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Book Review

Over the past few decades there have been tremendous developments in audience research. Sonia Livingstone’s (2014) book chapter captures some the highlights of these developments. Unsurprisingly, Livingstone’s chapter includes  Stuart Hall’s ‘encoding/decoding’ model that has been of outstanding influence in the field. Hall’s concept is closely related to ‘reception theory’ (Iser 1980) and Morley’s (1993) concept of the “active audience”. By and large, when audience research discussed the active audience it was turning away from the idea that media content was passively received by a people sitting in front of their radio and television set. The focus shifted from passive reception to (active) interpretation of media content.

A couple of years ago I came across articles published by the Indian-American scholar Lakshmi Srinivas based at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Srinivas research (2005, 2010ab) immediately struck me as very exciting as it took the ‘active’ in ‘active audience’ literally. She was and remains interested in people’s action and interaction when they visit cinemas. Last year (2016), Srinivas published her research as a book entitled “House Full: Indian Cinema and the Active Audience“.

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In the book, Srinivas discusses how in India people actively participate in the production of the cinematic experience. She begins her exploration outside the cinema hall where people queue to purchase tickets and wait to enter the auditorium. Inside the auditorium a social structure emerges that  can be based on people’s social class but is also related to the nature of the social grouping that attendance a film screening. Where they sit people create a space where all group members can comfortably participate in the film experience. Children for example may sit on prepared blankets and consume food that has been brought to the cinema. During the film it is very common to vocalise loudly responses to the film’s content, such as to locations or actors that are recognised. People also sing along to tunes that are part of the film. Or if they are not interest in long musical sequences they might use the time to chat with others, leave the cinema for socialising outside, or having a smoke. Whilst in Western cinemas it is generally assumed that everybody sitting in the same auditorium sees and experiences the same film, audience members in Indian cinemas construct their cinematic experience in interaction with others and by fitting together the bits of the film they see with content they pick up from conversations with others.

I highly recommend Srinivas’ “House Full” to everyone interested in film consumption and audience research. A more comprehensive review of the book has been published in Symbolic Interaction. 

 

 

References

Hall, S. (1980). Encoding/Decoding. Culture, Media, Language, 128–138. http://doi.org/10.1007/BF00986815

Iser, W. (1980). The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Livingstone, Sonia (2012) Exciting moments in audience research – past, present and future. In: Bilandzic , Helena, Patriarche, Geoffrey and Traudt , Paul, (eds.) The social use of media: cultural and social scientific perspectives on audience research. ECREA Book Series. Intellect Ltd, Brighton, UK, pp. 257-274.

Morley, D. (1993). Active Audience Theory: Pendulums and Pitfalls. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 13–19. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1993.tb01299.x

Srinivas, L. 2005. Imaging the Audience. Journal of South Asian Popular Culture. 3 (2): 101–116.

Srinivas, L. Cinema Halls, Locality and Urban Life. Ethnography. 11 (1): 189-205

Srinivas, L. Cinema in the City: Tangible Forms, Transformations and the Punctuation of Everyday Life. Visual Anthropology, 23 (1): 1-12. [Lead article. Selected for Editor’s Choice].

Srinivas, L. (2016). House full : Indian cinema and the active audience. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

vom Lehn, D. (2017). Reengaging with the “Active Audience”: An Ethnography of Indian Cinema. Symbolic Interaction. http://doi.org/10.1002/symb.292

 

 

Jill Walker Rettberg. 2014 “Seeing ourselves through Technology” Palgrave Pivot.

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There is a lot of public and academic discussion about “Selfies” at the moment. When we uncritically follow some of this debate we could believe it is an entirely new phenomenon created by mobile phones equipped with cameras, and maybe selfie-sticks. Jill Walker Rettberg has written an insightful analysis of the ‘selfie-phenomenon’ that situates the photographic selfies we are all familiar with, within the wider social and historic context of past and present technologies and techniques used to create representations of the self, including self-portraits, auto-biographies, and more recently quantified modes of self-logs and activity trackers.

