Carah and louw power and media production


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How is meaning made?
How is power made and maintained?
What does today’s culture industry look like?
How do interactive media utilize and structure our participation?
What is the role of professional communicators in the exercise of power?
Engaging with critical debate about media production, content and
Engaging with academic debate

Journal articles and academic publication
1 Meaning, Representation and Power

Defining meaning
The power to influence meaning making

What is the relation between power and social elites?
Where does power come from?
What is the relationship between being embedded within a power
relationship and free agency?

The struggle over meaning: introducing hegemony
The more legitimacy dominant groups have, the less violence they
need to employ
Defining hegemony

The control of meaning: introducing ideology and discourse

Representation and power
Control over representation

Mediatization and media rituals
Further reading

2 The Industrial Production of Meaning
Controlling who makes meaning and where meaning is made
Defining different types of culture industry

Privately-owned media
State-licensed media
Public service broadcasting
State-subsidized media
Communist media

Development elites and media
The industrial production of meaning
Mass communication
The culture industry

Narrowing what we think about
Narrowing what can be said
Thinking dialectically: arguing for a contest of meanings

The liberal-democratic culture industry
The culture industry in the interactive era
Further reading

3 Power and Media Production
Meaning and power
Becoming hegemonic

How do groups become hegemonic?
Feudalism and early capitalism
Managerial to global network capitalism

Hegemony and the art of managing discourses
Managing the structures of meaning making
Managing the meaning makers
Regulating meaning-making practices
Adapting and repurposing meanings
Monitoring and responding to shifting meanings

Discursive resistance and weakening hegemonies
Regulating and deregulating the circulation of cultural content

Generating consent for the regulation of the circulation of cultural
Using the legal system to prosecute pirates and criminals
Using the political system to adapt the old rules or create new rules
Negotiations with the new organizations to craft a new consensus

Shifting hegemonies
A new hegemonic order

New communication technologies
New communication channels undermined mass production and
The emergence of niche markets and publics

Political leaders and new coalitions
Further reading

4 The Global Information Economy

The emergence of a global information economy
The information communication technology revolution
The end of the Cold War
The emergence of the Pax Americana as an informal empire
A globally networked elite
Communicative capitalism

Reorganizing capitalism
Conceptualizing networks

The internet as a distributed network
Networked and flexible organizations and workplaces
Networks in networks: the social web and everyday life

Flexible and networked capitalism
Building domination
Further reading

5 Media and Communication Professionals
Professional communicators

Controlling who can make meaning
Professional communicators and power relationships
Producing professional communicators

Immaterial and creative labour
Hierarchies of communicative labour
Freedom and autonomy
‘Good’ and ‘bad’ work

Professional ideology and the meaning of labour
Identity and communication work: flexibility, networking,

Below-the-line work

Further reading

6 Making News
The emergence of professional journalism
The sites of news making
Routinizing news making

News is a window on the world
Formulas and frames
Induction into newsroom procedures

The presentation of news
Symbiotic relationships in news making

News and public relations
News and power relationships
News making in the interactive era

Data and journalism
Witnesses with smartphones

Further reading

7 Politics and Communication Strategists
The rise of communication strategists as political players

Why did a class of political communication professionals arise?
Undermining the establishment media

What is strategic political communication?
Spin tactics
Managing journalists

Changes to the political process
Strategic communication changes political parties
Strategic communication changes political leaders
Strategic communication makes politics more resource intensive
Strategic communication makes popular culture central to political
Strategic communication amplifies the affective and emotional
dimension of political communication
Strategic communication undermines deliberative modes of political
Strategic communication undermines the power of the press within
the political process
Strategic communication turns politics into a permanent campaign

Barack Obama’s publicity machine
Visual communication
Managing data, audiences and participation
Online ground game
Using data
Data drives content
Decision making becomes pragmatic, incremental and continuous

Further reading

8 Producing and Negotiating Identities
Empowering and disempowering identities

What is identity?
Identity is embedded within representation
Identity is social and constructed
Identity is relational and differential
Identity is never accomplished

Making collective identity
From the mass to the individual

Cultural imperialism
Identity politics
Using apology to position national identity within universal values of
global network capitalism

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation
Apology and branding Australia
Using advertising to craft national identity

Acquiring visibility within the universal values of global network

Challenging mainstream media portrayals of identity
Resisting the universal values of global network capitalism
The power of identity within a global network
Further reading

9 Consumer Culture, Branding and Advertising
What is a brand?

Brands and mass consumption
Brands are social processes

Brands and culture
The creative revolution

Brand value
The labour of branding

Analysts, researchers and communication professionals
Front-line staff
Cultural producers

Brands, social space and participation
Brands at cultural events
Brands and mobile media devices

Ethical brands and everyday life
The ethical consumer
The ‘ethicalization’ of everyday life

Further reading

10 Popular Culture
Popular culture and governing everyday life

Popular culture is a symptom of larger social formations
Popular culture in neoliberal times

Popular culture and government at a distance
Popular culture as lived social practices

Ordinary people and popular culture’s promises and practices
Access to reality
Participation and surveillance
Rules, regulations and personal responsibility
Producing commercially valuable and politically useful identities

Personal responsibility on talk shows and reality TV
Performing our identities

Popular culture’s explanation of social relationships
Television drama and making sense of the global network society

Representing ‘real’ life?
Critical apathy

Comedy news and political participation
Powerful people making fun of themselves
Cynical participation
Profitable niche audiences

Further reading

11 Social Media, Interactivity and Participation
Interactivity, participation and power
What are social media?

Users create and circulate content
Commercialization of the web
Media devices and everyday life
Social media and social life
Social media and the active user

Interactive media enable new forms of participation
Considering the quality of participation

Interactive media are responsive and customized
Predictions and decisions
Algorithmic culture
Shaping how we experience space

Interactive media watch us
What is surveillance?

Disciplinary and productive forms of surveillance
Participation and public life

Social media and political events

Mapping out positions on interactivity
Managing participation
Further reading

12 Mobile Media, Urban Space and Everyday Life
Media and urban space
A new geography of power

Global cities
Relocating industrial areas
Dead zones

Public and private life in media cities
Smartphones and images
Smartphones and communicative enclosure
Wearable and responsive media devices

Publicity and intimacy

Work with mobile devices
Mobile device factories
Mobile professionals

Further reading

13 Constructing and Managing Audiences
Producing audiences

How are media organizations funded?
How are audiences made and packaged?
How do audiences make value?
From mass to niche
From representational to responsive control
The work of producing audiences

Audiences and work
The work of watching
The work of being watched

Ranking, rating and judging
Audience participation in the work of being watched

Creating networks of attention and affect
Identifying with the promotional logic of the culture industry
Articulating cynical distance

The watched audience
The work of being watched is central to responsive forms of control

Predicting and discriminating
To make predictions about us and our lives
To discriminate between individuals

Further reading

14 Managing Participation
Meaning and power
Decoding and debunking

Debunking reinforces dominant power relationships
Meaning and power in the interactive era

Difference between speaking and being heard
Difference between being a participant and managing participation in
Difference between decoding representations and managing
Difference between being understood and being visible

Managing participation
Flexible identities
Giving an account of ourselves and recognizing others
From television to the smartphone
Further reading


Media and Society
Production, Content and Participation

Nicholas Carah
Eric Louw

SAGE Publications Ltd

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© Nicholas Carah and Eric Louw 2015

First published 2015

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Library of Congress Control Number: 2014949571

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How is Meaning Made?
For a long time accounts of media and cultural production have used the encoding
and decoding of meaning as a basic conceptual schema. This schema places the
many moments in the process of mediated communication in relation to one
another. Meanings are created or encoded in an institutional and social context,
transferred by technical means, and received or decoded in another context. Each
moment in the process has a bearing on the other moments, but no moment
dominates the others completely. Media are social processes of transferring and
circulating meaning. This process matters because it shapes how we understand the
world and our relationships with others. How we understand the world organizes
how we act in it. The process of sharing meaning is intrinsic to the exercise of
power. Those who have the material and cultural resources to control, organize and
regulate the sharing of meaning can shape how flows of resources and relationships
between people are organized.

In the field of media and communication some accounts, and even some periods,
have paid more attention to one moment or another. Political economy and
production approaches have been charged with devoting too much attention to the
process of encoding and determining that it shapes all the other moments in the
process. Audience and reception approaches have been said to too easily equate the
audience’s active decoding of meaning with having power. For the most part though
the media and communication field is interested in both how meanings are created,
encoded and disseminated and how they are received, decoded and recirculated. In
this book we build on this encoding and decoding heritage by taking as a starting
point the proposition that we can only understand moments in this process when we
consider how they are related to each other. To understand meaning and power we
have to understand how relationships between people are shaped within flows of
meaning organized by institutions, practices and technologies. The book examines
the relationships between powerful groups, the means of communication and the
flow of meaning.

This is a book about meaning, power and participation. We use meaning to
recognize one another. By making and sharing meaning we acknowledge the
existence of others, their lives, their desires and their claims for a place in the
world. Meanings are created via the negotiation we undertake with each other to
create social relationships, institutions and shared ways of life. The process of
maintaining relationships with each other is embedded in relations of power. We
relate with each other because we seek to realize our will, our desires, our ways of
life, in conjunction or competition with others. The sharing of meaning facilitates

both consensus and conflict. Groups aim to generate consensus for the social
relationships and institutions they have established, and they generate conflicts and
contests that might change social relationships or distribution of resources in ways
that might benefit them.

How is Power Made and Maintained?
Media and culture are central to generating consent and organizing participation.
For much of the twentieth century, accounts of meaning and power focused on the
industrialization of meaning making. One of the key institutions of the
industrialized mass society is a culture industry. The culture industry is composed
of the range of institutions that make meaning and use it to shape and manage mass
populations. These institutions include schools, universities, government policy
making, and importantly for this book, industries that produce media and popular
culture. We trace the role of the culture industry in creating national identities and
facilitating the management of industrial economies. The media and cultural
industries that emerged in the twentieth century produced content for mass
audiences. This was a result of a range of social, political, economic and
technological factors. Mass media like radio, television and print could only
produce one flow of content to a mass audience. Everyone in the audience watched
the same television programme at the same time, or read the same newspaper. This
system suited nation states and industries that demanded mass publics and markets.
Nation states sought to fashion enormous populations into coherent collective
identities; industrial factories could only produce a standardized set of products for
a mass market.

The audience of the industrial-era culture industry was largely conceptualized as
being on the receiving end of a standardized flow of meanings. There were a variety
of accounts of the audience’s role in this process. Some critical and dystopian
accounts saw the audience as passive recipients of meaning who were manipulated
by the powerful groups that controlled cultural production. The importance of
radio, cinema and other kinds of mass media propaganda in the rise of authoritarian
fascist and communist societies seemed to demonstrate the power of industrial
cultural production to direct enormous populations. More nuanced accounts
developed too; these views pointed to the way that the industrial production of
meaning shaped the cultural world within which people lived their lives. The media
couldn’t tell people what to think, but it could tell them what to think about. Media
industries played a critical role in creating the frame through which people viewed
the world and providing the symbolic resources that people used to fashion their
identities. While the audience actively decided what to do with the meanings and
symbolic resources they had access to, they had little input into the broad cultural
schema in which they lived. The culture industry was a key mechanism in
establishing and maintaining this schema. It limited audience participation to a
representational frame constructed and managed by powerful interests. These
arguments were powerful because they articulated how the media controlled

populations even as they were actively involved in decoding and circulating

Over the course of the twentieth century, arguments developed that accounted for the
active participation of audiences in the reception and circulation of meaning. Some
of these accounts were functionalist and instrumental. They sought to explain to
states or corporations how the management of populations depended on more than
just creating and disseminating meanings. They also had to work to fashion the
social contexts within which individuals interpreted and decoded meanings. Other
accounts have been much more celebratory: they saw the audience’s capacity to
interpret meanings as proof that the culture industry couldn’t exert as much power
over populations as critics claimed. Audiences were always free to decode and
create meanings offered by the culture industry. These accounts focused on the
creative capacity of audience members to resist, rearrange and reappropriate mass-
produced meanings to their own identities, wills and worlds. With the rise of
interactive media technologies from the 1990s onwards, these celebratory accounts
took on a life of their own. If the ‘problem’ with the industrial culture industry was
the way it thwarted participation and relegated audiences to the reception and
interpretation of pre-made meanings, then interactive technologies offered a
solution. The audience could actively participate in the creation of meaning. This
book considers several important rejoinders to these claims.

Conceptual Map
A series of key ideas form a map for the arguments in this book. We begin with two foundational
concepts: meaning and power.

Meanings are the elementary building block of human communication. Humans use meanings
to express their perceptions, intentions, feelings and actions. Meanings take shape in language,
images, gestures and rituals. They indicate how we make sense of ourselves, each other and the
world we live in. We use meaning to recognize one another. By making and sharing meaning we
acknowledge the existence of others, their lives, their desires and their claims for a place in the
world. Meanings are created via the negotiation we undertake with each other to create social
relationships, institutions and shared ways of life.
Power is the ability to realize your will against the will of others. Relationships between
people are characterized by struggles over material, economic, political, symbolic and cultural

Making and maintaining power depends in part on the capacity to control meaning . In any human
society, relationships can be observed between powerful groups, the means of communication and the
flow of meaning.

Three concepts are useful in examining the relationship between meaning and power: ideology,
hegemony and discourse .

Ideology is a framework of ideas upon which people make decisions and act. Critical studies of
media and communication have often examined ideology in order to demonstrate how powerful
groups construct frameworks of meaning that cohere with their interests.
Hegemony is a cultural condition where a particular way of life and its associated ideas,
identities and meanings are accepted as common sense by a population. Groups are hegemonic
when their ideas seem natural, inevitable and common sense. Groups have to work at achieving
and maintaining their hegemonic status.
Discourse refers to a system of meanings and ideas that inform the rules, procedures and
practices of a society and its institutions. Discourses affirm some people and their practices, and
discourage others. They mark out some ways of life as acceptable and others as unacceptable.

Exercising power – by producing and managing ideologies, hegemonies and discourses – depends in
part on the capacity to control the creation of representations and identities.

Representation is the social process of making and exchanging meaning. People use media to
construct a view of reality. How people understand the world organizes how they act in the
Identity is produced by representations, and is the process of locating ourselves within the
social world and its power relationships. We do this by drawing on the representations and
discourses available to us.

During the twentieth century, the process of constructing representations and identities was
organized in a mass culture industry.

The culture industry is composed of the range of institutions that make meaning and use it to
shape and manage mass populations.
The culture industry employs a class of professional communicators whose job is to make
and manage meaning.

Over the past generation parts of the culture industry have become interactive . In addition to making
and disseminating meanings to mass audiences, the culture industry relies on the participation of
audiences in the production and circulation of meaning. Audiences receive, decode, circulate and

create meanings. Audiences are also subject to mass surveillance . The culture industry invests
significant resources in watching and responding to audiences. The contemporary culture industry
exercises power by relying on interactive technologies to watch, organize and control the
participation of audiences.

What Does Today’s Culture Industry Look Like?
The mass culture industry of the twentieth century still exists. Every day people all
over the world watch television, listen to the radio, read news, go to the movies and
see advertising on billboards as they travel through the city. Arguments about the
capacity of the culture industry to shape shared ways of life, and the role that
audiences play as active participants in that process, still matter. The development of
interactive technologies has dramatically extended the role the culture industry plays
in organizing everyday life. The emergence of an interactive culture industry is
embedded within the development of a global, networked and informational form of
capitalism. Just as the mass societies of the twentieth century used mass media to
fashion mass collective identities and mass markets, the networked and flexible
economy of the twenty-first century seeks adaptable identities, niche markets, and
fragmented and asymmetrical flows of content. A flexible economy based on the
mass customization of goods, services and experiences is interconnected with a
culture industry that can produce multiple identity-based audiences on-demand. If
the industrial economy of the twentieth century created one kind of product for a
mass market, the flexible economy of the twenty-first century can create many
customized products for many niche markets at once. A mode of production that can
cater to niche lifestyle groups is interconnected with the development of a media
system that can simultaneously fashion, target and manage multiple identities.

The twentieth-century culture industry was criticized for its disciplinary forms of
representational control, limiting the range of symbolic and cultural resources
audiences had access to, and thereby containing the extent to which populations
participated in the creation and circulation of meaning. The interactive culture
industry appears to dramatically open up the space within which ordinary people
can make and circulate meaning. Where the twentieth-century culture industry’s
mode of control could be explained in a representational sense – captured in
Lasswell’s (1948) formula ‘who says what to whom in what channel with what
effect’ – the interactive culture industry of today adds participatory and reflexive
modes of exercising power to the mix. In this media system, telling audiences what
to think about is augmented with giving them constant opportunities to express
themselves within spaces and processes where the culture industry can track,
channel, harness and respond to those expressions. Where once the culture industry
might have acted to thwart audience participation by limiting who can create and
circulate meaning, today’s culture industry works to stimulate audience participation
in meaning making. What celebratory accounts of audience participation often miss
is that the culture industry’s method of making and managing populations has
enlarged to include participatory and responsive techniques. These forms of control

operate by getting audiences to interact within communicative enclosures where
their meaning making can be monitored, channelled and harnessed. Today’s culture
industry is far more permissive and participatory, but is also more responsive and
deeply embedded into everyday life.

How Do Interactive Media Utilize and Structure Our
Think of the differences between television and smartphones. Television is
emblematic of the mass culture industry, the smartphone illustrative of the
networked culture industry. Television beams one stream of images into the homes
of a population. Those populations watch television each morning and evening.
They make sense of the world via a flow of images created by professional
communicators who control who gets to speak and how the world is represented.
Television offers a representational mode of control; it uses a flow of images to
shape the identities and practices of populations. With television everyone sees the
same flow of meaning at the same time. Broadcast television watched by mass
audiences fashions collective identities and ways of life. The smartphone also
distributes a continuous flow of images to audiences. This flow of images though is
dynamic. Each audience member sees a different flow of images depending on their
identity and place in social networks. The flow constantly adapts to their preferences
and practices. It is a mixture of content created by professional communicators,
cultural intermediaries and peers. Nearly all of the content we see on our
smartphone flows through networks made and maintained by the culture industry.
Most of the content that flows through our smartphone is either produced by
professional communicators or circulated within networks where professional
communicators monitor us. Furthermore, we carry our smartphones with us all day.
They passively monitor our movements through the city, our interactions with
friends, and increasingly our expressions, moods and bodies. Television was
confined to the home, was often switched off, and could only distribute meaning (it
couldn’t watch or listen to us). The smartphone is constantly attached to our body,
always on, sends and receives meaning, and enables data collection. The smartphone
offers a far more flexible, responsive and continuous way of communicating with,
monitoring and managing populations. Where television was central to the
fashioning of mass collective identity, the smartphone facilitates the production and
positioning of identities within networks.

Interactive media have been celebrated for the way they afford new forms of
participation, and critiqued for the way they dramatically extend the use of
information and meaning in the management of populations. Audience participation
is integral to this culture industry, but this doesn’t mean that audiences have more
power or control. The more audiences participate, the more they contribute to the
development of networks, flows of meaning and collections of data that enable the
more reflexive and real-time management of populations. We examine throughout
the book how news, politics, brands and popular culture rely on the participation of

audiences. We aim to develop an account of how the interactive culture industry’s
construction of opportunities for audiences to speak is interrelated with the
enormous investment in technologies that enable it to watch everyday life.

What is the Role of Professional Communicators in the
Exercise of Power?
In this book we are particularly interested in the work of professional
communicators in managing meaning and power. In an interactive culture industry
the work of professional communicators extends beyond the production of
meanings as content to include managing the participation of cultural intermediaries
and audiences in the ongoing circulation of content. Professional communicators
don’t just create and disseminate meaning; they manage other meaning makers, and
they watch and respond to populations in real time. Professional communicators are
also involved in creating and managing social and urban spaces within which they
organize audience participation. Rather than just create meanings and
representations distributed to mass populations, professional communicators
manage open-ended processes of meaning making in complex and diffused
networks. Professional communicators need to be highly skilled at using their
communicative, strategic and analytical abilities to create and maintain social
relationships within structures controlled by the culture industry. The work of
professional communication involves more than just the creation of persuasive or
valuable content: it extends to managing space, populations and complex
communication processes.

Many of the theoretical ideas in this book are critical ones. Critical theories are
concerned with how the construction of social relationships is embedded in the
exercise of power. Critical theories offer arguments about the role media play in
shaping our social world. They account for individual, institutional, social, cultural,
historical and technological dimensions of media and communication. These
arguments are valuable to us as scholars, citizens and professional communicators.
Understanding how uneven flows of symbolic resources shape the world we live in
makes us more critically informed citizens. It helps us to reflect on how we might
be heard in meaningful ways, how we might participate in communicative activities
that materially shape the world we live in, and how we might create new kinds of
social relationships. The best professional communicators have a nuanced
understanding of the place of media in broader social, cultural and political
processes. Being a leading professional communicator involves more than just
having communicative skills to use technologies to produce compelling content or
create interactive platforms that harness audience participation. Professional
communicators also need the critical and analytical ability to determine how they
contribute to the construction of social relationships and structures. Critical theories
prompt us to think carefully about human experience and relationships. Even if you
aren’t especially interested in the consequences of using meaning to exercise power,

critical theories offer ways of developing a detailed understanding of the
relationship between meaning and power. This relationship is the business of
professional communication. Understanding this relationship can inform a variety
of strategic ends. Critical ideas aren’t ones that think power is bad or the media are
bad, or that attempt to unmask and reveal how things really are. Power is important;
it governs how we get things done in the world. Critical theory doesn’t attempt to
imagine a world without power, but rather to examine how power is organized.
Critical ideas are ones that pay attention to how power is exercised and how
meaning shapes relationships between people. Power isn’t a simple one-way
application of brute force; power works through a combination of disciplinary and
participatory mechanisms. Populations are easiest to manage when they consent to,
and participate in, established power relationships. The best leaders – regardless of
their political or personal views about media and power – understand the
relationships between meaning and power.

Engaging With Critical Debate About Media
Production, Content and Participation
The book is organized in three parts. The first part outlines key conceptual ideas in
our study of meaning and power, including: hegemony, discourse, ideology,
representation, rituals and the culture industry. We also examine the development of
the culture industry in the twentieth century and its transition to a networked and
interactive culture industry in the past generation. We conclude this section by
examining the work of professional communicators in the contemporary culture
industry. In the second part of the book we examine several modes of production
within the culture industry – news, politics, identity, branding and popular culture.
Throughout this section we examine the shift from the production of mass
audiences and identities in the twentieth century to the management of a network of
flexible identities and audiences in the contemporary culture industry. In the final
part of the book we consider in detail the forms of participation and control central
to the ongoing development of the interactive culture industry. In the conclusion we
examine how the contemporary culture industry assembles a network of
representational, participatory and responsive modes of control. Meaning is
fundamental to the exercise of power, but not only because it tells us what to think
about. By taking part in networks of meaning making we make ourselves a visible
participant in the power relationships the culture industry manages.

Engaging With Academic Debate
Throughout the book we cite work by scholars in the field, and we encourage you to
go and read their work to extend your thinking, consider our point of view, and
come to a view of your own. This book, like all academic publication, is not a
stand-alone work. It is situated in a broader academic debate. Understanding how
academic publication works and how to read journal articles will help you make
better sense of the ideas and arguments in this book.

Journal articles and academic publication
A journal article is a research study or essay where academics present their research
findings and arguments to a scholarly field. To be published in a journal an article
must be blind peer-reviewed. This process ensures that research is appropriately
evaluated by experts in the field before it can be published. When an academic
submits an article for publication in a journal the editor anonymizes the submission
and sends it on to two or more experts in the field. Those experts read the
submission and respond to the editor with their comments about the article and
recommendation on whether or not it should be published. The reviewers make two
judgements. The first judgement is about the rigour of the article’s argument,
method and findings. The article must conform to the scholarly norms and
principles of the field. The second judgement is about the contribution of the article
to debate. The article must offer some new ideas and insights and help to further
important debates in the field. Journals are a forum for iterative and ongoing debate.
Consider a journal article as being one part of a larger conversation. Whatever
journal article you are reading will be responding to what scholars in the field have
had to say in the past, and in time – if the article is a good one – future scholars will
respond in turn. The purpose of academic journals is to animate a structured
conversation between researchers where they share their research and arguments in
a considered and rigorous way.

Journals are the bedrock of any academic field. They are the institution through
which experts construct and manage the production of ideas that shape and define
their fields. They are the forum where ideas and debates are mapped out, critiqued,
presented and debated. Without journals there would be no shared mechanisms for
academics to disagree with each other, challenge each other and support each other
in a constructive way. Good journal articles are those that can articulate a problem
that matters to the field, challenge current thinking in a productive way, and map out
a rigorous method, findings and argument that suggest a way forward for those in
the field. Journal articles that have been published recently give you an insight into
the debates that matter right now in the field. But that doesn’t mean that older articles
aren’t still relevant and important. If you find a debate or idea in an older article that
is useful and relevant, then use it. The important thing with using older articles is
that you consider how to contextualize it within contemporary debates. Look for
who has cited, engaged with or extended the debate since the article was published.

On the companion website of this book, we provide you with a selection of journal
articles we’ve specifically chosen to help you with your study and research. They’re
free to download and we encourage you to use this ‘reading a journal article’ guide

to help improve your essays and take your studies deeper. Go to and read on!

How to Read a Journal Article
Not all journal articles are the same, but they do all tend to have some fundamental elements. If you
understand what these elements are, how to find them and why they matter it will help you to
understand articles, evaluate their quality, read more efficiently and incorporate their arguments into
your own writing.

There are five elements you should aim to identify in any journal article you read:

a significant question or claim
a position in the academic debate
an explanation of the research method or approach
a presentation of the findings and argument
a statement of the implications and contributions of the research study.

Question or claim
The first element to look for when reading a journal article is the main question the author poses or the
main claim they are making. This question or claim effectively sets the frame through which the author
wants the reader to judge their writing. The editor of the journal, when agreeing to publish the article,
would have decided that the question or claim is an important one and that the author clearly
demonstrated it in their writing. You will usually find this claim in the first section of the article. Once
you’ve found it, use that claim as the foundation upon which the article is built. The author will also
explain why their question or claim is significant and who or what it matters to. The significance might
be presented in relation to the academic field, a policy or governance problem, or events that matter
to politics, cultural life or an industry.

Position in the academic debate
The presentation of a question or claim is interrelated with a review of the relevant academic literature.
In some articles this will be presented as a clear literature review section; in other articles the first few
pages of the article will weave together the author’s claim and question, with an analysis of relevant
literature. This might not be titled ‘literature review’ but come under several themed subheadings.

The purpose of this section of a journal article is not just to summarize the debate, but to organize it
and frame it. A good literature review will set out competing perspectives or clearly articulate
shortcomings and limitations in the current scholarly debate. The purpose is to demonstrate how the
author’s question and claim will respond to significant debates in the literature. Sometimes the author
will claim to fill a gap in the current debate by adding some now evidence; in other cases the author
will claim to correct or refute a significant assumption or claim in the literature by providing
confounding evidence or demonstrating how new developments change previous understandings.

The academic literature is always under construction: journal articles don’t aim to end the debate with
a final piece of definitive knowledge, but rather contribute to the ongoing effort to push debate
forward. The engagement with the literature at the start of a journal article aims to position the article
in relation to those debates. Sometimes the literature review will position the study’s contribution as an
‘applied’ one, other times it will be ‘conceptual’. An applied contribution is where existing ideas from
the literature are taken and applied or tested in a new context. For example, if research has mainly
been conducted with people in one setting (like a city), new research might test those ideas by
examining people in a different setting (like a rural area). A conceptual contribution is where existing
ideas from the literature are reformulated, or new ideas are proposed, as a way of contending with
new developments in technology, society or culture.

At the end of this section of a journal article you should have a clear idea of the debate the author is
engaging with, why that debate matters and how they intend to contribute to it. As a reader the
literature not only familiarizes you with a debate but also offers you some reference points for your
own research. Often, a good way to target your reading is to go out and engage with the authors that
others are engaging with. If you find a journal article about a topic or issue that is relevant to you, then
check out who the author is engaging with and follow their lead. If you read authors that are citing
each other then you are more likely to find a coherent conversation to ground your own thinking and
writing within.

Explanation of research method or approach
Once an author has explained their question and claim, and why it matters, and then situated it within
current academic debate, they will then set out how they went about doing their research. This is
where they explain how they will make an original contribution to the literature.

The media and communication field crosses a broad range of approaches. Some journals have a very
systematic way of presenting research methodologies. These journals tend to come from more
empirical disciplines that follow a scientific method like psychology or sociology. A journal article
might label its methodology section clearly and offer a sustained and clear explanation of the
methodological approach and often also an evaluation of its strengths and limitations.

Many journals also come from humanities traditions. In these articles the explanation and justification
of the methodology may be more implicit, but it will always be there in some form or another. In its
most basic form the author will provide a paragraph that explains how they did what they did and who
has used similar methods to address similar questions.

A quantitative and scientific methodology might involve a descriptive or experimental survey for
instance, where the author would clearly explain and evaluate the validity of the constructs used in the
survey, the sample size and the analytic procedures. A discourse analysis might explain the range of
texts selected for analysis and the analytic procedure used to make sense of them. An interview study
might explain the sample of people interviewed, the range of questions asked, how the interviews were
analysed and what claims were possible from them.

Sometimes a journal article will be making a critical and conceptual argument, and therefore won’t
necessarily have empirical evidence or methodology. In these articles though there is still a method in
the sense that the author will explain clearly how the argument is structured and what material it will
engage with: instead of empirical material like interview, textual or survey data, it might be a scholarly
debate or conceptual framework that the author is framing, critiquing and contributing to.

In the media and communication field there are no right and wrong methods, or methods that are better
than others. What matters is that the author clearly explains how they did their research and how that
approach was appropriate for responding to the question they are posing or making the claim they are
making. You need to understand the methodology in order to understand the basis on which the author
will go on to make their arguments. You might also find the methodology useful for developing your
own research projects and approaches.

Presentation of findings and argument
The first three elements – the problem, literature review and methodology – clearly set out what the
article is about, why it matters and how the research was done. From there the author moves on to
present the findings and argument from the research. This is where the author makes their contribution
to the literature by presenting original material and arguments. These sections are sometimes called
‘results’ and ‘discussion’, other times they are organized under themed subheadings. In more empirical
articles the results will be presented separately and then discussed. This is common in journal articles
presenting survey research for instance. In other articles the results and analysis will be woven
together; this is more common in qualitative and critical research articles. The structure of this section
often offers a useful conceptual framework for your own writing. In the findings and argument,
scholars usually present concepts that you can use to structure and inform your own arguments,
analysis and research.

Statement of implications and contributions of the
research study
A journal article will conclude with an explanation of the implications of the research, its limitations,
and suggestions for further research. The author will explain what the consequences and significance
of the research findings are to the scholarly debate. They will then map out what they think the next
steps in research on this problem should be. You can use the conclusion as a launching point for your
own arguments, taking up the questions and challenges authors arrive at in their journal articles as a
starting point for your own thinking and writing. As academics read each other’s journal articles they
look to the implications and suggestions of previous publications and use them as the basis for
formulating their next research projects and arguments.

Placing a journal article in broader debate
You should also aim to place a journal article within the broader academic debate. The first way to do
this is to go to the journal article’s reference list and locate other articles that extend ideas in the
article which are of use to you. Do this in conjunction with reading the article. Where the author makes
a claim that you find compelling or useful and then cites it in reference to another author, go to that
author’s work and read it too. The second way to place the journal article in the larger debate is to
conduct a search to find out who else has cited the article since it was published. Citation is when an
article is referenced in another article after it is published. Academics use citation to follow how
articles get incorporated into ongoing academic debate after they have been published. Academic
publishing is reasonably slow, so you may find that articles don’t accumulate citations until two or
three years after they have been published. Articles by prominent scholars or articles that are key to
debates in the field will accumulate many citations.

The easiest way to find citations is to use Google Scholar. Search for the article you are reading in
Google Scholar. When you find it you will see underneath the listing a link that says ‘Cited by …’
followed by a number. That number is the number of articles that have cited it since publication. Click
on that link to go through to the list of articles and search in there for publications that are relevant to
you. If there are many hundreds of citations for an article you can click the ‘search within existing
articles’ box to search key terms within those articles citing the original article. If you pay attention to
how an article is positioned in the broader academic debate it will help you select a collection of
articles that are in conversation with one another. This will help to improve your writing because you
will have identified and mapped out a shared conversation between scholars who are already mapping
out and contributing to a debate that you can then engage with.

1 Meaning, Representation and Power The
creation and control of meaning making is
critical to the exercise of power.

* How is meaning made and controlled?
* How does representation work as a social process?
* How is meaning used to exercise power?

In this chapter we:
Define meaning and power
Consider how meaning and power are related to one another
Examine several fundamental accounts of the relationship between meaning and power: hegemony,
ideology, discourse and representation
Overview how media representations organize everyday life.

Defining Meaning
Communication is central to human experience. When we are born we are
immediately situated in, and gradually socialized into, language and meaning. The
language we learn to speak, the culture that informs our view of the world and the
ideas we are taught precede our arrival in the world. As we grow up we embody
history: clusters or pools of ideas, meanings and practices that have congealed over
time. We identify these ideas and practices as societies and cultures. Communication
has an array of affective and material roles to play in how we relate to others, how
we imagine our lives and how we get things done in the world. In his history of the
idea of communication Durham-Peters (1999: 1) writes, ‘Though humans were
anciently dubbed the “speaking animal” by Aristotle, only since the late nineteenth
century have we defined ourselves in terms of our ability to communicate with one
another.’ In this book, we are particularly interested in how communication has
become central to the development of society, culture and politics since the early
twentieth century. In western societies, like the United Kingdom, Ireland, United
States, Canada and Australia, communication has become bound up with the
production and circulation systems we call ‘the media’. Before we get to the media
though we must first consider meaning as an elementary building block of
communication. And we must examine the role of communication in forming and
maintaining social relationships.

By internalizing meanings, practices and ways of communicating we become
members of various social groups and cultures. Meanings are resources that we use
to generate our identities, negotiate with others and position ourselves within a
social milieu. Meanings are never stable, static or fixed. As we use, circulate and
share them, we also remake and reposition them. Our societies and cultures then are
also not static. They are continually being reinvented and struggled over. Every
individual makes some contribution to reshaping meaning as we engage in the
everyday process of communicating with each other. As we grapple to make sense
of, and shape, our world, we necessarily change the meaning structures and cultural
practices we are born into. The meanings and practices that shape us, and that we use
to shape our relationships with others and our world, shift throughout our lives.
Numerous, often imperceptibly small, shifts result in the networks of meanings
changing from generation to generation, place to place and group to group. Culture
is a dynamic and living process. Meanings change and grow precisely because the
process of communication – perceiving, receiving and decoding; imparting,
disseminating and encoding – relies on innumerable small creative transactions
between active human beings.

All individuals play a role in making, remaking and circulating meaning. Some
individuals and groups, however, have more power than others within the
communicative process. The networks of meaning making we live within are not
arbitrary or random. People are positioned differently by the power relationships in
which they are embedded. These positions impact on the access individuals have to
media production and circulation systems. Some individuals have more symbolic,
cultural and economic resources to control the production and circulation of
meaning. This is by no means to suggest though that communication is a linear
hierarchy. Each person who communicates is located in a network of social
relationships at a particular place and time. They each have differing capacities to
adopt, negotiate or resist the production and circulation of meanings that constitute
their lives, identities and social worlds.

The making of meaning is embedded within human relationships. Human
relationships are marked by an uneven allocation of symbolic and material
resources. Those resources are the basis upon which some individuals are able to
exert control over the shape of human societies, cultural practices and the shaping
of the material world. In this book we refer to these processes as power
relationships. One way individuals gain and maintain power is by using meaning to
position themselves relative to others. To do this they create and control systems of
meaning production and circulation. Just as meanings are never fixed, so too are
power relationships always in a state of flux. Meaning is struggled over as people
work at improving their position within networks of power relationships. Gaining
access to the means of communication, and even particular meanings, is both
derivative of power and a means of acquiring power. Those with power have a
greater capacity to make and circulate meaning because they are able to control
communication institutions and practices. Sites where meanings are made, and the
channels through which meanings flow, are significant sites of struggle. Meaning-
production spaces like newsrooms, film and television studios, parliaments, courts,
universities and research institutions are sites of struggle where people compete for
access and argue over ideas.

To understand why a particular set of meanings circulates at a certain time and place
we must examine the power relationships between people. Mapping power and
meaning is complex because each is constantly shifting in relation to the other.
There is a continual struggle over power in all human groups and a constant
realignment of winners and losers. Shifts in power are accompanied by changes in
the production of meaning. Mapping the mechanics of meaning production, as with
mapping meaning itself, requires careful consideration of the time, place and power
relationships in which meanings are embedded.

The Power to Influence Meaning Making
At the outset then we need to examine the relationship between power and meaning.
Power does not have the tangibility of an object, yet as human beings we all
intuitively recognize its presence. We implicitly know in our day-to-day lives how
to act according to the power relationships that surround us. In our homes,
classrooms, workplaces, and in public spaces we know that some people are able to
exert control over how we act. That control is often subtle, and we willingly consent
to power via our actions. Like communication, power is omnipresent, yet it can be
overlooked because it seems to be just there. Power is though a crucial dimension
of the production and circulation of meaning. When we examine power we pay
attention to how ideas are made and circulated, by certain people, in particular
settings and moments in time. Power is a slippery phenomenon with numerous
definitions. For the purposes of this book, power will be seen as the capacity to get
what you want when interacting with others. Max Weber (1978) expressed this best
when saying that those with power are able to realize their own will even against the
resistance of others. Power is also found in the more subtle capacity to stop
conflicts from emerging by preventing oppositional agendas from even developing
in the first place (Lukes 1974).

Proposing this definition of power raises three related issues.

Firstly, what is the relationship between power and social elites?
Secondly, where does power come from?
And, thirdly, what is the relationship between being embedded within a power
relationship and free agency?

What is the relation between power and social elites?
Discussions about the relationships between meaning making and the media can
easily end up sounding like a conspiracy theory in which power elites are seen to
manipulate media content to serve their own interests. Studies of media ownership
and control, sometimes drawing on the political economy approach to
communication, have posited conspiratorial interpretations of media control. These
conspiracies more or less argue that powerful groups carefully control the
messages and meanings made and circulated in the media. They see an all-powerful
media being used to generate ‘false consciousness’. While powerful groups might
use media to create and circulate their preferred meanings, they can’t guarantee that
the meanings they make will do what they intend. The process of making and
managing meaning is messy and opportunistic. There is no conspiracy of elites
sitting in a closed room engineering social meanings. The control of meaning
making is not always repressive; it can be reflexive and adaptable. That is, elites
don’t control meaning making by policing specific meanings, but often by watching
and responding to meaning making in general: by steering, shaping and
channelling. The control of meaning making can be nuanced and subtle. Media
production is used by powerful groups to maintain power. But this does not mean
they can simply use the media to exert direct manipulative control over people.

