Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Audiences to actiences

I’ve been thinking a lot about audiences lately. We've all tended to think of audiences as passive, enthralled by us, totally attending to our presentation. But this old engraving suggests a more knowing reality.

Our audiences may be present, sitting politely in their chairs, but who knows what they are thinking? The artist seems to say, "Yes, there are some enjoying the show, but there are other things that may be more immediate and interesting to the audience, like each other.”

They aren't really an audience if they aren't listening. So you really haven't counted what “counts” if you count the bodies or the "eyeballs" in the online world.

Suppose I get up and speak for 5 minutes. If there are 100 people in the room, more or less listening to me, I figure I'll get 500 minutes of net attention. That’s just about 8 hours. Not bad for one ordinary person.

But the big audiences have changed. In 1956, when we had just 3 national television channels, 81% of all American TV sets were tuned in to see the “Lucy Goes to the Hospital”episode. Multiplying that audience by the 30 minutes it was on the air, I figure Lucy got 22 million hours of net attention. Makes my 8 hours look pretty pathetic.

The fact is of course that the share of audience was much better (when there were three major networks and no cable ) than anybody gets these days. Those were the glory days of audiences.
But audiences are getting harder to come by. Attention is now scarce too. Both attention and audience are getting expensive, and choosy.

In 2008 for instance, a long-haired fellow of modest talents, a Mr. Jason Castro, appears on American Idol for weekly appearances over a few months. Multiply the show's rated audience of 27 million and, giving Jason say, four minutes of airtime, he gets 18million hours of attention. Almost as much as Lucy, albeit with a much smaller share (31% of television homes) of a much bigger pie. Not incidentally, Jason is there because this audience votes on the continued presence of the would-be "idols".

A voting audience has more skin in the game, no?

Niko Bellic is the antihero of Grand Theft Auto IV. This new video game is selling like crazy. Industry watchers predict that GTA IV could sell over 12 million units in its first year. This is a game of course, not a linear presentation, although it looks more like a realistically animated movie thn a game. The producers claim that there is 60 hours of total story arc to be explored within the numerous choice points embedded in the action.

Now we have to re-appraise our net attention measure. Multiplying the expected sales of 12 million units times 60 hours nets a whopping 460 million hours of attention--beating Lucy and the American Idols by an order of magnitude. GTA users say that this interactive experience is "compelling" and "addictive". You really can’t call these users an "audience" in the old-fashioned passive sense.

The users of such multimedia entertainments are now making hundreds of choices, driving the action forward. They have become actors (in the broadest sense of the word). And here's a final HUGE point: Unlike TV or movies, (and more like books) nothing happens unless the users are attending and acting.

Attention is the game. How do contemporary media get it?
Next time you pass through an airport, stop at the magazine rack. The eye-stopping images appeal to our basic drives: food, sex and shelter. No changes in subject matter from month to month, just the images. This may grab us but holding attention takes a bit more work.

Just as we are hardwired to look at nubile human beings, our attention is drawn to what’s shiny and moves (reptilian brain). What psychologists call the “orienting reflex” draws our attention to movement in our visual field. We evolved this way so we could see our dinner before it saw us. Even six-month old babies will sit and stare at a televison.

It’s hard for any adult NOT to watch a car chase. But movement alone only goes so far. We get drawn into the magazines (or movies, or TV shows) with STORY. Lucy, GTA IV and even untalented Jason all hook us with STORY. The next step up in the media battle for our minds is to draw us into the ACTION. Idol does a this with audience voting; onlime media get us clicking, putting us into action even more immediately.

Play is the next level of involvement. GTA does it by letting us cheat, steal and bang away at the characters. We have a growing “playdience” of those who game online and on computers. The numbers for gaming are staggering. Over the course of the first quarter, total hardware sales absolutely ballooned 94 percent to $1.3 billion, with console hardware again comprising most of that total—$958 million (a 129 percent increase).

They say that GTA is a rush. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, but it may tell us something about the future of media. Maybe the old notion of audience needs to be replaced with what you might call a growing actience.

You coud define actience as any group of media users who, simultaneously or independently, attend to and actively engage in a media object, changing it's eventual performance. Those media objects that enable actiences have mechansims that enable play, choice, design, or other elicted behavior whic arise from outside the media object itself. More straightforwardly: an actience exerts control of the presentation in some way.

To the extent that the online users of today are shopping, buying, donating to candidates and causes, mapping, designing, commenting, arguing, and voting they are actiences. They are also blogging or, shooting their own video and photos, and in many cases are creating their own applications.

For those of us who consider ourselves communicators, we need to leave "audiences" behind and create actiences. (more to come)

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