One of the things I’m going to try to do with this blog is not only discuss industry and technology developments, but also point out and discuss recent examples from the academic literature that relate to the themes of the book. Case in point, a new article (not yet available online) by Northwestern University’s Jim Webster in the latest issue (vol. 104, issue 2) of the Northwestern University Law Review titled User Information Regimes: How Social Media Shape Patterns of Consumption.
Webster (full disclosure, he was a grad school professor of mine) builds upon the idea of market information regimes developed by sociologists Anand and Peterson. Market information regimes refer to those systems of assessing market performance that are publicly available and are used by stakeholders in the market to assess their performance and the performance of their competitors. Examples would include annual law school or business school rankings, or, in media contexts, the Nielsen TV ratings, Arbitron’s radio ratings, or NetRatings’ Web site ratings.
One of the focal points of Audience Evolution is how these media market information regimes can change over time and how these changes can affect marketplace dynamics and the nature of the content that is produced. As the book illustrates, we’re in a period of dramatic change in terms of the market information regimes that represent the consumption dynamics of various sectors of the media marketplace.
What’s particularly interesting about Webster’s new piece is the way he extends the notion of market information regimes into the various search and recommendation systems that have become a defining component of a growing range of media platforms. It is important to recognize that, these search and recommendation systems guide much more than our consumption of web pages. Increasingly television (think Google TV), books (think Amazon’s interface), and movies (think Netflix’s search and recommendation system) rely on ever more sophisticated user information regimes in their points of contact with audiences. These systems all rely quite heavily on historical data on consumers’ media usage to anticipate user preferences and guide their media selections accordingly.
However, as Webster points out, these user informaton regimes are not the neutral systems of media navigation that we tend to think they are. They are, as Webster notes, “reactive” in that they can affect the very things the measure. For instance, many search engines and recommendation systems rely on past indicators of popularity in providing rankings that users rely upon to make their content selections — and in so doing further enhance the popularity of those selections that have already proven popular.
This is just the most obvious of a series of ways that Webster discusses in which the systems by which we navigate our media environment can have significant cultural repercussions in their own right. It is for this reason that they merit far greater attention from scholars than they have received at this point.
As Webster notes, “To date, cultural critics and social scientists alike have paid more attention to the profusion of media than the systems that shape their consumption. Yet it is those systems that will at once play kingmaker and executioner in today’s competitive media environment. Over time, those mechanisms will promote or discourage patterns of cultural consumption with potentially important social consequences.”
The bottom line is that as navigating an increasingly fragmentated media environment requires ever more sophisticated navigation systems, understanding the operation of these navigation systems and the ways in which media users engage with them represents a line of inquiry that can enhance both our practical and theoretical understanding of contemporary media audiences.