The debate about the power elite theory between the American political scientist
Robert Dahl (1961) and the American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959) is useful
when considering the power elite argument. In his book Who Governs? Dahl put
forward a pluralist position that argued there is no unified elite because power is
diffused within a democracy. Whereas Mills argued in The Power Elite that
ultimately power resided with a small group of people within a society. Dahl’s
pluralist model sees society as made up of multitudes of intersecting and cross-
cutting interest groups without a clear elite. Mills’ power elite model sees society as
hierarchically structured, with a small unified elite commanding the rest of society.
In this book we engage with a third approach, the hegemonic domination model.
Hegemony refers to the establishment of a culture – a certain set of ideas, practices
and values – as common sense. Hegemonic ideas are ones that people consent to. In
western societies, for instance, liberalism, democracy and capitalism are dominant
hegemonic ideas. Most people appear to consent to these ideas and the actions
people take as a consequence of them. Hegemonic elites are formed out of alliances
of interest groups. These hegemonic alliances become powerful, but their
dominance is messy and tentative. It is less hierarchical than in Mills’

While at first Mills’ and Dahl’s positions may seem mutually exclusive, it is
possible to see each as valid if power is seen to migrate and mutate. Sites of power
constantly shift in the course of struggles taking place. Pluralist theory’s denial that
elites can (and do) emerge seems naive. But neither is the existence of power elites a
necessary condition of human existence – contexts can exist where power is diffused
in the way described by pluralist theorists like Dahl (1961). Similarly, the pluralist
failure to address the fact that elites can and do intentionally work to manipulate and
control non-elites also seems naive. But the notion that non-elites are necessarily
powerless and perpetually manipulated seems equally dubious. It is more helpful to
recognize the existence of elites and aspirant elites, as well as non-elite groups who
are part of a complex pluralist competition for (material and cultural) resources and
power. Within this framework the media are one of the many social sites struggled
over as a means to acquire and build power.

The hegemonic dominance model is based on this mutable and shifting
conceptualization of elites. At certain moments elites might well congeal and
manage to become the dominant power brokers within a particular context; only to
later have their power challenged and overthrown. This challenge might come from
another emergent elite or it might come from a diffused and pluralist network or
alliance of interests. One way to imagine Dahl’s model is as society having no
centre of power, but rather being composed of a series of fragmented and
competing interests; this constellation or balance of interests is susceptible to
change. If society is conceptualized as a fluid and continually mutating entity it
becomes possible to view elite theory and pluralist theory as describing different
moments of a shifting continuum. Gramsci’s (1971) notion of hegemonic struggle
is especially useful when conceptualizing the interaction between various competing
interest groups. Hegemonic struggle is also helpful in conceptualizing existing,
emergent and decaying power elites. Hegemonies have to be built and maintained.
Becoming and remaining powerful is never completely accomplished, it requires
continuous work: investing resources, managing relationships with other would-be
elites, amassing material resources and creating and attaining consent for your
ideas. Ruling elites are not conspiracies somehow manipulating society behind the
scenes: they are instead the outcome of continual hard hegemonic labour. In present
day societies, creating and maintaining hegemonies involves managing the interests
of millions of people.

Figure 1.1 Pluralism, power elites and hegemonic dominance

Where does power come from?
There are three common explanations of the source of power.

Firstly, access to material and cultural resources needed to get your way and
attain the consent of others. This includes the use or threat of violence.
Secondly, the occupation of social positions that enhance your capacity to get
your way, have others comply with you and restrain the capacity of others to
And thirdly, using and controlling language to structure social relations.

All three explanations are valuable. Power is derivative of access to economic and
cultural resources, social positions and the ability to control language.

To acquire and maintain power, elites and would-be elites seek to control
institutions that make and manage ideas. Various institutions are ‘licensed’ to
manufacture and circulate meaning: education institutions, the media, parliaments
and courts of law. These sites are cultural resources. Access to them is struggled
over and controlled. In any given society, struggles around these sites can be
observed. These struggles are most intense when power relations are fragile or
contested. Powerful groups attempt to control and limit access by a variety of

A common means of control is via credentials. Credentials are criteria produced by
institutions to govern access. For instance, to be a teacher in a school, or an
academic in a university, or a lawyer admitted to the bar you must have acquired the
appropriate qualifications. During the twentieth century universities became the key
credentialing mechanism in western society. Not just anyone can gain access to a
media institution and become a producer of meaning. Besides having the
appropriate skills and qualifications, those who run media institutions also ensure
the meaning makers they employ share the meanings of that institution. You will not
remain employed at a mainstream western news organization if you produce stories
that are anarchist, anti-capitalist, fascist or that encourage terrorism, for example.

The media became an important cultural resource during the twentieth century for
positioning people: as good or bad, as powerful or weak, as important or
unimportant, as credible or illegitimate. Media representations are necessarily
battled over because such discourses serve to legitimate or de-legitimate particular
hierarchies of social positions and the incumbents of those positions. Given the
importance the media assumed in the process of making and circulating powerful
ideas from the second half of the twentieth century, media institutions have become

prized possessions for those seeking power. Owning or controlling a media
institution empowers the owner to hire and fire the makers of meaning. Often,
media empower particular people and ideas based simply on who and what they pay
attention to. Media can disempower not only by saying a particular person or idea is
bad, but by simply failing to acknowledge its existence. Whether the ownership and
control of media sites does actually confer power will depend on the individuals
concerned, the context they operate within and the wider struggles taking place
within that context. Power is, however, not immutable and the institutions that
produce meaning are dynamic sites. One observation we can make though is that
already having material and symbolic power is an advantage in future power

What is the relationship between being embedded
within a power relationship and free agency?
This is a question about the relationship between being controlled and being free.
Essentially, there are two different conceptions of power.

In the first, people are passive and have power exercised over them. They
merely inhabit preordained structures and social roles. In this view people are
conceptualized as imprisoned within power relationships and structures,
whether these are economic, political or cultural.
The second sees humans as active and part of a process in which power is
struggled over. Here, people have agency. Our lifeworlds are seen as the
outcome of mutable and creative human activity in which we make and remake
our own structures.

For our examination of communication, this poses a question of whether we are
seen to be free to make meaning, or whether we merely inhabit predetermined sets
of meanings.

The question of predetermined structure versus human agency needs to be
positioned within the shift in western philosophy from structuralism to post-
structuralism that developed in the mid-twentieth century. This is a complex shift,
involving several of the key figures of twentieth-century thought and philosophy.

Meaning is fixed
For Ferdinand de Saussure (1974), a founding theorist of linguistics, we are
socialized in a prison-house of language. We are born into a world of subjective
structures and we learn their pre-existing signs and codes. The Marxist theorist
Louis Althusser (1971) took Saussure’s notion of linguistic structures and used
these to develop his idea of ideological state apparatuses. Ideological state
apparatuses include family, religion, media and education. These structures position
us within fixed ideologies or meanings. The way we understand the world and act is
determined by those meanings. Within the Althusserian world-view, power derived
from controlling these ideological state apparatuses. Human agency was given little
scope within this structural and subjectivist view of human communication.

Meaning can be temporarily fixed

The shift into a post-structural interpretation of meaning came with the French
philosopher Michel Foucault (1977, 1979). Foucault also saw humans as being
constituted within linguistic structures. However, for Foucault, we are constituted
within discursive practices, and these practices are created by human agency within
institutions. This Foucaultian shift was highly significant because it opened a space
for human agency and struggle that was tied to a notion of institutionalized
communication. Structures exist, but these structures, institutions and practices are
mutable and changeable because they are the outcome of struggles between active
human beings. Structures are something humans maintain through their discourses
and practices. The Foucaultian notion of discursive practices represented a shift
away from linguistic determinism, that is, away from the idea that we are born into a
language or system of meanings and ideas that we cannot change. His notion of
knowledge as being constituted by active human practices, within human-made
institutions, placed Foucault’s understanding of communication within the same
terrain as that of Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) notion of hegemonic struggle. For both
Foucault and Gramsci, communication is the outcome of human practices that are
struggled over. There may be communicative structures which set boundaries or
parameters, but these do not predetermine human action.

Meaning is never fixed
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1976) took this Foucaultian notion one
stage further, and explored the struggle over meaning as a process of trying to
either fix meanings into place or uncouple meanings. For Derrida there is a constant
shift in meaning structures as the process of fixing and uncoupling and re-fixing
unfolds. The political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1985) took
Derrida’s notion one stage further by even questioning the possibility of ever fixing
meanings into place. At most Laclau and Mouffe saw ‘fixations’ as partial. Within
this account we shift into an understanding of communication as a pure semiosis,
where meaning making is understood as purely about language games. The cultural
studies academic Stuart Hall (1983) noted the limitations of this extreme post-
structuralist world-view. Essentially, extreme post-structuralism decontextualizes
meaning making. It ignores power relationships embedded in identifiable political
and economic contexts, and so loses the substance and complexity that a Foucaultian
or Gramscian approach has. The Laclau and Mouffe position of ‘pure semiosis’ is
ill-equipped to deal with how power relationships emerge between humans engaged
in struggles over resources and positions. These struggles involve symbolism and
cultural resources but they are not reducible exclusively to mere battles over

The Gramscian or Foucaultian positions have the advantage of allowing for both
human agency and structural limitations. When making meaning we necessarily
operate within pre-existing economic, political and linguistic structures, and hence
within pre-existing power relations. But these existent structures and power
relationships are not immutable or fixed. Rather they set parameters within which
the next wave of struggle for power and influence takes place. These contextual
parameters may advantage certain individuals and groups engaged in the process,
but it does not imprison anyone into a predetermined outcome. Ultimately, both
meaning and power relations emerge from a process of ongoing struggle. Within
this process there will be those attempting to freeze certain meanings and structures
if these advantage their position. And if they have sufficient power or influence they
may even be successful for a while. But power is relational and messy, dependent
upon the way humans interact in a particular location and time. There will always be
gaps and contradictions in any system of control, and there will always be those
who wish to circumvent, and will often succeed in circumventing, the mechanisms
of control and meaning closure. Ultimately, relational shifts cannot be prevented,
hence power shifts are inevitable. Power is always contextually bound, transitory
and slipping away from those who try to wield it. Both meanings and power
relations are constantly sliding around, migrating and mutating, sometimes in sync
with one another and sometimes out of sync. This constant churn creates gaps for
those who wish to challenge existent power relations and structures. It is this
relational flux that constrains the powerful because the powerful can never
permanently pin down relationships that benefit themselves: there will always be
some other group pushing back. Power is consequently constrained by the

propensity humans have for struggle, and their capacity to find gaps and
contradictions in any social structure. No structure, whether it be economic,
political or cultural, is ever a permanent prison. At most, structures channel human

The same is true for meaning production. The processes of meaning making are
bounded by a multiplicity of human-made power relationships and structures which
may restrict human industry and creativity but which can never eliminate it. Even if
power relationships and structures do not determine meanings, they are part of the
contextual framework within which meaning is made and controlled.

The Struggle Over Meaning: Introducing Hegemony
An important dimension of human relationships is the struggle continuously taking
place over power and dominance between competing individuals and groups. This
competition impacts on both the circulation and production of meaning. All
societies have dominant and dominated groups. Naturally, dominant groups prefer
to remain dominant. Dominant groups have two mechanisms for creating and
maintaining power:

using or threatening violence against those challenging their interests
creating legitimacy for the social arrangements which grant them a dominant

The more legitimacy dominant groups have, the less
violence they need to employ
Ruling groups generally employ a mix of violence and legitimacy to maintain their
dominance. Legitimacy is preferable to violence. Power relationships that are
viewed as legitimate are easier to maintain. For this reason, the processes of
meaning making and circulation are important instruments for making and
maintaining power. As Gramsci argued, a key element in building and retaining
dominance is manipulating meaning to gain the consent of the dominated.
Professional communicators are central to the work of building hegemony, that is,
building legitimate and common-sense meanings. Professional communicators are
therefore implicated in power struggles.

Meanings are fluid because they are the outcome of a constant struggle between
professional communicators. Professional communicators can work for either
dominant or dominated groups. Generally speaking, dominant groups have an
advantage because they have more resources to employ professional
communicators and create or acquire the institutions in which they produce
meaning. Think for example of the election process for the US President. Those
with resources are disproportionately able to influence the meaning-making process
with campaign donations, funding independent advertising campaigns, lobby groups
and think tanks that make and circulate ideas. They use their resources to frame the
parameters of the political debate, by making certain issues a legitimate, and others
an illegitimate, part of the political and media agenda.

Those able to afford the best consultants, policy makers, public opinion researchers,
campaigners and communicators increase their chances of success because they
increase the likelihood of placing their ideas onto the agenda. This not only gives
them access to law makers, but also frames the political and social parameters
within which those law makers operate. Similarly, those who can afford the best
legal teams are more likely to gain favourable court rulings, which also impacts on
legal precedence. For instance, the 2010 US Supreme Court Citizens United v.
Federal Election Committee ruling used the First Amendment right to free speech to
prevent government from restricting corporations, unions and other groups from
funding political campaigns.

Building hegemony requires a mix of professional communicators: lobbyists,
policy makers, lawyers, researchers, journalists, advertisers, political strategists,
data analysts, designers and so on. This mix of professional communicators is
employed not only to make, but also to influence and control the social, cultural,

legal and political structures that organize the circulation of meaning. The capacity
to buy the most skilled professional communicators does not, however,
predetermine the outcome of meaning making. At most, it skews meaning
production in favour of those who are socially dominant or powerful at any point in
time. Grappling with the nature and extent of this capacity is the task of any serious
examination of meaning and power.

Defining hegemony
Professional communicators build hegemony. Hegemony is the creation and
maintenance of the legitimacy of dominant and powerful groups. Legitimacy is
granted when dominated groups consent to domination by more powerful groups.
According to Gramsci this involves intellectuals or professional communicators
engaging in three tasks:

Firstly, professional communicators help to build consent and legitimacy for a
society’s dominant groups. They develop support for the interests and goals of
powerful groups. They get other groups to accept as ‘natural’ the leadership,
ideas and moral codes of the powerful groups. This legitimacy-making work is
at its most obvious in our media and education systems.
Secondly, professional communicators organize alliances and compromises.
This work is most visible within parliaments, where bargains are struck
between different interests, deals are done and compromises made.
Thirdly, professional communicators strategically direct political or coercive
force. For Gramsci, violence underpins all hegemonies. It may not be
necessary to actually use violence against most citizens, but the threat of
violence is omnipresent. The simplest example of this is the enforcement of a
legal code by the police and judicial system. For most citizens, understanding
the consequences of breaking the law is enough to deter them from doing so.
Intellectuals and professional communicators organize and legitimate these
deterrent forces.

At any particular place and time it is possible to identify the ideas that make
powerful groups legitimate. Those ideas are produced and managed by professional
communicators working in a variety of institutional settings. These dominant
discourses are often opaque, but they establish the parameters within which meaning
in any given time and place is made, circulated and contested.

Not everyone accepts the dominant discourse. At any moment there will be
individuals and groups unconvinced by the ideas professional communicators
circulate. Hall (1980) argues such ‘oppositional’ people negotiate or reject the
meanings generated by professional communicators. There are always professional
communicators working against the dominant ideas. In any given society we can
find groups expressing oppositional ideas. Throughout state socialism in the Soviet
Union and Eastern Europe those in power had to contend with anti-communist
intellectuals and activists. The National Party in South Africa was challenged by
anti-apartheid activists. European nationalists oppose migration and
multiculturalism within most European countries. In many countries anti-

globalization activists are readily identifiable. These activists might communicate
via political parties, acts of violence, rallies, independent press, art or music. Some
professional communicators consciously work to develop and circulate
oppositional ideas designed to undermine hegemonic discourses and promote the
interests of dominated or disempowered groups. Such intellectuals, cultural
producers and professional communicators are engaged in counter-hegemonic

The struggle over ideas matters because meaning has material real-world
consequences (Volosinov 1973). What people think informs how they act. And, vice
versa, the world created out of the actions of people affects how we think and what
we can say. The meanings we make and circulate have real-world consequences. By
changing the nature of meaning one can also change human interactions, social
organizations and the distribution of resources. Feminist successes in placing
gender issues on the social agenda have, for example, altered human interactions,
work practices and resource distribution in western societies. The converse is
equally true: changing material relationships affects the way that meaning is made.
For example, the significant transfer of wealth in post-apartheid South Africa
created a new black elite, transforming many from socialist comrades into free
enterprise businesspeople. The struggle to construct and reconstruct societies,
cultures and economic systems, in part, involves battles to attach, detach and reattach
meanings. These shifts affect more than just how we see and talk about the world,
they change the way we live. Our lifeworld is altered. This in turn impacts on power
relationships. As new power relationships emerge, so to do new hegemonic
struggles of meaning, resources and power.

Hegemonic work is consequently complex. There are constant shifts between
competing interests. People are always being positioned and repositioned within
these shifting relationships. This produces an infinite number of positions from
which people make sense of meaning. No possibility exists of ever producing a
permanently stable set of dominant meanings. Instead, hegemonic work involves the
never-ending task of dealing with challenges, oppositional decodings, power shifts
and ever-changing alliances. Meanings are thus only hegemonic in a temporary
sense. They are under challenge from the moment of their conception. Despite this,
there will always be professional communicators trying to control and stabilize
meaning. This brings us to an important question then: to what extent can meaning
be controlled?

The Control of Meaning: Introducing Ideology and
Powerful groups attempt to control meaning. In some places and times those
attempts will be successful. The meanings they produce and circulate will acquire a
hegemonic dominance. That is, they will come to be seen as common sense or true.
As we have already argued though, meaning is not entirely controllable, immutable
or fixed. Humans will actively read, interpret and decode meanings. Despite the
efforts of dominant groups, their efforts to control meaning will always be
susceptible to resistance and the possibility that new meanings will emerge.

Efforts to control meaning are related to competition over material and cultural
resources. Human society is characterized by scarce resources. Our life chances are
set by the share of material and cultural resources we get access to. As long as there
are insufficient resources to satisfy all, struggles will occur between groups and
individuals. Central to the nature and outcomes of such struggles are the rules of
engagement, that is, the acceptable terms on which competition over resources will
be undertaken. In a liberal-democratic capitalist society, individuals cannot simply
go and forcibly acquire the wealth of others. There are a myriad of laws and
institutions that govern the ownership and production of wealth. From Gramscian
and Foucaultian perspectives, these rules of engagement are set and maintained via
battles over meaning. Powerful groups seek to use meanings to set rules that are
favourable to them.

The concept of ideology offers a framework for thinking about how the rules and
parameters of social life are established and maintained. Ideology is a multi-layered
concept that has evolved and grown over the past two centuries. We commonly use
the term ‘ideology’ to refer to the beliefs of another person and the values or
principles upon which they make decisions and act. It is often used with a negative
connotation. When one politician calls another an ‘ideologue’ they insinuate that
they are guided by certain beliefs which prevent them seeing how things really are.
This everyday use captures some aspects of the idea. Implied here is the notion that
there are right and true or wrong and distorted meanings or ways of seeing the
world. And that, when the powerful attempt to control meanings, what they do is
distort those meanings in order to create a view of an issue that suits their interests,
rather than create meanings that represent how things actually are. This way of
thinking assumes that someone has corrupted an ideal form of communication and
prevented others from seeing the ‘right’ meanings. It posits that there is an actual
and final truth that exists and that we can find it.

This problem brings us into rich, fruitful and tricky philosophical terrain. At its
most elementary the critical understanding of ideology is captured in the formula:
‘They know not what they do’. That is, people only act as they do because they don’t
understand how things really are. For instance, we might say that people only
consent to the way our liberal democracy works because we don’t fully appreciate
that rather than empower us as citizens, as we are always told, it in fact protects an
economic system that enables the rich to protect their wealth and resources. In this
view, the empowering narratives of liberal democracy are a set of meanings that
obscure the real nature of human relations in a society where a small number of
people accumulate the majority of the wealth and resources. A basic ideology
critique contends that these social contradictions – between how we are told society
works and how it actually works – are hidden from view. For some, an ideal society
would emerge if this distortion was revealed.

There are two important rejoinders to this basic ideology critique that we must
consider. Firstly, this critique is based upon a belief that an ideal society can be
identified and realized. Secondly, contemporary critics have drawn attention to the
fact that contemporary citizens often appear to know how things are but nevertheless
carry on as if they didn’t know (Žižek 1989). This might be because they don’t care,
aren’t too bothered by the social contradictions that affect their lives, or can’t think
of anything to do about it. For instance, contemporary citizens are often sceptical
that politicians are telling them the truth or really acting in their best interests, but

despite this knowledge they still carry on and act as if the politicians do have their
best interests at heart. Very rarely do we see citizens in established liberal
democracies protest against the way the political system is structured. Ideology does
not work by sustaining the sincere belief of subjects. Our disposition towards media
representations is often a cynical one; we profess not to believe them or to see
through their constructed nature. Instead, ideology works by offering symbolic
resources that make social reality functional and possible. To work, ideology
requires our participation rather than our belief (Žižek 1989).

The important point here is that merely understanding how things are will not
change power relations. Communication or knowledge alone will not solve social
problems. We cannot change the world by talking about it. Ideology doesn’t disguise
contradictions; it is instead a way of living with them, a way of making life
meaningful despite the contradictions. If we view it this way, then people aren’t
dupes for adhering to ideologies, but rather ideologies are a way for people to
make social life workable despite its contradictions. Within this approach, ideology
or distorted communication cannot disappear while social contradictions exist. And,
because social contradictions cannot be resolved, ideology cannot disappear.
Ideology doesn’t mask social contradictions, it is produced out of them.

Michel Foucault’s (1972) notion of a ‘discursive formation’ offers an explanation
of how meanings get made by people in specific contexts. According to Foucault,
societies create institutions. He looked at prisons, clinics and asylums. Each
institution develops its own set of practices and discourses. Those working within
such institutions have to learn the interconnected practices and discourses
appropriate to that institutional site. Practices are the acceptable way of doing things.
Discourses are the acceptable ‘language’ within that site. A person is unlikely to be
recruited into an institutional site unless they are able to demonstrate a compatibility
with practices or discourses already operative within it. They are unlikely to remain
employed unless they continue to conform to the institutions’ practices and

Conformity is a key governing mechanism within Foucault’s system. This implies
recognizing negative consequences for failing to conform. Importantly, Foucault’s
system does not necessitate seeing us as prisoners of natural language structures.
Instead, it allows space for active human choice regarding conformity to existing
practices and discourses. But whether by choice, or not, adherence to a discourse
limits what one is able to say and, over time, what one might think. According to
Foucault, a discourse governs the knowledge and ideas that can appear. Foucault
explored the way in which discourses constrained the emergence of knowledge and
concluded that parameters were set by establishing linguistic boundaries and
organizing fields that contained acceptable meanings and practices. These
organizing fields not only make certain ideas impossible and others possible; they
actually make certain ideas inevitable. Implicitly, the struggle to make new
meanings is enmeshed within, and constrained by, sets of power relationships within
the spaces where intellectuals work.

Both Foucault and Gramsci recognize the contradictory nature of human existence –
in which although humans are free to act, it is a constrained freedom. Ultimately
then, Gramsci’s notion of ‘hegemony’ and Foucault’s ‘discourse’ conceptually
overlap. Both recognize structural conditions to meaning making. At the same time,
they recognize that people have a choice to act either as change agents or as
conservatives because, up to a point, intellectuals and professional communicators
can choose between the institutional and discursive arrangements available within
their context. Fluidity and struggle are central to both the Gramscian and
Foucaultian world-views. In each conception intellectuals can choose how they
relate to existing power relationships; those power relationships are not fixed, but
mutate as struggles are won or lost.

What Foucault offers is a means for conceptualizing how discourse is a potentially
powerful hegemonic tool for social control. Discursive formations have the power
to exclude from discussion certain questions or issues. This forecloses debate and
so predetermines what conclusions may be reached. There are many instances of
discourses automatically excluding alternative perspectives. For example, free
market discourses can block adherents from grappling with the notion that
capitalism may disadvantage some people with merit and undermine their capacity
for achievement. Similarly, socialist discourses can block adherents from
confronting the view that competition may generate achievement and wealth, while
state interventionism may promote dependence and undermine wealth making.

Representation and Power
Representation is the social process of making and exchanging meaning (Hall
1997). Media do not simply reflect or mirror reality. Media are social processes.
People interact with others to construct a view of reality. These social interactions
unfold between people with different levels of access to economic, cultural and
symbolic resources, institutions and rituals. By social construction of reality we
mean that reality as we understand it is produced out of social relationships between
people. There is a real world out there, with real material things in it and events that
actually happen, but as humans we can only come to understand that world out of the
social process of interacting with each other. For us then, there is no understanding
of reality outside of our social interactions and cultural practices. The ‘re’ prefix in
representation is important. It is a process of re-presenting reality to others.
Representations are social productions: their meaning depends on who creates and
circulates them, the cultural schema within which that circulation takes place, and
who receives them. Representation takes place within the context of power relations.
Some people have more power to shape not only particular meanings, but also the
contexts within which meanings are produced, distributed and received.

Media representations shape how people think about and act in the world.
Representations also have significant affective dimensions. They anticipate,
construct and amplify how we feel about things. They reinforce or challenge our
attitudes. They arouse our emotions: fear, passion, anxieties. Representation is not
simply a rational process of creating and circulating inert bits of information. The
question is not always about whether or not representations are accurate, but how
they subtly frame events in ways that position individuals in the social order. We are
interested in how representations mediate relations between people. Relations
between people are complex and messy, and are constituted as much by how we feel,
and our relative level of power towards each other, as they are by empirical facts.

Representation is a process embedded in how we make sense of the world and in
doing so it shapes the world. Representation does this subtly and over a long period
of time. Images and narratives do not have meaning on their own. They only
become meaningful in relation to other images and narratives that have preceded
them or are produced in relation to. As groups of people attempt to ‘fix’ particular
representations, other groups will attempt to create different ones. In doing so they
are making claims on how we ought to make sense of, and act in, the world. An
important philosophical question to consider is the extent to which representations
accurately portray the world ‘as it actually is’. We can distinguish two responses to
this question:

A post-modern view that representations can never be finally fixed. This view
celebrates the possibilities opened up by a continuous game of making
meaning. The capacity of humans to create new meanings, and new ways of
seeing the world, opens up the possibility that power relationships can be
continuously rearranged via meaning making. This position arguably creates a
significant problem. By celebrating the constant play of meaning making it
loses the capacity to distinguish one meaning as better or more plausible than
another. The game of meaning making can become divorced from material
reality and daily life.
A hegemonic view that powerful groups aim to fix meanings. This is a complex
process that unfolds over time. When groups have power they can fix meaning,
as other groups acquire power though they may be able to unfix and create new
meanings. This is not a teleological process. Each new set of meanings is not
necessarily better than the last. Importantly, this position retains the view that
we can distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ meanings by judging them against
our engagement with and experiences in the world. This view is characterized
by humans who make and defend judgements about the value and truth of their

Considering these two positions enables us to reflect upon our own position about
the representations we create and use to make sense of the world.

Control over representation
While some people have more power to control the resources used to create
meanings, and the structures and spaces where meanings circulate, no one has
complete control over how meanings are encoded and decoded. Powerful groups
have the capacity to control media institutions and technologies, and the resources
to employ and direct professional communicators. That level of control only gets
them so far, because representations work discursively. Once produced, messages
have to be circulated. They become meaningful when incorporated into social
practices and institutions. Institutions can’t entirely control those social practices.
The process of representation is contingent on the actors in each moment, and their
relative power to influence or control others. The moments of ‘encoding’ and
‘decoding’ messages are ‘relatively autonomous’ (Hall 1980). A television
programme is produced within the institutional structures, technical infrastructure
and production practices of a television network.

The way television producers encode messages is shaped by the way they anticipate
others will decode their messages. Few professional communicators want to be
misunderstood by their audience, and most communicators need to pay attention to
the power relations they are embedded within. For a professional communicator
working on a television news programme for instance, they most likely anticipate
how their messages will be perceived by political and corporate elites on one hand,
and by their audience on the other. Their messages are discursively shaped by their
sense of how it fits within a broader cultural hegemony that reflects both the
interests of political elites and the desires of the audience. Professionals pay careful
attention to wider cultural discourses and power structures: the interests of political
elites, corporate sponsors and advertisers, and audience feedback through ratings
and market research. The producer isn’t an autonomous creator of a message, but
rather working at one interval in an ongoing process of representation. We might
argue though that they are working at a particularly influential interval. The
messages they encode can be distributed to a mass audience, and individuals in that
audience can decode the messages however they like, but they are probably unlikely
to be able to encode and distribute messages. Even though our media system is
increasingly interactive, this remains a crucial distinction.

Once a message is encoded and distributed though, it can only have an effect –
influence, entertain, instruct or persuade – once it has been decoded. The meaning
structure used to encode a message may not necessarily be the same as the meaning
structures in which the message is decoded. Even though professional
communicators might set the agenda and frame messages, they can’t ever guarantee

what their readers and audiences will do with those messages. The process of
representation is always open-ended to some degree. We must then always pay
attention to what audiences do with representations, in addition to examining the
messages themselves.

Human communication is characterized by struggles over power and meaning. Hall
(1980) suggests three possible positions within which messages might be decoded:
dominant, negotiated and oppositional.

When the message is decoded as the encoder intended, the process of
representation operates within a dominant hegemonic code. The social
exchange constructed here is one of consent or agreement between encoder and
decoder. The message attempts to be hegemonic in the sense that it claims its
own truth and legitimacy; it achieves this hegemony where the decoder
consents to that claim. The work of professional communicators is to encode
messages in such a way that their claims are legitimized by others.
A negotiated process of representation takes place when the decoder
understands quite well the claim to truth or legitimacy the encoder is making,
but they resist consenting to the claim. The decoder acknowledges the
legitimacy and power of the message at the same time they mark out their own
position, adapting the message to their own local conditions and social
relations. The capacity of the decoder to negotiate depends to some degree on
their relative autonomy, power and cultural and economic resources.
Negotiated processes of representation demonstrate the messy and contingent
nature of power. The decoder simultaneously acknowledges the existence of
the power and legitimate dominant code and at the same time they resist it with
whatever local resources they have available. Much communication, and the
ongoing work of hegemony and representation, is about these everyday
An oppositional exchange takes place where a decoder understands perfectly
well the encoded message, but rejects it entirely. Oppositional decoding
threatens to disrupt power relations. If a large group of people refuse to decode
the intended message of the encoder, and that oppositional decoding is backed
up by other economic, social and cultural resources, it may be the sign of a
hegemony breaking apart, or losing its legitimacy.

Hall’s model is useful for thinking about how in a society at any given time there is
a complex process of meaning making and representation taking place. The process
of encoding and decoding gives us a useful rubric for mapping out a variety of
positions from which individuals and groups might have the capacity to encode,
circulate, decode and recirculate messages.

Encoders with power are likely to have access to the means of communication from
which they can create and distribute messages. Their messages are likely to be
decoded as intended, and consented to, by those aligned to the ruling hegemony.
They might also find other groups undertaking a negotiated decoding of the
messages at local levels. This process of negotiation is part of managing hegemony,
but doesn’t fundamentally disrupt it. These other groups might not be happy with the
meanings, but they understand that in practice they need to consent to them.

In addition to encoders with power are encoders seeking to build power. These
individuals and groups also largely operate within the ruling or dominant
hegemony, but are seeking to negotiate a different position within that structure, to
acquire more economic and cultural power. They are often perceived within the
process of representation as an accepted part of the debate. For instance, in the
United States, a Democratic President might find conservative media disagreeing
with much of what he or she has to say, but ultimately not disputing their shared
liberal-democratic-capitalist hegemony. What is taking place here is a continuing
negotiation within a hegemonic structure that the various encoders and decoders
largely agree upon. This process of encoders and decoders, either aligned to the
ruling hegemony, involved in a process of active negotiation within it, or
ambivalent about it, characterizes the representation process that most of us are
familiar with on a day-to-day basis. For those of us who live in societies like the
United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Western
Europe, the media, cultural and political processes we are embedded within are part
of a liberalized order where the fundamental power relationships are not in dispute,
but within those frameworks groups are negotiating and jostling for resources.

Distinct from dominant and negotiated processes of representation are those
societies characterized by encoders and/or decoders opposed to the ruling
hegemony. Any society at any given time will have individuals and groups
fundamentally opposed to the ruling hegemony. For the process of representation,
though, this opposition is only of consequence if those groups are able to gain
access to the means of communication through which to create and distribute
messages, and if there are corresponding groups who will decode their messages as
intended. That is, if they have the capacity to create, circulate and have their
messages made meaningful by others.

The shooting of Mike Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014
drew attention to how news organizations draw on social media profiles to depict victims or
perpetrators of crime.

Some news organizations ran a photo of Brown in his graduation cap and gown, while many others
used a photo of Brown wearing a basketball singlet and making a hand gesture that naïve viewers
might interpret as a gang sign.

The use of an image that implied Brown was a member of a gang prompted many black Americans to
post contrasting images from their social media accounts to Twitter using the hashtag
#iftheygunnedmedown. Many featured young black men in formal dress for church, military or
graduation in one image, while in the other image they wore street wear that could be used to suggest
they are gang members.

Like the images used for Brown, people drew attention to the way that selective use of images from
their social media profiles could be used to construct very different representations of their identities.
By constructing their identity one way or another the media could invoke differing perceptions of the
extent to which the use of force by police was legitimate.

Figure 1.2 Images circulating on Twitter using #iftheygunnedmedown

Consider these images. How do the two images of the same individual represent them in
different ways? What symbols in the images convey different meanings that you associate with
that individual? How do the images position the individuals differently in power relationships?
Examine images of yourself on your own social media profile. Find two contrasting images.
Consider the way in which the images represent your identity differently. If the media were
reporting, could they use the images to tell different stories about your character? Would
characteristics like your gender, ethnicity or sexuality be at play in the interpretation of those
images? If not, would the images suggest different aspects of your character that might affect
your reputation?

You can find links to the images and stories about these images on the Media and Society website

Mediatization and Media Rituals
Media form a part of the rhythms, texture and background of everyday life. As
much as we might be interested in the particular meanings media circulate, we also
need to pay attention to how media play a foundational role in organizing our day-
to-day lives (Couldry and Hepp 2013). Mediatization is the process by which media
become more and more a part of how social, political and cultural processes
operate. Mediatization unfolds in three ways. Firstly, media become increasingly
important to understanding and organizing relationships with one another. We come
to know and understand the world and our place in it via media representations and
technologies. Secondly, social institutions and processes gradually adapt to the
routines and practices of media institutions. Politics and government is now
substantially organized around the production and management of media narratives.
Professional sport is largely a performance for television broadcasts. Thirdly, our
private and public spaces are organized around material media technologies. The
television is an important object in the layout of our homes. Urban spaces are filled
with mobile reception towers and WiFi coverage that enable us to remain connected
to the web via our smartphones.

Couldry and Hepp (2013) suggest that we see human history as ‘a process of
intensifying mediatisation’. Over time the societies we live in become increasingly
media-dense. They are filled in with media objects. Daily rhythms are organized
around flows of media: from radio in the car on the way to work, to television in the
evenings, to smartphones while lying in bed. More of our individual attention is
paid to media, and more of our institutions address themselves to the way the media

Media frame and represent the social world in routine and organized ways. Couldry
(2003: 1) suggests that we ought to pay attention to the ‘media’s role in ordering our
lives, and organising social space’. In media-dense societies media are essential to
how we imagine our ‘lives together as social beings’ via political institutions and
shared national and cultural identities. Media are the primary site through which we
come to know the larger social and political structures within which any meanings,
practices and identities might make sense to us. Regardless of the specific messages
the media convey, their primary claim is often simply that they reflect our world,
way of life and values within power relationships. Media promote the idea that the
social world has a ‘centre’ of power and legitimacy, and that they have a ‘privileged
relation to that “centre”’ (Couldry 2003: 45). Media ‘naturalize’ the idea ‘that there
is a social centre to be re-presented to us’ and that the media are the legitimate site
for producing and managing that process of representation. Processes of

representation are organized in media rituals which legitimate the idea that ‘the
media is our access to the social centre’ (2003: 2).

Through media rituals we see how the media ‘stand in’ for the social world and
position themselves as central to the ‘holding together ’ of society (Couldry 2003:
4). Professional communicators don’t just make meanings, they fashion the social
relationships and processes that hold society together. Sometimes these rituals can
appear spectacular and extraordinary: such as watching a royal marriage, or the
Olympic Games, or the inauguration of a President, or during natural disasters. But
importantly, media rituals are also just written into everyday life every time we
watch the news at breakfast time, log on to Facebook on our smartphone, or talk
with a colleague about something we saw on television the night before. Media
rituals frame reality in the sense that they draw our attention in a variety of
spectacular and ordinary ways to shared values and ideas.

Media rituals frame what is ‘in’ and ‘out’ of the picture. For example, what politics
is, who does it and where it takes place. By ‘going’ to parliament each day to report
on the events there, interacting with the politicians and advisors there to narrative
events, media rituals frame where politics happens and who participates in it. Over
time this representation of politics seems predictable, natural and legitimate. As
ordinary citizens we come to assume that politics is how it is represented through
media rituals. Some people are ‘in’ the frame and have access to the symbolic
resources to influence representation, while others do not.

Access to meaning-making sites is uneven. Media present themselves as the
legitimate sites through which we imagine society. While media claim to speak for
us, those who actually speak are those with the economic, political and cultural
resources to create, access, regulate and use media institutions, technologies and
processes to manage representation. Media production is characterized by an
uneven distribution of symbolic resources. In a media-dense society the media have
the symbolic power to construct’ and name reality (Couldry 2003). From this power
flows the legitimacy of economic and political relationships and cultural identities
and practices. Media power seems legitimate because it seems common sense to us
that the media are the sites through which we imagine our lives and our relations to
others. For all of us living in media-dense societies it is impossible to imagine day-
to-day life, the political process, cultural practices, leisure and entertainment
without the media. The myth of the mediated centre, that there is a centre to the
social world and the media give us access to it, is the basis upon which we accept the
media’s centrality to our lives. Media empower and disempower because they are
sites where symbolic power is concentrated, organized and regulated. Those with
access to media institutions have the symbolic resources to make and distribute


While the powerful might use media to produce particular ideas, the efficacy of that
activity depends in the first instance on the legitimacy of the media as representative
of the social centre. The media themselves need to build and maintain everyday
legitimacy in order to be sites where symbolic power is concentrated. Without the
media being continuously incorporated into our everyday lives, without most of us
switching on and tuning in everyday, they wouldn’t be sites of power and legitimacy
in the first place, through which particular messages and representations could flow.
Media rituals then are the fundamental ground on which media power can be
established and maintained.

