Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania
Social Media and Gratification
This contribution aims to explore the ways in which User Generated Content (UGC) has been acknowledged and validated as a concept that has revolutionized the way audiences are seen to interact with the Internet, and how given the critical amount of UGC-related net-activities, it has been reasonably claimed that the shift in the role of users of the social media has transformed the media ecosystem. Consequently, the early notions of the media producers and audiences rapport and ratio needed to be revisited, and the uses and gratifications theory as applied to the social media now housing most of people’s interactions with the Internet needs reconsideration.
uses and gratification, social media, user generated content, media effects, negotiation of meanings, media eco-system, leisure and pleasure
The media effects myth was debunked by ulterior audience research findings that led to the discarding of the theory that audiences are passive and accept wholesale the media messages embedding the dominant ideology. At an extreme, audiences had been presumed to be narcotyzed into believing the mediated reality coming across the television and thus willingly fall under the spell and control of the power bloc using the media to their own ends. Not crediting viewers/readers with the necessary media literacy and the discernable strength to see beyond potential attempts at manipulation and indoctrination and use creatively their decoding skills, was indeed fallacious and misconceived.
In time, audience research has abundantly proved that modern people, children even, are active consumers of media, who most often than not will resist readymade media meanings or will most likely subvert them in the process of incorporating them in the semiosis of their daily lives. This openly contradicts the media effects theory, which at best overlooks, but in fact ignores, any and all interpretative propensities in audiences.
A leading proponent of the theory that far from being passive consumers of media audiences actively seek for sources of entertainment and gratification in media products, John Fiske insists on the “distinction between instrumental streamlined forms of production that characterise capitalism, and the creative meanings invested in these products by the consumers.” From his standpoint Fiske remarks on the radical break between the interests of the economic institutions that produce cultural forms and the interpretative actions and concerns of the audience. The new approach to audience research, in line with the hegemonic view on society and the Marxist inspired perspective of the economic system of traditional capitalism, found that while the power bloc does mass-produce uniform cultural/media products, the latter, however, are inescapably transformed into practices of resistance by the people. Audiences will subvert the cultural meanings in the process of consumption, using the cultural products as resources rather than regarding them as some immutable given. Thus, emphasis shifted from the media production to media reception, with a keen interest in how meanings were negotiated or even resisted by an increasingly sophisticated audience which resisted power control and the preferred meanings.
Michel de Certeau (1984) takes even further the point made about active audiences as primarily creative, interpretative and resourceful, and claims that popular culture is “the operations performed on texts rather than the actual domain of the texts”, and that consumers constantly discover ways of using common culture that is not strictly proscribed by its makers. Moreover, De Certeau disclaims the writer’s power and hails instead the empowered reader, as resulting from the plurality of narratives in the modern forms of media. De Certeau coined the term cultural poachers for people, who generally and programmatically take refuge in media and leisure activities, even while they deny the finiteness of the discourses struggling for the consent of the audiences.
The act of media consumption is an essential dimension of our existence as today we seemingly tend to make sense of reality through the media rather than through first hand experiences. Indeed, the comfort offered by the globalised television that has made it possible for us to witness in the peace and quiet of our homes events occurring in places far removed from our locations, can only be embraced by all audiences. Once unavailable, now packaged in customized imagery, today’s media products are the result of efforts made to correlate the tastes and prefferences of the ever narrowing audience segments with high ratings. Yet, however refined the process has become of identifying audience niches and narrowcasting tailored programmes to them, the atomization of the audience surpasses the velocity with which profit-seeking media corporations think of new designs to cultivate and maintain the loyalty of anything but complacent audiences.
Not only that, but with the advent, and now take-over, of the Internet by the social media, consumers have assumed a more complex role that also includes that of creators of media products, and that which has once been a unilateral and one-directional production process is now collaborative work. Thus, the primordial voyeuristic pleasure derived from watching a movie at the cinema in the presence of other onlookers is being replaced by that provided by the individual act of surfing the internet in the privacy of one’s room for information or matters of personal interest, in addition to which users may very well produce their own content to share with others, displaying the measure of their ultimate empowerment. The producer/consumer divide is blurred in the postmodern era of media production and reception, and the increased gratification and renewed licenses this new stage affords people is at the core of our undertaking in the following.
Social Media and User-Generated Content
While the critical perspectives in audience research have statutised the modern forms of cultural reception by highlighting cultural creativity and resistance as the ways in which people acively use and relate to popular culture (the media included) in everyday life, the emergence of the social media and its rapid development as the dominant form of Internet activity poses the need to revisit an until recently radical perspective. The more so as consumer creativity is manifest not only in the symbolic negotiation or reassignment of meanings, but also in the actual production of content and its dissemination. Indeed, the social media is the medium in which consumers can create, add, and alter content rather than simply consume it. The diversification and proliferation of consumer activities give audiences the whole new dimension that until now had been the monopoly of the media industries. The possibility of creating and spreading content across the social media to a limitless number of users and consumers not only validates the generalised active characteristic of modern audiences, but also makes them instrumental in terms of self-empowerment and self-securing gratifications.
