People and the Masses - or is tech really a savior

Late last month Jay Rosen, one of my favorite media analysts, published an essay called ‘The People Formerly Known as the Audience’.

The people formerly known as the audience would like to say a special word to those working in the media who, in the intensity of their commercial vision, had taken to calling us “eyeballs,” as in: “There is always a new challenge coming along for the eyeballs of our customers.” (John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners in the U.S.)

Or: “We already own the eyeballs on the television screen. We want to make sure we own the eyeballs on the computer screen.” (Ann Kirschner, vice president for programming and media development for the National Football League.)

Fithian, Kirschner and company should know that such fantastic delusions (“we own the eyeballs…”) were the historical products of a media system that gave its operators an exaggerated sense of their own power and mastery over others. New media is undoing all that, which makes us smile.

You don’t own the eyeballs. You don’t own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don’t control production on the new platform, which isn’t one-way. There’s a new balance of power between you and us.

The people formerly known as the audience are simply the public made realer, less fictional, more able, less predictable. You should welcome that, media people. But whether you do or not we want you to know we’re here.

A few days later Ulises published a response - ‘The People Currently Conformed as the Mass’. Via wirearchy

The argument is that today TPFKATA are not content with being merely consumers: they are producers, re-mixers, contributors, product designers, fact-checkers, etc. But Rosen’s remark about the old days when the population listened in isolation from one another and my own observations about the new ways in which people produce in isolation from one another leads me to ask: Are we really talking about a community of producers, or a mass of producers? Put differently: Is production the new consumption?

My argument is that TPFKATA function as a mass of producers, and that this has everything to do with technology (or more specifically, with how technologies are being applied in a technocracy. Much like the old media (newspapers, radio, etc.) was instrumental in giving shape to the imagined community called a Nation (see the work of Anderson, 1991), the new media is crucial in imagining emerging forms of “virtual community.” But the kinds of sociality that these “virtual communities” prescribe are actually more aligned with the dynamics of a mass than with a community.

Masses are not sites of rich social interaction. Masses foster an alienated form of individualism, making it difficult for people to come together meaningfully. Because of their large numbers, masses may give the appearance of robust communities, but a closer look reveals that people feel irreparably alone in a mass.

Technocracies engender masses by commodifying the interactions between people. The blogosphere is a perfect example of how interaction has been commodified and reduced to the exchange of attention. In an attention economy, attention is capital, and bloggers with (bigger) audiences can capitalize on that attention —quite literally, if they are using things like Google ads. But a blogger with lots of readers can be said to have rich social interactions with them in the same impoverished sense that a person in MySpace with lots of contacts can be said to have many good friends. In fact, I would suggest that the more attention capital is accrued, the less opportunities for meaningful social interaction are engendered, and the more entrenched one’s position in a mass becomes.

TPFKATA are content to believe that blogs are “First Amendment machines.” That might be the case in a few instances, but not for the mass. From the perspective of a technocratic hegemony, what could be more perfect than a system where all is talk and no action? TPFKATA, armed with the new technologies, are ascending to power, we are told. But the meaning of this form of power revolves around commodification, which in the end neutralizes and domesticates it. TPFKATA have gone from being massified, pacified consumers to being massified, pacified producers.

Don’t get me wrong: I am very appreciative of good citizen journalism, open content projects, etc. But to assume that the mere use of the technologies is enough to liberate the old audience is unwise, and not warranted by the majority of the current examples. What we need to understand and critique (with the hope of eventually avoiding) is how the people formerly known as the audience are still very much the people currently functioning as consumers and masses.

The conversation has continued in various places since then. Ulises most recent post comments on the reactions. Most of them have taken the form of “But my community/weblog/web site is different, it’s a real community not a mass.” Ulises responds by saying that an exception doesn’t disprove the rule.

My own opinion is that both of the boosters and the critics of online community building need to be considered. As an aside the comment by Trish Grier at Donatacom about the gender differences in blog writing are very interesting.

My own writing is much less personal than some of the female bloggers I read. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader whether this individual sample proves the rule.