Representation as a Social Process

The Occupy protests and casually-pepper-spray-
everything cop meme
Representation is a social system involving the continuous production and circulation of meaning.
People interact with each other to represent events. Media representations work intertextually. That is,
meanings are transferred from one text to another. Texts make new arrangements of meanings that
often depend on the capacity of readers to decode them by understanding them in relation to other

Internet memes demonstrate the intertextual and social process of representation in action. The first
image below is an image from a protest at the University of California (Davis) in 2011. The protest
was part of the global Occupy movement. When students refused to disband a campus police officer
sprayed them with pepper spray. The cop’s act was a violent one. As an authority figure he used
physical force against people. The police are licensed to do that by the state and the university. The act
though is also a symbolic one. When police use force against citizens they demonstrate to them what
will happen if they do not obey the law.

The cop’s act set off a chain of events where the student protestors, university management, news
organizations and the public interacted with each other in an effort to represent the event in different

The protest was videoed and uploaded to YouTube. In the video the crowd can be heard chanting ‘the
whole world is watching’ as the cop sprays the protestors with pepper spray. The protestors captured
the act on camera. The protestors understood that they could use videos to bear witness to the event.
In doing so, they were able to ‘re-present’ it. They take the act from its original context and turn it into
a media text. That text then circulated rapidly through social networks. The ‘re-presentation’ of the act
symbolizes the excessive use of force by the powerful. The Occupy protests aimed to represent the
‘99%’ of ordinary people against the world’s privileged ‘1%’. The representation of the cop pepper-
spraying the protestors symbolizes – stands in for – the entrenched privilege and blatant use of power
the Occupy movement as protesting against in its slogan ‘We are the 99%’.

Figure 1.3 A campus police officer pepper-spraying student protestors at UC Davis

The protestors’ videos of the incident became a news story. The university needed to respond to the
way the video of the protest represented the institution and its relationship with students. The
Chancellor of the university organized a media conference. This was an attempt to ‘counter’ the
meanings and narratives circulating in conjunction with the pepper-spray video. The university
attempted to control how the event was represented. They did that by inviting selected media
organizations to the media conference, and excluding students from the venue. The students responded
to being excluded by forming a silent protest outside. When the Chancellor eventually emerged they
formed a silent guard all the way from the venue to her car. This silent protest was also filmed and the
video circulated widely online. The protestors used silence to represent their exclusion. In doing so
they drew attention to how the powerful maintain power by controlling who speaks where and when,
by attempting to control who gets to represent events. When the Chancellor excluded students from
the press conference, she attempted to work with the police and media organizations to control how
the event was represented.

Figure 1.4 An internet meme where the pepper-spray cop sprays Bambi

Following this event, images of the cop pepper-spraying students were widely reappropriated and
recirculated. The pepper-spraying cop represented the use of excessive force, the attempt of the
powerful to control who gets to speak, the disrespect for democratic values. The cop more broadly
represented the use of force against ordinary people, the undermining of democratic rights and the
policing of public space.

The powerful – like the Chancellor and the police – use strategies to attempt to control media
representations. They use their relations with media and their resources to organize media events and
control who gets access to those events. In contrast, ordinary people use tactics to resist those

One way this unfolded with the pepper-spray cop was by using the cop as a symbol of excessive
power and ‘remixing’ his image into other popular culture texts. The image of the cop worked
intertextually to create new representations. In the image above, the cop pepper-sprays Bambi. To
make sense of this image we need to understand both texts it references: the pepper-spray cop and the
film Bambi. In the image, the cop is crudely superimposed over a scene from Bambi. In doing so, the
innocence of the scene from Bambi evident in the joyful expressions on the characters’ faces and the
colourful animation is juxtaposed with the dark, menacing and violent presence of the cop. The cop is
larger than the characters from the animation, towering over them and his head is cropped out of the
frame, as if to make him a faceless and distant figure. This image is one of many examples where the
cop was super-imposed onto another scene – a movie like Bambi, an important historical moment like
the Declaration of Independence, or a cultural icon like a Renaissance painting. The creators of these
images were able to repeat this juxtaposition by ‘photoshopping’ the cop over images in this way.
Meaning is created via the repeated gesture of imposing the cop in scenes that evoked the innocence of
childhood memory or shared cultural history and values. We can see throughout this example how
representation works both as a social process, constructing how we understand and act in the world,
and as a process in which some people have more power than others.

Map out the array of actors involved in attempting to represent the student protest at UC Davis. What

were their preferred representations of the event and why? What resources and techniques did they use
to create their preferred representations? Who did they interact with to create their preferred

Find other examples of the pepper-spray cop meme.

What texts are referenced in the memes?

How is meaning created in the interplay between the texts?

What do the texts represent?

For links to the images and videos in this case visit the Media and Society website

In this chapter, we defined meaning and power. We introduced several significant
theoretical concepts that offer an account of the relationship between meaning and
power: hegemony, ideology and discourse.

Hegemony draws our attention to the continual and ongoing struggle over
meanings and the meaning-making process as groups work to make and
maintain their legitimacy and power. This also encouraged us to consider how
meaning making is embedded in real world relationships and material
resources. Making and maintaining legitimacy is interrelated with access to
economic, political and cultural resources.
Ideology is useful for critically considering the meanings that are produced out
of struggles and contradictions. Ideology offers us ways of seeing how we
make everyday life meaningful despite its contradictions and antagonisms.
Discourse enables us to consider how institutions produce frameworks of
meaning that organize social practices. Meaning doesn’t just govern what we
think, but structures the social spaces and institutions in which we act.
Individuals act within the coordinates of institutions. This is a permissive mode
of control. Institutions reward some ideas, practices and identities while
discouraging others. Individuals have the freedom to do or say what they like,
but learn that resources are shifted towards preferred ideas and practices.

Each concept – hegemony, ideology and discourse – leads us to a conceptualization
of meaning making as a continual process where, despite attempts to fix and control
meaning by some groups, we always retain the agency to think and act in our own
right, resisting the intended meanings and actions, and creating new meanings in
their place.

Being able to make and circulate meaning requires material resources to organize
and fund the creation of meaning. These material resources include tangible things
like buildings, tools and machinery. Material resources enable individuals to
acquire and control the time, knowledge, skills and social relationships required to
make meaning, attract attention and manage populations. The creation and
dissemination of representations of ways of life creates a cultural schema of ideas,
values, practices and desires within which people live their lives and fashion their
identities. While we can never guarantee what people will do with representations,
the opportunity to structure, in the first instance, the flows of symbolic resources
people use to make sense of the world affords power.

The power of meaning-making institutions is embedded in their capacity to

construct and control not just meanings but the social spaces and frameworks within
which we all make and circulate meaning. In the next chapter we examine how
cultural production was institutionalized in the twentieth century. We chart the
emergence of a networked, interactive and participatory culture industry towards the
century’s end. The development of flexible, networked and informational modes of
production has enabled forms of control based on continuously monitoring and
responding to an open-ended circulation of meaning. In the rest of this book we
consider how meaning and power work in today’s systems of media and cultural
production. The critical debates extending from hegemony, ideology and discourse
enable us to develop a reflective account of the place of media in facilitating social
life and power relationships.

Further Reading
The work of Stuart Hall and Nick Couldry is instructive in developing an account of
media representation. Stuart Hall’s ‘Encoding/decoding’ essay (1980), originally
published in 1973, provides a seminal account of the process by which meanings are
inscribed into texts and deciphered by audiences. Hall’s book Representation,
published with several colleagues in 1997 (and in an updated edition in 2013),
provides a clear and accessible explanation of the cultural and media processes of
representation. In the past decade Nick Couldry’s work on mediatization, media
power and rituals has further advanced our understanding of media representations
within a media-dense society. Couldry draws our attention to how practices of media
representation are embedded in everyday cultural practices, social spaces and power
relationships. In this chapter we also referred to Foucault’s notion of discourse. For
more advanced readers his book Discipline and Punish (1977) is a good place to
start. In that book he defines the relationship between power, knowledge and

Couldry, N. (2002) The Place of Media Power: Pilgrims and Witnesses of the Media
Age. London: Routledge.

Couldry, N. (2003) Media Rituals: A Critical Approach. London: Routledge.

Couldry, N. and Hepp, A. (2013) ‘Conceptualizing mediatization: contexts,
traditions, arguments’, Communication Theory, 23 (3): 191–202.

Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish. London: Penguin.

Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding/decoding’, in S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe and P. Willis
(eds), Culture, Media, Language. London: Hutchinson, pp. 129–138.

Hall, S., Evans, J. and Nixon, S. (eds) (2013) Representation: Cultural
Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage.

2 The Industrial Production of Meaning During
the twentieth century the production of
meaning became industrialized.

* How did the organization and production of meaning change during the
twentieth century?
* How have interactive technologies changed the production of culture?
* What are the differences between various media and cultural institutions?

In this chapter we:
Examine the industrialization of communication in the twentieth century
Propose that the culture industry is central to controlling the production and circulation of meaning in
society, and therefore has material consequences for the kind of society we live in, the way we live
and the way we relate to each other
Explore the role professionalized and industrialized communication plays in forming and maintaining
power relationships.

Controlling Who Makes Meaning and Where Meaning
is Made
The roots of today’s cultural industry lie in the institutions created by Western
European bourgeoisie between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The
bourgeoisie were the newly emergent middle-class traders, merchants and early
industrial capitalists who coalesced in the free cities of Europe. During its first
stage, mediated communication was located in small organizations. Until well into
the nineteenth century bourgeois media took the form of small owner-operated
firms. In part this was because, until the arrival of steam-powered printing presses,
media technology only allowed for the limited mass production of messages.
Consequently, early mediated communication remained a relatively small-scale
affair, staffed by multi-skilled individuals. A typical newspaper owner, for example,
wrote, edited and printed the copy as well as running the business. This was not
communication made within hierarchical ‘meaning factories’ for dissemination to a
mass audience. Early bourgeois mediated communication was generally targeted to
relatively small groups of literate people. These publications circulated in particular
among middle-class activists agitating to end feudal and aristocratic privilege which
blocked the growth of bourgeois power. The publications also served a commercial
purpose by circulating information among traders; Von Klarwill (1924) provides
examples of these trader newsletters.

The nineteenth century brought with it a number of developments which, when
combined, generated the conditions for the creation of a new type of
communication. The invention of ways to produce cheap paper and ink, the rotary
printing press and typesetting machines generated the necessary technology for
mass-produced newspapers. The industrial revolution also led to the creation of
large cities, growing literacy rates and improved road and rail transport, which
provided expanding markets for mass newspapers. Technological developments
made it possible to produce ever larger quantities of identical products at a
diminishing cost. Industrial production began to develop economies of scale.
Industrial factories began to develop on the basis that the more units they produced
the more the cost of each unit declined. With the development of industrialized cities
came the rise of a consumer society. Merchants sought to advertise their goods to
the newly literate market living in these rapidly growing cities. Advertising made it
possible to sell newspapers cheaply. The mass circulation press was born.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Americans invented the corporation as an
institution for organizing the production of large infrastructure projects like
railways and transport. This form of organization came to underpin the production

of culture as well. From this confluence of variables grew the mass media: an
industrialized production and distribution of meaning. The set of practices and
discourses about meaning making that emerged at this time underpinned the
development of newspapers, magazines, film, radio and television throughout the
twentieth century. Each of these technologies was developed and applied as part of
the industrial production of meaning. During this time, other modes of cultural
production like education were similarly institutionalized. Only with the arrival of
digital electronic networking during the 1990s did these practices undergo
significant modification.

The twentieth century was characterized by many different attempts to industrialize
the production of culture. Different powerful groups attempted to create institutions
that established and maintained ideologies or discourses. These institutions aimed to
control meaning in ways that they thought would help develop desirable societies.
Each mode of cultural production emerges in a specific place and context. In this
chapter we focus our attention on the development of the liberal-democratic culture
industry from newspapers to the internet.

Defining Different Types of Culture Industry
During the twentieth century culture was industrialized in the following ways:

privately-owned media
state-licensed media
public service broadcasting
state-subsidized media
communist media
development media.

Since the beginning of this century we have also seen the emergence of social or
interactive media.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century culture industries have taken many
institutional forms. Below we define several key formations.

Privately-owned media
The media institution we are most familiar with in our day-to-day lives is most
likely privately-owned media. Most of the media we consume on a daily basis is
produced by an organization that intends to make a profit from us as an audience.
This has some important consequences that we will consider as the book progresses.
These media have their roots in the small presses developed by the emergent
middles classes of north-west Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries (Smith 1979). The distinctive feature of these organizations is that they
primarily produce and sell audience attention to advertisers. The content they
produce is driven by a commercial imperative to attract audiences that advertisers
want to reach. Throughout the twentieth century these businesses became more adept
at constructing and packaging audiences for advertisers (Smythe 1981).

State-licensed media
Some forms of public sector involvement in the culture industry have not entailed
direct ownership or control of the media. The oldest of these are state-licensing of
newspapers, stamp duties and government censorship. Licensing or censorship
involves governments closely regulating who can produce media. This form of
control was widely used by European governments well into the nineteenth century
(Smith 1979). The history of press licensing is a fascinating one and the battles
fought over it forged our idea of a ‘free press’. As the emerging middle class in
Europe used new technologies like the printing press to make their case for greater
political representation, the old elites like monarchs, aristocrats, feudal lords and
the church imposed licenses to regulate the production of this material. For the
monarchs of Europe these printing presses represented sites from which potentially
destabilizing discourses could emerge. On the other hand, European rulers found
the economies and trading networks developed by these emergent middle classes
valuable. Their solution was to allow middle-class printing presses to exist, but
circumscribed what they could disseminate. A state-run licensing and censorship
system was the result. The American Revolution, French Revolution and the
Revolutions of 1848 all contributed to the process of challenging these restrictions.
From the 1820s to 1870s such restrictions were gradually overthrown in Europe and
its colonies as the ever-expanding middle classes came to successfully challenge the
power of the European monarchies and assert their own liberal hegemony.

Public service broadcasting
Public service broadcasting originated with the British Broadcasting Corporation
developed by Lord Reith in Britain (Briggs 1961: 229–249). The model was
replicated throughout the former British Empire. Reith saw broadcasting as a
vehicle for educating people. His view was informed by a middle-class paternalism
that drew upon Mathew Arnold’s (1957 [1869]) vision of using schools to ‘civilize’
the lower classes. Although these corporations are state-owned and funded, they are
not directly government-run (as they are in the communist model). Governments
appoint a board that is accountable to a charter set by parliamentary legislation. The
boards offer independence from direct political interference. The degree to which
these corporations were actually autonomous of governments, however, varied
from country to country. At one extreme, the BBC retained a fair degree of
autonomy, while at the other extreme, broadcasting corporations in Africa
effectively became government mouthpieces (see Louw and Milton 2012).
Irrespective of the extent of actual government control, all the public corporations
drew upon productive practices based on hierarchical managerialism and specialist
division of labour practices. All produced industrialized top-down communication.
This served the hegemonic needs of state bureaucrats trying to create
administrative-economic units – such as ‘Australia’, ‘Canada’ or ‘South Africa’ –
during the first half of the twentieth century. It also suited the top-down nation-
building hegemonic needs of development bureaucrats in places like India and
Zimbabwe in the wake of decolonization because it provided the ruling elites with a
means for uni-directional communication with those they were trying to organize
into nation states. At its best, public service broadcasting can provide quality
programming unencumbered by the direct ideological control of the state or the
commercial imperatives of the private sector.

State-subsidized media
The state-subsidy model is common to social-democrat states in the Netherlands,
Belgium and Scandinavia. These states decided market-driven media systems
skewed meaning making by only creating and serving commercially viable
audiences. Their response is to use state subsidies to ensure that all demographics,
classes, regions and political viewpoints are adequately represented in the media.
Parliaments allocate funds to media subsidy boards. Board members are appointed
by Parliament. These boards allocate the funds available. Like public service
broadcasting, these boards operate within the dominant norms and values of the
state. Another form of state subsidization operated in Latin America in the 1960s
and 1970s. The state funded the development of media infrastructure like
telecommunications and broadcast networks that it then licensed to commercial
media. These state-subsidized private media companies produced meanings
compatible with the interests of the governments subsidizing them (Fox 1988).

Communist media
Although it is no longer the case, the most extensive system of direct government-
controlled mass media to emerge was that created by twentieth-century communist
states. This media system was built upon Lenin’s (1929) interpretation of Marxism.
In Lenin’s model, the Communist Party represented workers. Leninists believed this
Party needed to capture the state in order to advance worker interests in the face of
capitalist exploitation and repression of workers. According to communists, a
media system owned by capitalists would necessarily portray a minority capitalist
world-view. Leninists argued that the state should establish state-run media systems.
In terms of this logic, a communist government-run media would be more
democratic than a capitalist-operated media system because communists claimed to
represent the exploited majority. This communist system produced an explicit
government intervention into the meaning-making process, with Leninist logic
ultimately leading to the creation of enormous state-run media systems in the Soviet
Union, Eastern Europe and China. Instead of representing a working-class majority,
this system came to represent only the minority apparatchik ruling class of
communist state functionaries, who used repression and ideology to remain in
power (Bahro 1981).

Development elites and media
The institutionalization of media in post-colonial states is often opaque to western
citizens. As the colonial powers withdrew from Africa, Asia and the Middle East
many new countries were created and handed over to local, but westernized, elites.
Their states were economically underdeveloped; often riven with ethnic, racial and
religious differences; and there was usually a deficit of skilled and experienced
people to run them. Furthermore, the elites struggled to establish their legitimacy
where they were a visibly privileged minority granted enormous power by the
departing colonial rulers. The consequence was that a high proportion of these new
elites established authoritarian control to stabilize their fragmented and precarious
new countries. While from the outside the new post-colonial leaders looked
legitimate, within their own countries they were viewed as a westernized minority
whose power and interests were tethered to maintaining their economic and political
links with the former colonial powers. This authoritarianism extended to taking
control of the media, using it explicitly to promote a unified national identity. This
led to the formulation of the New World Information Order (NWIO) which justified
‘development journalism’ as necessary in the ‘developing world’ (Masmoudi 1979).
Within the NWIO formulation, it was justified for the media to be used by the state
to control, manipulate, educate, manage and develop their populations. There was
some overlap between the communist and NWIO understandings of the culture
industry – both saw the media as tools to be used in a top-down way to bring about
hegemonic ends deemed desirable by the state. But by the start of the twenty-first
century a number of developing countries, especially those in Africa, had become
failed or fragile states. Manipulation and control of their culture industries and
‘sunshine journalism’ had not helped them to maintain their hegemonies or develop
their countries.

In each of these models of institutionalizing media production we can discern
control mechanisms. Decisions in privately-owned media institutions are controlled
by the commercial imperative to create and sell audiences. Communist,
development and state-licensed media systems are distinct for their direct
ideological control of media content. In these systems the state explicitly intervenes
to ensure that content conforms to particular ideas and values. In state-subsidized
and public service broadcasting models the mode of control is more indirect. The
boards that manage the distribution of subsidies or a public service broadcaster
operating under a charter ensure they conform to a mainstream discursive

The Industrial Production of Meaning
To produce meaning on an industrial scale, institutions needed to be created that
employed professional communicators and organized them in managerial
hierarchies and mechanistic work routines. These institutions reflected the dominant
mode of production at the time. Factories began to use standardized assembly lines
to produce material products like cars. Media institutions also followed these
principles, developing routines and processes for producing meaning. This process
of institutionalization structured the way meaning was made and the kind of
meanings that could be made.

The diagrams in Figure 2.1 represent a distinctive aspect of industrialized
communication. In the first diagram, communication involves a process of sharing.
Meaning flows back and forth between the communicator and recipient. The roles
of communicators and recipients are interchangeable. Meaning emerges out of the
interchange. The medium merely facilitates the process of exchange. Some might
argue that this model represents an ideal mode of human communication. Both
sender and receiver are able to impart and receive meaning. The model might even
suggest that the exchange is marked by equality, freedom and rationality. While it is
tempting to say that this model of communication is pre-industrial, this risks
romanticizing the forms of communication in pre-industrial societies. In pre-
industrial society we can identify people who had more power in communication
exchanges like royalty, clergy or other elites. Perhaps though we can say that in pre-
industrial society the production and circulation was more haphazard and less
organized. There wasn’t a whole class of professionals who managed the
production of meaning. In the second diagram then, the communicator works within
a communication institution. The organizational form of the medium becomes a
central part of the communication process. The communicator becomes a
professional functionary within a highly routinized and rationalized process of
cultural production. Importantly, the professional communicator and the medium
are ‘collapsed’ into one another.

From the point of view of the audience or recipient, distinctions between the
communicator and medium become increasingly unimportant. For instance, when
we watch television the person appearing on the screen, the technical medium of
television and the institution are interdependent. We can’t have television as we
know it without all three. Professional communicators and technologies become
part of an organizational entity: the media. In a sense, the professional
communicators and their meaning become increasingly depersonalized. Their
individually held ideas have become much less important than in the first model of

communication, where the exchange between individuals is the foundational idea. In
the second diagram, recipients consume meaning that is the product of the collective
labour of professionals working within the organization. While they might see a
newsreader on the television screen talking to them, this newsreader is reading a
script written by others, presenting images collected and edited by others and being
distributed by technologies being managed by others. The final communicative
product is the outcome of the work of many employees in the organization. This
makes it very difficult to identify the opinions or work of a single author. The
meaning exchange then is not mediated by an individual author as another human
being, but by an institution made up of the interaction between many humans
operating in their defined institutional roles.

Figure 2.1 Institutionalized communication

Mass Communication
By the end of the twentieth century the mass media’s reach had become ubiquitous
across the globe. It is now difficult to find a society, culture or set of human
relations that are outside of the reach of media. The few places where media don’t
reach are economically, politically and socially marginal. The mass media
simultaneously increased the reach of professional communicators, while
dramatically narrowing the role of recipients. Recipients became increasingly
passive receivers and circulators of meanings made by others. For those working
within the culture industry, audiences became conceptualized as abstract objects:
publics, target markets, niche groups. Communicators depersonalize the meaning-
making process; instead of addressing other human beings, they construct
techniques for assembling and addressing abstract groups in instrumental ways: to
grow audience share, influence public opinion or disseminate promotional

The industrialization of communication led to mass communication. This process
began with newspapers but reached its zenith with television. Mass communication
is inherently top-down. By ‘top-down’ we mean that only a select group of
professionals, working under frameworks set by managers, owners or other
political elites, are able to make and distribute meaning on a large scale.
Industrialization reduced the spaces for non-professional communicators to engage
in meaning making as anything other than audiences. This form of communication
is uni-directional: one group speaks, the other group listens. To the extent that the
industry listens to the public or audience, it is in strategic forms like market
research, public opinion research or other kinds of surveillance. Where the industry
listens, it does so in order to more efficiently structure and rationalize the way it
manages the audience. The audience’s capacity to either speak or monitor the
industry is set almost entirely on the industry’s terms.

A professional communicator makes meaning according to the norms, rules and
power relationships of the institution they work in. The space for individual
creativity is curtailed by daily organizational needs, routines and hierarchies.
Further, industrialized communication constructs the recipient as an audience. The
flow of messages becomes one-way. There is little scope for input, adaptation or
feedback in industrialized communication. Simultaneously, the capacity to deliver
messages is greatly enhanced. Rather than facilitating dialogic communication,
industrialization dramatically increases the capacity of one group to speak while
neutering the ability of the other group to speak back. Similarly, as media
technologies have developed, organizations have developed the capacity to watch

and monitor their audiences, at the same time as they speak to them. The
organization develops the capacity to speak to and watch over the audience, while
the audience is relegated to listening to the organization, or at best, participating in
circulating content within networks managed by those organizations.

The Culture Industry
An early and foundational critique of the industrial production of meaning came
from a group of German intellectuals, including Theodor Adorno, Max
Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse, collectively known as the Frankfurt School. The
Frankfurt School observed the development of mass societies organized around
different political ideologies: fascism in Germany, communism in the Soviet Union
and liberal democracy in America. They observed that each of these societies relied
on the industrial production of culture to organize and manage enormous
populations. Film, television and radio in particular were being rapidly developed
and used in each society. Much of the Frankfurt School’s concern about the culture
industry was due to their recognition that mass communication lent itself to top-
down rhetoric, manipulation and control. For the Frankfurt School, industrializing
communication created two interrelated negative effects. It increased opportunities
for manipulating and controlling communication while reducing the spaces for
dialogical communication. The Frankfurt School saw this as producing a mass
society in which they believed the majority of people passively consumed, and were
effectively manipulated by, mass-produced meanings. The passivity induced by
mass media created a ‘one-dimensional society’. They saw this one-dimensionality
as the inevitable outcome of a meaning-making process that significantly narrowed
the range of voices and opinions that were distributed widely and loudly by the mass
media. In their view, industrialized communication tended to silence or ignore those
voices that the mass media did not deem fit to distribute. While at one level it might
make sense for elites to create systems that curtail opportunities for oppositional
meaning making, for the Frankfurt School this kind of one-dimensional society
could go dramatically wrong. In their view, it was through debate and conflict that
new and better ideas emerge. Human society would be better served if elites didn’t
seek to close and control meaning making. To them, the culture industry stifled this

Narrowing what we think about
Seen from another angle, Bernard Cohen (1963) argued that the mass media had
become ‘agenda setters’. He famously argued that the media, ‘may not be successful
much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in
telling its readers what to think about’ (1963: 13). This argument was further
developed by the mass communication researchers Maxwell McCombs and Donald
Shaw (1972) in their ‘Chapel Hill study’ of the 1968 US Presidential election. They
carefully examined the media that voters in an American community consumed and
the political issues they felt were important. They found that the issues people felt
were important, like the economy or healthcare, were those issues that were
prominently covered by the news media they consumed. It has been argued that in
industrial societies the mass media have come to set the agenda for the bulk of the
population. Most people tend to think about things that the media place on the

Narrowing what can be said
The German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1973) developed an
interpretation of the ‘narrowing process’ that complements the arguments made by
the Frankfurt School and Cohen, but goes beyond it. Noelle-Neumann’s idea of the
narrowing process goes beyond merely the pressures of industry discourses and
practices. She also looked at the wider pressures of social conformity. According to
Noelle-Neumann there is a tendency towards an ever-narrowing range of opinions
due to the interaction of culture industry practices and public opinion. She argued
that when an issue first arises there will be many opinions about the topic. However,
over time media practices produce a narrowing of opinions heard. This happens
because media workers choose to advantage some opinions over others, in
accordance with their own preferred discourses, institutional norms and other
power relationships into which they are embedded. Pressures towards social
conformity mean that members of the public who disagree with the dominant media
interpretation progressively fall silent. As a result, counter-opinions or antitheses
disappear. This, in turn, leads media workers to conclude that there are no
opposition views to report. A ‘spiral of silence’ develops in which fewer and fewer
of the full range of opinions are heard. If Noelle-Neumann’s theory is correct, the
culture industry is centrally implicated in the process of discursive closure. This
raises two interrelated questions: can one identify those exercising power within and
over the culture industry so as to close social discourse? And, how do discourses
themselves acquire the power to structurally lock alternative views out of the culture

Thinking dialectically: arguing for a contest of
The Frankfurt School argued that society was at its most healthy when no
perspective, idea or thesis could go unchallenged. This argument was informed by a
philosophical idea called the ‘dialectic’. A dialectical analysis begins with the
premise that a system or idea always already contains contradictions and
antagonisms. History unfolds as it does because our ideas and the societies we
create with them always contain struggles between winners and losers. Power
relationships are dynamic, no one gains immutable power, for every winner there is
a loser who tries to push back. This way of conceptualizing power is dialectical in
the sense that we strive in this book to avoid conspiracy theory approaches that
would argue some powerful groups control media and use it to dominate and
control society. Counter to this we argue that while there are powerful groups, the
kinds of social relationships they create always contain antagonisms, anxieties and
competitions that constantly threaten to undermine and destabilize them. The
dialectic is a useful way of conceptualizing these power relationships.

Where the Frankfurt School make a compelling argument is that for them the
dialectic is not a problem to be overcome: it is instead core to our humanity and
something to be encouraged. For them, the dialectic is a kind of motor or engine
that drives society. Without it we would stagnate. The Frankfurt School argued that
the dialectic would not cease and that it was dangerous to act as if it could. For them,
society was at its healthiest and most vibrant when counter-arguments, radically
different ideas and antithetical arguments were encouraged (see Jay 1973). This
involves not only accepting the inevitability of conflict between different positions,
but going further and seeing this conflict as a social good because it generates new
ideas and social relationships. The current state of social relationships is always the
product not of one perspective obliterating the other, but of the conflicts and
oppositions of the past. There can be no permanent and absolute winner. Those in
power are shaped by the conflicts, compromises and challenges they faced along the
way. Their power is channelled and restrained by others whose ideas and resources
press back on them. Creative ideas emerge out of these struggles.

Even though ideas assert themselves as absolute, they also rely on marking
themselves out against other ideas. A dialectic way of thinking encourages us not to
ignore how ideas rely on their opposites and recognize this as central to the
production of ideas. That is, we recognize an idea as independent of, and
interdependent with, other ideas at the same time. A simple way of thinking about
this is in terms of our identity. We think of ourselves as independent people with

distinctive characteristics: gender, ethnicity, cultural interests or political views.
While at one level each of those things is distinctive, they are also all dependent on
other different ideas other people might have. They only become meaningful when
we position ourselves relative to others. It is only meaningful to have a particular
political viewpoint because we have to set it out against someone else with a
different point of view. If everyone had exactly the same political viewpoint, then
politics would necessarily disappear because there would be no need for a process
of contesting ideas and power relationships. That is unlikely to happen. And in any
case, if we create social relations that filter out different points of view we risk
weakening our own ideas and identities. We risk misrecognizing how our own ideas
are dependent on others.

The Liberal-Democratic Culture Industry
The Frankfurt School became concerned that the twentieth-century industrialization
of cultural production thwarted the dialectic process. They argued that when
intellectuals were industrialized they were locked into institutional arrangements
and power relationships which had the effect of stifling and neutering antithetical
views. In some cases the culture industry makes and distributes ideas that confirm
the interests of those with power to control the media while views that are
fundamentally contradictory are simply ignored. Another even more troubling form
of production was the capacity of the culture industry, particularly in the liberal-
democratic west, to stage a pseudo-dialectic, where apparently opposing views are
presented. Consider for example the two-party system in the UK, Australia or
America. The culture industry stages a continuous debate between two positions that
are fundamentally the same. Despite their differences, all the major parties in these
countries believe in the same core ideas: capitalism, economic growth, liberal
democracy, secularism, human rights and so on. The capacity of the culture industry
to neuter or fake the dialectic troubled Adorno and Horkheimer greatly. As German
Jewish intellectuals they emigrated to America after Hitler ’s rise to power. In
America, they discovered a culture industry which fascinated them because they
came to see it as far more sophisticated and adaptable than the authoritarian and
fascist manifestations of cultural production they had observed with Hitler and
Stalin. In America they observed a process of cultural production that didn’t need to
overtly censor antithetical ideas. It either ignored them, or even worse, co-opted and
repurposed them into its own world-view.

A later Frankfurt School figure, Herbert Marcuse (1964), expressed this capacity
most clearly when he observed how the American culture industry could
commodify and sell the ‘counter-culture’ back to itself. When young Americans
rebelled against the system in the 1960s with alternative lifestyles, music and
fashion, the culture industry rapidly began to produce those ideas, the music
industry rapidly commercialized anti-establishment folk and rock music, and the
fashion industry mass-produced formerly working-class clothes like Levi’s jeans as
symbols of youthful freedom, and printed t-shirts featuring the Marxist guerrilla
Che Guevara. While on the surface level American popular culture appeared vibrant
and free, this masked a canny ability to ensure that alternative ideas had no
meaningful impact. Where Hitler and Stalin controlled cultural production by
ruthlessly oppressing alternative ideas, the American mode of control tamed ideas
by celebrating and commodifying them. The flexibility of this culture industry to
curtail and co-opt alternative perspectives was of great interest to Adorno and
Horkheimer. This culture industry relied on our avid participation, but that

participation was limited in ways that made it almost disempowering. For instance,
we choose between ten brands of soap powder, or two political parties, or every
week there is a new Hollywood blockbuster or a new reality TV pop star to vote on.
These things appear different on the surface, but are really all the same. The
freedom of the culture industry is the freedom to choose what is really the same.
Their critique is reflected in arguments today about pseudo-participation in
interactive media. Yes, we can click, like, comment, post a blog, but does any of this
participation amount to much? In the Frankfurt School’s account, instead of the
media facilitating consideration and conflict over substantive alternatives, it instead
presents narrowed options that aren’t really different. What they observed was
industrialized culture stifling and replacing the social dialectic with ‘one-
dimensionality’, where conventionally dominant ideas were continuously circulated,
and never seriously challenged. Foucault’s notion that discourses organize and limit
communication has an interesting complementarity to the Frankfurt School’s view
of the culture industry as a site for discursive closure in the twentieth century.

In addition to their work on undialectical communication as discursive closure, the
Frankfurt School were also concerned that the culture industry focused on trivia
rather than substance. Presenting trivia makes it possible to avoid issues that might
lead to real debate and conflict. Examples of this trivialization are found in the
continual cycle of celebrity culture, reality TV and lifestyle media. The media
frenzies surrounding events like the death of Princess Diana, the titillation of
political scandals like the Monica Lewinski affair, or the banal trivia of Paris
Hilton’s driving conviction, or Britney Spears’ shaved head, or Miley Cyrus’
performance at the VMA music awards, are all examples of the culture industry as a
system of advanced distraction. While some of these events might be meaningless to
you, they all dominated media attention for a time, just as some event is probably
dominating media coverage as you read this book. Even when the culture industry
does draw attention to significant political issues, it can be content to uncritically
recycle dominant discourses. Complex conflicts in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq,
Afghanistan, South Africa, Syria and the Arab Spring are presented in simplistic
terms. Although it is often argued that Adorno and Horkheimer were overly
pessimistic, wherever we look we can find examples of the culture industry they
described in 1947 developing far beyond even some their most pessimistic

The Culture Industry in the Interactive Era
For contemporary readers some of this description of a top-down media might feel
jarring. From the 1990s onwards, interactive digital media technologies created
possibilities for challenging the mass media model of meaning making in three

Firstly, interactive media created the potential for new forms of audience
Secondly, interactive media made it easier for new voices to create and
distribute their ideas and stories to large audiences via the internet.
Thirdly, interactive media made it possible and economically viable to reach
niche audiences. This meant commercialized media no longer had to conform
to mass production logics in order to be profitable.

While at first inspection this development might please social critics like the
Frankfurt School, we should also be cautious in our approach to these changes.
While the development of interactive media has been accompanied by new
opportunities for participation and meaning production, they have also been
accompanied by sophisticated modes of control. The forms of participation and
control characteristic of interactive media are a central narrative of this book. The
advent of interactive media has seen:

the proliferation of niche media
large organizations attempting to cultivate audience participation
a proliferation of platforms not organized solely around the production of
content by professionals
growth in new media voices.

These changes led to much hype about the demise of the old culture industry and the
empowerment of participatory bottom-up communication which would render
critiques of mass society and communication like the Frankfurt School’s obsolete.
However, even in the interactive media environment, a small number of media
organizations have remained, or become, dominant.

Although the interactive media revolution has generated a rich new flow of
meanings via the internet from a much widened pool of meaning makers, a few
large powerful media organizations, some old and some new, have remained key
influential sources of meaning. At the outset, there are at least two important
observations to make about the enduring power of large media organizations. The
first is that culture industry organizations are still the dominant source of news and

opinion. While audiences might use new platforms like social media and new
devices like smartphones and tablets to access and circulate content, that content is
largely produced by mainstream organizations, and the opinions individuals
circulate are largely about stories and agendas set by those organizations. The
second observation is that while ordinary people may be circulating their opinions
to larger audiences using social media, this isn’t necessarily prompting debate that
changes power relationships. Instead, people appear to get most of their ideas from
mainstream media, and circulate their views within small niche groups online,
mostly made up of people who are similar to them.

To date, the digital revolution has not fundamentally changed the industrial logic of
media production, or diminished the capacity of the institutions to manage and
control communication. While industries might appear in some cases to have less
control over the production of particular meanings, they do appear to have
expanding control over communication in general. New technologies might make it
technically possible to say whatever we like; it appears though that most people
either circulate ideas already produced by the industry or they circulate ideas within
platforms owned by the industry. Neither case disrupts the power relationships of
media production. The most profound change is that the industry must invest
resources not just in creating and disseminating content, but in managing the
circulation of that content on interactive platforms. Watching and managing
audiences is critical to the process of making and distributing content. This presents
the industry with both challenges and opportunities: challenges in the sense that the
meaning-making process is much more diffused and fragmented, but opportunities
in the sense that interactive platforms afford the ability to watch and respond to
audiences in real time. As the mass audience has fragmented into numerous,
constantly changing niche audiences, communication professionals have had to
become specialists in targeting and managing those audiences. Rather than dilute the
control of professionals, interactive technologies increase the scope for them to
manage audiences more effectively.

Interactive media technologies have the capability to facilitate dialogical
communication, at the same time they afford the culture industry significantly more
control to manage audiences. We are moving into an era where the binary between
‘top-down’ manipulative communication and ‘bottom-up’ participatory or
dialogical communication has collapsed. They are no longer distinct opposites;
instead participatory and dialogical communication is becoming the key mode of
communicative control in today’s culture industry. This poses exciting and
interesting questions and debates for us to consider in this book.

Figure 2.2 Institutionalized communication in the interactive era

In Figure 2.2 we map out how the production and circulation of meaning is
managed in the interactive era. In the twentieth century, meaning making was
institutionalized. These institutions made and disseminated meaning to mass
audiences. While the Frankfurt School claimed that everyday life was organized by
the culture industry, audiences were not fully incorporated within the institutions of
meaning making. The audience was largely ‘outside’ of the institution.

With the emergence of the interactive era, the public and audience became much
more directly incorporated into the production and circulation of meaning. The
audience becomes institutionalized. In the mass era, audiences’ meaning-making
activities were not fully incorporated into the institutionalized production and
circulation of meaning. In the mass era, audiences:

were monitored using public opinion, market and audience research – this
monitoring informed the production of meaning to some degree
consumed institutionalized meaning but actively decoded it within their private
social lives and peer networks.

In the interactive era, these activities have been much more directly institutionalized
and rationalized.

There are now two types of institutionalized processes for making and managing

producing meaning
managing the circulation of meaning.

Some institutions do one or the other, some institutions do both. Many institutions
are linked together in the joint effort to produce and manage meaning. Institutions

that produce meaning like the news, television, film and music industries remain
powerful. They are now interdependent with organizations that manage the
circulation of that meaning like social media and social networking sites, content
aggregators, database companies and search engines.

