Where Do Audiences Come From?

by Dish Staff

Ann Friedman searches for the answer in a new book:

In The Marketplace of Attention: How Audiences Take Shape in a Digital Age, James G. Webster, a communications studies professor at Northwestern, takes an exhaustive look at the research about how such audiences form. Or rather, how audiences are formed. It’s tempting to focus on what readers say they want, assuming their decisions are based on those desires. What Webster argues quite convincingly is that even if users do have some idea of what news and information they want (and it’s not entirely clear they do), they don’t know how or where to find it. And they might not have the time to figure it out. So users are more susceptible to the manipulations of algorithms and the biases of their social networks than many would like to believe. People make “pull” decisions—seeking out news about their favorite football team, or the latest from their favorite op-ed columnist—but also can be “pushed” into consuming media. Outside the digital realm, this can mean bundling hard news with soft, or scheduling a new sitcom in between two already popular shows. Online, it often means encouraging clicks with lists of suggested articles and other algorithmically fine-tuned prompts. An audience, in other words, is not something that exists on its own. It must be constructed.

One of Friedman’s take-aways:

Rather than complaining about the proliferation of clickbait, journalists should understand that their audiences’ high-minded desires don’t always align with the choices they make—in part because those choices are nudged by algorithms and popularity. The wealth of information has made editorial judgment more important, not less, because consumers need help to find what’s important and relevant to them. If they aren’t presented with an easy way to keep up on the news from Gaza, they’ll default to clicking on quizzes on checking sports scores. They need our help.