The Marketplace of Attention: How Audiences Take Shape in a Digital Age, by James G. Webster

Now that digitisation has revolutionised the media, what are we watching - and how? By Sharon Wheeler

November 20, 2014

S o I’m sitting on the sofa, surfing rapidly through the Freeview channels on television. I’m checking three email accounts on my laptop, keeping a beady eye on Facebook, maintaining two Twitter accounts, watching a YouTube video that my nephew has made and waiting impatiently for The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice to download off iPlayer on to my iPad. I’m also feeling guilty because I haven’t updated either of my blogs this week.

My TV surfing settles on BBC News 24 – but not before I’ve muttered darkly about how there used to be nothing decent to watch on five channels, and now there’s nothing any good on 105 (unless you want wall-to-wall repeats of Bergerac and Lovejoy).

I’m one of the punters James Webster has in his sights in The Marketplace of Attention: How Audiences Take Shape in a Digital Age. This is a book that will ease undergraduates into the field, as well as providing a lucid overview for interested parties outside the academy.

Webster makes it clear from the outset that he is using the terms “audience” and “public attention” more or less interchangeably. This makes sense, given the myriad media forms competing for viewers and viewing, from the media events such as the Olympics or royal weddings that pull in humongous viewing figures, to friends “liking” cute cat pictures on Facebook or tweeting enthusiastically about a new TV show. Webster refers in passing to memes going viral, such as the “Charlie bit my finger” video clip, although he doesn’t speculate on how this might happen – the likes of Buzzfeed and Reddit either aren’t mentioned or are passed over quickly in the book.

One of the author’s key interests is that of structure and structuration. He argues that the linguistic idea of a duality, where users are born into a structured world but can choose to abandon it, works very conveniently when it comes to exploring audiences and media structures. This willingness to range across a number of disciplines, as well as multiple markets and countries, works in the book’s favour – particularly in the chapter on media users, where Webster explores theories from economists, political scientists, market researchers, sociologists, psychologists and the usual suspects in communication and cultural studies.

Surprisingly, Webster barely touches the hot topic of citizen or participatory journalism. This might have added some depth to his discussion of heuristics (audiences using rules of thumb to make their viewing decisions), which he suggests might well be quality, credibility and genre. And while bloggers and tweeters may be first to a story, there is still much discussion in our field around the questions of bias, quality and credibility, for a start.

Webster’s main focus on news is that of TV news. He doesn’t explicitly discuss the issues and pressures raised by 24-hour rolling news, where seemingly every passer-by must be interviewed, and any pundit with even the slightest knowledge invited to add their tuppence-ha’penny worth. It’s what Webster’s Northwestern University colleague Pablo Boczkowski very accurately calls “a spiral of sameness”.

Webster presents new research on audience fragmentation, causes of popularity and the audience for local news and information. The book makes timely reading, but the findings aren’t worldshattering – it reinforces the view that most of us cherry-pick happily across the media spectrum. Slightly surprisingly, there’s no consideration of the “hyperlocal”. Also missing is that thorny issue of paywalls, which may well dictate where people find their news.

The Marketplace of Attention is a worthy addition to cross-disciplinary shelves. It’s lucid, accessible and thoughtful – and in our fast-moving media market, who can ask for more than that?

The Marketplace of Attention: How Audiences Take Shape in a Digital Age

By James G. Webster
MIT Press, 280pp, £20.95
ISBN 97802620861
Published 24 October 2014

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