Where in the twentieth century the culture industry was organized around
institutions that produced meaning and disseminated it to audiences, institutions that
manage audiences are now central to the meaning-making process. These
institutions don’t produce meanings of their own. They manage audiences by
offering them the means to make and circulate their own meanings and interact with
meaning produced by other institutions. These institutions are organized around
developing techniques for watching and responding to their audiences. The more
active the audience is in participating in the circulation of meaning, the greater the
capacity of these institutions to manage them. If in the mass culture industry of the
twentieth century, audiences’ active meaning making took place largely outside the
watch of cultural institutions, in the interactive era audience activity is extensively
monitored. Institutions that produce meaning and those that manage and watch
meaning making are interdependent. Institutions that manage audience interactivity
generate data they can provide to the content-producing industries about those
audiences; the content-producing industries in turn provide the content that is often
circulating within interactive platforms.

The relationship is symbiotic and competitive. Each institution occupies different
moments in the production and circulation of meaning. While audiences’ capacity to
‘speak’ is greatly amplified in the interactive era, this speaking is more
institutionalized within the process of cultural production. This enables institutions
to shape and manage audiences more effectively. Institutions that produce meaning
are able to make and target content at niche audiences. Institutions that manage
audience interactivity shape the networks, connections and flows of content to niche
audiences. As these institutions interact they adapt to the interests and preferences of
many different audience niches. Audiences have little control over how this system
watches and responds to them. And this mode of cultural production reaches into
their everyday life in ways that the twentieth-century culture industry did not.

As a simple illustration imagine television as the key institution of the twentieth-
century culture industry. Television had extensive reach into the homes and lives of
ordinary people. Powerful groups could use television to disseminate messages that
were in their political and economic interests. Television organized everyday lives
in many households. Once broadcast into homes, however, television producers had
limited access to what audiences did with the meanings. It was a one-way flow of
content and meaning. Only market research and public opinion research could offer

some understanding of what effect television had on the ideas and meanings in the
public mind. With the emergence of interactive media ordinary home life has
changed considerably: we don’t just consume media, we also make and circulate it.
Think about how many of us now still watch television, but at the same time are
accessing the web on a smartphone, tablet or laptop. We might be private-
messaging friends, circulating photos of our own lives, or commenting on a
television show. While we are very active and busy, this activity is more
institutionalized. Each of these communicative acts is positioned within an
institutionalized network of cultural production.

Tracing Our Engagement with Industrialized
Starting with the left-hand box in Figure 2.2, trace the relationships between each component and ask
the following questions.

What industrially produced content do you consume? Make a list.
Where and how do you consume industrially produced content?
Who do you consume it with?
How often do you consume industrially produced content?
How do you respond to and circulate industrially produced content?

Now consider the content that you create and circulate on the web.

What do you make?
Where do you upload it?
How do you and your friends interact with it?
List and define practices where you consume, circulate and create content. What institutionalized
technologies, networks and devices do you use to circulate content?
What kinds of information does your creation and circulation of content online create?
What are the values and uses of that information?
What are the ways in which you as an audience member contribute directly to the production of
industrially produced content that you then consume?
List the range of institutions you engage with, and categorize their control over the way you
create and circulate meaning.

Privacy Policies
We can examine the relationships established by the interactive culture industries by carefully reading
through the privacy policies we agree to when we sign up.

How often do you read the privacy policies you agree to?
Why don’t you read them?
What conditions in a privacy policy would concern you?
If a privacy policy of a platform all your friends used concerned you what would you do?

These policies are a contract between you and the platform about how the data and content you
generate can be used. Through these policies you agree to a certain role within a system of cultural

Read the privacy policies of platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Google and Twitter. For links visit
the Media and Society website

Instagram’s ‘information we collect’
From Instagram’s privacy policy, here is a list of information it collects about you. Consider what this
information might be used for.

Your username
Your password
Your email address
Your name
Your profile picture
Your phone number
Images you upload
Videos you upload
Comments you make
List of images you like
List of people you follow
Web pages you visit
Your movements
Times of day and locations when you use the service
When you view images
What images you view
How many images you view
How you scroll through the image feed
What accounts you visit
Which filters you use
How often you upload images
Who you tag in images
What your images depict
What hashtags you use or view
Your IP address
Web pages you visit
Browsers you use
What devices you access Instagram from
What your use habits are between different devices
Words you use in your comments
Where images are uploaded
Geo-tags you add to images.

The privacy policy explains that this information has many uses. Some of which include enabling
Instagram to:

Tailor or target ‘personalized content and information to you and others, which could include
online ads or other forms of marketing’. The information it collects about you and people like
you is used to shape flows of content on the platform.
Monitor how users engage with the service. This includes monitoring ‘visitors, traffic, and
demographic patterns’. This data is useful for Instagram in packaging and selling its audience to
advertisers and investors.
Conduct continuous experiments to ‘test’ and ‘improve’ the service. Instagram might use the
information it collects to trial new features on certain parts of its audience. For instance, some
users will see targeted advertising in their home feed before others.

Facebook’s ‘how we use your information’
Facebook also lists an extensive array of information it collects about users. It explains that it uses the
information to customize content which is ‘more relevant to you’.

In addition to most of the information Instagram collects, Facebook explains that it also collects
information that it can ‘infer from your use of Facebook’. This broad statement suggests a constantly
evolving array of data it collects about the daily habits of users.

Facebook explains that the information you provide is used to ‘target relevant ads’. For instance, ‘If
you like a page about gluten-free food, you may receive ads about relevant food products’ or if you
check in to a sci-fi movie at a theatre they may infer you are a sci-fi fan for future ad targeting.
Facebook suggests we use this tool to understand how its advertising model works:

Log in to the tool and undertake an experiment. Imagine you are a brand targeting someone like
yourself and your peers. Experiment with different categories and information to see how Facebook
can define and deliver an audience to you based on information individuals have uploaded to the

Considering these privacy policies, identify the relationships between users and the platform, and the
uses of information, which the privacy policies institutionalize. How do these privacy policies value
and protect the information generated by users for both users and the platforms?

The development of networked telecommunications and digital technologies
reshaped the global economy, and has had a particularly profound impact on the
production and circulation of culture. This will be a core theme in this book. The
transition from mass to interactive and networked production entails a number of
profound shifts. These include:

a shift from hierarchical linear production, to flexible and networked ways of
organizing production
a shift from tightly controlled national markets, to open international trade-
flows and global markets
a fragmentation of mass consumer markets and audiences into a series of
globally dispersed niche markets and audiences.

Communication and information became central to the facilitation of these global,
networked and flexible forms of production. While professional communicators
and the culture industry grew in this phase, it also reformed into a more fragmented
and flexible industry. These developments are the subject of the next two chapters.

The interactive culture industry that has emerged out of the development of the
internet and web is caught in the same contradictions as the forms of cultural
production that are remaking themselves (print, radio and television). We have a
culture industry that is largely commercial and therefore must make a profit while
at the same time we expect it to serve the public. This has been a paradox that
concerned critics like the Frankfurt School and political economists of television,
newspapers and radio. In response to these public values and hopes, the internet’s
decentralized structure, as a cultural industry with no centre of power, has been
mythologized. Early digital optimists equated ‘nobody’ ultimately being in charge,
with potentially ‘everybody’ or ‘anybody’ being in charge. For some digital
optimists the internet, and the web in its commercial form, empowered ordinary
people. Some of these influential people and sites include public intellectuals like
Nicholas Negroponte, Howard Rheingold, Henry Jenkins, technology industry
publications like Wired magazine and research centres like MIT Media Labs and
Microsoft Research. In their view of the internet and web, technologies that enabled
ordinary users to create and circulate content were inherently empowering. These
claims were built on the binary that the ‘old’ culture industry was top-down: it
simply distributed content to audiences whose only choice was to consume it. If the
‘new’ culture industry enabled them to participate in creating and circulating the
meaning then it must be empowering. In this book, we’ll argue that this binary is a
false one: participation and control can work very well together. They are not

binary opposites, rather they are interdependent.

Further Reading
The founding reading on the culture industry is Adorno and Horkheimer ’s essay
‘The culture industry: enlightenment as mass deception’ in their book Dialectic of
Enlightenment (2008). This essay was originally published in 1944 in German and
translated into English in 1972. You can also find it easily online. In this essay
Adorno and Horkheimer conceptualize the culture industry, connect it to wider
developments in the mass society, and critique how it organizes everyday life.
Adorno reflected on his original argument about the culture industry in the essay
‘The culture industry reconsidered’ (in Adorno 2001). This chapter offers a
relatively accessible reflection on Adorno’s main arguments about the development
of the culture industry. Thompson (1995) offers a historical account of how the
media emerged as part of wider processes of modernization and industrialization.
Where Adorno and Horkheimer ’s account of the culture industry is philosophical
and critical, Thompson provides a rich descriptive explanation of media processes
and institutions. Hesmondhalgh (2013) offers an account of the contemporary
organization of the cultural industries. Steemers (2014) examines the dynamics of
the global television industry. Taylor (2007) explores the changing nature of the
music industry. Napoli (2014) and Wilken (2014) each offer accounts of the
development of social media industries and platforms.

Adorno, T. W. (2001) The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. New
York: Routledge.

Adorno, T. and Horkheimer, M. (2008) Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso.

Hesmondhalgh, D. (2013) The Cultural Industries, 2nd edn. London: Sage.

Napoli, P. (2014) ‘On automation in media industries: integrating algorithmic media
production into media industries scholarship’, Media Industries, 1 (1): 33–38

Steemers, J. (2014) ‘Selling television: addressing transformations in the
international distribution of television content’, Media Industries, 1 (1): 44–49.

Taylor, T. D. (2007) ‘The changing shape of the culture industry; or, how did
electronica music get into television commercials?’, Television & New Media, 8 (3):

Thompson, J. B. (1995) The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media.

Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wilken, R. (2014) ‘Places nearby: Facebook as a location-based social media
platform’, New Media & Society, 1–17.

Any article marked with is available to download at the website

3 Power and Media Production Powerful groups
use professional communicators and media
institutions to make and manage meaning.

* How do groups become hegemonic?
* What institutions are used to maintaining hegemony?
* What role do professional communicators play in making and maintaining

In this chapter we examine:
How groups and meanings become hegemonic
The flexible and responsive hegemonies that have taken shape in the networked era by using new
communication technologies and channels to make and manage niche markets and publics
The work of managing hegemonies using communicative sites, communication professionals and
The dynamics of resistance and change that characterize any hegemony.

Meaning and Power
Meaning is not some free-floating abstract entity, detached from the grubby realities
of human struggles for influence and power. Rather, the meaning-making process is
always embedded in power relationships. Power – the ability to have one’s interests
prevail over others – is derivative of access to economic and cultural resources,
social position and linguistic factors. Institutionalized communication is implicated
in organizing each of these. Power relations get encoded into meaning via the
various sites that have effectively been ‘licensed’ to manufacture, circulate and
manage discourse. One of these is the media, because they have become important
for defining social position and status and for positioning people.

Importantly, power is not automatic. It is the outcome of labour and struggle. One of
the sites of struggle is the battle over media discourses. To understand the process
of meaning making we need to examine how communicative flows involve an
ongoing struggle between different groups of players. On the one hand we find
those who wish to restrict, narrow, close and manipulate flows of communication –
those who want to bring about discursive closures. On the other hand we find those
who have a vested interest in resisting such discursive closures and manipulations.
There is no need to privilege one of these as better than the other. Rather, both those
who are striving for closure and those resisting can simply be viewed as the
necessary and inevitable outcomes of humans organizing themselves. If one adopts
the ‘trying for closure’ versus ‘resisting closure’ approach to analysing
communication, a series of six questions emerges as a systematic way of
unravelling the nature of media and cultural production:

What is the nature of the context within which the communication is taking
Which group or groups are socially and politically dominant?
How did they get to be dominant and powerful?
How do they stay dominant and powerful?
How do they manage the discourses within their society?
Who is resisting these discourses?

Together, these six questions provide a basic route map for unravelling the struggle
for hegemony.

Becoming Hegemonic
Becoming hegemonic means becoming the dominant or leading group – or, more
likely, alliance of groups – in a society. This entails becoming the ruling group or
elite whose concept or definition of reality sets the tone. Hegemonic groups are
effectively able to set the overarching intellectual agenda in a given society and
manipulate dominant discourses. Becoming the ruling group appears to require
being simultaneously successful in three spheres:

Building and maintaining a working set of political alliances. That is,
constructing a ruling group.
Successfully generating consent among the ruled. That is, developing the
legitimacy of the ruling group.
Building coercive capacity to generate authority through police, courts,
prisons and possibly a military.

The more legitimacy rulers have, the less coercion they need to employ. However,
even the most legitimate systems rely on some coercive underpinning, even if it is
only the threat that the police and legal machine can be used if individuals break the
law. Each of these three hegemonic functions relies on communication and
intellectual organization. The legitimacy and consent function is entirely
communicative, and is also the sphere most obviously associated with media
production. Becoming politically and socially dominant requires ruling groups to
successfully learn, mobilize and organize two key skills: the art of coercion and the
art of communication and negotiation.

A key contextual variable is power. For anyone concerned with exploring the
relationships between power, communication and context, Gramsci’s notion of
hegemony becomes invaluable. Gwyn Williams explains that:

By ‘hegemony’ Gramsci seems to mean a sociopolitical situation, in his
terminology a ‘moment’, in which the philosophy and practice of a society fuse
or are in equilibrium; an order in which a certain way of life and thought is
dominant, in which one concept of reality is diffused throughout society in all
its institutional and private manifestations, informing with its spirit all taste,
morality, customs, religious and political principles, and all social relations,
particularly in their intellectual and moral connotation. An element of direction
and control, not necessarily conscious, is implied. (Williams 1960: 587)

Seeing social communication as embedded in a struggle over power draws attention
away from ideals and contextually specific morality, and locates attention instead on
the impact that ‘lived battles’ over hegemony have on communication. The notion of
hegemony helps remove moralism and idealism from the picture because
hegemonic analysis recognizes that, for those in power, striving to close discourse
whether conscious or unconscious is sensible, just as for those not in power it is
often, but not always, sensible to resist such closures.

Hegemonic communicative labour became increasingly mediatized over the course
of the twentieth century. By the start of the twenty-first century, becoming socially
and politically dominant required an ability to play a media game across print,
radio, television and the web. Not surprisingly communicators like public relations
(PR) professionals, media and communication advisors, and ‘spin doctors’ are now
key features of the political machinery that ruling groups must build. In some senses
the very art of ruling became dependent upon successful impression and discourse
management using media. This has necessarily impacted on the nature of those
staffing hegemonic groups. To join the ranks of the socially dominant it has become
increasingly important to be able to play mediatized politics, or at least to know
how to get others to play it for you.

How do groups become hegemonic?
If sketching out the broader social context is a good starting point for analysing
media production, then it leads us to the following two questions:

What is the nature of the socially dominant group(s) within the context under
How did they get to be dominant or hegemonic?

Industrial, and post-industrial, societies are highly complex entities, involving the
interactions of millions of individuals and multiple interest groups. Taking the lead
and becoming hegemonic in such complex entities requires constructing alliances
that draw together players from a range of social sectors – like business, legal,
media, health, security, education, labour and so on – and demographic or belief
groupings. Becoming a ruling elite is hard and continuous work.

A political elite – whose job it becomes to coordinate the various sectoral interests
of the wider ruling elite – has to be constructed and then held together through a
process of negotiating and bargaining. This political negotiating task has become
professionalized and institutionalized within a range of sites, including parliaments,
boards, bureaus and more recently multinational organizations such as the World
Trade Organization (WTO). Politics is an intensely communicative occupation.
Building and maintaining hegemony requires the capacity to alternate between
consensus and conflict-driven communication. In part, alliance construction
involves producing and circulating successful internally directed discourses, that is,
discourses which hold teams together and keep such teams focused on a particular
vision of governance and collaboration. The birth of a successful hegemonic group
needs to be understood as a contextually unique creation emergent from effective
leadership and communication skills. Hegemonies also emerge from contextually
unique sets of synchronic and diachronic interactions with other groups; and often,
from sheer good luck. Once formed, hegemonies constantly change because the
leading group must continually adjust and make new compromises to survive. This
makes hegemonies highly contextual organisms tied to a particular location and
moment. The actual composition of a hegemonic alliance is seldom the same for
very long, because the membership and patterns of influence are ever mutating. But,
in addition to small ongoing shifts through which hegemonic groups continually
renew themselves, huge cataclysmic hegemonic shifts also occur. At those moments
the hegemonic ‘rules of the game’ are fundamentally altered. Such revolutionary
changes usually transpire when dominant groups have failed to sufficiently renew
their composition and their discourses, and so lose their ability to lead and organize
a changed society. The collapse of the Soviet system in 1989 represents such a

revolutionary hegemonic shift. At such moments the organizing discourses of a
society are rendered transparent. The collapsing hegemonic discourse no longer
has the capacity to normalise the old order ’s way of life and world-view, but the
new hegemonic order will not yet be in a position to normalize its preferred vision.
It takes a new order some time to fully dislodge old hegemonic discourses and
practices and entrench, and close, its own preferred discourses and practices.

Feudalism and early capitalism
The processes of ‘becoming hegemonic’ have altered over time. Such processes
first emerged in the post-feudal world. Under feudalism, power was located in
hereditary families who did not have to become dominant, because they were born
dominant. The bourgeoisie that became powerful with the collapse of feudalism had
to find new mechanisms for creating and organizing their power, regulating
differences between themselves and taking decisions. The result was the creation of
bourgeois public forums such as parliaments. Within these sites bourgeois
individuals and factions learned the communicative art of becoming dominant and
hegemonic by forming alliances, discursively promoting their interests and
negotiating. After bourgeois parliaments were widened to also include non-middle-
class representation the hegemonic arts of becoming dominant became necessarily
more complex. However, to some extent widening representation was rendered less
significant by the emergence of managerialism, which saw the locus of power shift
away from public forums. The managerialists used boards, bureaus and government
executives such as cabinets as their key decision-making sites. The role of
parliaments as the true seat of power declined.

Managerial to global network capitalism
As parliaments became less important to the negotiation of ideas under
managerialism, the differences between parliamentary groupings – for instance,
labour parties and conservative parties – have greatly narrowed over time, so that
eventually elections in liberal democracies seemingly only produce intra-elite
rotation rather than fundamental policy changes. This is partly because the key
centrist parties are all committed to the same pragmatism and maintenance of the
same managerialist hegemony. Further, all parliamentarians rely on the same
bureaucratic managers for advice on decisions and policies. Managerial elites
created one-dimensional hegemonies in which only pseudo-choices were available
(Marcuse 1964). In the liberal democracies, managerialist rulers increasingly lost
legitimacy as the twentieth century progressed, leading to declining voter turnouts,
growing voter cynicism and a generalized distrust of politicians. A parallel East
European legitimacy crisis saw Soviet managerialists overthrown in 1989 and 1990.

Significantly, the managerial era was also the era of mass communication, with the
culture industry disseminating and legitimating mass discourses, appropriate to the
needs of managerialist hegemonies. The Frankfurt School noted the interesting
parallels between the mass discourses of liberal and social-democrat
managerialism, Soviet managerialism and Nazi managerialism. In the 1950s
managerialist discourses generally resonated with mass audiences, and
managerialists gained widespread legitimacy in societies like the United States,
Canada and Australia as they delivered new material prosperity in the form of mass
suburban housing, affordable electricity and household appliances, automobiles,
and popular culture like television and rock records. Product delivery also helped
make science into something of a new secular religion helped along by the
excitement of rocket launches and the space age. Among Anglo-intellectuals,
managerialist discourses like functionalist behaviourism, structural functionalism
and systems theory gained widespread currency. Each of these discourses assumed
an onwards-and-upwards story of human progress by adhering to rational scientific
processes of discovery and innovation.

However, this legitimacy progressively unravelled when managerialists and
scientists were seen as responsible for creating the threat of nuclear warfare, and
were unable to find solutions to the Vietnam ordeal, crime, inflation and
unemployment. Creating a hegemony requires both inwardly directed discourses to
hold the hegemonic team together and externally directed discourses that make the
hegemonic team credible in the eyes of other groups. The latter involves mediatized
impression management for the consumption of the ruled, and is geared to

legitimating the rulers. Managerialist legitimation problems arose once they began
to lose touch with the external audiences and created discourses resonating with
fellow managerialists (that is, the socially dominant) but which sounded elitist to the
ruled. Managerialists responded to growing ‘steering problems’ of unemployment
and crime by building bigger bureaucracies to administer top-down planning. These
managerial solutions made ordinary people feel manipulated by experts who
appeared unable to solve social problems. One outcome was the emergence of
conservative-populism in societies like the United States, United Kingdom and
Australia that railed against elite and managerialist interventions associated with
welfare targeting sectional interests. By the time global networkers emerged and
began challenging the discourses and practices of managerialism, the
managerialists already found themselves hegemonically vulnerable.

Hegemony and the Art of Managing Discourses
It is not enough to simply become hegemonic. Hegemonic groups, as Gramsci
noted, have to work at staying dominant. In part, this involves operating a discourse
that keeps the ruling alliance together. However, another hegemonic task is
maintaining a leading position in society relative to all other groups such that the
dominated accept the position of dominance held by the leading group. This
involves generating consent among the ruled. That is, ensuring the discourses,
practices and authority or coercive capacity of the ruling group are seen as
legitimate, and ideally as natural and universal, by the ruled. For hegemonic groups,
the more naturalized and obfuscated such discourses and practices are, the better. A
naturalized set of hegemonic discourses and practices effectively positions the
dominated within a set of hidden power relationships. The discourses that are
embedded in, and govern, institutions (as described by Foucault) produce an
especially obfuscated and opaque form of power.

Although dominant groups strive for it, a fully naturalized hegemony is unlikely.
Rather, hegemonies have to continually be remade as dominant groups struggle to
maintain their leadership through a process of negotiating with subordinate groups
and a related process of discursive management. Those in power have three
discursive goals:

Produce discourses that advance and confirm their interests.
Create as much discursive closure as possible. Use the power already
possessed by ruling groups to try to influence, or nudge, discourse-making
processes in the direction of closures favouring perspectives and practices
advantageous to themselves and their allies.
Regulate discursive shifts such that discursive change favours the interests of
the already dominant.

Groups that are already hegemonic have an advantage over newcomers because
they have the resources to employ and offer patronage to intellectuals, and even to
offer some intellectuals derivative power in the form of positions on boards,
commissions and advisory committees. During the era of social-welfare Keynesian
intervention many social-democrat intellectuals acquired real power. They
effectively became part of managerialist capitalist hegemonic alliances by helping
to create appropriate discourses and practices to manage the welfare state. These
intellectuals made themselves valuable within the capitalist hegemonic order. The
already-hegemonic are also in a position to direct, or at least strongly influence, the
discourses promoted within schooling systems. This is significant because children
are formed as subjects within ruling discourses. Their world-view is constructed

within established parameters. After several generations this education system
creates citizens that effectively police or manage themselves because they have
internalized discourses appropriate for the needs of the ruling hegemony. This
remains stable for as long as the ideas, including dreams and aspirations, taught in
school continue to largely correspond with the lived experience and life chances of
those people. One explanation for the Arab Spring revolutions was the creation of a
young educated population who had been taught to aspire to a life that the state was
unable or unwilling to provide. A serious political problem in the wake of the Euro-
zone crisis has been the large educated but unemployed youth populations in
countries like Spain and Greece. The crisis means their aspirations cannot be
fulfilled. People raised in an education system are ‘inducted’ into a system of
meaning (Althusser 1971). The hegemonic closure facilitated by the education
system is undermined because of the dissonance between the common sense taught
to this generation of people and their real life experience.

In addition, already-hegemonic groups have an advantage over newcomers with
regard to their ability for developing symbiotic relationships with the media. This is
useful for facilitating discursive closures. However, relationships between various
sections of the media and different factions of ruling hegemonies are subject to
ongoing flux and negotiation. This means symbiotic relationships are contextually
bound rather than ongoing and automatic. Further, media-related discursive closure
is complicated by the fact that intra-hegemonic factional struggles are often fought
out in the media, which generates the impression of discursive turmoil and non-
closure. The Frankfurt School would argue that such discursive battles in the media
do not mean that truly antithetical ideas are allowed to surface. Rather, they would
argue such oppositional ideas merely constitute superficial ‘huffery and puffery’,
that is the ‘freedom to choose what is always the same’ (Adorno and Horkheimer
2008: 167). Contemporary philosophers too make similar arguments. Žižek (1989)
suggests for instance that when we participate in circulating oppositional discourses
in media and popular culture we strengthen the ruling order, rather than disrupt it,
because we give the appearance of debate that legitimates it as a freely chosen state
of affairs. This can be seen in the way the United States’ Democrats and
Republicans, United Kingdom’s Labour and Conservatives and Australia’s Labour
and Liberals have engaged in a struggle to win the same middle ground. The more
important point is that media battles, even when not involving substantive issues,
help construct liberal democracy as a tolerant and legitimate system. The debates
produce the idea that liberal democracy allows for multiple oppositional ideas to be
seriously considered; this conceals the real limits of what is and isn’t acceptable in
liberal-democratic societies. This is helpful for constructing liberal hegemonies
because it reduces the danger of ideas surfacing that fundamentally challenge the
system’s core underpinnings. Habermas (1976) argued that this was the real weak

point of managerialist systems because if the public ever demanded democracy be
practised, it would constitute a threat to administrative rationality and lead to the
disintegration of the system. The Frankfurt School’s argument is that those ideas
which are fundamentally contradictory to ruling hegemonic interests will be
marginalized, repressed and belittled. In liberal hegemonies they are deemed radical
or crazy. Although this notion may exaggerate the capacity of ruling hegemonies to
achieve closure, it should not be dismissed out of hand. Clearly, all ruling
hegemonies would like to achieve closures if they could. The question is: to what
extent are they able to achieve such closures? Ultimately the success each ruling
group has in this regard will depend upon its skills at managing discourses by
making them both dominant and taken for granted or obfuscated and opaque.

Ruling hegemonic groups necessarily intervene to try to influence the production,
circulation, and reception of communication. No ruling groups can afford to adopt
a laissez-faire approach to communication given the centrality of communication in
building and maintaining hegemonic influence. At the very least, discourse
management requires ruling groups to pay some attention to five communicative
variables. We discuss each below. In the era of early capitalism many
communicative functions would have been carried out by middle-class leaders
themselves. But progressively the number of communicative functions has
increased, and during the managerialist era, hegemonic communication emerged as
a set of specialist functions. By the start of the twenty-first century, communication
was not only a set of specialist functions, but a set of institutionalized practices, with
hegemonic groups employing a range of professional communicators like spin
doctors, PRs, journalists, educators, policy makers and so on to practise the arts of
hegemonic communication. These communication professionals concerned
themselves with the following sorts of communicative hegemonic issues.

Managing the structures of meaning making
Ruling groups and some aspiring ruling groups employ communication
professionals possessing an understanding of the structures of meaning making.
These professionals develop strategies and tactics for using whatever discursive
possibilities such structures may offer. The twentieth century saw discourse making
progressively institutionalized, largely in accordance with industrial managerialist
logic, within schools, universities, research institutions, the media and even
charismatic churches. These institutionalized sites provide platforms for the
production and dissemination of discourses. Already-hegemonic groups are in a
position to influence the discourses in circulation within their area of jurisdiction by
intervening to either facilitate or undermine the functioning of such discursive
spaces. The extreme end of hegemonic action against such sites would involve
censorship or disallowing such discourse-making machinery. For example, we have
seen a number of hegemonies, like the United States, China and Japan, take action to
crush institutionalized religious cults. Sometimes this even involves the use of
violence such as the Waco siege in Texas, or persecution of Falun Gong in China.
But, more commonly, ruling groups regulate the structures for meaning making
through intervening in ways that impact on the resources flowing into such

Institutions producing discourses that the hegemonic bloc approves of may receive
direct funding from factions of the ruling alliance, or the state, or receive tax
breaks. They can also be favoured by regulatory decisions like licensing or
spectrum allocation. Institutions receiving such funding, tax breaks or regulatory
favours will often provide hegemonic groups with discursive space in return.
Alternatively, structures producing discourses not approved of by ruling
hegemonies can be actively discouraged through taxation and regulatory obstacles.
Such hegemonic interventions, which are often so low key as to go unnoticed, are
responsible for steering social discursive flows in one or other direction by
allowing some structures to grow, while encouraging others to decline or die. Much
discursive steering is subtle and hidden, and only becomes transparent at moments
of a hegemonic shift. For example, the end of the Cold War saw clearly discernible
interventions to steer meaning-making machineries into new directions during the
1990s such as South Africa and the old Soviet bloc. These non-opaque interventions
included a mix of funding shifts, regulatory shifts, direct political pressure for
transformation and the creation of an industry involved in policy transfer and the
dispatch of reconstruction missions to promote liberalization and democratization.
Of the plethora of meaning-making structures in existence, the media probably now
receive the most attention, from both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic groups,

because from the mid-twentieth century onwards they became the key instruments
for circulating discourses.

Managing the meaning makers
Communication professionals employed by ruling groups need to pay attention to
the personnel involved in meaning making. Structures may provide the fulcrums for
discourse manufacture and circulation, but ultimately it is those staffing these
structures who are the creative heart of the machinery. Discourse management must
involve a concern with meaning makers or intellectuals. Managing discourse
making involves attracting the ‘right’ sort of people to do the job. Discourse
managers need to establish what an appropriate candidate would be. This sets the
parameters for what meanings are likely to be produced. Deciding what is
appropriate need not necessarily involve conscious decisions about world-views
and ideological positions. Instead, decisions may, in the educational sector for
example, be set according to knowledge of certain research topics or
methodologies. This can constitute a disguised and even unconscious form of
discourse steering. Similarly, setting salary levels can be a decision about what sort
of person will be recruited, as are decisions about recruitment procedures.

Recruitment is a central function of discourse management. From a hegemonic
point of view only the ‘right’ people are empowered to take recruitment decisions.
That is, those taking such decisions, like editors, should hold appropriate views
themselves. Discourses can be managed by promoting appropriate people into those
positions selecting the next generation of meaning makers. A process of ‘cloning’
by recruitment can be established. Naturally, recruitment mistakes can be made, and
people may be appointed who produce meanings deemed inappropriate. Such
persons will not be promoted. Some will be tolerated but marginalized, while others
will be driven out. In long-standing hegemonies such personnel management can be
so naturalized that it becomes an unconscious form of discourse management and
censorship. Only in rare circumstances will such personnel management cease
being opaque and become a set of conscious acts designed to change a society’s
dominant discourses by removing intellectuals like journalists, academics and
policy makers from their jobs. Such deliberate interventions were implemented in
post-Second World War militarily occupied Germany and Japan (Louw 2010a), in
East Germany following reunification and in post-apartheid South Africa (Louw
and Milton 2012).

Regulating meaning-making practices
Communication professionals employed by ruling groups pay attention to meaning-
making practices. Such practices are learned both through education and training
programmes and on-the-job socialization. Detaching training from meaning-
making sites is not a problem in some sectors. For instance, training teachers in
colleges and universities mostly away from schools is a long-accepted practice
which does not appear to have caused undue tension between practitioners and
trainers, in part because teachers appear to feel some ownership of the training
processes, and school placements create a space for socialization to occur.
However, the same cannot be said of media training, where tensions have emerged
between practitioners and some media and journalism schools. This tension
emerged when practitioners felt they were losing control of media training
processes when in-house journalism cadetships were replaced by university
programmes. Practitioners became concerned that university programmes involved
too much critique and theory and not enough practical skills. These programmes
are seen to teach a set of inappropriate practices and values. On-the-job training and
cadetships created the ideal conditions for cloning, ensuring journalists were
socialized into existing appropriate sets of meanings and practices. Tensions will
presumably continue until media practitioners feel they have regained some degree
of control over media training. The question of who controls training is a
significant issue for hegemonic managers.

Adapting and repurposing meanings
Communication professionals employed by ruling groups pay attention to the issue
of appropriating, recycling and reworking discourses from the past and from other
contexts. Discourses and practices from the past are omnipresent in the form of
residues underlying, intermeshing and interpenetrating contemporary discourses
and practices. The British Empire left such residues in South Asia and East and
Southern Africa, as did the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and Middle East. Further,
discourses are continually migrating from their original context, and mutating and
hybridizing with other discourses in new contexts. The spread of Christianity, Islam
and Marxism are examples of this. Globalization processes are likely to intensify
the migration and hybridization of liberal discourses. Discursive migration,
mutation and hybridization and residues can have unrecognized influences.
Discursive management requires sensitivity to the contextual roots of any discourse
or practice and its migrations and mutations. Such knowledge enhances
opportunities for appropriating or reworking discourses for use in new contexts,
and offers both hegemonic and counter-hegemonic players a set of tools for
discursive intervention and manipulation. For those who are the targets of such
manipulation, knowledge of how discourses are created, travel and mutate can
provide at least some inoculation.

Monitoring and responding to shifting meanings
Communication professionals employed by ruling groups need to monitor the
actual flows of meaning. The way meanings flow through social networks is a good
indication of the arrangement of power relationships between individuals and
groups. Constructing hegemony involves, in part, cobbling together sets of
relationships between people: sectors of the dominant, the dominated, plus the
relationships between these. Constructing hegemonic relationships therefore
requires communicative interventions to regulate information exchanges and power
relationships, such that the dominant orchestrate, as much as possible, what is
communicated to whom. There will be occasions when hegemonic players wish to
retain and stabilize existing communicative patterns. On other occasions they may
wish to alter communication flows to create new groupings or alliances, or to
undermine existing groupings that are no longer deemed hegemonically useful.

During the managerial era, hegemonies became consciously managed. The move
towards global network capitalism is generating shifts from hierarchical
bureaucratic managerialism to control through networking. However, these shifts
are not resulting in a diminishment of the wide array of institutionalized
communicative functions established under managerial hegemony. What is
changing is the style of control. Building hegemony in the global networking era
appears to involve developing new communicative practices by rejigging and
mutating existing communicative infrastructures and routines, rather than building a
completely new infrastructure. At its core, the art of building hegemony remains
unaltered: it involves becoming and staying dominant and powerful by using
communications to organize ways of life. Hegemony is built and organized by
managing discourses, institutions and practices. Intellectuals, as specialists in setting
communicative parameters, are necessarily implicated in all three functions.
Becoming dominant simply requires being successful in getting one’s definitions of
reality accepted as correct; and thereafter closing, or at least narrowing, discursive
flows in favour of the dominant perspective.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, managerialists had seemingly lost the battle
to maintain discursive closure, although managerialist discourses and the
intelligentsia serving the old managerialist hegemony were still far from dislodged.
Now, the global networker hegemony is solidly embedded within dominant
discourses and practices. The discursive battles between the managerialists and
networkers are not over. It is not even clear that the global networkers are assured
of hegemonic dominance, although some managerialist forms appear to have been
completely defeated, like Soviet managerialism; resistance from other

managerialists, especially Keynesian managerialists in western welfare sectors, is
not yet exhausted. In addition, the role of luck should not be underestimated in
establishing hegemony. During the last part of the twentieth century global
networkers had a run of good luck; but it is possible the turmoil generated by the
post-2007 global financial crisis may be the end of this lucky streak.

Discursive Resistance and Weakening Hegemonies
All hegemonic groups wish to remain dominant. They will necessarily attempt to
stabilize those discourses and practices through which they secured hegemonic
dominance. Stabilization strategies can range from attempts to freeze discourses and
practices, through to permitting reform, but on terms set by the hegemony. The
‘freezing’ approach is unlikely to be a successful strategy because there are always
going to be contextual shifts which demand mutability. Also there will always be
those resisting the dominant hegemony. Oppositional individuals and groups will be
constantly looking for, and finding, communicative gaps. The bourgeoisie found
their gaps in the public sphere, that is, in spaces the feudal elites could no longer
police. The managerialists colonized the gaps flowing from capitalism’s socio-
economic ‘steering crises’, such as the First World War, Great Depression and
Second World War.

For the managerialists, the 1970s and 1980s brought a series of steering problems.
Problems within civil society became especially intense during the 1980s. The 1989
Leipzig uprising against East German Soviet managerialists illustrates how an
activated civil society can pose a crisis for managerialists; effectively the demands
and resistances could simply not be managed away. Consent collapsed because the
gap between the discursive promises and the lived reality of citizens became too
great. The problems got too big. A similar pattern was seen in South Africa where
apartheid managerialists lost the capacity to manage multiple steering problems
arising in the 1980s. In the face of massive problems and resistances both the Soviet
and apartheid managerialists engaged in attempts at reform mixed with repression.
But they were minimalist reforms, framed within the same sort of managerialist
logic that gave rise to the systemic crises in the first place. Hence, the steering
problems simply got more intense. As a result, the Soviet and apartheid hegemonic
elites simply gave up. The Soviet decision to allow the Berlin Wall to come down in
November 1989 and the announcement that apartheid was over in February 1990
were both deeply symbolic of the fate of managerialist elites who reformed too
little and too late. Effectively both systems became ungovernable and unmanageable
and the old managerialist frameworks simply collapsed under the weight of
multiple problems. The anarchy ensuing from these collapses was still in evidence
as post-apartheid and post-Soviet societies entered the twenty-first century.

The response of capitalist managerialism to its steering problems and discursive
resistance has been quite different. The western managerialists retreated and
reformed more successfully than Soviet or apartheid managerialists. Liberal
capitalism allowed alternative sets of practices and discourses to emerge. Out of this

emerged the global networkers, whose practices appear to constitute a successfully
reformed capitalism. In addition, when it became clear that social welfare
managerialism was no longer sustainable, liberal capitalism began winding back the
managed welfare system. This wind-back reform began when managerial solutions
were found to no longer be working, that is, when managerialist interventions
created bigger systemic problems and sustainability became an issue. Another
complicating factor was that the costs of this managerialist system were blowing
out. Multiple demands outstripped the capacity of managerialists to deliver.
Similarly, national economic management and managed protectionisms were
wound back when steering problems began to outstrip managerial solutions.
Naturally, in the process of reforming the system, there were intra-elite conflicts
between managerialists who opted for reform and began attaching themselves to the
emergent new networker elite, and conservative managerialists who put up
resistance to change. A clear sign that the networkers were winning the struggle was
the spate of deregulation across the OECD, because this deregulation clearly
undermined many of the props that sustained the managerialist order. Interestingly,
once the networkers became hegemonic they initiated a process of re-regulation.
But, of course, the new regulations now suited networker rather than managerialist

Regulating and Deregulating the Circulation of
Cultural Content
We can observe the process of deregulation and re-regulation by examining the
attempts to control the circulation of information and culture by corporations,
citizens and governments over the past two decades. The web has afforded citizens
and new cultural organizations the capacity to create, access and circulate cultural
content outside of the content channels created and controlled by the traditional
culture industry. Once television content was regulated by television networks, who
secured exclusive contractual access to television programmes and were granted
spectrum licences to distribute that content. Now television content can be rapidly
copied and circulated through the web. The flexibility and scale of these
technologies has rendered copyright difficult to enforce.

The traditional mass music, movie and television industries have responded by
attempting to enforce the old regulations that protected their content and its
circulation. Below we examine some of their responses.