Having situated “Selfies” Walker Rettberg moves on to discuss how “filters” are being used and create distinct version of self-representations. These filters can be technological, such as Instagram filters, or cultural. Whilst the former can be deployed to create images of our selves that show us how we want to be seen by others, the latter are those filters we deploy in response to the socio-cultural environment we inhabit; they guide for example the section of images that we create, collect and display.

A “Selfie” rarely occurs in isolation but often are produced in a series. By examining series of selfies, such as changes of profile pictures over time Walker Rettberg can show how the way in which people present themselves over time changes. As in previous chapters Walker Rettberg manages to link her analysis with knowledge about art history and art theory.

The emergence of Selfies is closely linked to the growing trend of tracking applications and logs. Walker Rettberg illuminates this linkage between these two phenomena and explicates the growing automation of the tracking and its relationship to the earlier discussion about filters. One strength of this chapter is the elaboration of this relationship between, for example the quantified self, the use of automation in the data collection and analysis and the filtering of information in the process. Walker Rettberg further elaborates on the quantified self movement in a separate chapter.

All the developments Walker Rettberg examines and discusses in her book throw in the open issues of surveillance and privacy that every now and again create a media hysteria without being properly dealt with. In her final chapter Walker Rettberg explicates some of the privacy issues related to selfies and possible consequences of the self-logging for people.

Overall, the book provides a very good analysis of the Selfie phenomenon and offers plenty of food for thought on possible further research on related phenomena, such as quantification of the self, automation etc.

More than five decades ago Marshall McLuhan published his famous Gutenberg Galaxy. The book has been highly influential in a range of disciples from communication and media studies to sociology, management studies and many more. With the growing popularity in the late 1990s McLuhan became not only the Patron Saint of Wired Magazine but also again the centre of academic debate about the noticeable changes in the media ecology.

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Already in 2001 Manuel Castells took it upon himself to examine concurrent technological developments and publish a book with the title “The Internet Galaxy. Reflections in the Internet, Business, and Society” (Oxford: OUP). Save for the title of the book though, there is very little similarity with McLuhan’s book. This is not a critique of the book but merely of the title. The book indeed provides interesting analyses of the relationship between technological and societal developments. In a way, Castells’ Internet Galaxy continues a discussion that he began with his trilogy on the Network Society published in the mid to late 1990s.

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Castells thereby carefully avoids the technological determinism that characterises so many contemporary book about the internet and society. Instead he uses his sociological expertise to offer an analysis of how the Internet and related network technologies provide the basis for new opportunities and challenges for business and economy, politics, and culture. He devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of the digital divide, and emphasises that access to the Internet is not the only barrier to participation in the Network Society but it is a prerequisite for an involvement in societal processes.

In his chapter on “e-Business and the New Economy” Castells investigates the opportunities of new forms of production including changes in labor-relations. He also discusses the financial markets and highlights the fragility of financial markets that are subject to global communication via online networks. In some way that now can be seen as a prediction of the 2007/8 financial crisis, but Castells is not in the business of making prediction. Instead he sticks to an analysis of the present (2001) and recent past and from there on reveals possible directions for business, work and labor and the economy as a whole.

Although The Internet Galaxy was published in 2001 it still is a worthwhile read as it provides a well-founded analysis of networked organisation of society.

I was lucky enough to be invited to contribute to Charles Edgley’s fabulous edited volume “Drama of Social Life”. In the most recent (November 2014) issue of Symbolic Interaction Melvyn Horgan reviews Edgley’s volume.

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He highlights in particular the unconventional departure from a mere focus on Goffman and Goffmanian style studies and the early reference to Kenneth Burke’s work that critically informed the dramaturgical perspective (as did Goffman’s).

The review is here.

