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The (R)evolution of Audience Power

Or does the rise of user-generated content signal a radical power shift between media organisations and their audiences?

Essay 2011 11 Seiten

Medien / Kommunikation - Multimedia, Internet, neue Technologien


The London School of Economics and Political Science

The (R)evolution of Audience Power

Or does the rise of user-generated content signal a radical power shift between media organisations and their audiences?

Saskia Scheibel


“Will the internet set us free?” is the provoking question McChesney (1999) raised a decade ago (pp. 119). By this he means if new modes of communication will relativise the supposed dominant power of media organisations. It would not be the first time in the history of media that a new form of media challenges the power of established media organisations (Curran, 2002). Especially with the rise of user-generated-content – finally enabling the audience to create their own meanings (Bruns, 2007) – has undeniable potential to break with old power structures in favour of the audience. This power shift, however, might just be a moment of euphoria rather than a long-term condition since it seems unlikely that big corporate media organisations will witness their disempowerment passively. The following discourse will illustrate why a power shift between media organisations and their audiences is, indeed, visible but cannot be considered radical. This notion will be supported by examples of empirical research taking into account the complex nature of power relations and the contradicting views related to media power before and after the rise of user-generated-content.

The concept of power in the context of media

To approach the question of this discourse it is inevitable to define the term ‘power’ with all its dimensions. Although “most people have an intuitive notion of what it means” (Dahl, 1957, pp. 201) there still seems to be a lack of agreement on the specific definition and features characterising it (Parsons, 1963). Max Weber defined power as “the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will, regardless of the bases on which this probability rests.” (pp. 53). The emphasis on “probability” in this definition is notably relevant since power is not reduced to its exercise, the capacity of exercising it makes an actor powerful already (Wrong, 2002). Although Weber’s definition stresses the relational character of power it leaves out the counterpart of the „actor“ in power. This is, however, specifically important to this essay since it examines the power relation between two actors; media organisations and audiences. Based on Weber’s work the pluralists‘ view of power emerged (Lukes, 2005) giving a slightly more tangible idea of what power is: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.” (Dahl, 1957, pp. 202f). The issue with this view is that it focuses on behaviour and presupposes a concrete decision made by B following A ’s exercise of power. This, however, reflects only one dimension of power (Lukes, 2005, pp. 16ff). Bachrach and Baratz (1970) complement Dahl’s view by one dimension as they stress that “power is also exercised when A devotes his energies to creating or reinforcing social and political values and institutional practices (…).” (pp. 7). This second dimension of power plays a crucial role in the debate about media power which is not only about the control of behaviour but also – and critically – about the control of the political and social agenda. One of the main sources of power, especially with regards to the media, is “the control of communication and information” (Castells, 2009, pp. 3). The people responsible for the exercise of such control is what Mills (1956) refers to as the “power elite”, a small group of people being entitled to make important decisions with consequences for others (pp. 3).

As indicated above, power is more a relationship than an attribute whereby one actor has always greater influence over the other (Castells, 2009). However, the roles of the power holder and the subject to power are not fixed, quite the contrary, they usually alternate continually in the course of interaction between the two actors (Wrong, 2002). Therefore, a radical power shift between media organisations and their audiences is, in theory, possible.

The theoretical frameworks surrounding the concept of power are to be kept in kind for the following discussion when distinguishing between power and liberation.

Power relations before the rise of user-generated-content

The question of power imbalance between media producers and their audiences is one of the prime subjects within the field of media and communications research (Livingstone, 2004, pp. 79). There are two dominating views with regards to media power, one claims that the media control the audience – the radical view - and the other one suggests the opposite – referred to as the liberal view (Curran, 2002). The former emerged with the rise of mass culture (Curran, 2002) and was first articulated by the Frankfurt School, most famously Adorno and Horkheimer (1972), who represented a very pessimistic notion, reducing the audience to an undifferentiated and passive mass of consumers falling victim to the evil culture industry. This view, though not based on empirical studies, encouraged the research on media effects (Curran, 2002). Although early models of media effects, suggesting stimulus-response mechanisms, were rejected soon (Petty et al., 2002, Morley, 2006), more recent and complex models are less challengeable (Bryant and Zillmann, 2002). Examples are the cultivation theory, claiming that heavy media consumption can distort the audiences’ perception of reality (Gerber et al., 2002), the concept of priming that demonstrates how media content can influence later judgement and behaviour (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al., 2002) or the Elaboration Likelihood Model underlining the media’s ability to persuade their audiences (Petty et al., or, 2002). Such research outcomes confirm the media’s capacity to get the audience to do or think something they would not otherwise do or think. Referring back to the definition of power given above this capacity is enough to grant an actor (the media) power over another (the audience).