Generating consent for the regulation of the circulation
of cultural content
The culture industries have undertaken the following activities:

constructing peer-to-peer downloading and other forms of content sharing as
illegal piracy
running public information campaigns explaining illegal downloading as theft
attempting to convince the public that illegal downloading could lead to less
content being made because it wouldn’t be profitable to make music, movies or
television if no one paid
arguing that not paying for content ultimately harms cultural producers and
artists who won’t get paid or will lose their jobs.

Using the legal system to prosecute pirates and
In the United States the recording industry instigated lawsuits against predominantly
young music fans who had downloaded copyrighted music illegally. Some young
music fans were selected out and sued for large sums of money in order to make
examples of the consequences of illegal downloading.

Since the Napster case in the late 1990s the music, film and television industries
have attempted to shut down and prosecute pirates and websites that facilitate illegal
downloading. Some of these cases have included Napster, Kazaa, Pirate Bay and
Megaupload. The people behind these sites have had their wealth and assets taken off
them, spent time in prison or lived in a legal limbo under house arrest or unable to
travel. Several of these lawsuits have involved cooperation between corporations
and government authorities to track, identify and prosecute pirates.

A series of lawsuits against internet and technology companies that attempt to make
them responsible for enforcing the old copyright rules. In these cases the ‘old’
content industries attack the ‘new’ ones. Music, television and film companies have
sued social media platforms, file sharing providers and internet service providers in
an attempt to make them responsible for policing the flow of content. In a dispute
that has gone on for over five years Viacom has sued Google for billions of dollars
for copyrighted videos on YouTube. Google argues that the Digital Millennium
Copyright Act’s ‘safe harbour ’ provisions protects them from prosecution as long
as they quickly delete any content that infringes copyright. In Australia, an industry
group called the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT) attempted
to set a precedent by taking iinet, an internet service provider, to court to make it
responsible for authorizing its customers’ copyright infringements. The High Court
found in favour of the internet service provider. The case was seen as an attempt by
the content industries to set a legal precedent with potentially global implications.

Each of these strategies can be seen as attempts to both generate consent for, and
enforce, the old rules surrounding the value and circulation of content.

Using the political system to adapt the old rules or
create new rules
Throughout the twentieth century the music, television and film industries
developed powerful lobby groups such as the Recording Industry Association of
America and the Motion Picture Association of America. The traditional culture
industry has used these lobby groups to influence politicians to enact legislation that
protects the value of their content. Most recently, in the United States the Stop Online
Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) were proposed. These pieces of
legislation attempted to strengthen the regulation of content circulation. They
proposed changes such as:

five years in prison for streaming copyrighted content
closing websites involved in distributing copyrighted content without
requiring internet service providers to block access to sites that enable access
to unauthorized copyrighted content.

The legislation dramatically expanded the responsibility of internet-based firms for
protecting the copyright of the music, film and television industries. SOPA and PIPA
became a hallmark moment in the political contest between the old culture industry
and the emerging information and network enterprises. The acts were both
withdrawn after intense lobbying from the internet industries and supporters of open
and public internet and copyright reform. This was the first time the mass culture
industries’ lobby groups had been substantially and publicly defeated by the internet-
based culture industries. The contest goes on, as these groups continue to build
legitimacy and consent for their interests. The prosecution of Megaupload founder
Kim Dotcom in 2012 indicates that United States government is prepared to invest
significant resources in finding and prosecuting pirates. And, in late 2012, the
Republican Party sacked a staffer who wrote a memo urging copyright reform.
Each of these events indicates that they still have much lobbying power in
Washington. Reporting this case, the technology publication Ars Technica noted that
‘copyright reform enjoys broad popularity among internet-savvy young people’
(Lee 2012). The inference is that at some point a major political party will sense
there is more to gain in taking up the cause of copyright reform than there is in
protecting the old mass culture industries’ interests.

Negotiations with the new organizations to craft a new
At the very same time the old mass content industries and new internet industries are
competing with each other to establish their own interests as the consensus, they are
also collaborating with each other. YouTube has solved many disagreements with
the music and television industries that own copyright to music clips and television
programmes or segments by instigating complex rights and royalties deals. In these
deals the old content industries effectively agree that YouTube has acquired enough
power that they cannot be defeated and instead have to be negotiated with. In the
process, new alliances and formations are created. The old and the new industries
create agreements to realize their mutual interests. In the case of the music industry,
new players like Apple’s iTunes store or streaming services like Spotify and Rdio
have also signed rights and royalities deals to enable them to sell and stream
content. No longer able to protect their content in their own channels and
technologies like CDs and record stores, the music industry enters into alliances
with internet-based enterprises they consider to be legitimate. In some cases, the
internet-based players have become so powerful that the old content industries are
coerced into negotiating on their terms. New organizations like Apple, Google and
Spotify have the power to shift the debate about copyright away from attempting to
protect and enforce the old rules, and towards establishing new rules and new
legitimate channels. Pressing all the while on the formation of these alliances are
new groups such as legal activists for copyright reform, and political activists like
the Pirate Party, who are seeking out even more radical rewriting of the rules.

The emergence of global network capitalism has empowered new organizations
who have sought to create new rules and frameworks within which to operate.
Where the old culture industry profited from owning and selling content, the new
culture industry profits from circulating content in order to capture attention and
information. These two different sets of interests employ different frameworks of
meaning, and use commercial, legal and political structures to attempt to protect or
promote their ideas and interests. They lobby government to create laws that reflect
their view of the world. They sue each other to try to weaken the other position.
They attempt to take over each other. They negotiate compromises. What is going
on here is a ‘sorting out’ of the new rules of the game in terms of creating and
circulating cultural content. This is partly a hegemonic process of crafting consent
around ideas of copyright, ownership, culture, theft and piracy.

Examining Legitimate Positions on Copyright
Above we proposed a number of ways that different groups are attempting to regulate, deregulate and
re-regulate the flow of cultural content through the internet by:

generating consent for the regulation of the circulation of cultural content
using the legal system to prosecute pirates and criminals
using the political system to adapt the old rules or create new rules
negotiating with the new organizations to craft a new consensus.

There are many examples of this debate playing out over the past decade or more.

Key industry organizations like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have put forward
their case. You can read their position on copyright, together with their policy statements and research
at their website:

The industry argues that copyright protects the creative process by ensuring cultural industries remain
profitable. Critics dispute many of the industry’s claims and the influence of the industry’s lobbyists on
the political process.

Read some of the claims made in reports on the MPAA website. For instance, they claimed in
November 2013 that the copyright industries employ nearly 5.4 million US workers, account for 5
per cent of private sector employment and contribute $142 billion in foreign sales and exports. On this
basis, they argue that the US government should reform legislation to provide greater protection for
copyright online.

Watch Rob Reid’s TED talk on ‘copyright math’ for an insightful and amusing critique of the copyright
industry’s claims about the economic cost of online piracy. You can find a link on the Media and
Society website

During 2011 and 2012 a major struggle played out in the US around the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy
Act) and PIPA (PROTECT IP Act). The major copyright industries like the MPAA wanted to greatly
increase penalties for sharing copyright content and make internet companies responsible for blocking
access to copyright content.

The internet industries argued that the proposed legislation ran counter to the technical infrastructure
and cultural practices of the internet. To block access to particular sites or restrict flows of specific
content is technically and practically difficult. Furthermore, the digital culture of the internet is based
on endless copies and remixes of cultural content. To attempt to regulate what information could be
copied would undermine the innovative and open nature of online culture. Internet industries and
activists came together to mobilize public protest against SOPA and PIPA. This culminated in a
blackout of many websites on 17 January 2012. Instead of access to Wikipedia or Google, users saw
a STOP SOPA banner and an invitation to contact their member of Congress. The action resulted in
millions of messages of protest being sent to Congress. The bills were consequently withdrawn.

The defeat of SOPA and PIPA represented a key moment in the struggle over the regulation of
cultural content. For much of the twentieth century the major copyright industries controlled the
technologies and regulatory frameworks. With the emergence of the internet they have lost much of
that control. While major copyright and internet organizations, lobbyists and activists continue to
struggle over how the circulation of content online should be regulated, with SOPA and PIPA the
internet was able to defeat the copyright industries. Many argue this was the first time that
organizations like Google asserted themselves as major players in the policy process.

DecodeDC’s podcast ‘The future was now’ explains the history of struggles between copyright and
technology industries over the regulation of cultural content. The podcast offers a detailed analysis of

the battle over the SOPA and PIPA bills. You can find a link to the podcast on the Media and Society

A major figure in the push against SOPA the internet activist and co-founder of Reddit – Aaron Swartz.
You can find a link to his talk ‘How we stopped SOPA’ on the Media and Society website. We have
also included there a link to Yochai Benkler’s analysis of the social networks formed around the
SOPA and PIPA debate.

Consider the activities and positions of groups involved in each process and what communicative sites,
professionals and meanings they use to manage their position and present it as legitimate:

Who is making the case for regulating the flow of content online?
On what grounds do they make the case?
Who is calling who a pirate or a criminal?
How do they justify and pursue these accusations?
Who has tried to use the political system to shape policy around copyright and ownership?
What have they done?
How have they been successful or not?
Who has made agreements with each other about managing content online? What kinds of
power did each party bring to the negotiation?
How were they able to influence the other and get what they want?
Consider how hegemonies are changing: Who is gaining and losing power? What rules are

Shifting Hegemonies
Hegemonies are never permanent fixtures. Dominance is always subject to being
challenged. However, resistance in some contexts is pointless. When hegemonies
are very strong, alternative discourses and practices can at best cling to life in
marginal spaces. But all hegemonies have life cycles – they grow old and weak –
which is when those advocating alternatives are presented with momentary
opportunities for asserting their hegemonic dominance. Hegemonies are at their
most fragile just after being born, before they have naturalized their discourses and
practices and before they have consolidated their grip on the steering mechanisms
of society, and then again when they grow old and weak. When dominant groups
lose the capacity to set the intellectual agenda, negotiate new deals and alliances, and
police all the ‘spaces’ in society, opposition groups sense the weakness because the
old hegemony communicates its fragility and insecurity. Alternative visions are
empowered by the growing availability of communicative ‘spaces’ and ‘gaps’ as
dominance slips away. And the more that alternative visions are able to colonize
communicative spaces, and thereby become empowered, the greater become the
crises facing the existing hegemonic group. Holding a hegemony together, once the
crises born of weakness begin, becomes a little like trying to plug an already
leaking dyke. Weak hegemonies ultimately crumble, and one of, or an alliance of
many, formerly resistant groups learns to become the new hegemonic group. These
processes of hegemonic weakening, death and birth have occurred again and again
in history. The end of the British Empire and the Soviet collapse are among the most
spectacular of recent hegemonic upheavals. Not surprisingly, hegemonic crumbling
is usually associated with wars breaking out, as aspirant hegemonic groups try to
grab space from a retreating hegemonic order. Hence, the decline of the British
Empire produced the two World Wars and a series of smaller ones such as Israeli–
Arab and Indian–Pakistani conflicts, while the end of Soviet hegemony has already
produced wars in the Balkans and Caucasia.

Trying to remain hegemonically dominant always involves dealing with those
attempting to challenge one’s hegemony. There will always be resistance. However,
resistance and alternative discourses and practices are usually only a problem – that
is, can only seriously challenge a hegemonic group – during vulnerable moments.
Hegemonies are vulnerable when they are still establishing themselves or no longer
able to renew themselves. Another way hegemonies are overthrown is when more
powerful external groups chose to intervene to overthrow hegemonies using
warfare, economic sanctions or other measures. Of course, counter-hegemonic
groups will always be on the lookout for external players willing to intervene on
their behalf when resistance groups are too weak to seriously challenge their own

hegemonic rulers.

Ruling hegemonies will always strive to keep themselves informed of all potential
challengers. They endeavour to keep abreast of emerging and declining
oppositional discourses and alliances. Their growth and strength is a central
function of maintaining a position of dominance. Challengers can emerge from a
number of different sources: from break-away former members of one’s own
hegemonic alliance, from new players inside one’s society, from foreign players
seeking to intervene, or from alliances between these. Essentially, maintaining
hegemonic dominance involves more than maintaining and promoting one’s own
discourses and practices. It also involves meeting constant challenges from counter-
hegemonic challengers. The management of discourse consequently involves
constantly renewing one’s own discourses to keep one’s own ruling alliance and
dominant profile intact, plus working to prevent potential counter-hegemonic
discourses from ever becoming serious challengers. Communicative struggle lies at
the heart of being hegemonic.

A New Hegemonic Order
In the past generation, social relationships have been altered in three ways that
impact on the mechanics and processes of hegemony building.

New communication technologies
Firstly, the new communication technologies emerging in the 1970s evolved into a
series of global communicative channels. A new breed of entrepreneurial
networkers learned to exploit these to accumulate wealth. These entrepreneurs found
ways to generate wealth from exploiting rapid information and data sharing. A new
capitalist elite was born from learning, in an ad-hoc way, to exploit new
communication technologies. Some of these new entrepreneurs appear to have
created long-term wealth generation enterprises – like News Corporation, Apple,
Microsoft and Google – whereas other contributions have only involved rejigging
older discourses and practices rather than building new business empires. The post-
2007 global financial crisis for instance exposed a complex web of speculative
trading of ‘junk’ bonds, derivatives and financial products. Corporations were using
a complex networked system of financial trading to invent and trade high risk and
potentially high yield products, but with no or little underlying material value. This
system was only possible in the ‘spaces’ opened up by the development of global
capitalism and information technologies. But there have also been corporations that
reinvented themselves by learning to exploit the new communication technologies
and, in the process, reworked their structures and practices. Many Japanese
corporations during the 1980s reinvented themselves as dynamic, information-
driven enterprises. Toyota invented kanban principles. This system of just-in-time
inventory management radically changed manufacturing innovation and
management. It enabled corporations to quickly develop new technologies, and
deliver them to changing markets, using lean and flexible organizational structures.
Many Japanese manufacturers out-paced the inflexible and hierarchical mass
manufacturers in the United States and Europe in this period. Entrepreneurs driving
this emergent global network capitalism necessarily shook up the old managerial
hegemony by introducing new practices and new rival sets of players. As these
entrepreneurs emerged they pragmatically allied themselves to whichever ruling
hegemonic faction or individual would promote their interests. For example, Rupert
Murdoch at News Corporation pragmatically worked with both Bush’s conservative
Republican Party in the United States and Blair ’s social-democratic Labour Party in
the United Kingdom since both were prepared to create policy frameworks
advantaging his global information enterprises and interests.

As the twenty-first century dawned, the struggle between managerialists and global
networkers was far from resolved. But, in general, the networkers gained the upper
hand in the struggle for dominance in OECD countries, and OECD dominated
transnational forums, with deregulatory, laissez-faire and globalization discourses
sounding confident and ascendant; while managerial interventionist and national-

protectionist discourses sounded increasingly defensive. Even setbacks – such as the
rise of anti-globalization political parties like Australia’s One Nation, the British
National Party and the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle – did not
substantively undercut the overall international success of those promoting the
merits of globalization and an information economy. Global networkers have, in
fact, shown themselves to be highly proficient in the legitimating arts of externally
directed impression and discourse management. Their promotion of the
information super highway and e-commerce are excellent examples of successful
information age rhetoric.

New communication channels undermined mass
production and communication
Secondly, new communication channels actually undermined some of the
requirements for hierarchical bureaucratic practices in both private and state
corporations and within the state bureaucracies and government departments. New
communication technologies made it possible to bypass old hierarchical chains of
command. Old managerialist pecking orders were undermined because it was
possible to share information instantaneously with anyone linked to the
communications network. Hierarchical chains of command relying on middle
managers became too slow and cumbersome when competing with fluid networked
teams. Consequently, managerialist organizational structures faced increasing
deconstructive pressures during the 1990s. Both business and government sectors
experienced changes to their organizational practices and staffing structures, a
process associated with the rise of neoliberal discourses advocating ‘winding back
the nanny state’ and fixed managerial structures via deregulation and creating
flexible organizations with outsourcing and downsizing. There is no guarantee,
however, that the networked, participatory and consultative forms of decision
making that replaced managerialism are better or more efficient. These
organizational shifts necessarily impacted upon the construction of hegemonic
alliances as the players learned to use the new communication channels and
manipulate data flows. Communication professionals were no longer limited to
using mass media for message delivery, although the mass media were and are still
extensively used.

The emergence of niche markets and publics
Thirdly, global network capitalism and digital media facilitates the creation of a
plethora of new market niches, which led to the emergence of new lifestyle
identities. The new communication networks made disaggregating the mass market
possible because micro consumer demands could not only be rapidly communicated
to producers, but the productive process could also be relatively easily rejigged and
retooled thanks to computer-integrated manufacturing. The result was a shift from
economies of scale required for Fordist mass production to economies of scope
reflective of post-Fordist production of the widest possible range of commodities
(Crook et al. 1992: 179). This generated new social groupings and identities
organized around niche consumption-based lifestyles. The new identities
supplemented older identities, like ethnic and religious groupings, which were also
reinvigorated by the de-massification and de-managerialization of society. The
result was the emergence of ‘identity politics’ served by growing niche-based
media. The new politics leaned towards socio-cultural issues related to lifestyle and
consumption rather than socio-economic production issues (Crook et al. 1992: 146).
This made the task of building hegemonies infinitely more difficult. Mass publics
fragmented into a plethora of subcultures based upon localism, ethnicity, new and
revivalist ‘belief formations’ like religion and ecology, and lifestyles based around
sexuality and other values. Consequently, hegemony builders now need to
communicate to a plethora of new groups. Becoming hegemonic has become
extremely complex given the need to master multiple discourses appropriate to a
patchwork of, often shifting, identities, and develop strategies for building
coalitions out of diversity. This also involves learning to use both niche media
formats and remnant mass media forms, the latter generally employed to target non-
elite groups. This process of communication is arguably more complex, slower and
cumbersome to manage than more top-down managerial forms of communication.

Political Leaders and New Coalitions
Building dominance now requires developing a highly complex patchwork of
media strategies. Centre-left political parties have become especially adept at
building such coalitions. In part this occurred because globalization led to a
deindustrialization of OECD countries as factories were relocated to places were
labour was cheaper, such as China (we address this in more detail in Chapter 4).
This shrank OECD working-class populations, which was disastrous for traditional
labour parties like the Democrats in the United States, British Labour Party and
Australian Labor Party. To save themselves these parties under the leaderships of
Clinton, Blair and Keating reinvented themselves into rainbow coalitions of
workers, environmentalists, identity groups organized around sexuality and gender,
urban cultural and communication professionals, and multiculturalists who they
spoke to using a plethora of niche communication platforms.

When Bill Clinton was sworn in as President of the United States in 1993 he ended a
generation of conservative power. His campaign creatively solved a problem that
had beset progressive parties in the west throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The
emergence of global network capitalism had rapidly changed the structure of the
economy in countries like the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. This
created new winners and losers in society. On the losing side was the collapsing
working class that had been the traditional base of social-democrat labour parties
like the Democrats, British Labour Party and Australian Labor Party. The large
scale outsourcing of industrial manufacturing to developing countries meant that
traditional labour heartlands fragmented. The working-class base had shrunk so
dramatically that social democrats could no longer rely on it to win elections. Some
in the working class fell into an unemployed or underemployed underclass, where
many were attracted to populist conservative values-based politics. On the winning
side, a new middle class began to emerge. This new middle class included many
people who had come from working-class backgrounds. Through mass education
many children of the working class had managed to enter a growing middle class of
cultural and information-based professionals. Social-democrat parties had to
respond to this fracturing of their base by fashioning a new consensus or coalition
of interests, rather than rely on a uniform base or bloc of voters. They found
themselves battling with conservatives for an increasingly contested middle ground.
The hegemonic contest here was to name, define and then own that middle ground.
Politicians from both social-democrat and conservative parties spoke to ‘ordinary’
citizens, ‘battlers’, ‘working families’, ‘small business owners’, ‘mom and pop’, the
‘high street’ or ‘main street’, ‘middle America’, those ‘outside the beltway’ and so
on. In developing these terms they were aiming to construct, identify and speak to an

aspirational and newly emerging middle class.

Political parties were trying to construct a consensual identity or narrative under
which they could organize many competing interests. As there was no longer a
stable middle ground, mainstream parties developed coalitions of interests which
have taken many shapes. In some cases social-democrat parties have aligned with
green politics, in others conservative parties have reached out for the
disenfranchised working class and the vulnerable lower-middle class. This has
created unique alliances. On the social-democrat side politics has become
articulated with green, feminist and multicultural discourses under the broad rubrics
of state intervention and social justice. Social democrats claim to engage in reforms
that give capitalism a human face. On the conservative side, free market politics and
traditional cultural values have come together under narratives of small government
and tradition. In each case these are often uneasy alliances of competing interests.
The political professionals who hold them together work to suture over their
paradoxes and fractures.

Bill Clinton’s Legitimacy

from the 1992 Presidential campaign to the 2012
Democratic National Convention
D. A. Pennebaker’s 1993 documentary film The War Room followed political strategists James
Carville and George Stephanopoulos throughout Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign. The film
offers a rare fly-on-the-wall examination of hegemonic communicative labour as Carville and
Stephanopoulos go about crafting a new consensus around Clinton and the Democrats. Pennebaker
followed the campaigners as they constructed and managed Clinton’s political image.

Clinton and his campaign strategists successfully invented a new covenant or consensus under which
they organized progressive politics. They used a collection of narratives to explain and construct this
consensus in the minds of American voters. The mantras of his campaign included:

‘It’s the economy, stupid’: the binding idea that without a strong and growing economy there
could be no middle class.
‘The forgotten middle class’: the idea that demarcated the Democrats from the Republicans. It
signalled that the conservatives had omitted ordinary middle Americans from their political
‘The gap between the rich and the poor’: an idea that articulated the social justice values of
progressive politics.
‘Don’t forget healthcare’: an idea that emerged from the broader narrative of the ‘forgotten
middle class’ and the ‘gap between the rich and the poor’. Healthcare is one way ordinary
Americans could materially envisage a better middle-class life.
‘Change versus more of the same’: a mantra of modern campaigning. Barack Obama went with
‘Change’ and ‘Hope’ in 2008 and ‘Forward’ in 2012.

In Clinton’s campaign slogans we can see some ideas that have become well-established in
mainstream politics over the past generation. In particular, ‘change’ becomes a mantra for politics in a
globally networked world where constant flexibility and adaptation are a fact of life. Progressive
parties have focused on finding a consensus between economic growth, social welfare and
progressive cultural values as a way of maintaining power. Conservative parties for their part have
aimed to build a consensus between economic growth, individual freedoms and traditional cultural

Towards the end of The War Room Carville gives a famous speech on the eve of the election. In that
speech he explains that they ‘changed the way campaigns were run’ by using grassroots networks of
campaigners. You can find a link to the speech on the Media and Society website

Watch The War Room and consider the variety of ways Carville and Stephanopoulos make Bill
Clinton a legitimate political leader. How do they manage Clinton’s image? What meanings do they
create? What resistance do they face?

Consider the way they constructed a highly organized campaign that drew on the grassroots
participation of volunteers. How does this compare with today’s political campaigns? For instance,
how did Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns extend and develop the use of grassroots participation to
make him a legitimate candidate?

While The War Room offers a portrait of Clinton at the beginning of his political career, he was
largely credited during the 2012 Presidential campaign with helping to make Barack Obama a
legitimate candidate in the eyes of middle-class Americans.

You can find a link to Clinton’s speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention on the Media
and Society website

In that speech Clinton makes a series of statements about the beliefs and values of Democrats:

‘I want a man who believes with no doubt that he can build a new American Dream economy,
driven by information and creativity.’
‘We Democrats think the country works better with a strong middle class, with real
opportunities for poor folks to work their way into it – with a relentless focus on the future, with
business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly share
prosperity. You see, we believe that “We’re all in this together” is a far better philosophy than
“You’re on your own”.’
‘It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right
and good economics. Why? Because poverty, discrimination, and ignorance restrict growth.
When you stifle human potential, when you don’t invest in new ideas, it doesn’t just cut off the
people who are affected; it hurts us all’.

What ideas, meanings and stories does Clinton invoke? How does Clinton present himself, and
Obama, as legitimate?

Compare Clinton’s ideas to other ideas in contemporary American political life: progressive or
conservative, mainstream or radical. How is Clinton similar to and different from the Republican
narrative? How is Clinton different to more radical political perspectives in America?

In this chapter we have argued that power is the outcome of struggles between
different groups in society. Those struggles are partly over meaning, as groups aim
to make their preferred social relationships hegemonic. Meaning is central to
producing legitimacy and consent. Hegemonies are never fixed. Even though a
powerful group might establish its dominance as legitimate, the work of
maintaining that legitimacy is continuous. Professional communicators are centrally
important in producing and managing legitimacy. To understand these processes we
have to understand the context within which struggles over power and meaning take
place. This involves examining who is dominant and how they make and maintain
their dominance. To do this we need to consider:

the meanings that dominant groups produce
the sites and institutions where those meanings are made
the people who are employed to make meaning.

A thorough analysis also needs to pay attention to groups attempting to resist and
disrupt the hegemonic dominance of some groups over these meanings, sites and
professional communicators.

A new hegemonic order was formed in the past generation. New communication
technologies and channels undermined mass production, consumption and control.
This led to the emergence of fragmented niche publics and markets. This requires
responsive and flexible modes of control. Meaning and information management
becomes intrinsic to managing legitimacy and dominance within this system.
Hegemony gives us a way of understanding power relations as always ‘under
construction’. The construction of hegemonies draws on both material and
symbolic resources like media and culture. Our study of meaning and power needs
to track efforts to create, maintain and resist hegemonies.

Further Reading
Each of the readings below examines how institutions like corporations,
governments and think tanks attempt to organize and control the production and
circulation of culture and ideas using economic resources, market dynamics,
policies and laws. McKnight and Hobbs (2011) examine how book deals made by
HarperCollins promote conservative intellectual and political ideas. The authors
argue that agenda aligns with the conservative politics of its owner Rupert Murdoch.
Athique (2008) explores the structure of Indian media industries, paying attention to
their interconnectedness with informal economies and piracy. This article draws
attention to the role that players outside of formal institutions play in organizing
and influencing the circulation of cultural content like music and film. Bar and
Sandvig (2008) consider how communication policy responds to and regulates new
media technologies. Schlesinger (2009) examines how experts and power plays
shaped UK Labour government policies that developed the creative industries as a
new way of configuring and controlling cultural production. Zhang (2006) offers an
account of how Chinese policy makers conceptualize and implement their control of
the internet.

Athique, A. (2008) ‘The global dynamics of Indian media piracy: export markets,
playback media and the informal economy’, Media, Culture & Society, 30: 699–717.

Bar, F. and Sandvig, C. (2008) ‘US communication policy after convergence’,
Media, Culture & Society, 30: 531–550.

McKnight, D. and Hobbs, M. (2011) ‘“You’re all a bunch of pinkos”: Rupert
Murdoch and the politics of HarperCollins’, Media, Culture & Society, 33: 835–850.

Schlesinger, P. (2009) ‘Creativity and the experts: New Labour, think tanks, and the
policy process’, International Journal of Press/Politics, 14: 3–20.

Zhang, L. (2006) ‘Behind the “Great Firewall”: decoding China’s internet media
policies from the inside’, Convergence, 12: 271–291.

Any article marked with is available to download at the website

4 The Global Information Economy A new form
of economic organization began emerging in
the last part of the twentieth century.

* What role do information and communication play in the management of
global capitalism?
* What are the distinctive characteristics of information and communicative
* What is networked and flexible production?

In this chapter we:
Examine the emergence of the global information economy over the past generation
Outline how the emergence of information communication technologies, the end of the Cold War and
emergence of America as the dominant superpower form the critical context for understanding
meaning and power in today’s world
Introduce the network as the key organizational form of the global information economy; the
flexible and fragmented modes of production, culture and power enabled by networks and
communication technologies have created a new geography of power
Identify some of the winners and losers from the emergence of the global information economy; we
consider how power is made and maintained in networks.

The Emergence of a Global Information Economy
Global network capitalism took shape over the last two decades of the twentieth
century (Harvey 1989, Hall and Jacques 1990, Lash 1990, Lash and Urry 1994,
Castells 1996). During this period a new way of organizing wealth making and
people developed. This process congealed during the 1990s when conditions
emerged that created the space for a new capitalist elite to invent itself. This new
elite reformed and mutated the practices and discourses of industrial capitalism by
learning, in an ad-hoc way, to take advantage of two sets of opportunities that

the emergence of information communication technology
the collapse of the Soviet empire, the end of the Cold War and rise of America
as a lone superpower.

The information communication technology revolution
The first opportunity was the information revolution that unfolded during the 1970s
and 1980s. The key innovations that took shape during this time were satellites,
fibre-optics and co-axial cables, microwave telecommunications, networked
computers and digitization. These innovations created the means for building global
communication networks that in turn enabled the rapid collection, transmission and
sharing of data and ideas. For capitalism this information revolution presented an
opportunity for rebirth and reinvention of capitalist wealth generation because it
provided new spaces for investment. These opportunities for reinvention were
particularly fortuitous because they coincided with a looming crisis for top-down
managerial social, political and economic systems. Managerial capitalism was
becoming less dynamic and efficient, leading to the political economic problem of
stagflation during the 1970s. Stagflation is a situation where incomes are falling but
cost of living is rising. For Keynesian economists such conditions were
theoretically impossible and as such they didn’t know how to fix them. New
economic ideas and policies were required.

The end of the Cold War
The second opportunity that presented itself was the collapse of the Soviet empire.
One reason for capitalism’s crisis was that new areas of investment had become
difficult to find, and this generated problems because it restricted capitalist growth.
The collapse of state socialism created conditions for a new global order, in which
the United States became globally hegemonic. This hegemony is a ‘Pax Americana’
(Louw 2010a), a kind of global agreement by which the United States and its allies
control the political, economic and cultural agenda globally. Not only did the Soviet
collapse open up Eastern Europe for capitalist colonization and investment, it also
led to the integration of China into a global economy, and paved the way for third
world states to be ‘recolonized’ by foreign capital because their status was no
longer contested by a bi-polar Cold War system of international governance.

These two opportunities – new areas to invest in plus the communication technology
to coordinate a system of global investment – coincided fully during the 1990s. The
result was the birth of a new global networker elite who built a new way of doing
business globally. The global networkers’ style of building overseas hegemony
does not involve adopting the formal empire model used by the British Empire. The
British Empire established and maintained its power by annexing land, dispatching
occupation armies and police forces and planting new settlements. The American
model for building hegemony works differently.

The emergence of the Pax Americana as an informal
In contrast to the formal empire of the British, the American empire is informal. It
establishes and maintains power without building the same material infrastructure of
the British. Instead the Pax Americana uses a comprador approach in which partner
allies are relied upon to run their independent states in accordance with the needs of
the United States’ trading empire (Louw 2010a: Chapter 1). This American-run
system grew out of the termination of Europe’s formal empires. In each
administrative entity created by European imperialism, a small westernized middle
class emerged. The United States saw these westernized middle classes as natural
allies of the Pax Americana and pushed for power to be transferred to them through
the process of decolonization. Where European colonial possessions did not have
native middle-class populations large enough to run independent states, America
encouraged the colonial powers to actively build such middle-class populations.
Successfully rolling out the American model meant promoting decolonization and
then transferring power to local westernized elites, who stepped into the shoes of the
departing colonials. These comprador elites became administrators of new
independent states that served America’s economic interests. The bulk of these
westernized elites were quite happy to retain the socio-economic system built by
colonials and serve as comprador partners in America’s trading empire. Most were
prepared to administer the client state and its economy on terms dictated by the
multilateral system created by America as long as they received a share of the
profits. It was a symbiotic relationship from which both sides benefited, as long as
these compradors proved able to maintain the economic and political viability of
their states. The comprador model is built on symbiotic relationships: America
relies on their local partners to run client states in its far-flung informal empire,
while these comprador partners rely on America to underpin their rule. The Pax
Americana is characterized by comprador partnerships based on mutual need, with
America ruling indirectly and informally through comprador allies. America
prefers people who are culturally proximate and who have a vested interest in
maintaining or expanding the old colonial economy.

The comprador elite create a local set of laws, institutions and practices that accord
with the needs for their allies in the global nodes of power. This informal empire is
a much cheaper way of organizing foreign populations than the formal empire
model. Actual occupations of territory are now reserved only for those populations
proving difficult to organize. In the recent times these have included Bosnia,
Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. The emergent global network capitalist model only
dispatches small numbers of the networker elite to the peripheries for tours of duty.

They go and set up branch offices and production facilities, assist the comprador
allies to strengthen local hegemonies, and teach appropriate discourses and
practices to foreign allies. Increasingly, relocations and long-term tours of duty are
not required because air travel and information technology mean members of the
networker elite no longer have to relocate their homes away from the core global
cities. They can now pay short-term visits to the margins. Inspection, education and
control can now be administered from a distance.

A globally networked elite
Significantly, Anglos or those comfortable using English and western discourses
and practices dominate the emergent global network elite. The United States’ global
hegemony is beginning to take on the characteristics of a western alliance. This
hegemonic alliance was first manifest in the first Gulf War of the early 1990s, and
seen again in the Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan Wars of the 2000s. This alliance
appears to be based on a set of special affinities between the USA and its junior
partners of Britain, Canada and Australia. The other key player in global network
capitalism is the European Union. Within the European Union Germany is emerging
as a dominant power. These are places where western practices and discourses have
been implemented since the Second World War. Another key player in the
emergence of global network capitalism was Japan, also a nation rebuilt by
America after the Second World War. To a considerable extent, globalization
appears to be a phenomenon primarily involving the coordination and networking
of a western elite that has been dispersed around the globe firstly by the British
Empire and then via the Pax Americana. Globalization increasingly involves
implanting western discourses and cultural practices, and global network capitalism,
into non-western contexts. This is a fragmented and incomplete process. It is still
unclear whether western discourses will replace, hybridize or exist alongside non-
western ones. Each of these scenarios is discernible in different contexts. What is
apparent is that the hegemonic dominance of the United States makes it possible in
most parts of the world to transpose: western values and morality into a universal
notion of human rights; western capitalism into a universal notion of the free
market; and western liberal democracy into a universal notion of politics. American
hegemonic dominance enables them, for the time being, to largely ignore or
dismiss non-western complaints about western arrogance because they’ve made
their own discourses natural and opaque. This is never a complete or closed process
of course; we can see for instance the way that Chinese, Russian and Islamic
discourses press on this hegemony in various parts of the world.

One of the key features of global network capitalism is that post-Fordist production
is now spread across the globe. Capital is increasingly mobile. Products and
services no longer tend to be manufactured in one location. They are designed in
places with skilled and educated workforces; components are manufactured
wherever it is cheapest to do so based on labour power, electricity, manufacturing
infrastructure and resources, then transported to assembly sites, and then marketed
and distributed through global networks. The production of a product might involve
sites in multiple continents: design in America, resources from Africa, component
production in Latin America or South-East Asia, assembly in Southern China,

distribution throughout Europe and North America, and marketing to local markets
in nations around the world. This requires a significant process of coordination and
planning. Information about markets, resources and labour has to be collected and
analysed. Financing, production and marketing decisions need to be made. This
process is often undertaken by teams of people who are themselves scattered across
the globe at various nodes in the network of global capitalism. The production
processes need to be negotiated, set up and coordinated. This sometimes involves
alliances or cooperative partnerships, which can be short-term and flexible
arrangements. This system has become, as Castells (1996) says, an informational
economy. The people who succeed are those who can best find, organize and exploit
information rapidly. Production is increasingly premised on mass customization.
Computer-integrated manufacturing (Crook et al. 1992: 181–184) enables flexible
short production runs. Products can be adapted to multiple niche markets based on
constantly changing patterns of demand. Consumers can be offered choice as long
as the communication system exists to collect their demands, channel them into
production systems and deliver them via distribution networks. A corporation like
Amazon gained market dominance by developing the capacity to use information
technology to manage the global distribution of books. They created a system that
responds to myriad customer demands in real time.

Figure 4.1 Rows of bookshelves occupy the distribution warehouse of online

© Macduff Everton/Corbis

Communicative capitalism
Communication is central to global network capitalism (Dean 2010). The system is
reliant both on a material network of telecommunications and computers and the
communicative capacities and coordination skills of immaterial labourers. In short,
the practices of this new form of capitalism are centrally dependent on discursive
creativity and communicative networking. As Lash and Urry (1994: 61) argue, the
economy has become reflexive. The capacity to process information, reflect and
respond is critical to the accumulation of capital and the acquisition of power.
Cultural capital, knowledge and access to the network itself have become as
important as capital. Good ideas are materialized in the analytic capacity of
computer programs, well conceptualized production processes, and effective use of
space, energy and other resources. The interface between communication and
material production, mobilized in a reflexive and timely way, is fundamental to
wealth making. Building communication networks, and regulating meaning flows
through them, have become central components of global network capitalism’s
wealth-making machinery. Communication and media networks are now elements
of the productive process. Consequently, the infrastructure and processes of
communication and media have become central to developing and maintaining
power relationships. Naturally, as global network capitalism emerged and
managerialism has been wound back, power relationships have been altered. Shifts
have consequently occurred in the processes of governance and hegemony, and the
flows of meaning.

Reorganizing Capitalism
Building global network capitalism effectively constituted a massive reformation of
the capitalist system. In the initial stages of this process, managerial capitalism
became ‘disorganized’ and ‘de-managed’ (Urry 1990). From the 1980s onwards, the
discursive formations of managerial capitalism were deconstructed and deregulated
as the old managerial elite lost the capacity to manage growing systemic crises. The
unravelling of the old managerialist discourses, practices and institutions generated
a growing sense of unease in the first world or core countries of managerial

During the 1990s, the period of deregulation and deconstruction began to be
replaced by new regulations, practices and institutions. A new networker elite took
shape and set about generating a discernible set of global networking discourse and
practices. They developed the hegemonic skills required to begin making those
discourses dominant. By the beginning of the twenty-first century the, still emergent,
networker elite had made significant progress towards building their hegemonic
order. The discourses and practices of a reorganizing capitalism had become
naturalized in key global cities where those that ran the informational economy
resided: the heartlands of global network capitalism of North America, the
European Union and Japan. As important, the new elite appeared to have moved a
long way down the road of de-legitimizing many managerialist discourses
characteristic of the western social welfare state, the centrally planned Soviet state
and third world development states. Large constituencies of people and intellectuals
were still supportive of these managerialist discourses. However, their growing
defensiveness, and in some cases even a reticence to openly advocate such
discourses, revealed their weakness in the face of the confident expansionist
globalization discourses.

In the struggle for hegemony, the emergent global networker elite possessed an
important advantage – their highly developed informational, cultural and discursive
skills. After all, the growing informational economy was precisely built by those
who first learned to use and exploit the possibilities of new communication
technologies, which they then used to restructure social, economic and cultural
relationships. The emergent elite built new global communication networks and
they colonized and modified old communication infrastructures. By the turn of the
century they appeared largely able to dominate the communication infrastructures
operating in the heartlands of global network capitalism.

