HCI and the challenges of mass communications

XI.2 March + April 2004
Page: 74
Digital Citation

A need to commune

Ann Light

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A director of a small company recently told me that he liked to watch television in the evening so that he could join in discussions about it with his workforce the next day. The bonding that ensued was a cheap, effective management tool, while the business of watching the box was something he enjoyed.

He didn't seem worried when I asked him whether the increasing fragmentation of audiences was going to impact on this. He always had a fair idea what his team would be watching and it was pretty much what he would have chosen anyway. One might say that the local culture contributed significantly to the choice of entertainment and information sources among his staff, while the media that everyone chose played a part in building that local culture.

On page 60, I say "audiences not only create meaning from engaging with the texts of mass media, they create identity. In buying one particular paper, in choosing to view one television channel rather than another, individuals make a statement about how they see the world." This commitment to activities involving media can generate a sense of communality as people know others are participating in the same media rituals. Here, I want to look closely at communality1—the deliberate cultivation of shared activities—and to assess the commercial media's awareness and exploitation of its benefits, as sources multiply, audiences fragment, and networks prevail.

The staff in the offices I mention above have things in common beyond their shared use of media, but are able to deepen their sense of connectedness by exploiting media content. But people do not need to know each other to use the same media to immerse in a culture or create a feeling of connection. Scannell [4] discusses the way that radio provides a timetable for the day, while Liebes and Curran [2] explore media ritual and identity more specifically. Choosing and using media is defining; it is a form of social glue, like church-going and engaging with politics. Communality creates commonality. Church attendance and traditional forms of political activism are on the wane, leaving the field open for new media-related rituals to emerge.

The UK National Council for Voluntary Organisations recently reported to its annual conference that virtual communities provide cost-effective ways of campaigning, fundraising, and fostering mutual support. These networks may initially require investment in time and resources by their "hosts" to prompt users to speak to each other, but they offer a valuable way to unleash the energy, resources, and ideas of their staff, supporters, and clients.

There is evidence that discussion and comment facilities are enjoying a commercial revival too, led by a few exemplars of effective practice. But are discussion forums the only way to promote and leverage communality? Involvement and identification does not depend upon chat facilities, any more than posting a comment guarantees community. Subtler interaction opportunities may be pitched, based upon a desire to stimulate group activities around the interaction. Research has shown successful tactics to include [3]:

  • displaying user-generated material as an integral part of the producer's activities
  • linking together users with common goals
  • providing material for users to customize and incorporate in communal activities
  • conducting consultation exercises with a view to developing policy or features, on or offline.

At present, many information providers are still where they were seven years ago when interactivity was newish: dissatisfied with the one-to-many model of broadcast, but not recognizing that a one-to-one model of commercial information distribution is also dependent on a wider context where individuals are linked together to disseminate and share interest in media output.

Talking to the bloggers, moderators of online communities and others on the frontline of social software, the view is that the publishing industry lacks experience of the social phenomena it seeks to absorb. The bastions of traditional media read about the online world before they attempt to occupy it; they don't go there.

Bucking this trend is the BBC, whose published pictures of protest marches sent in to the news site during the war with Iraq, ("Your Pictures") was a popular feature beside the long-running "Have your Say," that offers representative samples of viewers' views.

More radically, launched in October 2003 is the BBC "I Can" project [1], with the goals to "create a unique, interactive community [sic] in which people can make a difference in civic life, to encourage people to participate in democracy, or their civic ecosystem and to tackle commonly expressed barriers to participation," and to do this by making "the real world easier," not attempting to "make a different world." Describing preparations for the pilot, Cronin talked of providing resources which people could use as needed, to:

  • meet like-minded individuals or find out about existing groups
  • take up and adapt as content to be developed locally and communally
  • learn from in terms of organizing action in the real world
  • return to at a new level, ready to offer insights and campaign stories to the BBC news team and other groups

Importantly, the focus of action is off-site.

The model is participatory, but it is a chance for the BBC to be relevant and supportive by feeding into others' activities, rather than demanding to be center-stage. Despite this civic-mindedness and the worthy attempt to cohere people around parts of the site that are not wholly about entertainment, it is not a naïve role. There is acknowledged self-interest in developing the sensibilities of its public—to continue to appreciate news, to generate news, and to be active around the interactive components of the BBC's site, rather than those of a rival.

So the models are there, but the trend towards owner conglomeration, centralization, and economies of scale have moved media channels away from their historical involvement with localities, the communities of the past. A preoccupation with immediate functions, such as producing content and making money, is acting to keep attention away from the wider role that media organizations can and do play in society and how this might be exploited.

Nonetheless, issues of identity and group affiliation that were purely academic for the many years of domination by broadcast are now central to understanding what shifts need to be made. As society fragments and relations between users and producers again become interactive after a couple of generations of mass media passivity, the fourth estate must actively consider its role as generator and supporter of rituals, its function as social glue. In the space between community and individual, in people's quest for group identity in a fragmenting world, in building the commonality that creates audiences... there lies the profitable future.

back to top  References

1. Cronin, J. and Jones, M. (2003) 'I Can', ETCON 2003 http://conferences.oreillynet.com/cs/et2003/view/e_sess/3711

2. Liebes, T. and Curran, J. (1998) (Eds), Media Ritual and Identity, Routledge.

3. Light, A. (2001) 'Interactivity and User Commitment: Building Relationships through Interaction on Websites', People and Computers 15, ed: A Blandford, J Vanderdonckt and P Gray, Springer-Verlag, pp459-474

4. Scannell, P. (1996) Radio, Television and Modern Life, Blackwell

back to top  Footnotes

1 Just to be clear, then, communality is not "commonality"—sharing a feature or tendency—and it is also not "community." It is possible to aspire to communality and generate "social capital"—that desirable quality which makes governing countries easier—without the intention of building a fully-fledged community.

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