Nevertheless, the opposing view within the discussion of media power – mainly rooted in critical/cultural studies – heavily criticised this top-down principle and provided alternative research proving that audiences are not as powerless as popularly thought (Lievrouw, 2009, Myrowitz, 2008). Authors such as Blumler and Katz (1974) developed the uses and gratifications approach suggesting an active audience, instead of a passive victimised one. According to them audiences chose what they view based on their personal desires and needs. This notion is still associated with the behavioural paradigm (Abercormbie and Longhurst, 1998) since it presupposes (limited) effects. Other scholars, in contrast, deny the effects approach and position their audience research within what Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998) call the incorporation/resistance paradigm. Stuart Hall’s (1974) encoding/decoding model is to be considered a milestone in this specific area. It explains how media producers encode messages that audiences later decode within their frameworks of knowledge and cultural environment. The essence of this model is that audiences do not necessarily interpret media texts as per encoded by the producers (Hall, 1974). This assigns them the power to resist the dominant meanings of media content and therefore questions the power of media organisations over their audiences. However, through encoding media content according to their own values and beliefs media producers reduce the scope of interpretation for the audience (Morley, 2006). Thus, I would argue that the actor encoding messages has always greater power than the actor decoding them – and in traditional media those roles are rather fix. Although Blumler and Katz (1974) are right that audiences chose freely from what is there, you cannot consider them truly free in their choice unless they are aware of how the media filter the information they distribute (Seaman, 1992). Several scholars now agree that some audience studies overestimated (Lievrouw, 2009, Costello and Moore, 2007) and “wrongly romanticized” audience power (Morley, 2006, pp. 102).

The fact that the ‘right’ to encode is exclusively reserved for media professionals (in traditional media) makes the media organisations a power elite as per described by Mills (1956). Such power can be dangerous when it is concentrated among very few people or organisations, which inevitably leads the discussion to the political economy of the media. Due to economies of scale huge media empires - such as the one of Rupert Murdoch - emerged integrating vertically as well as horizontally on a global level (Curran, 2002, McChesney, 1999, Mosco, 2008). Murdoch can, theoretically, not only control the encoding of media content but also the distribution of it. Such latent power can lead to mass-misinformation as exercised by the American media regarding the Iraq war initiated by the Bush administration (Castells, 2009, pp. 7) and makes our media system “starkly anti-democratic” (McChesney, 1999, pp. 119). Using tools like framing and agenda-setting (Couldry, 2000, Curran, 2002, Entman, 2007, McLeod and Detenber, 2009, Strömbeck and Kiousis, 2010) the media can and does distort the audiences perception, often in favour of capitalism, dominating political views (Entman, 2007) or elite groups (Aday, 2010).

All things considered, both views, the liberal as well as the radical one are relevant for understanding the power relation between media organisations and their audiences. Whilst the media have the power to shape the audience’ understanding of the world and thereby, indirectly, their attitudes and behaviour, audiences have the power to allocate their time and/or money and that way influence the media’s future content (Curran, 2002). However, and critically for my argument, audience power was reduced to decoding and consequently only re-acting to what is offered to them by the media organisations. For this reason the actor with the greater degree of power (power holder) in the media-audience relationship before the rise of user-generated content would have to be the media organisations. The question is now whether user-generated-content has interchanged the roles of power holder and power subject. Only then the potential power shift can be considered radical because, the term “radical” means “affecting the fundamental nature of something” (Oxford Dictionary, 2010).

The rise of user-generated content: evolution or revolution of power relations?