From the point of view of hegemony building, the global networkers are
communication players par excellence. Together with the professional

communicators they employ, they are highly skilled manipulators of symbols and
communicative infrastructures. When this aspirant elite first began promoting their
discourses, practices and institutional needs their hegemonic dominance was far
from inevitable. When Vice-President Al Gore first began talking about the
information super highway many other elites saw it as a vague futuristic dream. Or,
when Bill Gates described his vision for a home filled with interactive screens
connected to a global communication network many thought he was describing
something in the far-off future. When he said he had the technology to build it now
if only the market was ready for it many couldn’t fathom what he meant. Or, when
Steve Jobs proposed that practically everybody should own a personal computer
many couldn’t see why they would ever need one. All of these visions have now
largely come to pass. At the time though, it was hard for the incumbent elite to see
how such interconnectedness would materialize; how it would change discourses
and institutions and generate new power networks and economies. As the 1990s
progressed, however, these new elites incrementally and iteratively built on success
after success. The aspiring elite of the 1980s – people like Al Gore, Bill Gates and
Steve Jobs – began to look ever more capable of building a twenty-first-century
global hegemony. While industry leaders like Gates and Jobs saw massive
commercial opportunities, political leaders like Gore recognized the political need
to build a global communication infrastructure.

A key feature of global network capitalism is that large transnational firms are the
organizing hearts of the networkers’ hegemony. The organizational principle of
these transnational firms is a dispersed, flexible network. Just as the global
networkers’ hegemony is never complete and totally stabilized, so too is this
networked mode of production always a work in progress. We can observe several
inflections of the network idea as this economy has developed. The logic or dream
of the network has driven the development of communication systems, corporations
and media technologies. Below we examine three networks from different periods
of this process: the network design of Paul Baran from the first days of the internet
in the 1950s, the early 1990s management model of the ‘pepperoni pizza’ and the
recent ‘grouped’ model of Facebook researchers and designers.

Conceptualizing Networks
The ubiquitous network of the global era is the internet. The internet wasn’t initially
a media invention. It wasn’t created by media organizations or with media in mind.
The internet was devised as a solution to a military and political problem. In the
Cold War era the United States invested in information and communication
technology research as part of a broader industrial and technological competition
with the Soviet Union. Within this broader research and development effort, the
internet emerged as part of the search for a solution to a military and geopolitical
problem. The United States wanted to build a communications network that could be
used for global surveillance and command networking, and would survive an attack
on any of its parts. All previous electronic communication networks had relied on a
central node through which all communication passed. The risk of such a network
was that if an enemy could destroy the central node the whole network would go
down. The solution was to develop a network with no central node, so that it could
continue to function if any part of it was destroyed. This meant envisaging and
creating a communication system devised of distributed nodes with multiple lateral
connections (Seel 2012).

The internet as a distributed network
Paul Baran was an engineer working on the development of computer networks in
the 1960s. In a famous article he offered a visualization of centralized, decentralized
and distributed communication networks.

Baran was interested in building a network that would survive in the event of a
nuclear attack. This was one of the key strategic problems of the Cold War. A
centralized network is vulnerable because an attack on its central node incapacitates
it. All information is processed through that central node: without it the network
does not function. A decentralized network is less vulnerable, though attacks on
several key nodes would greatly reduce its capacity. A distributed network, however,
would be far less vulnerable to attack because there is no central node. Information
is distributed throughout the network. The proposal of a distributed network was a
technical way of responding to a strategic problem. Baran (1964: 1) demonstrated
that a distributed communication network could ‘rapidly respond to changes in
network status’. If you ‘killed’ a node, link or combination of nodes the network
would figure out a new way to distribute information via the available links and
nodes. This network was flexible and responsive. It was not dependent on a central
vulnerable control point.

Figure 4.2 Baran’s (1964) centralized, decentralized and distributed networks

Networked modes of communication are productive structures. The responsive,
flexible and autonomous nature of networks has underpinned the development of

global network capitalism. Baran’s simple illustrations of decentralized and
distributed networks are useful for thinking about the organizing principles of
networked economies, enterprises, cultural production and workplaces. Baran
(1964) makes an important technical observation about this network that serves as a
useful metaphor for the political shape of networks. He argued that designers need
to build ‘very reliable systems out of the described set of unreliable elements’
(1964: 4). While nodes and links are flexible and adaptive, the network itself is
resilient. Even in 1964 Baran was well aware that ‘one day we will require more
capacity for data transmission than needed for analogue voice transmission’ (1964:
1) and, as such, societies needed to make sure they didn’t box themselves into
inflexible networks.

The internet is a social construction. The development of the internet is also a story
of diverse groups of people, with varying degrees of power and different interests
negotiating with each other. Negotiation and conflict between groups is central to
internet history. The military saw it as a matter of national security. Governments
saw it as a national asset. Computer scientists saw it as a matter of pure science and
research or as a libertarian project that enshrined particular political values.
Technologists and philosophers saw it as a public good and an empowering and
democratizing technology. Technology corporations, and eventually media
corporations, saw it as a path to expanding markets, or a threat to current business
models. Each of these groups struggled with each other to realize their ideal version
of the internet, or to shape the internet with their own values and political or
commercial interests. These struggles were unfolding too in a particular historical
context, at first the Cold War, and then as a key part of the development of
neoliberal and global economies. While there is no centre of the network, and
perhaps no centre of power, there are complex networks of power that manage how
it works. At critical points in the history of the network those with power have had
to negotiate and agree with each other on common protocols for its technical and
political development. In a technical sense they had to agree on a common protocol
or language for the internet: TCP/IP and HTML. Governments, corporations and
designers had to agree on how to manage the physical architecture of the internet,
the telecommunications networks that support it and network principles like ‘net
neutrality’. These struggles go on as governments, civil society and corporations
attempt to realize internet structures that serve their interests.

Networked and flexible organizations and workplaces
The network idea spread rapidly in the late twentieth century, changing not only the
technical design of communication systems but also organizational communication
theories about the design of workplaces and management of labour forces. Network
management gurus Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps (1994) argued that the
network is the fourth human organizational style to emerge after the small group,
hierarchy and bureaucracy. Similar to Harvey’s (1989) argument that flexible
accumulation incorporates prior modes of production, they argued that the
networked organization adds a new layer around the older forms of organization.
Networkers reorganize old organizational forms and practices. They network them
into a complex hybridized amalgam. What transpires is a mutation rather than a
radical break with the past. Lipnack and Stamps (1994) described the emerging
organizational style as a ‘pepperoni pizza organization’. This organizational style
combines teams, hierarchy, bureaucracy and networks (1994: 13–14).

Lipnack and Stamps (1994: xvi) argue that ‘life has become too complicated for
hierarchy and bureaucracy’. Networks foster the shared responsibility, creativity
and flexibility needed to respond to complex modes of production. Networks don’t
replace former organizational styles like small groups, hierarchies and
bureaucracies; instead they find new ways to knit them together, adapt them and
arrange them. Networks employ other organizational styles within their structures
as required for particular tasks, problems and modes of production. This
organizational style is characterized by ‘systems within systems’ and ‘networks
within networks’ (Lipnack and Stamps 1994: 61). Within these organizations
individuals form teams, become leaders and create processes. Of course, within
these flexible structures, leadership and power still matter. Organizations are
characterized by nodes or networks of power rather than a clear hierarchy.
Employees may find themselves reporting to multiple managers and working in
several processes at once.

Figure 4.3 Lipnack and Stamps’ (1994: 13) ‘pepperoni pizza’

Networked organizations run on social capital and trust, as much as the authority of
strong leadership. Employees need to trust each other to work in teams, allow
autonomy and encourage creativity. Networked production seeks to balance both
trust and competition. Individuals within organizations, and organizations within
larger production processes, need to trust each other at the same time they are in
competition with each other. Lipnack and Stamps (1994: 191) suggest that Silicon
Valley is a ‘regional-networked-based industrial system that … promotes collective
learning and flexible adjustment among companies’. Those companies are also in
competition with each other for the best labour, ideas, technologies and market
share. Trust and flexibility work dialectically. At one level networks rapidly
assemble links, teams and processes that bring people together, but those links and
networks are always porous, temporary and flexible. They are rapidly dissolved as
power and resources shift. Networked organizations can also paradoxically demand
that everyone both lead and participate. While they might celebrate the facilitation of
teams and collaboration, those structures are often underpinned by differing levels
of power among participants. Trust and collaboration are always undergirded by
competition and power struggles (we will examine the effect this has on workers in
Chapter 5). The tension of the networked organization is that it demands both
collaboration and competition simultaneously. Too much collaboration can create
groupthink that stifles creative solutions. Too much competition can dissolve the

trust required to innovate and achieve complex goals.

While some networks are incredibly flexible and distributed (as in Baran’s
distributed model above); most ultimately have discernible centres of power (as in
Baran’s decentralized model, and Lipnack and Stamps’ pepperoni pizza model).
This is an important distinction to consider. Most production systems ultimately
congeal around clear nodes of power; in the case of a large media corporation, the
CEO or senior management executive are the ultimate centre of power. As
networked modes of production develop, though, we are perhaps seeing the
emergence of messier, more decentred and distributed networks.

Networks in networks: the social web and everyday life
Facebook provides a way of thinking about networks in networks, and the power
relations that structure networks.

At an organizational level we can see Facebook as an organizational network with a
clear centre of power. Mark Zuckerberg and his management team are a central
node guiding innovation and development within the company. They set the
parameters and objectives within which the rest of the nodes and teams act.

We can also place Facebook within a larger and messier network of organizations
competing and collaborating with each other to innovate and create value. Think
about the way that Facebook is interdependent with YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr,
Pinterest and Instagram (which they have now purchased). While all these platforms
compete with each other for audiences they also rely on each other in many ways.
Much of what Facebook users do on the site is share content they make or get from
other platforms (YouTube videos, news stories, Instagram photos and so on). There
is no definite centre to this network, rather all of these organizations are
interdependent nodes. Facebook also has to network with developers, advertisers
and corporate brands who want to use the platform to track and interact with their
audiences. Facebook’s value depends on its capacity to be a responsive node within
a larger network of cultural production. Its value rests to some degree on the desire
of other cultural producers to create links with it and embed it within their networks
of production.

In addition to being embedded in networks, Facebook can also be thought of as an
organization that produces and exploits networks. Facebook’s business model rests
on creating a network where people create and circulate content between each other.
This activity creates a dense network of links between people. Social media
organizations are flexible providers of niche content in the sense that when you log
on what you see in your news feed is a unique set of content based on your
preferences and peer network. Facebook serves you as a singular node within a
network of over 1 billion users. The way that you are connected to other nodes in
the Facebook network – both sending and receiving content – is entirely unique to
you. Think of how radically different this is to television, where audiences of
hundreds of millions were served exactly the same content at exactly the same time.
Facebook is a network of networks, or a network that produces and sells an infinite
number of networks. Each user logs on to, and only interacts with, an infinitesimally
small part of the network, especially assembled for them.

There is an asymmetry built into this network. While users can only see that small

part of the network they interact with, Facebook’s managers, programmers and
designers can see the entire network. In this sense they are a node that sits ‘above’
the network – watching over it, collecting information about it and responding to it
in real time. To do this, algorithms use big data sets and predictive analytics (ideas
we will examine in the final section of this book). At this point though what is
important for us to consider is the power relationships at work in this asymmetrical
network. Some nodes can see and manage the whole network; other nodes can only
see a small part of the network, and their interactions with other nodes are
controlled and managed ‘from above’.

Paul Adams (2012), a researcher who has worked with Facebook, argues that when
examining networks we should pay careful attention not only to the nodes, but also
to the links between nodes. Adams argues that the web is being ‘rebuilt around
people’. The distinction he is trying to mark out is that where the first generations of
the internet have been built around content, the next generation will be built around
social networks. He illustrates the point acutely by describing a connection between
Etsy and Facebook. Etsy is a site where ‘very, very small businesses’ sell often
handmade goods direct to consumers. Popular products on Etsy include jewellery,
fashion and bespoke homewares. Etsy offer an application where a customer can
‘connect’ their Facebook network to the Etsy store. They can identify one of their
Facebook friends, and ask Etsy to examine that friend’s profile, friends and
interests, and then generate a page of goods in the Etsy store that this friend would
like. Think of a shop where the shopkeeper can immediately reassemble and restock
the store based on one of your friend’s tastes. Rather than this being a one-off and
novel gimmick, this is in fact the forerunner of the connections between our
everyday life and identity, our media use and the economy that are rapidly
developing around us. What networks know about us will automatically shape the
information we are served, and the way we are positioned within the network. The
web is not a static set of links that we can choose to navigate how we like; the web
constantly adapts to us, managing our experience, based on judgements it makes
about us. Adams (2012: 12) argues that the connections between people are the
organizing principle of the network and that this ‘will move us away from the
dominant form of marketing for the last 50 years: interrupting people to grab their
attention’. Instead, media will manage their audiences as a network of many nodes
that circulate information. Networks are organized within coordinates that are set
and managed by organizations like Facebook. Facebook is a ‘walled garden’. While
users can participate in the network as they like, they do so on terms set by

The Visions of Global Networkers
Figures like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg together with their
teams of designers at Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook are examples of innovators who
developed the infrastructure and ideas that underpin the networked information society. In their public
appearances these Silicon Valley innovators explain and promote the iterative and experimental
development of networked media technologies. Search online for their appearances at Silicon Valley
events, like Mark Zuckerberg’s appearances at Start- up School, or their product launches, like Steve
Jobs’ iPod and iPhone launches and Sergey Brin’s announcement of Google Glass at TED.

As much as these events are promotional exercises for their companies, they are also historically
important accounts of the continuous development of information networks.

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook
Speaking at Startup School in 2013 Mark Zuckerberg explained to the audience of designers and
developers how Facebook emerged from a range of open-ended experiments he undertook with
software during his time as a student at Harvard.

He told them that at Harvard he learnt that his aim was to build software that is ‘more human’ and to
build networks that ‘connect everybody’. Connecting everybody enabled ‘communities of people’ to
‘channel their energy’ and to ‘do great things’. Together with his team at Facebook he aimed to build
the infrastructure for connecting people. Zuckerberg embodies the ideals and values of the networked
society. The network elite don’t see themselves as trying to control populations ‘from above’, but
rather as building infrastructure that harness and channel the productive participation of large networks
of people.

He explained that the first time he learnt this lesson was while he was a student at Harvard. He had an
exam on art history but hadn’t attended classes or done the study. He realized he was ‘screwed’ so he
went to the course website, downloaded the material and made a program that showed all the images
of art work and let students contribute their notes. He sent the website ‘to the class and said, “Hey
guys, I built a study tool” and within an hour the whole thing was populated with all the information
that was needed to take the final’.

The lesson he learnt was that you needed to design software that brought real people together in
useful ways as part of their real life experiences, needs and interests. While search engines could find
information on the web, there was not yet a platform that enabled people to perform their real
relationships in a seamless and ongoing way. Facebook didn’t start out as a business or with a business
model: it started as an effort to build a network that people would find useful in living their lives.
From there, Zuckerberg imagined, this network could become a platform for all kinds of unexpected
innovations and developments. Facebook’s primary initial task was to create dense connections
between people. The more connected people were in the network, the more opportunities there would
be to leverage those connections.

Facebook continues to employ many experts who work together in varied teams to produce a more
productive network. Those teams include data scientists, sociologists, psychologists, user experience
designers and so on. Their job is to get connections and information flowing through Facebook’s
network in more seamless ways to increase user engagement with the network. They collect and
analyse all the data that our participation in the network generates. As Facebook collects enormous
amounts of data it has had to develop new hardware and infrastructure to store and process it. These
innovations have led to the development of more productive networks and cloud computing services
in other parts of the technology sector. The networked economy is characterized by these open-ended
processes of innovation.

Steve Jobs and Apple product launches
Steve Jobs was famous for his Apple product launches. He would gather together technology industry
journalists and influencers for tightly scripted performances of new Apple technologies. The 2007
launch of the iPhone is a historically significant event. Search for Apple’s iPod (2001), iPhone (2007)
and iPad (2010) product launches online.

Jobs began the launch by telling the audience that Apple had invented several revolutionary products:
the personal computer in 1984 which changed everything, the iPod in 2001 which changed the music
industry, and that in 2007 they would launch ‘three revolutionary products’ in one device. As he
showed an image of the iPhone for the first time, the industry audience broke into rapturous applause.

Over the course of an hour and a half Jobs demonstrated the features of the iPhone and explained
how it revolutionized our day-to-day experience of mobile devices and information networks. The
iPhone was a device upon which many apps could be developed. For instance, Apple could partner
with networks like Google to provide services like email, search and maps. Eric Schmidt, the CEO of
Google, joined Jobs on stage to explain that ‘Internet architectures allow you now to take the
enormous brain trust that is represented by the Apple development team and combine that with the
open protocols and data services that companies like Google [offer].’ Working together these
companies could bring a previously unimaginable range of services ‘together in one place’. This was
possible because of the ‘cultures of innovation’ in companies like Apple and Google.

Figures like Zuckerberg, Jobs and Schmidt present themselves as solving problems in the creation,
consumption and circulation of information. They aim to build platforms and devices that create,
manage and leverage networks.

Who are today’s pioneering global networkers?
What is their vision for the future?
What are some of the forms of media they are developing, testing and experimenting with?

You can find links to talks and presentations by Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs on the Media and
Society website

Flexible and Networked Capitalism
Networkers prefer federal arrangements which allow individual components
autonomy. This is different to a hierarchical organization with top-down command
structures. The networkers allow each unit to organize itself appropriate to its set
task. Networkers deconstruct the huge bureaucratic structures built by
managerialists and weaken top-down command chains of communication. Such
organizational deconstruction became a feature of the late twentieth century as
global networkers began challenging managerialist assumptions and practices.

At an organizational level workers find themselves in open plan offices, working in
teams and communicating with co-workers via information technologies. At a
global level the material infrastructure of the internet spans the globe via cables,
route servers, server farms, and satellites located at key strategic points. Global
network capitalism involves an untidy and constantly morphing set of practices and
discourses. This is a mode of production that continually reorganizes itself.
Reorganizing capitalism has involved moving away from a neatly structured world
of uniformly hierarchical organizations, and of populations organized into neat
blocs of mass audiences, mass markets and nations. Global networking capitalists
are learning the arts of controlling multiple, overlapping territories and
jurisdictions in ways that replicate many of the practices of pre-capitalist feudal
lords. In this mode of production, power is far more dispersed and contingent:

Where the managerialist sets up hierarchies, issued commands, disseminated
ideas and information, the global networker processes, networks, coordinates
and controls flows of ideas and data.
Where the managerialist directs and commands, the networker facilitates and
Where the managerialist controlled particular activities, the networker sets
parameters or boundaries within which they encourage and exploit innovation
and creativity.
Where the managerialist told people what to think, the networker monitors and
modulates what people think about.

Harvey (1989: 147) argues that this mode of production is highly flexible and
marked by rapid uneven development. By this he means that some countries, regions
and even parts of cities have developed rapidly, while other parts have not. Flexible
accumulation is also marked by the compression of time and space as a result of
communication technologies, and flexible organization structures enable
communication to flow quicker over large distances. This connects spaces,
processes and people in new ways. Wealthy urban areas across the globe are

interconnected. They often share more in common than poor urban or regional
areas within their own national borders. The effects of time–space compression are
seen in the rise of just-in-time and demand-driven production (Harvey 1989: 177).
Flexible production responds to market demand. Rather than produce stockpiles of
goods that are then sold to a mass market, this system uses information technologies
and processes to continually assess market demand and adapt production. Just-in-
time production enables organizations to create and serve a myriad of fragmented
niche audiences and markets. To run a just-in-time production process
organizations need diverse and flexible networks of labour. They need to be able to
change the size, location and make-up of their workforces rapidly to respond to
demand. This has led to the emergence of more flexible, precarious and competitive
labour conditions. Corporations also require deregulation to enable them to have
more flexible investment and production structures.

Harvey explains that flexible accumulation reorganizes rather than ends industrial
modes of production. Industrial factories, with their low-paid workforces, are
shifted to the periphery of the network (Harvey 1989: 186), where they can be
managed from afar by highly skilled managers in global cities. Harvey notes that
these skilled managers are ‘a highly privileged, and to some degree empowered,
stratum within the labour force’. They become powerful because ‘capitalism
depends more and more on mobilizing the powers of intellectual labour ’ (1989:
186). Global network capitalism is flexible enough to manage many alternative
forms of labour. When Harvey argues that production is shifted to the periphery of
the network, he is talking about the shift of industrial factories from developed
countries to developing countries, but he is also talking about the emergence of
flexible and exploitative forms of work within developed countries themselves like
casual labour, subcontractors and other informal labour practices that are part of
industries like media, fashion and cultural production.

As well as incorporating and reorganizing industrial production, the global
networking era shares characteristics with the feudal era. Much decision making is
privatized, personalized and located in nodes of power. The new style of organizing
people is less defined and messier. It is somewhat analogous to a feudal ‘patchwork’
of overlapping powers. We find multiple and proliferating styles of control and
decision making being tolerated in different parts of the network, so long as those
in nodes of power can gain some benefit from allowing particular practices or
organizational arrangements to exist in a part of their networked empire. In
addition, the various empires are not discrete: they simultaneously overlap,
intersect, cooperate and even conflict with each other in an ever-shifting feudal-like
melange of networked power relationships. Table 4.1 attempts to map out the
shifting nature of relationships between elite, organizational structures and

communication patterns across historical eras. Global network capitalism doesn’t
completely replace all the previous eras; it instead incorporates, adapts and
reorganizes them.

Building Domination
Ruling elites are the product of successful hegemony building. Building hegemony
involves making practices and discourses which serve the interests of powerful
groups. Power that is achieved by naturalizing ‘appropriate’ discourses is most
effective because, once naturalized, the rules police themselves and so less coercion
needs to be employed by the powerful. At the turn of the century a capitalist
networker elite had visibly emerged, and the process of naturalizing the practices
and discourses of network capitalism was far-advanced in the global cities of the
developed world. Few in these cities now question the inevitability of an
information age capitalist future.

Resistance, however, is still felt from those living in high unemployment areas
where the industrial economy of the twentieth century has collapsed, but the
information economy has not emerged to replace it. In the post-socialist states this
resistance can take the form of nostalgia for a return to state socialism. In capitalist
societies the former working class and their allies seek a return to the big
government and labour politics of the post-war era. Resistance has also emerged
from anti-globalization and green movements that challenge the very assumptions
underpinning global network capitalism. They see global network capitalism as
fundamentally exploitative of people and the natural world. In the United States,
United Kingdom and Australia right-wing resistance has emerged from groups
opposed to multiculturalism, refugees and migration. In Europe this is becoming
aligned with the re-emergence of far-right groups. In the developing world the
discourses of global network capitalism are generally less securely embedded.
Their acceptance resides with small groups of the information rich in these
countries who presume they stand to benefit from integrating their societies as a
node of global network capitalism.

Networked Production
Take yourself as the beginning point and think of the different networks you connect with on a
day-to-day basis as you interact with the web, use mobile devices, consume media and popular
Take an organization (like Apple, Amazon, Sony or News Corporation) and conceptualize the
network required to produce, distribute and consume their devices or products. Where are they
designed, produced and consumed? How is each part of the network managed?
Take a device like a smartphone or tablet and examine the variety of networks required to
produce and distribute it, and the networks the device connects its users to.
There are a variety of forms of labour associated with the production, use and disposal of
mobile devices. You can find links to stories about e-waste, Foxconn factories in China, and
Facebook’s content moderators on the Media and Society website Consider these forms of informal or below-the-line work in
the information economy. Can you think of others?
Take a media technology or device that you use. Map out its entire life cycle.
Who produces it?
Where is it produced?
How is it used?
What relationships does its use facilitate?
How is it disposed of?
What power relationships are implicated in making, using and disposing of these devices?

In global network capitalism:

A system of mass consumption that catered to homogenous cultural identities is
replaced by consumption organized around a multiplicity of niche identities.
We are each inculcated in the everyday labour of fashioning ourselves as
individuals who fit into the entrepreneurial and flexible culture of global
Mass centralized forms of production are replaced by responsive, just-in-time
and networked modes of production. Enterprises are organized around
responding to the multiple and rapidly changing markets.
Disciplinary and repressive modes of control are augmented with responsive
and reflexive modes of control. Global network capitalism has created a far
more diverse, flexible and controlling culture industry.

In this system, constructing and holding together hegemonic alliances has become
much more complex, and communicating with increasingly fragmented
constituencies now involves mastering a multiplicity of niche media discourses. It
has also involved mastering new communication practices. Managerialism relied on
top-down rhetorical communication. This is no longer the case. A wider repertoire
of practices is now required to communicate with a multiplicity of niche identities.
Additional to top-down methods, professional communicators now also need to
mobilize a range of dialogical, participatory and consultative methods. They also
need to know how to manipulate information in databases in order to manage,
respond to and control more diffuse and interactive communication practices.

In this chapter we have examined the emergence of a global information economy.
This is a complex and networked arrangement of power relationships that emerged
from a series of technological developments and political events. The information
technology revolution made it possible to manage populations and production at
increasing distance, reflexivity and speed. The end of the Cold War opened up
economic and political opportunities for stagnating western economies. The new
markets enabled global corporations to expand. America was able to establish itself
as a lone superpower, realizing throughout the 1990s the Pax Americana as a
political, cultural and economic project. The Pax Americana is an informal empire
which uses a network of political and economic alliances across the globe.

The global information economy is characterized by new modes of production,
consumption and control. In global network capitalism, culture is central to making
and maintaining power relationships. This is a complex process. It is not a linear

process of authentic or exotic cultures being co-opted or obliterated by a mass
homogenizing culture industry. The global networked culture industry relies on our
avid participation, and it produces spaces for many niche and local identities and
meanings. There is, however, an important distinction between ‘speaking and being
heard’ (Hindman 2009). Part of the reason global network capitalism allows space
for participation and niche identities is because information technologies enable it
to efficiently manage and respond to multiple sites of meaning making
simultaneously. The culture industry is now reflexive enough not to have to develop
mass homogenous audiences and identities.

We might have shifted from the mass production and consumption of culture
critiqued by the Frankfurt School and others throughout the twentieth century.
Today’s flexible and networked culture industry appears to offer a more durable,
flexible and responsive mode of control. While some of the original critiques of
mass homogenous culture no longer seem right, the arguments made about the
immense power of a culture industry (which organizes everyday life and relies on
the avid participation of ordinary people) seems more important than ever.

Further Reading
Harvey (1989) provides an authoritative account of the emergence of flexible
accumulation as a political, economic, cultural and spatial phenomenon. He
introduces key ideas like post-Fordism, flexible accumulation, time–space
compression and uneven geographical development. O’Connor and Xin (2006)
provide an account of the emergence of the creative industries as part of China
being incorporated into the global information economy. They examine the tensions
this creates within China. Tremblay (2011) critically considers how government
policies construct and use evidence to promote the idea of creative economies in
order to position the UK in the global information economy. Hassan (2003)
examines the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab as a key site for
producing technologies and discourses that promote networked information
technologies. Each of these readings critically examines an aspect of the
development of creative industries and related government policies. Each addresses
debates and tensions around the development of a flexible global cultural economy
that relies on creative and communicative forms of labour.

Harvey, D. (1989) The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hassan, R. (2003) ‘The MIT Media Lab: techno dream factory or alienation as a way
of life?’, Media, Culture & Society, 25: 87–106.

O’Connor, J. and Xin, G. (2006) ‘A new modernity? The arrival of “creative
industries” in China’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 9 (September): 271–

Tremblay, G. (2011) ‘Creative statistics to support creative economy politics’,
Media, Culture & Society, 33: 289–298.

Any article marked with is available to download at the website

5 Media and Communication Professionals
Communication professionals make meaning
and manage meaning-making processes.

* How is access to communication professions controlled?
* What are the distinctive characteristics of communication work?
* What makes communication work ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

In this chapter we:
Examine how those who make meaning are controlled
Define communication work and immaterial labour
Consider the professional ideologies of professional communicators
Examine some contemporary features of below-the-line work in the culture industry.

Professional Communicators
We often think of media as things: a newspaper, a television programme, images on
a computer screen. Media aren’t just an inert set of texts though; media are the
product of humans interacting with each other. Politicians and journalists interact
with each other to mediate the political process. Within news organizations editors,
journalists, producers and programmers interact to make news content. Our
understanding of media then needs to be grounded in thinking about the social
relationships that produce media. When those interactions happen in an industrial
setting we think of the activity as work. Communication professionals make more
than just texts. They produce and mediate relationships between people and the
world we live in. Communication work is distinctive because its products are
immaterial. Professional communicators produce ideas, meanings and social
relationships. Immaterial labour requires not only material and mechanical skills
like operating a machine. It also requires skills and abilities connected with our
intellect, identity, imagination and values. This makes it a complex and nuanced
form of work, grounded as much in who we are as in what we can do.

Controlling who can make meaning
If meaning is produced by humans interacting with each other, and those
interactions are organized by power relationships, then we need to examine who
gets to make meaning and where they make meaning. Many of the meanings we
individually process on a daily basis are produced and circulated by professional
meaning makers. All humans make meaning. For some people though, meaning
production and circulation is their occupation. These professional communicators
are able to exercise an influence in society because they become gatekeepers and
regulators of meaning making. In western civilization there is a long-standing
tradition of people being designated to make and produce meaning. This reaches as
far back as the rhetoricians of ancient Greece. But, the communication professions
we know today took shape and expanded rapidly during the twentieth century (see
Chapter 2). They have taken on several new dimensions in the past generation with
the emergence of global networked capitalism and information technologies (see
Chapters 3 and 4). The development of communication professions took place as
part of the transition towards mass societies with their systems of mass education,
media and bureaucracy. Mass societies required a class of people that would manage
the creation and circulation of meaning.

The twentieth century saw the widespread diffusion of mass education, print media,
radio, film, television and later the internet. As these cultural and media institutions
became more central to the functioning of society and the economy, the class of
professional communicators who run these institutions also became more numerous
and important to the exercise of power. The number and variety of workers whose
job is to create, process and circulate information and meaning proliferated through
the second half of the twentieth century. At least some of the professions to grow in
this period include: academics, researchers, teachers, journalists, publishers, film
makers, television producers, software programmers, digital media workers,
architects, artists and designers, politicians, policy advisors and regulators,
economists, lawyers and judges, psychologists and counsellors, celebrities, popular
musicians and actors, and those working in fields like advertising, marketing,
public relations and community development. All of these people are part of the
process of making, circulating and regulating the flow of meanings within which
we live our lives, interact with others and make sense of the world.

The industrialization of meaning making shifted the nature of intellectual work.
Once, intellectuals were elites whose work was largely confined to other elite
audiences and cloistered from the general public. Rhetoricians, clergy, writers,
philosophers and political thinkers, and early scientists were confined to royal

courts, universities or the homes and businesses of wealthy patrons. The industrial
production of meaning meant that intellectuals both were drawn from the general
public and interacted with and produced meaning for them. They were no longer
‘ivory tower ’ intellectual elites. A more suitable image of an early twenty-first-
century intellectual worker is an employee at a news network who works as part of a
team creating, packaging and distributing ideas through a global electronic
information network. Intellectual work is increasingly concentrated within
organizational sites where creative people are employed to generate the ideas and
relationships that hold society together. They circulate these ideas to multiple elite,
niche and mass public audiences.

Professional communicators and power relationships
Professional communicators are significantly implicated in the creation of social
power relationships through the way in which political and economic power elites
form symbiotic relationships with them. The relationships between the powerful and
intellectuals are central to creating the meanings and rituals that organize and
control the lives of others (Berger 1977). The Frankfurt School saw these
relationships between the powerful and intellectuals as ones of ‘patronage’. In their
view, professional communicators needed to work for one or other branch of the
culture industry. To keep their jobs they need to produce content that serves the
interests of the patrons who pay their wages. While intellectuals in the culture
industry are free to think whatever they like, they are confined to producing
meanings that serve the interests of the institution. This sometimes directly shapes
the ideas in their content, but more routinely, it means being steered towards
producing content that produces mass audiences.

As we will consider in this chapter, these relationships of patronage make for
complex professional ideologies and identities. Professional communicators often
find themselves balancing out their own views, desires, creative impulses and
political viewpoints with the demands and objectives of the institution they work for.
Patronage subtly, but dramatically, narrows the range of discourses and practices
available to professional communicators. If you live in a large western city and
want a job at a media corporation as a journalist, advertiser or researcher for
example, you will find that most of the jobs in most of the institutions are much the
same when it comes to the level of freedom and creativity in the ideas you will
produce. Very few cultural workers can truly go to work every day and do whatever
they like. Even those who appear to do so at first glance – like advertising creatives,
fashion designers or film makers – work within coordinates set by their institutions,
financiers or bosses. No advertising creative can produce campaigns that don’t
achieve the instrumental needs of their clients regardless of how creative the idea is.
No film maker survives if their films don’t acquire the audiences their financial
backers seek. No fashion designer remains relevant and employed if their fashion
range doesn’t attract attention and sell.

Producing professional communicators
There is status attached to many professional communication roles because of their
capacity to make and manage the parameters of social meaning. The status of media
and cultural work has also grown as the culture industry has become adept at
glamorizing and promoting the status, values and creativity of professional
communicators. Think about the way that journalists, fashion magazine editors or
hipsters who work as designers, columnists or advertisers are celebrated in
Hollywood films and lifestyle magazines. There is significant competition for
cultural jobs because they are perceived as influential, creative and powerful.
Access to these jobs is managed via professional standards, qualifications and even
professional rituals like auditions, portfolios and conferences. In tandem with the
development of communication professions, universities and other education
institutions created communication disciplines and programmes to supply industry
with professional communicators who have the skills and ideas that industries want.
The success of communication disciplines at universities has always relied on their
ability to articulate themselves with industry needs and values. The development of
journalism schools or business schools that taught disciplines like public relations
or advertising emerged in the early twentieth century alongside the development of
these industries. These fields were created as academic disciplines because of a
demand from these emerging industries for employees with particular kinds of
skills. Throughout the twentieth century the culture industry has played a significant
role in shaping university disciplines and curriculums. The result is that
professional communicators not only work in institutions; they are also trained to
think and act in curriculums designed specifically for the needs of those institutions.

The mass production of professional communicators to staff the proliferating
communicative machinery can become a repetitive and banal process. Rather than
teaching students to think laterally, curriculums can lean towards teaching them the
professional values, routines and skills of their chosen industry. Students are taught
the basic skills and dominant ideas and discourses that will make them employable
in professions like journalism, public relations and politics. The repetition of these
skills and ideas can lead to a standardized ‘cloning’ of generations of professional
communicators. As communication institutions and their training programmes have
spread across the globe, critics warn that these industries have become populated by
intellectual ‘copy-cats’ who follow the trends of a global communication network.
This has consequences for individuals, industries and society. For individuals, it
means that education turns you into a functionary rather than a thinker. Education is
central to shaping the richness and quality of our lives and relations with others.
Individuals who are only taught routines and skills miss out on the capacity to think

and reflect. If institutions encounter crises and discover that their employees only
know the skills and routines that have always existed then they may struggle to
adapt. Journalism is an industry in crisis; the more journalists simply hark on about
the skills and values of the past the less the industry appears capable of
conceptualizing a way forward. The consequence for society is that the institutions
we rely on to mediate our relations with others lose the reflective capacity to think
through their role in shaping the lives we lead. They become factories that produce
content and audiences, rather than organizations that reflectively and thoughtfully
mediate our lives together.

Immaterial and Creative Labour
Labour, like communication, is a distinctive aspect of the human condition. While
we might commonly think of labour as producing objects (like cars, televisions,
computers), labour is first and foremost about relations between people. Labour
always involves working with and for others. Labour produces human relationships.
At its most elementary, work is purposive endeavour and activity that we undertake
with our body and our brains. You can work in the garden, or on a piece of music,
or on writing a poem. Under certain conditions these purposive and creative
activities become labour. For most of us we think of labour as working for a wage.
We do it because someone will pay us. We need to do it to have money to live. We
can trade our labour because it produces value for someone. For a professional
communicator that value is the capacity to create and circulate meanings that
facilitate social relationships. The institutions that employ professional
communicators valorize the social relationships labourers create. For instance, they
sell to advertisers the audience’s attention that labourers capture with the content
they make.

While media organizations need to invest in material resources and technologies
like buildings and machinery, it is the labourers who make value with their creative
ability to attract attention, affect audiences and manage social relationships.
Professional communicators produce, circulate and manage ideas, representations,
identities, audiences and social relationships. Each of these is immaterial in the
sense that they are not physical, durable products we can discretely identify, touch or
hold. They are products that exist only in our minds and the minds of others. The
labour of creating and circulating ideas relies not only on what we can do but also
very much on who we are and our capacity to affect others. Immaterial labour is
central to the relations of the networked information economy.

Professional communicators’ products are immaterial – symbols, relationships,
attention, audiences and populations. Immaterial labour has symbolic and affective
facets (Hardt 1999). Symbolic labour refers to the production of communicative
artefacts like news reports, videos, designs and text. Affective labour refers to the
ideas, emotions and communicative capacities that people deploy to create
communities, collective subjectivities and social relationships (Hardt 1999).
Professional communicators are affective labourers who they channel the living
attention of others (Brennan 2004). Where professional communicators employ
their social network, creative practices and identity to create content and audiences,
and facilitate social relationships and spaces, they are immaterial labourers.
Immaterial labourers draw on their own identity and capacities to communicate and

affect others to create meanings and social relationships.

Hierarchies of communicative labour
The terms and conditions of media and cultural work depend on the place of
professional communicators within the production networks of global media.
Communication strategists who devise and manage communication processes
command high wages and good conditions, as might creative workers who produce
high-quality content that attracts large or valuable audiences. Content makers
working under the direction of strategists and creatives, though, often find
themselves working in more flexible and precarious circumstances.
Communications work is characterized by a divergence of power and resources.
Top-level communication strategists are often powerful and important figures
within organizations, whereas at the other end the proliferation of communication
workers makes them interchangeable parts of organizational structures and
production processes. Many professional communicators work in flexible and
transient jobs, organizations and production processes.