The content produced and disseminated by users of the social media has been termed User-Generated Content (UGC), which is an acknowledgement and validation of a new concept and its referentiality. UGC consists in any material created and uploaded to the Internet by non-media professionals, whether it is a comment on fora, a video loaded on YouTube, or someone’s profile on Facebook, etc. Given the amount of UGC-related net-activities, it has been rightfully claimed that user-generated content and the social media have transformed the media ecosystem, now permeated by the collaborative model (with the consumer taking on a share of the producer’s attributes), and have altered the way audiences interact with the Internet. By way of consequence, the notions about how audiences seek for and find gratifications in the (social) media needed to be reconsidered.
Leisure and pleasure-seeking audiences on the social networking media
There is hyper UGC activity on the social-media. To exemplify with Facebook, any user can testify to the fact that this media platform is equipped with the functions that integrate most of the vehicles necessary for posting comments, uploading photos, music, and videos, and disseminating all of these. By and large, Facebook, through its user-friendly format, has allowed for and is encouraging participation on a large scale. In fact, in time, Facebook upgraded and diversified its original functions and incipient appearance, and even experimented to a point with the kind and amount of personal information that can be made public and the degree of its availability, while not overlooking any of the spects pertaining to its user-friendliness. It is obvious that its policy to react positively to user feedback has been beneficial to its popularity, as there are millions, and still growing, of Facebook accounts, notwithstanding fake profiles, representing as many off-line individuals using the platform for on-line social interaction.
The astounding success reached by Facebook over a relatively short span of time also bespeaks of the extent to which it is medium conducive to user gratifications, which in turn brings into discussion the issue of pleasure and its psychonalytic definition as the main motivator of human action. Since seeking pleasure is at the core of human activities, be they rational or instinct driven, and given the amount of time spent on the social media, it is safe to say that on-line socialising with its multiple fascets consitutes the focal activity of a critical mass of demographics, as well as being for just as many a favourite and handy strategy for securing gratifications.
When related to the media, pleasure (plaisir) in the Barthian sense (jouissance – physical, bodily pleasure) was likened to the voyeuristic feeling derived from watching actors playing in a movie at the cinema from the darkness of the theatre hall. The cinema provides the sort of crude, apparently non-mediated, pleasure of looking on into someone else’s private life, even though the pleasure derived is the reward for accommodating to the dominant ideology offered to the conforming spectator by the patrairchal cinema. By contrast, television viewing procures one a different type of pleasure as it is focused on its relationship to the social structure and to the social practices of the subjects who experience it. Traditionally, watching television is set in the midst of family life, and as a social activity (it is often done in the company of other family members, it can take place concomittant with other house activities, chores, etc., it is discussed with friends at work or in other formal or informal settings, it is often reenacted by children in their make-believe games) it is fully integrated as a generalised social practice. In many ways it is similar to the mundane leisure afforded by the popular press, where pleasure stems from the sense of identity produced by the cultural products of the said press, instilling in one the sense of being free from the ideological control of the power bloc. In fact, it has been asserted that some form of double pleasure is involved in the audience’s readings of popular texts, combining, on the one hand, the enjoyment in the symbolic production of opposing meanings as a form of semiotic insurgence, and, on the other hand, the sheer activity of being productive. In fact, the shift from readerly to writerly texts is an open invitation to the interpretative participation of their readers.
Facebook as a social networking medium provides access to a wide range of user pleasures in view of the abovesaid. One can experience both the voyeuristic pleasure in visiting other people’s FB profiles or community pages, very much like a stalker would in real life, as well as the mundane pleasure of interacting with FB friends by posting comments, contributing posts to group threads, sharing visual, audio or simply written information, and generally socialising in ways and to an extent which are, perhaps, unaffordable off-line.
In addition to the physical and mundane types of pleasure, there is the sense-of-power-derived pleasure. The Internet has been procclaimed as the medium that allows for more democracy and equalitarianism, both of which are forms of empowerment. And while like all general claims this is debatable and has been questioned as such by, to name just one relevant approach, critical discourse analysts, Facebook provides ample exemplification of how democracy can take on anarchic forms or otherwise display different degrees of democratic license, or alternately, limitations, all the way to annulment.
