking at audiences as discursive constructs, Ang (1991, p. 3) departs from a Foucauldian framework and suggests that media audiences should not be considered as ontological given; rather, they should be seen as institutionally produced and socially constituted category. It is characteristic to the commercial media to talk about the audiences as markets. The audience market is often taken as mass that must be cut into target group and segments. She continues to argue that audiences as stable viewing populations do not exist, proposing that audiences are not easy to define and difficult to keep as a consistent, coherent set of audiences. In spite of her arguments, media producers still sell audiences to advertisers, heavily relying on analyses of markets instead of the audience as a whole.
The Internet audience research business has been developing in the same way as broadcast audience measurement. Similar to their broadcast counterparts, Internet sites are represented in the advertising market by representative firms that offer the variety of services. However, there are main differences between the Internet and broadcasting that affect how audiences are being tracked. Some people spend significant amount of Internet time at work, but capturing this business usage is difficult. Research technology requires the software downloaded onto a computer in order to create privacy concerns for business. Without this ability, a huge part of the Internet audience remains invisible. Another major difference is that website operators can generate their own audience research data from actual records. A Webpage server can place signatures, called cookies, on the hard drives of all computers that access a page. Each time a user visits the site, it is recorded. The data can then be summarized to give advertisers useful information about who saw their advertisements.
But the convenience of this type of measurement is countered by several problems. First, some users can block the placement of cookies on their computers, so their usage is not counted. Second, if people share a computer, there is no way to identify who is viewing the webpage. Third, this type of data generally only counts how many hits, or requests for the site, and the page received. Advertisers are more interested in who sees their banner advertising and who clicks on the ads to get more information. Data on hits is less useful than a statistic like unique visitors, which reports the number of different users visiting the site.
These audience measurement services use samples to estimate web use. The participants agree to download tracking software onto their computers, which keeps tracking of all activity on the Internet as well as the usage of software programs installed on their computers. The data then are sent back to the research provider electronically.
The methodology in some degree resembles the television people-meter. Users identify themselves when they log on to the computer and then verify usage at regular intervals. Although it is impossible to predict exactly what the Internet audience measurement business will look like in a few years, it is certain to include the traditional broadcast audience research providers. Web audience measurement presents difficult challenges and becomes problematic in many ways. Should users be counted if they simply see a page, or only if they take some action such as clicking on an advertisement? This is similar to the question of audience exposure. What constitutes exposure to a message? Internet technology allows advertisers to track a behavioural variable unavailable in the traditional mode of other broadcasting. This may radically change the definition of “viewership” that has survived for so long in the broadcast measurement business. With some methodologies, viewership is assumed to occur if the TV set is on. With the Internet, audience members are more active in choosing content and interacting with it. Information such as the click rate will indicate to advertisers and web programmers the items of content which is interesting to users (Webster, Phalen, ; Lichty 2005, p. 26).
With Internet audience measurement, reports delivered to subscribers typically mirror those developed for traditional media options. They are, of course, provided to online subscribers who have passwords to access the data. But traditional bound reports are also produced. The demographic breaks are similar to those used by broadcast research firms, and the bottom line for advertisers is the same: who is in the audience? (Webster, Phalen, and Lichty 2005, p. 27).
In addition, audience research companies face many challenges, including the growth of the Internet and convergence of personal computer applications with television viewing, for example, the technology of digital terrestrial TV stick software that allows people to watch television in the computer. The Audience measurement technologies will have to keep as rapid as technology. Internet audience measurement were set with an ability in estimating computer usage rather than mass-media consumption. It remains to be seen whether research on Internet audiences will continue to develop along these lines or will favour the more traditional methods of mass-media research.
This essay has suggested how Internet audiences challenge and make an impact in the study of media audiences. First, it has shown that, unlike audiences in older media forms such as television, radio, and newspaper, Internet audiences actively participate in obtaining gratification. Subsequently, using blogging as an example, I have discussed that Intenet audiences with different set of needs from that of audiences of other media. It also suggests that rational, experienced Internet users will choose those tools and methods that enable them to complete the task with the greatest net benefit. Finally, I have shown how important Internet audiences are to advertisers, how they are measured, and how their needs are addressed.
It can be said that new digital media like webblog booming culture is challenging the world to reconsider the term of its audiences, and media content. In digital media, everyone can create the messages or content which are endlessly spreaded, reached and mixed in numerous forms of digital media application – from website to mobile phone, from play station to DVD players, from Windows to Apple, or from Nokia to Iphone, without technological obstacles. Lastly, it seems not to be an overstatement to pinpoint that one-way communication no longer exists in this no-frontier digital world.
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