At the end of the day, if a worker can get a better deal somewhere else they will. A
balance is struck between the workers’ access to other kinds of work, and industries’
access to other kinds of workers. Creative communication and media workers in a
city like New York will have different demands from factory workers in southern
China. The workers in New York will also have the capacity to have their demands
met because they have opportunities to work elsewhere and they produce a value
that can’t be acquired more cheaply anywhere else. While the popular Fox
animation series The Simpsons is written and largely animated by well-paid writers
and animators in the United States who demand particular pay and conditions, much
of the more basic animation tasks are completed by workers in South Korea, who
will work for less. Throughout the world particular aspects of the media production
process are outsourced to emerging economies where there is a capable labour
force that produces the same value for less money. In 2010 the street artist Banksy
helped animate an opening sequence for The Simpsons which parodied these labour
arrangements. Asian children were depicted working in a dirty sweatshop factory
colouring in The Simpsons’ film reels and manufacturing Bart Simpson dolls. Time
magazine reported that the South Korean animators who have worked on The
Simpsons since it began in 1989 were upset at being depicted as sweatshop workers.
They work in ‘high-tech workshops in downtown Seoul’. This is true: they aren’t
sweatshop workers. But part of the reason animation is outsourced to other
countries is because the cost of their labour power is cheaper. Time reported that,
‘Even though South Korea’s wealth keeps wages high by regional standards, the
country’s animators still make one-third the salaries of their American counterparts
– earning the South Korean industry a reputation for pumping out episodes on tight

deadlines at reasonable prices’ (Cain 2010). The South Korean workers are ‘free’
and ‘happy’ to work for one-third the wage of their American co-labourers in the
production of the show. They perform creative tasks for less, lowering the cost to
Fox in attracting human attention. They offer the cheapest and most efficient
workforce for undertaking specific creative tasks in the production process. The
Simpsons’ workforce is organized globally based on where the cheapest labour
power can be sourced. Labourers in each part of the production network negotiate
the best conditions they can and often defend with pride the creativity and identity
invested in their work.

Freedom and autonomy
Questions of freedom, choice and power are fundamental to our understanding of
work. Our conceptualization of labour is entwined with how we think about our
lives, identities and values. Freedom is more complex than it first appears because it
is always constrained by power relations. It is always something negotiated within
social relationships. Individual freedom often has a double character: we are both
free to sell our labour and free of any direct access or control over the means of
production within which we work. While media and cultural workers are free to sell
their creativity, ideas and capacity to make meaning, this is a forced choice: if they
don’t sell their creativity they will have no money to live. Their creative capacities
are appropriated by institutions or production processes over which they have no
control. It is especially important to think about the relationships between
professional communicators and the culture industries because often at first glance
this kind of work appears free and unconstrained. In comparison to workers in
factories, call centres or building sites, media and cultural workers appear to work
in more flexible and creative settings. They seem to have greater autonomy to
choose what they do and how they do it. Their sense of autonomy and creativity is a
source of value for the organization they work for, rather than a thing to be
controlled and disciplined; it is something to be amplified, channelled and
harnessed. Often organizations that can engender the greatest feelings of creativity
and autonomy among their media and cultural workers stand to extract the most
value from them. For example, technology workplaces like Google’s ‘Googleplex’
are open and playful environments featuring comfortable workspaces, gourmet
food and relaxation spaces. The company invests in designing these workplaces in
order to attract and sustain the creativity of the best designers, analysts and

Media and cultural industries rely on the creativity of their workers. The more
creative and autonomous that communication workers feel the more likely they are
to create value for the organizations they work for. Feelings of autonomy and
creativity are both a rewarding and desirable part of cultural work (Hesmondhalgh
and Baker 2011) and the means by which the culture industry organizes and
manages the productivity of workers (Banks 2010). Government policies,
economists and urban planners all produce discourses about flexible work, creative
cities and entrepreneurial labourers. Workers also participate in creating and
circulating these discourses about their autonomy. In fact, ‘posing’ as autonomous is
a key way professional communicators make value for the culture industry (Banks
2010). Think about how the credibility of journalism rests on journalists presenting
themselves as fearless and independent, or how the authenticity of a rock musician

depends on them presenting themselves as ordinary working-class artists. The more
these poses are accepted by the audience, the more value they produce for the modes
of cultural production they work for. The more the public accepts the journalist as
credible or the rock musicians as authentic the more newspapers or records that are

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ work
Ideas of creativity and autonomy are often present in accounts of what makes
communication and cultural work desirable. Our ideas about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ work
are grounded in the norms and values of our society and shaped by our relative
level of power. Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2011: 29) offer a schema for thinking
about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of communication, cultural and creative work:

Good work is characterized by good wages, hours and safety, autonomy,
interest, involvement, sociality, self-esteem, self-realization, work–life balance
and security. Good work produces excellent products that contribute to the
common good.
Bad work involves poor wages, working hours and safety, powerlessness,
boredom, isolation, low self-esteem and shame, frustrated development,
overwork and risk. Bad work produces low-quality products that fail to
contribute to the wellbeing of others.

This schema contends that autonomy and self-realization are central to ‘good’
forms of work. That is, because cultural work requires something of ourselves –
our own values, identity and creativity – to be good, it has to be reflective of our
own sense of the ‘common good’. Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2011) suggest that
professional communicators seek out forms of work that enable them to reflect
their own identity and values. Of course, not all professional communicators are
idealistic: many are also pragmatic, cynical or even Machiavellian about the
meaning and value of their work.

While professional communicators are capable of thinking critical, oppositional
and autonomous ideas, the culture industry demonstrates the ability to recuperate or
incorporate these ideas even where in the first instance they appear to be truly
radical or oppositional. The culture industry ultimately sets the coordinates within
which the autonomy of professional communicators functions. At the very least,
however, communication workers retain the capacity to ‘think the unthinkable’
(Banks 2010: 262). Even as the culture industry exerts control over its workers, it
relies on their creativity and therefore will necessarily contain an element of
unpredictability. It can’t entirely discipline how its workforce thinks; if it did it
would neuter the creative and relational work they undertake and that is the basis of
the value they create. Instead, the culture industry works to set the coordinates and
procedures that govern and harness this creativity. Professional communicators
negotiate the extent of their freedom, creativity and autonomy depending on their
place in the power relationships of cultural production. Communication and cultural
workers are largely reluctant to see themselves as cloned, disciplined or tamed.

Journalists are proud of their independence and ability to speak truth to power;
advertisers celebrate their creativity and ability to think outside the box; web
developers see themselves as constantly pushing the boundaries of human
connectivity. We need to tread carefully, though, by sorting out compelling
explanations of the autonomy, freedom and creativity of media, communication and
cultural work from the narratives the culture industry produces to make this work
appear desirable. Whenever we consider the creativity of communication work we
need to examine the institutions and social context within which that creativity is

Professional Ideology and the Meaning of Labour
Labour is something given of ourselves. When it comes to professional
communication it is not just that labourers choose to go to work and do the given
tasks; they also choose how much of their own creativity and identity they will
invest in the work. Professionals often construct narratives about the social value
and purpose of their work. When we examine media and communication
professionals we find values, narratives and practices they use to make their work
meaningful to themselves as individuals, give them a collective identity as
professionals, and position the value of their work for a broader public. The
professional identity of media and communication workers is often embedded in
their everyday practices and discourses. To understand them we have to do more
than simply ask communication workers to explain the value of their work. We have
to carefully observe how they give it meaning in their everyday interactions, the
private and public places where they discuss their work, and the cultural artefacts
that they produce (Caldwell 2008).

Professional communicators construct stories that explain how and why they do
what they do. These practices are evident in representations or explanations of
cultural work that producers create for their peers and the public. Media and
communication workers use their skills and access to media infrastructure to
publicize the meaning and value of their work. Professional communicators
construct ‘stories’ or ‘theories’ that explain how and why they do what they do.
While other professions like surgeons, social workers, teachers or military all care
deeply about their work, they don’t have the same access to communication
infrastructure to tell the public about it on a continuous basis. In the trade press,
online forums and blogs, industry events and showcases, and promotional activities,
we can see media and cultural workers crafting both their professional identities and
an account of the role their work plays in society. By carefully observing and
analysing the texts and trade rituals that media and communication workers produce
about their industrial practices we can understand how they account for their role in
the power relationships of cultural production.

Identity and Communication Work: Flexibility,
Networking, Entrepreneurialism
Professional communicators draw on their identity to do their work and produce
their identity through their work. The identity of professional communicators
develops in relation to the cultural products they produce, the organizations and
networks they work within and the people they work with. Cultural labourers adapt
their identities and the way they make their work meaningful to the more flexible
and networked nature of communication work.

In her study of the changing nature of television production in the United Kingdom
Gillian Ursell (2000) argues that since the 1980s television networks have shed
large numbers of permanent and unionized staff and brought in more flexible
labour arrangements involving multiskilled and multitasking contractors and
freelancers. The changes she describes for UK television reflect the changes we
discussed in relation to global network capitalism in Chapters 3 and 4. Over-staffed
and bureaucratic media industries sought more flexible relationships with their
suppliers and labour force; this involved dramatic change to employment
conditions as the power relationships of media production were reconfigured.
Beneficiaries of mass unionized work had their power eroded, while those who
could adapt to the flexible and contractual work conditions benefited. Ursell (2000:
807) argues that workers participate in ‘organising their own labour markets’ and
create professional identities that normalize flexible, contingent and highly
competitive labour arrangements.

The identity of professional communicators incorporated the values and norms
created as part of the development of global network capitalism. Workers who were
once employed by a large organization now work in freelance networks. In these
settings they are required to create and manage their own outputs or work in
collaborative teams. A professional communicator ’s reputation is shaped by their
portfolio of work and their relationships with other producers. Their reputation is
often interdependent with others they work with. In this form of cultural production
a professional communicator needs to invest considerable energy and resources
into the construction and maintenance of their reputation within their industry.
Workers are ‘collegial but in competition with one another ’ (Ursell 2000: 812).

Flexible work practices rely on the active participation of workers. The most
successful professional communicators expertly promote themselves as particularly
valuable kinds of labour. In doing so they promote the industry to an underpaid and
aspirational ‘underclass’ by incorporating narratives about creativity and autonomy

(provided by communicative and cultural work) into their identities. Professional
communicators produce not only content but also the narratives about their work
which enable cultural industries to use flexible, precarious and sometimes
exploitative labour relationships. Cultural industries capitalize on the excess demand
and desire for creative work. This demand is stimulated by cultural workers
presenting their work as autonomous, creative and publicly esteemed (Ursell 2000).
Media and communication workers aren’t ‘dupes’ in this process: they often
understand that by crafting identities to match these forms of labour they work
against their own best interests in the long term and create exploitative relationships
for younger and aspiring producers. Their love for the work, the attention and
rewards it brings, and immediate need to get paid, though, can outweigh this sense
of concern.

Angela McRobbie (2002) sounds a critical note against the popular ‘celebration’ of
creative, communication and cultural work as cool, autonomous and fun. She
observes that flexible modes of cultural production create a ‘workplace without
politics’ because there is no time and no place for critical reflection and discussion
to develop. Reflexivity is not only a source of creativity; it also becomes a form of
‘self-disciplining’ (McRobbie 2002: 522). Workers ‘inspect themselves and their
practices’ rather than the larger social, cultural or political context of their work.
Networking in the flexible culture industry is reflexive, continuous and fast, but it is
not reflective. As McRobbie (2002: 523) illustrates, ‘After-hours, in the dedicated
club/networking space, with free vodka on tap all night thanks to the sponsorship of
the big drinks companies, who dares to ask “uncool” questions … about the
downside of the “talent-led” economy? … It’s not cool to be difficult.’ Flexibility
also works as a control strategy: those who aren’t prepared to produce more for
less, work long days or at short notice won’t get the work. Ursell (2000: 816)
suggests that this operates discursively too: ‘What it was possible to think and
express before is now marginalised.’ That is, the new flexible workers are unable to
express their disquiet about labour arrangements in the flexible networked
economy. The workers who resist are just left out of the new labour arrangements
and the social networks which govern access to work. To ‘say’ you have a problem
with it is simply to be shifted out of the social milieu. These much less certain
relationships lead workers to invest in themselves as creative and talented ‘brands’
competing against each other in the economy.

Professional communication involves producing, branding and promoting
ourselves as flexible and entrepreneurial workers. Alison Hearn (2008) argues that
self-branding ‘developed against the backdrop’ of global network capitalism. If the
economy at large is based on permanent innovation, flexibility and communication,
then individual workers also need to adopt these practices. They need to be
constantly engaged in creating a reputation and positioning it within changing
professional and cultural networks in order to win attention. The work of the
branded self is:

embodied in the sense of how we look and dress – our gender, ethnicity,
physique and clothing all communicate ‘who’ we are
affective and interpersonal in the sense of how we maintain relationships with
others, the tone of our speech, the qualities of our ideas, and our disposition
towards others and the way others engage with us; an individual’s brand is
related to the reputation of those who will speak for them or recommend them

mediatized in the sense of the way we present ourselves in business cards,
portfolios, emails, online profiles, social networking sites and content we
produce as part of our jobs.

All of these elements go together as part of a package of branded self-promotion.
Professional communicators intuitively understand that to be competitive in the
cultural industries we need to craft a self, a narrative, an image, a way of relating to
others, and a social network that will make us credible and valuable. While
professional communicators might work for organizations that seek to be
enterprising, this disposition feeds into our culture, everyday lives and the way we
think about ourselves. We become ‘enterprising’ in the way we self-consciously
construct and display our own selves.

The forms of managerial control in the culture industry involve a combination of
hierarchy, discipline and participation. Being successful involves knowing
intuitively what the parameters and requirements of work in the industry are.
Discipline, control and management are the responsibility of each entrepreneurial
and self-directed individual. The work of self-branding is demanding. There is no
option but participation: ‘One has to express oneself, one has to speak,
communicate, cooperate’ (Lazzarato 1996: 135, in Hearn 2008: 204). Our labour
power then is not just about what we can create, a cultural product like a TV
programme or a news article, but about who we are and the dispositions we embody.
The culture industry acquires us as creative workers who create and maintain
particular kinds of social relations and organizations. The autonomy of workers is
confined within the procedures, networks and objectives of cultural production. Our
own resistance, creativity and autonomy become a source of value, rather than
something to be disciplined and contained. The branded self is ‘one of the more
cynical products of the era of the flexible personality: a form of self-presentation
singularly focussed on attracting attention and acquiring cultural and monetary
value’ (Hearn 2008: 213). For a critical scholar like Alison Hearn the problem with
the competitive games of self-promotion is that as we ‘recognise work is a game
and its rules do not require respect, but only adaptation’ we recede from investing in
collective identities and cultural values. We lose common political projects and
public spaces in which to envision collective practices. We retreat into the endless,
and tiresome, creative labour of crafting, mobilizing and exploiting ourselves.

The Meaning and Value of Media Work
When we examine media and communication professionals we find values, narratives and practices
they use to make their work meaningful to themselves, give them a collective identity as
professionals, and position the value of their work for a broader public.

The professional identity of media and cultural workers is often embedded in their everyday practices
and discourses. To understand them we have to do more than simply ask cultural workers to explain
the value of their work; we also have to carefully observe how they give it meaning in their everyday
interactions, the private and public places where they discuss their work, and the cultural artefacts that
they produce (Caldwell 2008).

Media and communication professionals are unique because they can use their own media and cultural
production techniques and infrastructure to produce and publicize a narrative about the meaningfulness
of their work. We see these narratives everywhere.

John Caldwell (2008: 346) identifies a range of ‘registers’ through which we can see and understand
how professional communicators make sense of their work. These include:

The range of texts that communicators produce in doing their work. For example: demo tapes,
pitch sessions, equipment iconography, how-to manuals, trade and craft narratives and
anecdotes, on-the-set work practices, association newsletters, corporate retreats.
Texts and rituals where professional communicators explain their work and industry to each
other. For example: trade shows, trade publications, internship programmes, technical reveals,
panels on how to make it in the industry.
Texts and rituals where professional communicators explain their work to the public. For
example: making-of documentaries, DVD commentaries, docu-stunts during ‘sweeps’ weeks,
online website, studio and network-supported fan conventions, screening Q&As, televised
show business reports, viral videos.

Tavi Gevinson on Rookie and creativity
Tavi Gevinson is an American writer and editor of the fashion blog Style Rookie. She rose to
prominence in her early teens as a creative and critical observer of popular culture. Tavi is a unique
cultural producer because her work creatively engages with popular culture, art and her fans’ ideas
and experiences in an open-ended way. The media she produces are often mixes and mash-ups of
popular culture that draw on fan and internet culture.

Watch Tavi’s presentation ‘Tavi’s Big Big World (At 17)’ in Sydney’s Ideas at the House. You can
find a link on the Media and Society website This presentation is an
example of a professional communicator explaining her work to the public. Tavi reflects on and makes
sense of her own identity in relation to her creative process and work as a media producers.

Is Tavi a fan or a professional? What’s the difference? What is a professional fan?
How is Tavi’s engagement with popular culture, literature, art and her own audience part of her
identity as a cultural producer?
How does Tavi convert her identity and creativity practices – like scrapbooking – into valuable
media content?
How does Tavi perform a narrative about herself that gives meaning to her work?

With Tavi or other professional communicators you are interested in, examine how they explain their

What arguments are they making about its meaning and value?
How do they make cultural work appear creative and desirable?
Who is the audience for the text and what does the professional want to tell that audience about
their work?

Below-the-Line Work
Cultural production involves a complex network of ‘above-the-line’ and ‘below-the-
line’ workers. Workers are employed in permanent, contractual, casual and unpaid
roles. Traditionally, above-the-line workers are those who are publicly visible such
as TV presenters, press gallery journalists and celebrity directors. These above-the-
line workers are often the visible face of TV programmes, news reports or films.
The cultural texts though are produced socially, by a large network of labour, much
of which is not visible to the public. These cultural workers who are not visible to
the public are below-the-line workers. They include many well-paid and established
professions that typically work behind the scenes like media relations, advertising
creatives, editors and scriptwriters. Their work is often highly skilled and creative.

The category of below-the-line workers made up of semi-professional, casual,
freelance and unpaid work is rapidly proliferating. In recent times, the distinction
between above-the-line and below-the-line workers can also refer to the difference
between those in permanent or formal employment and those who work in more
flexible and informal arrangements. As we discussed above, the growth in flexible
and precarious forms of work is a feature of global network capitalism. These
precarious forms of below-the-line work include freelance videographers, social
media monitors, casting scouts and promotional photographers. As we discussed
above in relation to The Simpsons, below-the-line networks of labour can spread
across the globe. For instance, the website Gawker reported in 2012 that Facebook
outsources work to developing countries in monitoring content on the social
networking site (Chen 2012). Workers had complained about the poor wages and
conditions for doing the work. Facebook provides a ‘cheat sheet’ to the monitors
who trawl through reported content, assessing it against Facebook’s community
standards. These below-the-line workers are those often not visible within the
formal production structure of the media and cultural industries. Below-the-line
workers were once those who worked under the control of managers, while above-
the-line workers were those who managed themselves and used their creative
capacities (Mayer 2011a: 17). In the current flexible cultural economy, however,
below-the-line workers must also be entrepreneurial, self-managing and creative.
Above-the-line and below-the-line forms of work are interrelated with each other in
the production and circulation of culture and maintenance of power relations.

Below-the-line labourers can work in flexible and precarious circumstances. In her
study of reality TV scouts Vicky Mayer (2011a: 124) notes that scouts ‘transformed
their social relations with people they met into a productive means for making cast
commodities’. Mayer explains how scouts go out into clubs and shopping malls to

locate and meet potential reality TV contestants. They use their identity and social
skills to strike up conversations and recruit people for auditions. In our research
with nightlife photographers who work in entertainment precincts photographing
patrons for club- and alcohol-brand Facebook pages, we found that nightlife
photographers exploit their own identities, their appearance, fashion and ability to
interact with patrons, to get them to pose for their camera and tag themselves in the
images on Facebook. The cooler a nightlife photographer is, the more likely people
will want to be photographed and tagged by them (Carah 2014a). This below-the-
line work is affective in the sense that workers rely on their identity, appearance and
ability to animate social relations and capture attention. Many of these below-the-
line workers do not recognize their own value, and labour at low cost or unpaid for
the love of the job or the hope that they will break into more formal forms of work
(Mayer 2011a).

One prominent form of below-the-line work is internships. Focusing his analysis
predominantly on the United States, Ross Perlin argues that the current internship
system doesn’t reward young people’s labour with remuneration, experience or
skills. The internship system gives insight into the increasingly precarious and
networked nature of communication and cultural work and the demand for workers
to acquire cultural and communicative capacities in order to secure that work.
Internships are an increasingly important part of acquiring the necessary cultural
capital, capacities and networks to begin a career in media and cultural industries.
Echoing Hearn’s (2008) notion of the ‘branded self’ and Ursell’s (2000) argument
about the way cultural workers create competitive and exploitative labour
relationships, Perlin notes that the main value of an internship for many young
people is the fact that they can ‘spin’ them on their CV. Simply having an internship,
particularly if it is with a credible firm, is valuable regardless of any real
remuneration, experience or skills. The problem though, Perlin argues (2012: xv),
is that ‘once you start “spinning” your work, it’s hard to stop’: you begin to develop
a professional identity based on ‘spin’. The production of a professional ‘branded
self’ often begins in earnest with our first internship. Like the ‘branded self’ and
flexible forms of labour already discussed, internships are a product of global
network capitalism. Internships have become a principal point of entry into the
workforce for many young educated people. Perlin argues that the internship system
presents many questions and problems.

Firstly, the growth in internships reduces entry-level, graduate and unskilled
positions. While the individual with the internship might (and this ‘might’ is
emphasized in many cases) develop skills, experience and networks that may lead
towards better paid work, the work they do as an intern undercuts others who would
otherwise do that work for fair pay. It makes industries tougher for those at the
bottom. Organizations use interns to avoid new hires, replace departing workers,
handle busy periods or undertake special projects.

Secondly, access to internships is often dictated by class. The best internships are
often secured by family and professional connections. And, even if you can secure
one, you need the financial means to support long periods of time working the
internship for no pay. Each of these factors precludes those from lower socio-
economic groups from accessing internships. This means they are less likely to
break into industries that require internships as a point of entry. This is a
particularly acute problem for the media and cultural industries because there is a
strong argument to say that diversity in these industries has social, cultural and

political consequences. In Perlin’s (2012: 164) view these class issues matter

many of the professions’ internships unlock matter deeply to the broader
society. Film and television shape our hopes and dreams, our stereotypes, our
views of history and the future; journalists are opinion-makers, wielding
access to vital information day-in and day-out; politicians are at the helm of
our economic and social infrastructure, often responsible for matters of life
and death.

Perlin (2012: 164) argues that it is easier for a ‘working-class kid to enter the
business or military elite, than to penetrate the cultural elite heavily concentrated in
the internship crazed professions’. While internships may be exploitative, being
denied one because of class circumstances is perhaps even more oppressive in both
individual and social terms. To Perlin (2012: xi), ‘Internships quietly embody and
promote inequalities of opportunities that we have been striving to diligently
reduce.’ They provide the ‘already privileged with a significant head start that pays
professional and financial dividends over time’ (2012: 161). Internships here
operate hegemonically. They enable an elite to naturally dominate certain positions
in society.

Thirdly, universities are implicated in an exploitative internships system where they
charge students tuition fees to manage their internship as an academic course. In this
situation students effectively pay tuition fees to work for free (Perlin 2012: 85). For
some universities the internship programme is a significant source of tuition fee
revenue for minimal cost. Universities have a responsibility to ensure that they add
significant academic value on top of the internship experience.

In the United States, United Kingdom and Australia internships are generally only
legal if they provide legitimate training and the intern is not doing activity that
would otherwise have been paid work.

Internships and the Law
In this chapter we’ve examined internships as a form of informal and low-paid or unpaid work.
Internships are an increasingly mandatory part of studying and preparing for work in the media,
communication and cultural industries.

What are your best and worst experiences with internships or work experience?
What would make an internship good or bad?
What do you think will be the good and bad aspects of work in the media and cultural
What would be the advantages and disadvantages if unpaid internships were not a part of
getting into the culture industries?

As part of responding to these questions you might also consider the legal status of internships. Below
we’ve provided information on the legal status of internships in the United States, United Kingdom
and Australia.

How has your experience with internships corresponded with these legal requirements?
Were you aware of these legal requirements before undertaking internships?

Are internships legal?
In the United States an internship is only legal if it meets a six point test (Perlin 2012: 66–67). Those
six points are:

The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar
to that which would be given in a vocational school.
The training is for the benefit of the trainee.
The trainers do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation.
The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of
the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.
The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period.
The employer and the trainee understand that trainees are not entitled to wages for the time
spent in training.

The test clearly aims to encourage employers to provide training and protect employees.

In the United Kingdom Alan Milburn’s report ‘Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel
on Fair Access to the Professions’ in 2009 recommended changes to internships after finding that they
are only accessible to some, which mean employers miss out on talented people, and talented people
miss out on ways to get ahead (Perlin 2012: 163). Milburn’s report has been part of a wider debate in
the United Kingdom about internships. Activist groups such as Interns Anonymous, Graduate Fog,
Interns Aware and the National Union of Journalist’s scheme Cashback for Interns have campaigned
for fair internships and pay for internships and graduates. Much of their efforts have focused on
lobbying HM Revenue and Customs to properly monitor and prosecute unpaid or underpaid forms of
work. Graduate Fog ran the campaign Pay Your Interns to ‘name and shame’ those running unfair and
unpaid internships. Interns Anonymous acts as a forum to promote discussion of the politics and ethics
of internships. Part of their aim is to document the scope and nature of unpaid internships.

In the United Kingdom the term ‘internship’ has no legal status. Even if you agree to work for no pay,
it is still illegal not to pay you. If an intern does regular paid work they may qualify for employee
benefits. An intern can only do unpaid work in two circumstances:

If the internship is less than one year and is a required part of a student’s studies.
If an internship only involves shadowing an employee, and no work is carried out by the intern.

If these conditions aren’t met an intern may be entitled to the national minimum wage, even if they
agreed not to be paid. The only exception would be people working for a ‘charity, voluntary
organization, associated fund raising body or a statutory body’ who are voluntary workers who
‘don’t get paid, except for limited benefits’ like travel and lunch expenses. This means that graduates
who take up advertised unpaid internships for commercial enterprises are entitled to the national
minimum wage, even if they agree to work for free. They cannot give away their right to fair pay.

In Australia the Fair Work Act covers work placements and internships. Like the United Kingdom,
Australian legislation recognizes ‘formal work experience arrangements that are a mandatory part of
an education or training course’. To be an acceptable unpaid internship the arrangement must meet all
these criteria:

The internship is undertaken as a requirement of an Australian-based educational or training
The internship is authorized under a law or an administrative arrangement of the
Commonwealth, a state or territory.
The internship is undertaken with an employer for which a person is not entitled to be paid any
Unpaid work experience can be lawful in circumstances outside of these arrangements only if

the person doesn’t meet the definition of an employee.

Fair Work Australia advises that the key considerations are:

Is the person assisting with business outputs and productivity?
Is the person in the role for an extended period of time?
Are there any expectations about the person’s productivity?
Who benefits from the arrangement?
Was the placement part of a vocational or university programme?

If an intern is doing productive work over an extended period of time which benefits the organization,
then the arrangement may come under the Fair Work Act, and the person may legally be considered
an employee.

The principles governing unpaid internships in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia are
broadly similar, as are the contemporary debates about their ethics. While many young people
willingly choose to undertake unpaid internships outside of their educational programmes, the fact
remains that these arrangements are often legally questionable. And the young people who choose to
participate in these programmes also bear some responsibility to changing the culture of unpaid

In response to the questionable moral, ethical and legal status of internships and to the detrimental
social and cultural effects they have, Perlin refers to the Internship Institute’s Intern Bill of Rights.

The Intern Bill of Rights

Given that the word ‘intern’ has no strict definition and covers a broad range of roles,

Given that most interns are workers, performing work of operational and economic importance,

Given that the laws and regulations pertaining to internships are often unclear, vary by jurisdiction,
and rarely reference interns specifically,

Given that internships are of increasing, global importance, and have broad social implications,

Given that some internships are legal, just, and beneficial, while others are illegal, unethical and
even exploitative,

Given that it is inequitable to require people to work for free to enter the workforce,

We proclaim this Intern Bill of Rights as a common standard by which to evaluate and improve
internships for the benefit of interns, employers, and society as a whole.

Article 1: All interns deserve fair compensation for their work, usually in the form of wages and
sometimes in the form of dedicated training.

Article 2: Interns are entitled to the same legal protections as all other workers, and should not
be subject to discrimination, harassment, or arbitrary dismissal. Under these circumstances, interns
should have the same standing in court and the same recourse to the law as all other workers.

Article 3: Interns should enjoy the same basic workplace benefits guaranteed to all other
workers, including sick days, vacation time, worker’s compensation and extra pay for overtime.

Article 4: The hiring of interns should be as transparent and nondiscriminatory as the hiring of
full-time employees.

Article 5: No one should be forced to take an unpaid internship or required to pay in order to

Article 6: Any internships subsidized with public funds should meet exemplary legal and ethical

Article 7: Internships are a category of work that should be defined, recognized by policy
makers and officials, studied, monitored, and improved.

Article 8: Interns must be treated with dignity and respect by coworkers and supervisors.

Article 9: The word ‘intern’ should be applied ethically and transparently to opportunities that
involve substantial training, mentoring, and getting to know a line of work.

Use the Intern Bill of Rights to prompt discussion with peers about the politics and culture of

How do your experiences with internships correlate with the legal requirements and this bill of
Is this bill of rights adequate for creating an internship system that is valuable to both industries
and aspiring professionals?

You can find links to resources about internships on the Media and Society website

In this chapter we have examined the nature and experience of work within a flexible
and networked culture industry. We have examined how cultural workers use their
identity in their work and present their work as meaningful to themselves, their
colleagues and the public. The chapter makes three claims that are important as we
go on to examine processes of representation and participation:

Professional communicators produce and manage meaning within the power
relationships of global information capitalism. Most professional
communicators labour within organizations that channel and constrain their
creativity towards the strategic goals of their patrons, investors or leaders.
The culture industry both relies on and exploits the feelings of autonomy and
creativity of professional communicators.
Professional communicators work in increasingly flexible organizations and
industries. They need to construct identities that position themselves within
networks that will give them access to cultural capital and professional

A flexible, interactive and participatory media system relies fundamentally on
skilled professional communicators. These communicators don’t just produce
content; they produce social relationships and manage complex communication
processes. The arguments we go on to develop about the management of meaning
and participation in this book are grounded in a critical examination of how
organizations and industries seek to enable, channel and control the creativity of
professional communicators. The production and management of communication
involves a dynamic and reflexive interaction between organizations and highly
skilled creative professionals.

Further Reading
The readings listed here each address different aspects of the experiences of media,
communication and cultural work. The readings by Banks (2010), Hearn (2008) and
Hesmondhalgh and Baker (2011) each address the subjective experience of work
and the way that professional communicators use their identity and creativity in their
work. In each article questions about autonomy, creativity and freedom are
addressed. The readings by Hearn (2008) and McRobbie (2002) each pay attention to
the way professional communicators are called on to produce themselves as a
valuable brand within flexible media and communication workplaces. They are each
concerned about the effects that competitive relationships have on the identities,
social relationships and products of professional communicators. Hesmondhalgh
and Baker (2011) and Ursell (2000) each address the range of professional, casual,
flexible and below-the-line employment relationships that exist in media and
cultural industries.

Banks, M. (2010) ‘Autonomy guaranteed? Cultural work and the “art–commerce
relation”’, Journal for Cultural Research, 14 (3): 251–269.

Hearn, A. (2008) ‘Meat, mask, burden: probing the contours of the branded self’,
Journal of Consumer Culture, 8 (2): 197–217.

Hesmondhalgh, D. and Baker, S. (2008) ‘Creative work and emotional labour in the
television industry’, Theory, Culture & Society, 25 (7–8): 97–118.

McRobbie, A. (2002) ‘Clubs to companies: notes on the decline of political culture
in speeded up creative worlds’, Cultural Studies, 16 (4): 516–531.

Ursell, G. (2000) ‘Television production: issues of exploitation, commodification
and subjectivity in UK television labour markets’, Media, Culture & Society, 22 (6):

Any article marked with is available to download at the website

6 Making News News making is a key site for
making and maintaining power.

* What are the sites and routines used to manage the production of news?
* What are some of the power relationships that characterize news making?
* How has access to large troves of data changed journalism?
* How have mobile devices like smartphones changed journalism?

In this chapter we:
Examine the sites and routines of news making
Account for the relationships between journalists and powerful groups in the production of news
Explore how news making has changed in the information era
Examine how interactive mobile devices have changed news making.

The Emergence of Professional Journalism
The emergence of commercial, professional and objective journalism can be traced
back to Lord Northcliffe’s ‘mass journalism’ in the British press and Joseph
Pulitzer ’s ‘popular journalism’ in the United States press (Smith 1979: 154–160).
Pulitzer in the US and Stead in the United Kingdom developed ‘new journalism’
practices designed to attract the widest possible audience for sale to advertisers
(Emery 1972: Chapter 17, Smith 1979: Chapter 6). The sites of these innovations
were Stead’s Pall Mall Gazette in London and Pulitzer ’s New York World. Large
amounts of capital were required to buy the latest print technologies. The ventures
required economies of scale to realize a return on the investment. This involved
producing a product that would attract a large middle-class audience considered
valuable by advertisers. The cost of producing the content of a newspaper, and
owning and maintaining the cost of the factory that produces it, is more or less
fixed. The investment in this content and infrastructure is realized when it is used to
attract an audience that can be on-sold to advertisers. The bigger the audience the
more advertisers will pay to have their advertisement printed in the newspaper.

The imperative to build mass audiences that could be sold to advertisers changed the
nature of meanings produced, for a variety of reasons. Content was required that
appealed to the largest possible audience, rather than to specialized niche groups of
opinion makers. To produce content regularly and cheaply, industrialized work
routines were required. This meant employing journalists who had specific rounds
or topic areas and quantities of stories that needed to be produced on a daily basis.
Journalists learned to produce content in a routine and systematic fashion. Within
these institutions the routines and values of professional journalism emerged. Over
time these practices were adapted to other mass media systems like television (see
Audley 1983, Guimaraes and Amaral 1988, Abercrombie 1996: Chapter 1,
Cunningham and Turner 1997).

Building hegemonic dominance involves, among other things, circulating
appropriate discourses. Hegemonic labour requires making, distributing and
naturalizing meanings that serve the interests of the dominant groups. School and
university curricula, advertising, popular culture and news are key discursive fields
for building dominance. More recently information databases have also emerged as
a discursive resource. Each of the above discursive fields has its own sites and
practices. This chapter will focus on news production and professional journalists.

Are journalists merely agents of the hegemonically powerful or are they
autonomous? The chapter will seek to answer this question by exploring news as it
emerges from the intersection of three variables:

the sites where production takes place
the dominant practices with these sites
the discourses privileged by those working in these sites.

We will suggest that it is possible for journalists to be simultaneously agents and
autonomous. They are not simply servants of the powerful, but are ensnared in webs
of discourse and practice which set parameters upon autonomy. Essentially, each
news-making site has its own set of preferred practices and discourses which guide
the work of the journalists working at that site.

The Sites of News Making
Newsrooms are the productive fulcrums for news making. But newsrooms are part
of larger organizations. They are locked into a wider chain of organizational
influence, and therefore necessarily conform to the practices and culture of their
organization. This includes being influenced by pressures emanating from owners,
although this influence is often indirect and opaque. Such sites also conform to the
organizational practices of the wider society hosting them. Further, news-making
sites are not autonomous of wider organizational and hegemonic pressures. But
such pressures are usually not the result of authoritarian control by an owner or
manager issuing directives, or conspiracy by a small group working to take control
of key social sites. Rather, news making is constrained in a more indirect manner.
Hegemonic dominance is created through the staffing practices of recruitment,
promotion and dismissal of employees; and by decision making concerning rules,
procedures and the configuration of technology within these sites. The
hegemonically dominant are at their most successful when meaning-making
decision makers police themselves and their staff in ways which confirm the needs
of the ruling hegemony. In these instances, day-to-day operational decision making
and longer-term policy setting in newsrooms complement hegemonic needs.

A key decision in meaning-making sites is choosing who gets promoted to positions
where staffing decisions are made. Decision making over staffing is perhaps the
core mechanism for moving meaning making in a preferred direction. Newsroom
staffing profiles necessarily determine which discourses are promoted. Owners
exercise control over staffing profiles indirectly by appointing the boards
overseeing organizations. Owners and board members are overwhelmingly
members of ruling hegemonic elites. Boards in turn appoint Chief Executive
Officers (CEOs). It is unlikely a CEO would be appointed whose world-view was
incompatible with that of the owner and board. The CEO in turn appoints and
promotes managers into key decision-making roles. Those managers in turn hire
and fire, train and socialize the rest of the staff. In the case of a newsroom these staff
are the gatekeepers of news flows. Staffing decisions are indirectly gatekeeping
decisions. Importantly, influence over staffing can be exercised by common sense.
CEOs generally work out the preferred discourses of their owners and boards, and
managers can sense the preferences of their CEO. Consequently, there is no need for
directives concerning which discourses should be favoured because good staffing
decisions (from CEOs down) can be relied on to shape a staff profile that is inclined
to produce the desired discourses. Discourses serving the hegemonically dominant
will be adhered to because staff will ‘reproduce’ themselves through hiring, training
and socializing. When hegemonies are normal and stable this gatekeeping via

staffing is opaque. Only when hegemonies undergo fundamental ruptures do
staffing mechanisms (as discursive control measures) become visible. For example,
the post-apartheid South African Broadcasting Corporation purged the bulk of its
white staff and replaced them with staff holding views ‘appropriate’ to the
gatekeeping needs of the new regime (Louw and Milton 2012: Chapter 4). By 1998
the new hegemony could rely on a normalized and opaque staff ‘cloning’ process at
SABC to deliver stable and predictable discourses.

At first sight it might appear that the emergence of interactive and niche media will
make discourse closures through staff selection less likely. However, under global
network capitalism, positioning ‘appropriate’ gatekeepers is still an important
hegemonic mechanism. The media system is now composed of many more niche
production sites, but these sites are networked into large global corporations so that
appropriate common-sense staffing decisions still deliver gatekeepers with apposite
world-views. Global corporations have a variety of control mechanisms based on
setting goals and objectives that managers must meet. Internet technologies have not
dissolved the role of information gatekeepers. The sheer quantity of information
that now circulates through the global media network means that professional
communicators who can sort, aggregate and make sense of the growing volumes of
information are critical to the construction of discourses. Newsrooms and
journalists are critical gatekeepers in this process as they have the capacity to
search, sort, aggregate and guide the public through this information. New
information-processing and management occupations simply become new
gatekeepers within media and information corporations. This means employment
practices still play a key role in building hegemonic dominance. And, although
newsroom practices have been modified by internet technologies, the basic
principle of creating gatekeepers through staffing practices has not altered.

