17th Oct 2010

Media interaction: the ultimate paradox?

Do we (audiences/consumers/users) interact with the media we encounter? Or do we merely receive/consume media? Many new media specialists, quite rightly, stress the fundamental fact of interactivity in today’s hi-tech age. And pressing the red button is the tip of our interactive iceberg. We can facebook and join social network campaigns to attack Ryanair customer service, save Wispa bars, bring back the old GAP logo, etc.  We can blog, vlog, buy/sell on eBay, choose the football game we want to view and the camera angles from which to view it. We can talent-spot (and be spotted) thru MySpace, happy-slap thru YouTube, binge-shop thru SMS (the phenomenon in which participants text each other with a random request – say, to buy peanut butter in one’s local food store – leading to mass selling-out of that product and mass confusion over subsequent purchasing orders).

The imminent re-publication of John Fiske’s seminal books on consumer resistance and the cultural economy of active audiences (Television Culture, Reading the Popular, etc.) coincides with an age of unprecedented media choice and interactive use.

Yet looking back at a classic in the media theory canon - Robert K. Merton’s Mass Persuasion (1946) – draws our attention to the fact that there’s nothing new about media/social interaction. Merton, a pioneer of the focus-group interview, deployed the method to explore the relationship between a well-known American radio presenter and her listening public. What he found amounted to the difference between propaganda and persuasion. Whereas propaganda is a one-way process in which media communications are imposed upon people, Merton argues that persuasion

involves a higher degree of social interaction between the “persuader” and the “persuadee” and it permits the persuader to adapt his argumentation to the flow of reactions of the persons he is seeking to influence (Merton 1946: 38-9).

The closest contemporary equivalent to Merton’s case study is the phone-in. Listeners to BBC Radio 5 Live will be familiar with the persuasive (some might say, seductive) daily tones of Victoria Derbyshire, Nicky Campbell et al. Of course, the phone-in is a long-established radio programming format. Whether persuasion occurs or does not is a moot point. But media interaction, though apparently a contradiction in terms (J. B. Thompson uses the term mediated quasi-interaction [see Key Terms] because he considers the process to be essentially non-reciprocal), has actually always existed in a form akin to what Merton calls reciprocal interplay - that intangible entity obsessed over by programme-makers, advertisers and market researchers, who exhaust so much time and money trying to measure it.

The age of mass media concealed what was, nevertheless and all along, a two-way process of communication (except in the case of coercive propaganda). Today’s click culture is more overtly interactive, with the emphasis firmly on overtly rather than interactive.

Final thought: is the mouse the most used yet least theorised technology ever invented? For the sake of interactionist endeavour, I hereby introduce the discipline of mouse studies – and call on (indeed, click on) others to write about it as a matter of urgency.

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