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Clay Shirky and the End of Audience

What is the Theory?

Clay Shirky argued audience behaviour has progressed from the passive consumption of media texts to a much more interactive experience with the products and each other.

New digital technologies and social media has made connecting and collaborating incredibly easy. We want to like, follow, tweet, repost, cross-post, comment, review and subscribe. When we create our own content on our smartphones and share our thoughts with the world, the difference between producer and consumer becomes increasingly difficult to define. It is the end of audience.

The Passive Audience

Broadcast media used to deliver their products to a mass audience who were mostly disconnected from each other. Everyone read the same copy of the newspaper, watched the same show on television and listened to the same reports on the radio, but they consumed the texts in the comfort of their own living rooms. It was a linear flow of communication with carefully crafted messages intended to entertain and inform the audience.

The opportunities to engage with the media were limited. If you wanted to protest or praise an article, you had to write a letter to the editor in the hope your views would be published. Or you could phone a radio show to request a song or answer a quiz question. Of course, there was the water cooler effect where work colleagues might gather together during their lunch break to discuss the latest plot twists and character developments in their favourite programmes, but audiences remained passive consumers of the media.

The New Active Audience

The internet was the beginning of the end of the traditional audience. For example, readers seemed to prefer digital copies of newspapers because they could respond to the articles by adding their own comments and interact with other commentators. That functionality is obviously not available in the print version. You should look at Shirky’s 2008 article “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” to learn more about how the newspaper industry reacted to the online competition.

We no longer simply listen to commentators describe the action on the sports field – we post our own thoughts and analysis on our social media channels. In fact, this is actually the most entertaining aspect of some games.

Before they published their texts, institutions had to consider the demand for a product and calculate if it was going to turn a profit. Now new media texts could be crowdfunded. This Wikipedia article offers a list of notable computer games which raised money by campaigning on Kickstarter and other platforms to develop the projects.

User-generated Content

Lots of websites have comment sections for users to share their views on the content, comment sections on YouTube are full of opinions and nonsense, and anyone can contribute their knowledge and expertise to Wikipedia. We share images and videos on our social media channels, post questions on forums and tell our stories on blogs.

All this interaction is called user-generated content.

Consider Tripadvisor. It is an online travel comparison site where customers can search for hotel rooms and find flights to anywhere in the world. The company makes their money when users click the advertisements and are directed towards a travel agency which will make the actual booking.

However, users love to leave reviews about their trips and holidays. Their honest accounts and photographs help other people to make informed choices about their next adventure. When someone leaves a review, such as the example below, other users can indicate they found the post helpful and share it on their own social media networks or messaging services.

screenshot from Tripadvisor review

Cognitive Surplus

Researching the impact of the internet was having on society, Shirky recognised people were “pooling their spare time and talent” to create their own media content. He argued we are using our cognitive surplus to construct incredibly powerful forms of human expression. Since the publication of “Cognitive Surplus” in 2011, we have seen the #metoo movement against sexual abuse and the Black Lives Matter campaign for racial equality and justice. We have also seen plenty of memes, but we need to remember humour is an important part of our relationships.

Mass Amateurisation

Lots of consumers have sophisticated cameras built into their smartphones and cheap apps which enable you to filter and crop their pictures. Social media channels provide a platform for you distribute your content. The infrastructure behind the internet is delivering faster and faster speeds. If you cannot purchase fibre optic broadband, Elon Musk’s Starlink network will connect you to internet through their collection of satellites circling the earth. Put simply, we have the technology to compete with the professional media producers.

Evenone is a media outlet now and Clay Shirky called this mass amateurisation.

For more information on how the imbalance of power in the relationship between media institutions and the audience is beginning to weaken, you should look at our definition of prosumer. There is also our article on fandoms which explores the different ways active audiences are blurring the boundaries between producers and consumers.

Clay Shirky Presentation

Watch the American academic presenting his keynote speech called “The End of The Audience” at the TechConnect:12 event in 2012. His example of the book review posted on Amazon is a very effective illustration of his audience concept and what it means for businesses operating on the internet. Shirky is introduced to the audience at 5:05.

Conclusion

It is clear companies and media institutions can longer simply broadcast their message and expect the audience to remain passive. We live in a participatory culture where everyone wants to document their lives online and engage fully with media texts.

Finally, you should read our introduction to textual poaching which draws attention to the ways we take images and ideas from their favourite products to create our own content. It reinforces the argument we are seeing the end of audience.

Shirky, Clay (2008): “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations”
Shirky, Clay (2008): “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”.
Shirky, Clay (2010): “Cognitive Surplus”.

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