I’ve just been reading Walter Kirn’s review of Alice Marwick’s (@alicetiara) excellent book “Status Update“. The review strikes me as odd and off-the-mark. The author seems to have misunderstood Marwick’s book and misconceives ethnography by criticising Marwick for offering anecdotes. Never mind that review though. The book is very worthwhile reading for everybody with an interest in recent development in social media and social networking technologies. Marwick’s focus is not so much the technology itself, i.e. not Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, etc. but the scene that has arisen in the context of these technologies. This scene mainly based in San Francisco, involves people who develop these technologies as well as people who use them for to organise their social lives, online and offline.

The book highlights how the entrepreneurs in their enthusisam for the opportunities offered by social technologies forget or ignore, deliberately or not, the neoliberal ideology that underpins their work and work ethic. The result of this ignorance is an inequality embodied in the observation that the entrepreneurs largely are young, white male. Women are decoration and accessories, “sex objects and secretaries” as Marwick writes. Whilst the media are full of talk about the “social media revolution” Marwick reveals that the members of the tech-community in San Francisco are technology enthusiasts with a business sense that at times makes (some of) them rich. Others who are not technology savvy enough to create their own Facebook-like riches exploit the opportunities offered by social media to become “micro-celibrities”. This status as mirco-celebrity allows some of them to connect with people, offline and online, who otherwise they’d never met. For some the drive to become a micro-celebrity and connect with the really rich and famous, means to reveal events and activities from their private lives, revelations some of them sometimes later regret; for example when being ‘trolled’ and spit out by the audience that for long seemed to love them.

Marwick’s book has variously been reviewed. If you want to check a good review before buying the book check Ravi Mattu’s review in the Financial Times and Finola Kerrigan’s (@finolak) review in Times Higher Education, but ignore Kirn’s in the NYT.

 

In the social sciences as well as media and communication studies there is an increasing interest in everyday technologies, like the cellphone and the webcam. Already in 2004 Paul Levinson, Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University in NYC, student of Neil Postman, and author of science fiction novels, published his book “Cellphone. The Story of the World’s Most Mobile Medium and How It Has Transformed Everything!“. The book situates the cellphone that in the UK is called “mobile phone” or simply “mobile” and in Germany “handy” within the development of other media before and alongside this highly mobile communication tools. At the centre of this highly readable volume are the new forms of communication and the mobility that the “Cellphone” enables. These characteristics of the mobile phone  have given rise to a number of opportunities and challenges that Levinson discusses, not without comparing them to the emergence of other media, such as the radio and television or the desktop computer.

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Levinson highlights in particular that in the age of the mobile personal communication we have the possibility to reach out to others wherever we are whilst at the same time being reachable by others all the time. In fact, we expect of each other to be reachable at any point in time and have to account for moments in which we do not pick up our cellphone. The further advancement of the cellphone technology that has turned the “handy” into a highly mobile personal computer with access to email and social networking sites has increased the expectation of permanent reachability. Not surprisingly therefore people report that work increasingly interferes in private lives, work email is checked at family dinners and the Internet is being searched for news in sometimes inappropriate situations. Moreover, Levinson discusses the opportunities offered by video-cameras built into cellphones and its potential impact on news reporting, an impact that in recent years, we have seen being played out when news channels increasingly use video-clips shot with cellphone cameras by people present at events such as the  London riots or the London bombings in 2007.

Although Levinson’s ‘Cellphone’ is more than 10 years old it still is very relevant. It could do with an update that reflects the increasingly wide distribution of smart phones, includes research on cellphone use in social situations and discusses some of the solutions that people have developed to deal with the problem of omni-reachability, i.e. the use of multiple-phones for different purposes, phone stacks, digital etiquettes and technology shabbaths.

 

Another book I recently read was Clara Shih’s ‘The Facebook Era‘. The book now in it’s 2nd edition gives practical advice on how to effectively use Facebook for marketing/business purposes. The information provided is based on Shih’s experience with business and seems very useful for practitioners in business. … I think I now read enough about Facebook for 2011. Time to check what my friends are up to…