In order to evaluate the potential empowering effect of user-generated-content it is crucial to outline what exactly is meant by this term. User-generated-content (UGC) comprises all forms of written, visual and audio(-visual) work created by internet users (OECD, 2009) and distributed through various online platforms, from relatively loose networks like blogs to more centralised ones such as Wikipedia (Bruns, 2007, pp. 99ff). Whilst in traditional media only dedicated, professionals were able to produce media content, nowadays (theoretically) everybody can contribute content to the web, whether it is in the form of online game creation, citizen-journalism, forum and blog debates or sharing photographs and videos (Bruns, 2007). This shift from ‘one-to-many’ communication to ‘many-to-many’ communication (Livingstone, 2004, pp. 75) rose hope for a considerably more democratic media system with empowered audiences (McChesney, 1999, Gerhard and Schäfer, 2010, Mehra et al., 2004). To what extend this aspiration remains unaccomplished will be discussed in the following.

“The people formerly known as the audience wish to inform media people of our existence and of a shift in power that goes with the platform shift you’ve all heard about.” (Rosen, 2006, pp. 1) is the joyful publication central to Rosen’s reflection of the newly achieved confidence of audiences. He furthermore describes the belief that media organisations can not claim a production monopoly anymore since they are not in control of the production within the spheres of online platforms (Rosen, 2006). The media companies are therefore not the only ones anymore being able to shape the audience’s perception of reality. An empirical study underlining this view has been conducted by Antony and Thomas (2010) proving that citizen journalism can have some kind of agenda-setting effects. The authors analysed the response to user-generated videos showing the killing of the African American Oskar Grant by a police man. The videos not only served as evidence in the trial but also initiated massive protests (Antony et al., 2010). This study shows how UGC enables audiences to encode messages that reach a considerable proportion of the public and thereby set an agenda that supposedly goes beyond the interests of certain elites. Yet, the question of who exactly generates this content emerges. Unfortunately, the study did not address this issue, contrary to other scholars, who empirically proved that there seems to be a form of ‘content-generating elite’. Schultz (2000) found that of the active users in the online forum of the New York Times only 19% were women and more than 50% had a master or doctoral degree. Additionally, more recent results show that the members of the audience seeking interaction and participation are mainly associated with a middle-class background (Davis, 2010). Even on YouTube – a platform that seems to be open to anyone – the most powerful content comes from “certain communities of practice”, also described as the “YouTube power elite” (Jenkins, 2007, pp. 1). In addition to a lack of motivation or skills by some parts of the audience, Witsche’s (2007) analysis of online forums debating about honour kills demonstrates mechanisms of exclusion, not only of certain practices but also of certain participants. Therefore, even if we assume a power shift in favour of the audience we cannot refer to the audience as a whole, but instead only to an elitist subgroup within the audience.

Another critical point with reference to audience power through UGC comes with the distinction between perceived an actual power. As per defined in the beginning, power implies, at least, the capacity to have an impact on the subject’s behaviour or thinking. Although the study conducted by Antony et al. (2010) suggests such an impact, this is not necessarily representative for UGC in general, as there are “too many speakers” (Rosen, 2006, pp. 1) for all of them to be even noticed. To push this notion even further, not all of them intend to be noticed by big audiences as Stern’s (2008) interviews with content-generating teenagers show. Her participants emphasised that they feel empowered merely by the possibility that their content can be consumed by every user, but at the same time they are aware that their audience will probably not go beyond close friends and family, if so (Stern, 2008). An exceptional case, in this respect, might be Justin Bieber, who started his singing career via YouTube and now reaches a huge mass audience, however, the critical moment for him was when the traditional mass media adopted his generated content (Adib, D., 2009). This is what Jenkins (2007) describes as new common practice of the mass media; to filter UGC and put it back into the system. Further filter mechanisms for UGC are search engines, but even those seem to work in favour of established content providers according to the analysis conducted by Gerhard and Schäfer (2010). Unless being somehow filtered – be it online or offline -, it seems unlikely for the majority of UGC to enjoy attention comparable to the attention media organisations get for their content. It is therefore to be concluded that the mere ability to encode messages does not necessarily give you power as per defined earlier.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
446 KB
Institution / Hochschule
London School of Economics – Media and Communications
"Distinction" (< 1,3)
power user-generated-content media institutions audience political economy media



Titel: The (R)evolution of Audience Power