Thus, creating a Facebook account involves creating a FB profile, which usually contains such personal information as one’s hometown, birthdate, work history, hobbies, favourite movies, interests, (family) photos and albums. Disclosing private details is indeed other-empowering, despite the FB settings allowing for restriction of access to one’s FB profile, and the functions blocking other FB users from viewing one’s information, comments or any other FB activity.
Facebook is ostensibly a democratic platform where people can socialise on equalitarian terms and relate or bond across the off-line social strata and hierarchies. Yet indelible limits and barriers operate here as well. The platform itself allows for the screening of groups that are private or even secret, which thus condition ot limit participation. Membership of such groups may seem to give one status from an outsider’s perspective, but can also mean one has to submit to group rules and etiquette. General, and not just group, etiquette requires that one should post no profanity, threats, illegal or inappropriate content, derogatory language. Groups usually have an administrator tacitly invested with the power to to remove posts violating the etiquette or which are blattantly off-topic, and even to undisputedly exclude or block members without needing the group’s consent. In true democratic vein, however, administrators can be challenged or required to take some specific action by individual group members, or generally, to leave their neutrality and take sides.
A whole constellation of obviously empowering activities can be performed on such social media as Facebook. By holding a Facebook account and page one can also explore other people’s pages, search for other individuals, find people with common interests, to mention just a few of the implicit FB socialising facilities. One can add on-line and off-line friends, thus expanding and multiplexing one’s social network, which is displayed for others to see and browse. There is no limit to branching out and global networks can be born and function on-line gratifying users in ways that may be impossible off-line.
Using Facebook for surfing, browsing and seeing is an understatement. Facebook allows users to place comments, videos or photos and weblinks to each other’s pages, and on their respective Timelines, to tag friends, to share information and news, to create, follow and pledge to join events, to send out invitations. And in the process one can find people or groups whose attitudes, interests and stances they resonate with and thus the gratification therein can take on deeper and perhaps loftier dimensions. Humanitarian campaigns can be started and finalized, ideological struggles can take on more concrete forms as people seem to aggregate more easily on-line than off-line, before they are transferred into action in the real world. Indeed, facebook has been the launching pad for real life revolutions, with some restrictive political regimes acknowledging the danger residing therein and making attempts at blocking Facebook activity.
Facebook, like the popular press and its tendency to represent the world in terms of an individualised conflict between good and evil, is an arena for debate, where contenders for the truth battle in a more barechested way. All in all, Facebook users like all modern audiences are part of an essentially pluralist and participatory culture that is fluid and shifting and prolix, and who actively seek and find uses and gratification of a medium that is exceptionally congenial in this sense.
Facebook and other social media have been conducive to the diversification of their users’ attributes, which in turn has produced a ripple-like effect across the media eco-system. The radical altering of the way people interact with the Internet also produced a chain effect rendering it mandatory for most of the media production and reception tenets to be reconsidered.
It is clear that the media effects theory has lost all ground in an era hailing audiences as active par excellence. Not only are audiences actively seeking media gratification, but some category of media actually encourage people to be more participatory by lending the necessary instruments to put this mutual desideratum into practice. Indeed, media users and consumers have now found the agency in the social media for taking on the role of creators and disseminators of content as well. User-Generated Content, at this point in the evolution of the media and the development of the users’ media literacy, is the ultimate token of the media consumers’ empowerment. This is a special brand of consumer empowerment that is afforded by the social media. Opposition to preferred meanings endorsing the ideological interests of the power bloc is a thing of the past in the postmodern era, where the producer-consumer divide is blurred and social media users act as bricoleurs in creating and disseminating content that as a whole is of their making but is often compiled from varied other sources in a collage that boasts originality.
Power brings with it pleasure and gratification, and the ones afforded by the social media are dense, diverse and deep-seated. Whether looked at from a psychoanalytical, physical or social point of view, sublimated pleasure can be secured through activity on the virtual social networks, where individuals can enjoy seeking and finding entertainment and information, a locus for congregation and aggregation, a social nexus, as well as the medium where to exercise a continuum of fluid identities. Indeed, not only texts today invite a plurality of readings, but the social media also provide the platform for users to engage in a participatory mode of action which conflates the generation and consumption of media content fused into cultural products with multisemic potentiality.
Fiske, John. “Television Pleasures” in David Graddol and Oliver Boyd-Barrett (eds.). Media Texts: Authors and Readers, Clevedon, Philadelphia, Adelaide, Multilingual Matters, 1994, p. 239-256.
Stevenson, Nick. “Critical Perspectives within Audience Research” in Tim O’Sullivan and Yvonne Jewkes (eds.) The Media Studies Reader, London, Arnold, 1997, p. 231-248.
*** IAB Platform Status Report: User Generated Content, Social Media and Advertising – An Overview, April 2008.