Diverse audience consumption of social media

By: Yeun Au
On: October 4, 2011
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About Yeun Au
Born in The Netherlands and raised with Confucianist values, Dutch education and Western thought. After studying multimedia design in Breda, I am currently pursuing my master's degree in New Media.


I love statistics. I love seeing my Facebook friend count increase. I love looking at what songs I played most in my iTunes. (Unless it is an artist that is too embarrassing to love. Luckily you can reset this statistic.) Loving statistics is really great nowadays, since our computers and the internet are keeping track of everything. On Twitter, every profile displays the amount of tweets and followers. Take Justin Bieber. He currently has over 13 million followers, which he affectionately refers to as ‘Beliebers’. Does this imply that Twitter has 13 million users that are also fans of Bieber?

It might seem so, if you take a look at his followers’ descriptions.’ JustinBieber Is my Dream’, ‘ I’ve got bieber fever’, ‘ sorry i cant describe how amazing Justin Bieber is in only 160 chars! :)’. But looking more into the list, I found that it did not only consists of teenage girls, but also boys, adult men and women, and so forth. I guess it is too simple to consider all 13 million fans. If millions of people watch MTV’s Jersey Shore, does that imply that all these people are fans and would buy The Situation or Snooki-merchandise if the occasion occurred?

Different audiences, different consumption

A shift has taken place in the last ten years. We used to consume media, now we are making our own media, and then consuming it. The idea that the consumer would become a producer with the introduction of electronic media was already coined by Marshall McLuhan, and became commonplace in the digital era. Since then, there has been research about how we produce and how we consume this information.

But in contemplating about how we are consuming, we must consider the debate about the role and the power of the author and the reader, as thoroughly discussed by (post)-structuralists in the 1960s and 1970s. If the author is still very much dead, we have quite a macabre thing going on with millions of dead authors writing online about futile things. For me, it is out of the question though that we brace our own meaning to messages.  Instead of attaching our own story to a 45-minute star-filled television program, we are doing the same with 140-character tweets. We are also not dealing anymore with an auteur, but probably with our friend or our distant cousin.

But in how many ways can we attach this meaning to these texts that appear on social media like Twitter and Facebook? One way, and probably the way of the majority of Beliebers, is the fan. Theorists like Henry Jenkins wrote many books and essays about fan participation in media. This already shows a alternative way of consuming, depending on interests and background. I am curious if we can define other groups in social media. I would like to refer now to Ien Ang’s 1985 research paper Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination. Ang examinated viewers and their motivation on watching the popular television show Dallas. Firstly, she found out the viewer may receive the show in an alternative way, depending on the cultural background he or she has. Dallas-viewers could feel related to what was happening on screen, even though  the lifestyle depicted was completely unrelated to their own lives (millionaires and cowboys). Secondly, Ang discovered four different types of consumers. There were haters, who rejected the show for being part of mainstream culture. There were ironic viewers, who ridiculed the show. There were populists, who define their taste simply by making it equal to others. And there were the actual fans.

In order to think of an ‘online adaption’ for Ang’s research approaches, we must consider the fundamental changes that the internet offers compared to television. We have become producers of media. We also consume in social media, but in a new-fledged way: people are not necessarily intentionally circulating meaningful messages. Still, people like to read the Facebook news feed and follow people on Twitter. They must subscribe to them for a reason. There are some notable differences between Twitter and Facebook. In Facebook, you add or accept a friend and then automatically subscribe to their news feed. So when people log in to their account, they first see a collection of recent friend activities on Facebook. This can be altered; recently Facebook added a button on the right side where people can unsubscribe to certain people’s news messages. In Twitter, it basically is all about the short messages, so when you subscribe to someone, you are willingly accepting people’s tweets.

Watching our own Dallas

Bieber does not hold the record for most followers. Lady Gaga’s account has over 14 million subscribers to her tweets. If I may make a quick and blunt comparison, perhaps part of this group follow Lady Gaga in an ironic way. They ridicule her front of others, they state that they are not susceptible for her, but they secretly enjoy her lifestyle, twitter comments and/or music. This is comparable to how people deal with Jersey Shore; they reject the depicted lifestyle but still enjoy watching. Others may follow Lady Gaga because out of populist reasons: having her in your follow-list might boost your image with others. Haters may also follow Lady Gaga, but mainly because they want to see her find herself in a negative position.

How does all this relate to following or subscribing to your own friends and acquaintances? Applying Ang’s research to the following of people you personally know, is a more difficult task. Perhaps it is even impossible, since everyone consumes another person in a different way. Still, it is fascinating to see how people consume their Facebook news feed. Are there friends whose pages they enter because of pity, jealousy, love, or just to have a good laugh? The Age of Storing Everything is helping us out again: whereas Ien Ang had to rely on letters by Dallas-viewers, we have the retweet-function and the Facebook-like button. Still, behind this technology we must find a human agency. Are we genuinely liking something, or is it ironic? And are there personal reasons behind engaging in this form of contact? With a new form of media consumption, these questions can become active once again.

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