Some old thinking about new media

What a difference a week makes. Thursday’s televised debates could be said to put paid to suggestions this is  Britain’s first social media election. A whopping 9.4m Britons watched the debate,  demonstrating old media certainly still has its place in our political landscape.

Pundits took just minutes to announce who they believed to be the winners and losers in the debates, and within half an hour the first polls on audience reactions were out (but as my job is politically restricted, I’m not telling you what I think).

It’s estimated 36,483 people were Twittering about the debate as they watched. Now as I’ve blogged about before, Twitter isn’t always a great indicator of sentiment amongst the wider public.

But unlike the BNP/Question Time TV event I blogged about previously, what was interesting this time was how people on my social networks seemed to view the same events in widely varying ways.

In many ways, this reflects a longstanding debate within communication theory on how people are influenced by the media they consume. 

Discussion ahead of the debates focussed on how the leaders’ performance would influence the electorate; in the days since, commentators and pollsters have concluded the debates will have an unprecedented effect on the outcome of the election.  But this is a rather simplistic way of thinking about media influence, assuming that there’s a direct relationship between cause and effect. 

In the real world, we need to remember that people use the media they consume in different ways. We have different reasons for consuming media, and these fundamentally affect our experience of it.

Denis McQuail is one of many communications theorists to take a closer look at TV consumption. He found that in order to understand how media is recieved, you need also to consider why it is consumed in the first place.

With this is mind, he analysed TV viewers’ responses and motivations for viewing.  The result of his study is called the Uses and Gratifications Approach.

McQuail found there were four broad types of ‘media-person interaction’: surveillance (information-gathering), personal identity (resonates with who you are); personal relationships (swotting up on the big TV event in order to talk about it with others); and diversion (entertainment).

Looking at responses to the debate on the #leadersdebate twitter hashtag, it appears can be categorised in a very similar way. This isn’t a statistically sound study, of course. But communications researchers  – like ethnographers and anthropologists – look for patterns (of behaviour, language, etc) and try to relate these to their social and cultural contexts. Looking at hashtaged tweets there seemed to me to be some clear trends in types of participants, and in how they behaved.

Commentators have focussed particularly on those whose motivation for viewing was what McQuail would categorise as surveillance – ‘undecideds’ who watch in order to inform their own voting choice. A Guardian/ICM poll found one in four of those watching will change their vote as a result of watching.

The flip side of this, of course, is that three-quarters of those who watched didn’t change their mind at all. In my quick n’ dirty, unscientific analysis of the #leadersdebate hashtag , it appears a sizable proportion can be attributed to the personal identity category – that is, people who already have an opinion and watch in order to reinforce that pre-existing view. Many of these already sported a party Twibbon on their icon, indicating a clear, pre-held party allegiance. These tweeters – praising the leader they already liked and criticising those they disliked – came from the Twitterati across the three main parties and were not swayed by the content of the debates.

While this group comprised a small number of tweeters, they account for a disproportionate volume of tweets as they posted frequently during the 90-minute programme.

The third group were interested in personal interaction. Unlike the previous group, they’re not overtly political tweeters, but rather interested in the leadership as they would be another other televisual event, like finding out who killed Archie Mitchell in Eastenders. Their motivation is gaining social capital; they want to know about the debate in order to inform their on and offline interactions with others.

The smallest number of tweets could be summed up as motivated by diversion. This group watched, and tweeted, because… well, it’s something to do. They forgot to turn over after Corrie, or realised they’d already watched that episode of Have I Got Old News For You on G.O.L.D.

So what does this teach us? First, that noomedia isn’t (yet) proving to be the game changer it was talked up to be this election. The 36,483 people twittering about the debate represented just 0.004% of those watching. As I’ve said before, what people on Twitter say does not neccessarily reflect what the nation is thinking. That being the case, I would take Twitter sentiment analysis services with a pinch of salt.

But secondly – and somewhat conversely – while we talk about social media audiences being more actively engaged than those consuming mass media, it seems they don’t behave so differently after all. They have different reasons for consuming, producing and participating, and these reasons affect the outcome of that participation.

The field of communication studies has a rich vein of literature about mass media audience research. Those of us working in the field of digital engagement might learn a thing or two from looking at it again.

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