Decisions about funding also set parameters within meaning-making sites. Funding
and staffing issues are often related. Managers decide which teams will get funding
and opportunities. Those viewed favourably by boards and CEOs get resources to
employ staff, deploy new technologies and pursue innovative projects. In doing so,
they are granted the organizational capacity to influence meaning making. People
who produce valuable discourses are granted further resources and opportunities.
Within media organizations, flows of funding shape the direction of discursive
production by rewarding over others the people and teams that produce certain

News making is also constrained by work practices, routines and rules. Some
practices are the result of conscious local-level decision making; others are
inherited from wider organizational practices and policies or even from the broader

profession or industry. Related to these practices are questions of how technology is
employed. Decisions over funding and deploying technology influence how
meaning is made. This, in turn, impacts on the sorts of meanings that can be made. It
is not only newsroom practices that impact on meanings made. The practices of the
wider organization are just as important when it comes to setting parameters. For
example, within commercial news organizations, newsroom practices are
necessarily entangled with the needs of the advertising department – not because of
direct advertiser pressure upon editors and journalists, although such pressure may
occur. At heart, commercial media have to collect, package and deliver audiences to
advertisers. The task of any editor in a commercial medium is to generate and
package the sort of material that will appeal to the audience that advertisers are
interested in. One of the easiest ways to achieve this is to appoint staff whose world-
views correspond to those of the intended audience, but editorial intervention is also
sometimes required. Effectively what transpires is a form of ‘market censorship’.
Discourses that may alienate the desirable target audience are avoided. Over time,
newsroom practices will naturalize the collection of certain genres of information
appropriate for the target audience. Newsrooms reproduce themselves through staff
recruitment and training into these accepted practices and genres. Once naturalized,
the constraints on news making will no longer be noticed; within that production
site a certain set of discourses and practices will simply be routinized as ‘the way
things are done’.

Routinizing News Making
News is the product of a set of institutionalized work practices. These practices are
enmeshed with discourses about the profession of journalism, journalists’
discourses about themselves, and discourses about the audience. Journalists learn to
work, and to understand themselves and their work, in a certain way. It is possible to
identify a generic Anglo-pattern of news-making practices and newsroom structures
– a pattern that has been carried across the globe during the periods of British and
American dominance. This Anglo-pattern ultimately has its roots in the ‘new
journalism’ of the nineteenth-century commercial newspapers developed by
Pulitzer, Stead and Northcliffe. This pattern subsequently spread to radio, television
and online newsrooms.

Mark Deuze (2005) identifies five claims that journalists make about the meaning
and value of their work:

Journalists see themselves as providing a public service as watchdogs and
disseminators of information. They play a vital democratic role of informing
the public.
Journalists present themselves as credible because they are objective, impartial,
neutral and fair.
Journalists think of themselves as autonomous, free and independent.
Journalists see their work as immediate, presenting reality ‘as it happens’.
Journalists ‘have a sense of ethics, validity and legitimacy’.

Each of these elements fits together to create a narrative journalists tell themselves
and the public about their work. While we might think that the news conveys the
day’s events, it also presents journalism as a socially meaningful and important
practice. Professional ideologies often conceal their own constructed-ness. While
journalists invoke a simple idea of objectivity, this conceals that events in the world
are often complex and messy; they are often deeply and intimately embedded in
people’s perspectives and experiences. While journalists might value autonomy they
also understand how it is limited by the practices of the organization they work for.
Journalists apply these values and adapt them to specific audiences and
circumstances (Muller and Gawenda 2010). Journalists’ narratives about their
objectivity and credibility create value for news organizations by legitimizing the
quality of the content they produce.

Journalists are confronted by huge volumes of information and an enormous array
of phenomena that could qualify as news. Creating news therefore involves sorting
through these and selecting which will actually be allowed to reach audiences. News

making is a process of selection, emphasis and de-emphasis. Journalists refer to this
process as knowing what is ‘newsworthy’. Effectively journalists are gatekeepers
(White 1950) who allow some information through the gate and block other
information. For anyone concerned with creating hegemonic dominance, the
blocking process is of vital concern. Creating discursive dominance has as much,
and possibly more, to do with what information is left out, as what is disseminated.
As Cohen (1963: 13) said, the media ‘may not be successful much of the time in
telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what
to think about’. As gatekeepers, journalists effectively decide what information is
left out, and hence determine ‘what is thought about’. So journalists become agenda
setters – creating the agenda and setting the parameters for what is discussed within
a society. As Noelle-Neumann (1991) has pointed out, these gatekeeping and agenda
setting roles have the capacity to set in motion a ‘spiral of silence’ where social
discourse is progressively closed because people fall silent if their views do not
coincide with what the media portray as majority opinion. The role of gatekeeper or
agenda setter then holds great social significance.

Gatekeeping has been institutionalized in newsrooms, where the process of
selection, emphasis and de-emphasis has been turned into a set of systematized
routines. Significantly, it is the very routinization of the process that has tended to
render it opaque to journalists themselves. Anglo-journalists, in particular, work
within an essentially empiricist world-view. They believe news is out there and that
they simply find it. They apparently find it because they know what is newsworthy.
Constructivists such as Tuchman (1978), however, argue that journalists ‘construct
reality’ rather than find it.

News is a window on the world
News, as Tuchman (1978) says, is a ‘window on the world’. Journalists, through
their work practices, effectively break a window-opening through the wall, and so
create a partial view of the overall panorama. That is, only one portion of reality is
available through the window opening. The rest, outside the frame, is hidden behind
the wall. News is consequently always skewed by the size, shape and position of the
window frame. But this skewing is not usually the outcome of conscious decision
making aimed at deliberately creating partial representations of reality. Rather, the
window’s position is the outcome of whatever set of practices, work routines and
discourses journalists have been socialized into accepting as ‘the way things are
done’. The partiality, and hence distortion, of news derives from the news frame
built by journalists applying their particular conception of newsworthiness. It is
possible to identify a broad Anglo-conception of newsworthiness with its roots in
what can loosely be termed the ‘Fleet Street’ tradition. This Anglo-conception of
newsworthiness has been reproduced in journalism training programmes
throughout the Anglo-world. These training programmes, plus on-the-job
socialization, have effectively cloned the Fleet Street model from Los Angeles to
New Delhi, and Sydney to Johannesburg. And so, despite minor regional mutations,
a remarkably similar news frame exists across the Anglo-world. Training has been
fundamental in spreading this ‘Anglo-window’. The British Empire approach
favoured sending Fleet Street and BBC staffers to the colonies as colonial migrants,
or on secondments to train locals. The Americans have preferred routing overseas
students through US journalism schools. Once a journalist has internalized the
appropriate vision of newsworthiness and the work routines accompanying this
vision, the model becomes naturalized and self-policing and the framing process is
rendered opaque. Thereafter, journalists need not confront the fact that they are
constructing a partial ‘window on the world’.

Making news is about newsworthiness. But to become a useful analytical tool, the
obfuscated and mythologized notion of newsworthiness, as used by journalists,
needs to be given substance. Essentially, newsworthiness is a learned perceptual
mechanism for routinely guiding journalistic decision making when journalists are
engaged in the reporting process. Newsworthiness is found in both journalists’
practices and discourses: that is, both how they do their job and what they believe
themselves to be doing. Effectively, a process of selection, emphasis and de-
emphasis has been organized in a set of routines comprising formulas and frames,
contacts, newsroom procedures, and presentation formats.

Formulas and frames
Journalists are trained to work according to a set of formulas. Consequently, they
repeatedly look for the same things and routinely ask the same questions. The
formulas effectively narrow the options for what can emerge as news by guiding the
information-gathering process. There are two key formulas journalists use:

The ‘who’ does ‘what’ and ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ they do it
(WWWWWH) question formula. Journalistic training privileges the writing of
‘hard factual news’ that the five-Ws- and-an-H formula delivers. These
questions are an excellent short-hand method for getting to the essence of
immediate events-based stories like motor accidents or fires; but the formula
becomes a great hindrance when trying to report on complex issues embedded
in convoluted contexts like the reasons for the outbreak of warfare. The hard
factual news formula does not equip journalists to report on complex
situations, but it does serve to confirm the professional discourse of
objectivity. The idea that one is objective because only ‘the facts’
(WWWWWH) are reported is a powerful self-image and value system central
to Anglo-journalistic practice. In essence, because hard concrete facts are
privileged, the stories acquire a tangibility that makes them appear factual
rather than constructed. Tuchman describes this as ‘facticity’ (1978: 82). It
allows journalists to hide from themselves the constructed and partial nature of
their stories. Further, just as the hard news formula directs journalists to look at
the world in a certain way, so too has television journalism developed a
standardized matrix of action images that are sought out. Television news has
developed a visual formula that drives journalists to produce a certain genre of
news that seeks out action and the visually spectacular. Television news,
combining the objectiveness of the WWWWWH formula with the visually
spectacular, produces radically simplified news that eschews complexity.
The inverted pyramid. This directs journalists to grab audience attention at the
start of the story. The heart of the story is packed into the first one or two
paragraphs. Journalists do not construct an argument by building towards a
conclusion (a pyramid). Instead, they put the conclusion at the beginning of the
study (an inverted pyramid). In part, this inverted pyramid formula emerged in
response to the practice of newspaper ‘stone-subs’ in the era of hot-metal
printing, who cut stories from the bottom to make them fit the page. Journalists
learned that important material at the end of a story stood a good chance of
being edited out; while material placed in the first few paragraphs was
generally the least likely to be cut. The inverted pyramid is now an entrenched
and immovable practice not only in newspapers, but also in radio and

television journalism. This focus on ‘the intro’ mutated within television news
into the ‘sound bite’. Television journalists seek out spokespersons able to
provide ‘snappy one-liners’. This makes television news even less able to
report on complex situations than newspapers. Public relations personnel use
their knowledge of journalistic formulas and the demand for sound bites to
maximize their chances of placing media releases that promote their
employer ’s interests.

On any given day there are a relatively small number of institutions, social sites and
individuals who interact to make the news. A news frame is a way of thinking about
how journalists present events to us, a way of defining their practices of
representation. Robert Entman (1993) defines framing as:

defining problems in terms of common cultural values
diagnosing causes of those problems
making moral judgements
proposing solutions.

Frames ‘call to attention some aspects of reality while obscuring other elements’
(Entman 1993: 55). The problems, judgements and solutions journalists report and
propose are nearly always well-established ideas. It is very difficult to tell people
things they don’t already know or think. News framing organizes common sense
(Gamson et al. 1992) by reflecting commonly held cultural narratives in ways that
privilege elite voices (Markens and Conrad 2001, Blood and Holland 2004).

Journalists, professional communicators, professionals from other fields and
citizens feel compelled to act or position themselves with reference to accepted
media frames (Kitzinger 2000). Meaning makers face real and perceived obstacles
for veering outside of these enduring frames and templates because they tend to
monopolize common sense and draw strong inferences between their common-
sense view and the problem definitions, judgements and actions they propose.
Where news reporting might appear substantial, balanced and thoughtful by raising
competing frames, it may actually be framing debate within a closed socio-cultural
space. Competing frames, because they are generated from a shared cultural
context, often have more salient fundamental similarities than significant
differences. The competition between frames obscures the maintenance of power
relationships. The real impact of framing is felt at the cultural level where over time
it incrementally creates ways of seeing the world that are opaque, and that reduce
complex and messy realities into forceful intuitive narratives that become
naturalized. Professional communicators often seek not only to frame their own
point of view, but also to construct the perspectives and available positions of the

competitors. Enduring frames and media templates close down the space within
which real alternative views can be put forward. They make it difficult for
alternative positions to appear credible because they solidify accepted ways of
defining, judging and acting. Strategic use of frames by interest groups is most
successful when it aims to shape the enduring frames or media templates, rather
than just aim to frame the issue their way.

Contacts are central to the news-gathering process. Contacts are people journalists
regularly consult when wanting information or quotes. Each newsroom tends to
develop a pool of contacts who are constantly consulted. News is effectively made
through the symbiotic relationship emerging between journalists and this pool of
contacts. Journalists need contacts to provide quotes and information, while the
contacts need journalists to develop their profile or to promote particular ideas,
products or organizations. For many, becoming a regularly consulted contact is
vital for their career. For example, politicians need publicity, and ultimately the
media are the dispensers of this publicity. Any aspiring politician has to develop
relationships with journalists, both directly and through the ever-expanding teams
of public relations officers, spin doctors and media consultants that manage
interactions between journalists and talent. Just as journalists develop contacts,
public relations officers and media consultants cultivate journalists. The need to
cultivate journalists saw the growth, throughout the second half of the twentieth
century, of the phenomenon of the ‘professionalized contacts’ practices of the public
relations industry. By the turn of this century no large organization – corporation or
government – was without a PR machinery, staffed by communication spin doctors
and professionalized contacts. Often these PRs are ex-journalists who understand the
routines and formulas of news organizations, and know many of the journalists in
the local industry.

The pool of contacts used by any newsroom constitutes a very small minority of the
overall population. Ultimately, the choice of contacts reflects how that newsroom
sees the community it reports on. The choice of contacts is fundamental in defining
the shape and position of the window or news frame that journalists construct
(Tuchman 1978).

A key mechanism for creating this window is on-the-job socialization of journalists,
which involves news editors or senior staffers passing on appropriate contacts to
junior journalists as they are inducted into the newsroom. Learning whom news
editors and editors consider to be ‘appropriate’ contacts constitutes an important
part of the staff-cloning process in any newsroom. Journalists learn what types of
contacts are appropriate by having contacts passed on and by encountering
disapproval when ‘inappropriate’ contacts are used.

Using contacts narrows the window frame in two ways. Firstly, there is a tendency to
favour quoting the hegemonic elite in part because they are already deemed to be
important people and hence newsworthy; and secondly, because members of the
already-existent social, political and economic elite tend to have the resources to

staff publicity machines. The ability to run PR machines has become increasingly
important in order to become a reliable contact. Reliability involves always being
contactable and delivering appropriate quotes in a timely fashion. Good contacts
understand journalistic deadlines and their need for quotes to fit their organization’s
in-house style and editorial policies. This is the second way in which using contacts
narrows the window frame. Journalists stop phoning their contacts when the first
one tells them what they want to hear. When constructing a story, journalists will
work through their contact list, starting with the person deemed the most
appropriate contact. Consequently, news construction has come to favour, and hence
promote, certain kinds of people: those with the resources to maintain publicity
machines and to be able to deliver quotes and an image concurrent with media

To some extent these requirements have altered the nature of hegemony building as
television became ever more central to circulating discourses. Building dominance
now drives hegemonic groups to recruit so-called video or image politicians.
Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair, Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd all have or had images
and demeanours that suit visual media. Furthermore, there is now a need to gain
access to enormous financial resources in order to pay for the professionalized
publicity machines required for promoting hegemonic discourses. In the USA this
led to the emergence of political action committees (PACs) and Super PACs to raise
money to pay for these machines. Contributors to PACs effectively buy influence in
Washington. This introduced a new dimension into hegemonic alliance building.
Developing a ‘professionalized contacts’ machinery has had the effect of modifying
how power relationships are made and maintained (Smith 1989: Chapter 2).

Induction into newsroom procedures
Journalists induct new staffers into newsroom procedures. Each newsroom will
have a set of procedures and related organizational culture. Some of the routinized
procedures for collecting, writing and submitting will only be found in a particular
newsroom, perhaps tied to a senior staffer ’s idiosyncrasies. Other procedures will
be found across whole media groups when all the newsrooms in the group share a
set of procedures and organizational culture. All procedures set parameters on news
production, and so socializing journalists into an organization’s procedures helps to
steer their production into conformity with the genre associated with that
organization. Similarly, journalists are socialized into accepting the newsroom
bureaucracy, hierarchical pecking orders and the particular style of office politics
operative in their newsroom. There is a relationship between the hierarchical chains
of command and the bureaucratized procedures of the newsroom. It has been
suggested that this is a defining characteristic of news production. News is the
ultimate bureaucratized meaning making. News is simply the outcome of a highly
routinized process of collecting and processing information, where the process is
guided by formal rules. Hence news takes on the characteristics of an ‘eternal
recurrence’ (Rock 1981); it is meaning that looks repetitive, precisely because it is
meaning emergent from a repetitive set of bureaucratized procedures. For those
building hegemonies this is the useful thing about news – it is a form of meaning
making that is highly susceptible to manipulation for two reasons. Firstly, the
existence of hierarchical bureaucracies in media organizations means that it is
possible for hegemonic elites to diffuse their discursive needs downward from the
CEOs. This can be achieved through normal bureaucratic control over procedures,
routines and staffing profiles. Secondly, the existence of predictable journalistic
routines and procedures means that ex-journalists working as PRs and
communication spin doctors can employ their knowledge of these procedures to
plant stories at the right time and with the right person. The predictability of news
production enables them to maximize the chances of these stories being used and
serving their purposes.

The presentation of news
Another aspect of journalistic practice to be routinized is the presentation of the
news. Procedures have been developed for designing newspapers to give some
stories prominence. Newspaper sub-editors have a whole range of techniques at
their disposal to emphasize some news and de-emphasize other stories in
accordance with editorial policy. This includes decisions about which page a story
is placed on, where on the page it is placed, the size of the headline, whether a
photograph will accompany the story and what sort of photograph will be used (see
Hall 1981). Similar mechanisms for emphasizing some news stories, and de-
emphasizing others, exist within television and radio production practices. Such
presentation decisions crucially influence the overall narrative being constructed
and so impact on the interpretation of the news. These design and presentation
decisions have also been routinized, with those taking these decisions having
internalized a whole series of professional discourses which guide their work

Representation and Ethical Codes
The ethical codes of journalists’ professional associations point to the values that journalists aspire to
in their representation of social life.

You can find links to the ethical codes of journalists in the US Society of Professional Journalists, UK
National Union of Journalists and Australian Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance on the Media
and Society website

Reporting on crisis events in Australia
Muller and Gawenda (2010) interviewed journalists who reported on the 2009 Black Saturday
bushfires in Australia. The wildfires, common to Australia during the summer, swept through regional
areas burning out whole towns and killing 177 people. Following the fires police and emergency
services established blockades around towns because the hundreds of burned out homes and
buildings needed to be searched and assessed. This restriction of access to the fire zone conflicted
with journalists’ impulse to report from the scene and inform the public about events. Journalists
positioned themselves at the centre of events, seeing themselves as responsible for providing
information to the public and the many people who had fled their communities and were anxious to
find loved ones or to know what happened to their homes.

Muller and Gawenda found that many media practitioners responded to the roadblocks in a variety of
ways. While journalists wouldn’t deliberately ‘run a roadblock’, because it was illegal, they would
justify other ways of circumventing them. For many journalists, ‘Finding a way in that was not blocked
was considered not only ethically justifiable but positively required by the countervailing ethical
consideration of doing one’s duty to the public’ (Muller and Gawenda 2010: 75). This might involve
being ‘fortuitously mistaken’ as an emergency worker or resident, or for some even deliberately
misrepresenting their identity. While journalists had a range of positions on the lengths they would go
to bypass roadblocks, what underlay their justifications was a sense that as journalists they had a
responsibility to the public to access these closed areas in order to represent them. That is, their belief
in the importance of the media rituals they facilitated guided their justification of their actions. This
belief, though, also fitted with the commercial imperatives of their media organizations: ‘Media people
tended to place a higher value on successfully meeting the competitive pressures under which they
worked, and on carrying out what they saw as their duty to inform the public, than on the
countervailing ethical duty to respect the law’ (Muller and Gawenda 2010). Here we can see how
representations of events are constructed through rituals and actions in the world, and those rituals are
undertaken by people who make and justify decisions based on a variety of factors: their sense of the
value and meaning of their work, power relationships between media and other actors like politicians
and emergency services, and commercial pressures.

Examine how significant crisis events are represented in your country. Who do journalists interact with
to represent the event and tell stories? Consider their coverage in relation to the ethical codes of their
professional association.

In Australia, or elsewhere, when journalists are reporting on crisis events:

Do they use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material?
Do they exploit people’s vulnerability or ignorance of media practices?
Do they respect private grief and personal privacy?

Symbiotic Relationships in News Making
News making revolves around journalists, their practices and the organizational
sites – like newsrooms – into which they are embedded. However, journalists and
news editors are also enmeshed in sets of symbiotic relationships with other
professional communicators who are complicit in making the news.

The routinization of news making effectively directs journalists to privilege certain
news-making sites over others. Some news is random and accidental, such as
aircraft crashes and motor accidents. But even the reporting of this random news
has been considerably de-randomized by the journalistic practice of using police,
ambulance and hospital spokespersons as sources for locating and reporting such
events. But in general it is non-random news that has become the staple fare of
contemporary news production. Most news now comes from four institutionalized
sets of news-making sites: the political and legal system, the sports industry, the
entertainment industry and the business sector. Each of these sites has a highly
developed PR machinery that provides media-trained contacts and media-ready
content to journalists. Each site has ‘news shapers’ (Soley 1992) or pundits. Pundits
are those promoted as experts by the news media who are consequently called on to
comment upon and discuss events with journalists. The development of sound bite
television reporting greatly enhanced the use of such news shapers. These news
shapers are people who researchers at broadcast organizations have deemed to be
appropriate experts, and who can be relied on to deliver comment that is both
editorially suitable and which conforms to the sound bite needs of the broadcast
media. The news-shaper pundits are seen as specialists in one of the above four
news fields – political and legal system, sport, entertainment or business – and so
will be routinely called upon to comment upon and frame the news. On-air
discussions between these news-shaper pundits and journalists often become a form
of editorializing, serving to set agendas in accordance with the editorial policy of
the news organization concerned.

News and public relations
Each of the four news-making sites have professionalized their relationships with
the news media. All major organizations in society have developed publicity
machines. Some of these publicity machines are now heavily accented towards
marketing communicators (like the sports sector); others are geared towards spin
doctoring (like the PR and ‘damage control’ machines of politicians); while others
are concerned with image building or public lobbying (for instance, many business
sector PR departments). These publicity machines are now integral to the making of
news. News has been substantively ‘public relations-ized’ as journalists have
developed a symbiotic relationship with those staffing publicity machines. For news
organizations it is simply much cheaper to use professionally produced material
made available by these publicity machines than to produce it themselves. Publicity
and PR machines have effectively evolved into a form of journalistic outsourcing.
In the process, co-dependence has emerged between journalists and publicity
machine staffers, as both have developed routines that intermesh with each other.
Contemporary journalistic routines for news-gathering would simply collapse
without the publicity machines journalists now connect to. Politicians, sports stars
and business leaders would have no one to perform to if journalists did not provide
the media conduits through which they reach their publics. A neatly harmonized and
professionalized set of team practices has emerged which symbiotically meshes
journalists with a whole range of people whose careers revolve around professional
image making: PRs, spin doctors, marketers, politicians, sportspeople, entertainers
and business leaders. Journalists need image makers and image makers need
journalists and so each has necessarily developed routines and practices for using
the other. Out of their routinized co-dependence emerges news.

The second half of the twentieth century saw meaning making, including news
making, progressively public relations-ized. The culture industry produced a
particular form of intellectual practice involving professional communicators
working to skew meaning production in favour of their employer ’s interests. These
professional ‘skewers’ – PRs and spin doctors – are at their most successful when
journalists become dependent upon them to supply information. As newsrooms have
become leaner, because of cost-cutting measures, the pressure on a smaller number
of journalists to fill the ‘news holes’ has necessarily grown. This has tended to shift
news-making practices into ever greater dependency on PRs, hence the growing
public relations-izing of news. Consequently, for those who can afford to employ
PRs and spin doctors, it has become easier to manipulate news.

News and Power Relationships
Clearly news production is a complex process involving multitudes of
communication professionals. The relationship between these professionals and
hegemonic elites does not look like a simple transmission belt with professional
communicators simply uncritically producing messages at the bidding of
hegemonic elites. However, a complex set of, sometimes obfuscated, relationships
exists between ruling elites and professional communicators, which generally
ensures that these professionals overwhelmingly produce and circulate messages
that service the needs of hegemonically dominant groups. These relationships seem
to fall into three broad categories.

Firstly, those who succeed in establishing their discourses as dominant win the
struggle for hegemony. This necessarily involves finding ways to exercise
influence over the institutions of the culture industry. Such influence may entail
direct ownership or membership of media boards. But influence need not be that
direct. Hegemonic elites by definition constitute the membership of influential
social networks. Media, cultural, government and business elites hang out together
at alumni, industry, social, cultural and sporting events and clubs. Hegemonic elites
transact a lot of their business informally within these networks, business that
ranges from brokering deals to swapping favours at social events. Membership of
these networks is restricted, but it is not static: as hegemonic elites mutate so too
does the membership of these influential informal networks. Very few members of
these networks will have any form of direct control over news-making processes.
But their capacity to mobilize such networks to influence news production should
not be underestimated.

Secondly, those with command over resources, which does not have to be one’s own
property, are necessarily in a position to buy influence, including influence over
meaning-making processes. This may entail buying favours or bribery. Or it may
mean funding organizations and people whose ideas one approves of, and training
such people to become effective communicators. An example of this is the Alliance
of Youth Movements (AYM) established by the US State Department in 2008. The
State Department partnered with Google, Facebook, YouTube, MTV, Howcast, CNN,
NBC, MTV and the Columbia Law School to bring together youth leaders from
around the world and show them how to use social media to build political
organizations, mobilize crowds and build insurgent movements. One of the
offshoots of AYM was an online ‘how-to’ hub which hosted a series of ‘how to’
videos such as ‘How to Create Grassroots Movement Using Social Networking
Sites’, ‘How to Smart Mob’ and ‘How to Circumvent an Internet Proxy’ (Bratich

2011: 627). Importantly, AYM also teaches its youthful activists how to make videos
geared to stirring western publics into a state of indignation – in effect to produce
video material that global news media like CNN and the BBC can use to help build a
mood for action against those America deems to be tyrants. But, of course buying
influence may simply involve being in a position to employ appropriate people. For
example, those who can afford to employ skilled PRs and spin doctors are more
likely to influence news production in ways beneficial to their interests. PRs and
spin doctors are hired for their knowledge of journalistic gatekeeping. Their job is
to deploy their knowledge of newsroom routines and practices so as to find ways to
try to set the agenda for the agenda setters. If successful, the stakes are high for
those involved in the struggle for hegemony. The end game for the builders of
hegemony is to set in motion a ‘spiral of silence’ which closes discourse and so
secures hegemonic dominance.

Lastly, ruling elites are necessarily at their most secure, and so can employ less
coercion, when they succeed in naturalizing their preferred discourses and practices
with three key groups of people: the gatekeepers of the culture industry; those who
manage, hire and fire these gatekeepers; and those who train and educate these
gatekeepers. Ultimately, when journalists see existing political and economic
relationships as ‘natural’, the mechanics of existing political decision making as
legitimate, and existing coercive arrangements like justice, policing and military
systems as legitimate, they can be relied upon to ‘ask the right questions’, and
produce reports and images that confirm the existing hegemonic arrangements.
Successful hegemonic dominance involves achieving a naturalized and routinized
system for staffing the culture industries, and perhaps especially newsrooms, with
intellectuals who broadly accept the discourses and practices of the ruling
hegemony. Hegemonic closure of discourse will be most effective when those
involved in media-training programmes, media-staffing decisions and establishing
media work practices routinely take decisions that confirm the discursive needs of
the existing hegemonic order – and set up mechanisms to clone themselves. When
hegemonically ‘appropriate’ decision making is routinized, ruling elites need not
intervene to secure their discursive needs, and discourse closure becomes
naturalized and opaque.

News Making in the Interactive Era
The emergence of interactive, mobile and networked media technologies have
changed journalistic routines in at least two significant ways:

The acquisition and use of large databases of information is an increasingly
common part of the production of journalism.
The use of content generated by ordinary people using smartphones is a
common feature of news reporting, especially on crisis events.

In this chapter we have described the routine interaction between journalists and
established institutions like government, business, entertainment and sports
industries. This final section examines how data and eyewitness content generated
on smartphones have changed journalistic routines and relationships.

Data and journalism
Data has become another source of information that journalists use to tell stories.
Data is brokered as part of relationships journalists build with PRs in government,
business or universities and sometimes political activists, leakers or whistleblowers.
The term ‘data journalism’ is sometimes used to refer to a form of journalism
where journalists produce stories by assembling, accessing and organizing large
sets of data. Data journalism appeals to both established journalistic ideologies and
the commercial pressures of news organizations. Journalists use large sets of data
to amplify their claims to legitimacy and credibility by presenting the data as
objective evidence or truth. Journalistic ideology is grounded in exposing and
demonstrating the truth to the public. Large sets of data can be presented as
compelling illustrations in the form of statistics, interactive models and
infographics. Journalists play the role of interpreting the information, making sense
of it and selecting elements to present to the public. These forms of data-driven
journalism often dovetail with efforts of news organizations to create more
interactive and engaging forms of content. For example, during the post-2007
global financial crisis many news organizations presented interactive models and
infographics like ‘balance the budget’ tools where readers where invited to attempt
to balance national budgets.

Data has become a valuable resource used by individuals and organizations wishing
to build relationships of influence with journalists. PR increasingly involves not
only issuing press releases, images and sound bite quotes, but also building
relationships with journalists where they provide data, help them interpret it and
assist in producing content. Businesses and governments can choose to provide
large sets of data to journalists and news organizations together with experts to help
interpret and explain the data. These activities are often a sophisticated form of
public relations. The journalist is most often not the collector of data, or even the
analyst, but rather a narrator or conduit for explaining complex innovations,
policies or population trends. In the interactive era the assembly and management of
enormous databases of information has become central to making and maintaining
power. Journalists with specialist knowledge in policy, science, programming and
design can play a role as intermediaries between the public and government,
business, and research or policy organizations in organizing and explaining data.

In addition to using databases of information that are deliberately publicly disclosed
by government, business or universities, some journalists also find themselves
interacting with individuals or organizations leaking enormous amounts of data.
Sometimes these leakers and whistleblowers are committed activists who believe in

openness and transparency, other times they are motivated by specific violations of
rights or misuses of power they wish to expose to the public. The cases of
WikiLeaks, Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning – formerly Bradley Manning –
and Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras are two prominent
examples, although it is important to note that these practices of leaking sets of data
to journalists is increasingly common. These events pose challenges for journalists
and news organizations. On the one hand, collaborating with radical activists and
leakers can disrupt the mutual and stable relationships news organizations and
particular journalists have cultivated with power elites in government and business.
On the other hand, the activity of leaking often embodies journalistic ideologies of
exposing the truth, speaking truth to power and resisting relationships of power.

These activities establish new, highly flexible and networked relationships, between
activists or leakers (who are often highly skilled data and IT experts), investigative
journalists and mainstream news organizations. The data leaker is often not a
whistleblower in the traditional sense of providing a small amount of ‘smoking
gun’ insider knowledge to a journalist based on their access to government or
corporate processes. Rather, the leaker provides journalists with vast troves of data
collected from within government or corporations which need to be organized and
interpreted. The data provided often doesn’t detail one specific incident, but rather
information about the ongoing and systemic operations of power.

The leaker, journalist and news organizations then form temporary relationships to
share, make sense of and package the data as news. In part the leaker and
investigative journalist may share a common ideology of speaking truth to power.
The journalist may work within a news organization that then weighs up the
commercial and political consequences of publishing leaked material. In practice
these relationships are often fraught. The journalist is often protected by their news
organization and laws relating to free speech and the public interest, whereas
leakers have committed criminal offences. Journalists are also wary not to be used
by leakers, and careful to ensure their stories don’t have unintended consequences.
Often the journalist isn’t a gatekeeper in the traditional sense. For example,
WikiLeaks publish most of their content online for any member of the public to
access. The role that journalists play is in organizing, making sense of and
publicizing leaked material. McNair argues that leakers like WikiLeaks depend on
the ‘traditional journalistic functions of sifting and sense making, of narrativising
and interpreting’ data (McNair 2012: 83). The question for journalists is the extent to
which they provide this publicity and status to leakers. In the case of the leaks of
Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, the public only came to understand the
material because of the organizing and explanatory work of highly skilled
investigative journalists, often working with data and policy experts. Journalists

bring an infrastructure to organize and publicize the material.

Journalists find themselves having to decide who gets access to their infrastructure
of publicity. They are a node in a network of power relationships that attempt to
control the flow of information between governments, corporations and the public.
Power elites and activists all try to access journalists for the legitimacy and
publicity they can provide. Journalists then are a node in the use of data to maintain,
acquire or disrupt power. Managing data has become part of the journalistic
gatekeeping function. While journalists use data to make their news stories
legitimate and objective, using data inevitably involves selection and emphasis. Data
is framed just like any other source of information journalists use. The difference is
that traditional journalism was based on information scarcity. The journalist had to
manufacture, prise out and unearth information. Now, the journalist is a gatekeeper
in a society of information abundance or overflow. A famous adage is that
‘Journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want printed; everything else is
public relations.’ Rather than trying to find scarce information that powerful groups
don’t want public, they are a node through which enormous amounts of information
flow, and their job is to shape it. Some of that information is threatening to power
elites, but mostly it is flows of information that come from business and
government and serve their interests. Data is good PR in a society centred on
sociological and empirical representations of reality.

Organizations like WikiLeaks may demonstrate ‘the capacity of digital
communication networks to subvert the control of official information once
enjoyed by political and other elites, and to shape the news agenda in ways that have
the potential to seriously disrupt the exercise of power ’ (McNair 2012: 77). While it
may be true that the leaking of information is more commonplace, it doesn’t
necessarily follow that it disrupts power. Governments and corporations are at the
same time using massive flows of data and information as a strategy for control. We
ought to consider how journalism’s use of data to explain complex processes to the
public and perhaps to reveal secrets alters the exercise of power. Does transparency
and exposure make the powerful more accountable? Or, do governments require
secrecy in order to be able to function effectively? Does revealing secrets or
assembling large sets of data enable better debate or empower the public? Or is the
public increasingly disempowered by a glut of information they cannot understand
or act upon? And is the presentation of data simply part of the way powerful
interests use media to frame reality? At the very least we should not assume that data
and information are the answer to better kinds of journalism or democracy.

The Changing News Business
The emergence of interactive media has fundamentally changed the revenue streams and structure of
commercial news organizations.

Go through the Nieman Lab’s multimedia essay ‘Riptide’ for a chronological examination of how
industrial and technological change has changed journalism’s business model. You can find a link to
the essay on the Media and Society website

The essay charts how interactive technologies, search and content aggregation, online classifieds,
blogging and social media have impacted the news business model.

Draw up a timeline that maps the changes chronicled in the essay. Identify the key moments and
consider their specific implications.
What does this timeline suggest about the future of journalism?
Consider how journalists’ values are impacted by a changing news business.

Journalists and Leakers
A key representative, legal and ethical dilemma journalism has had to contend with in recent years has
been the interaction of established journalism organizations with internet-based organizations and
individual leakers like WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward
Snowden. These interactions have embedded journalists and news organizations in new networks
through which information and news is created and disseminated. These engagements have led to a
vibrant debate about the role of journalists in publicizing secrets.

Below are a number of quotes from the editors of news organizations defending the publication of
leaks. These endorsements were published by the Guardian newspaper in October 2013 after the
Daily Mail accused the paper of helping ‘Britain’s enemies’. You can find a link to the endorsements
on the Media and Society website

The story, we believe, is an important one. It shows that the expectations of millions of Internet
users regarding the privacy of their electronic communications are mistaken. These expectations
guide the practices of private individuals and businesses, most of them innocent of any
wrongdoing. The potential for abuse of such extraordinary capabilities for surveillance, including
for political purposes, is considerable. The government insists it has put in place checks and
balances to limit misuses of this technology. But the question of whether they are effective is far
from resolved and is an issue that can only be debated by the people and their elected
representatives if the basic facts are revealed. There are those who, in good faith, believe that we
should leave the balance between civil liberty and security entirely to our elected leaders, and
to those they place in positions of executive responsibility. Again, we do not agree. The American
system, as we understand it, is premised on the idea – championed by such men as Thomas
Jefferson and James Madison – that government run amok poses the greatest potential threat to
the people’s liberty, and that an informed citizenry is the necessary check on this threat. The sort
of work ProPublica does – watchdog journalism – is a key element in helping the public play this
role. (ProPublica)

In a democracy, the press plays a vital role in informing the public and holding those in power
accountable. The NSA has vast intelligence-gathering powers and capabilities and its role in
society is an important subject for responsible newsgathering organizations such as the New York
Times and the Guardian. A public debate about the proper perimeters for eavesdropping by
intelligence agencies is healthy for the public and necessary. The accurate and in-depth news
articles published by the New York Times and the Guardian help inform the public in framing its
thinking about these issues and deciding how to balance the need to protect against terrorism and
to protect individual privacy. Vigorous news coverage and spirited public debate are both in the
public interest. The journalists at the New York Times and the Guardian care deeply about the
wellbeing and safety of their fellow citizens in carrying out their role in keeping the public
informed. (Jill Abramson, New York Times)

The utmost duty of a journalist is to expose abuses and the abuse of power. The global
surveillance of digital communication by the NSA and GCHQ is no less than an abuse on a
massive scale with consequences that at this point seem completely unpredictable. (Wolfgang
Beuchner, Der Spiegel)

Journalists have only one responsibility: to keep their readers informed and educated about
whatever their government is doing on their behalf – and first and foremost on security and
intelligence organizations, which by their nature infringe on civil liberties. The Snowden
revelations, and their publication by the Guardian, have been a prime example of fearlessly
exercising this journalistic responsibility. (Aluf Benn, Haaretz)

The Guardian’s work in the Snowden case is an example of great journalism, the kind that

changes history and the kind that citizens need more every day, in a world where the powerful
are increasingly trying to hide information from their societies. The real danger is not in the so-
called ‘aid to the enemy’ denounced by the hypocrites, but in the actions of governments and
state agencies that citizens cannot control. To fight it we need newspapers willing to do their job,
rather than those ready to cheer on the self-interested deceptions of the powerful. (Javier
Moreno, El Pais)

Consider how journalists and their news organizations explain and justify their relationships with
leakers and leaking organizations.

What arguments do they employ?
How do other powerful actors (like governments) attempt to constrain relationships between
journalists and leakers?
How do journalists’ engagements with leakers reinforce and challenge their professional ethics,
codes and values?

You can find links to a variety of articles and statements from news organizations and journalists about
their decision to publish material from leakers, on the Media and Society website

Witnesses with smartphones
News is informed by the participation of ordinary people using mobile devices to
provide images, first-hand accounts and real-time information to journalists. These
activities have expanded and fragmented the way journalists interact with others to
create news. These new routines co-exist with established practices of sourcing
information, framing events and setting agendas. Journalists mediate between new
sources of information about events coming from ordinary participants and their
established routine interactions with power elites.

While journalists cultivate large networks of professional contacts in government,
business and cultural industries as dependable sources, they also need to be
resourceful at interacting with social media networks where ordinary people
circulate content. This is most evident during events where eyewitnesses with
smartphones capture and circulate footage (Andén-Papadopoulos 2013).

Significantly, journalists play the important role of granting this content authority
and legitimacy by framing it within their news formulas and representations.
Footage of political protests, revolutions and assassinations is made meaningful
when journalists incorporate it into their narrative about those events. The footage
on its own is cultural raw material; the journalist is critical to framing it and giving
it meaning. As eyewitness content has become a specifically authentic type of media
content, PRs and activists have grown adept at using new media technologies to
generate raw footage that can be provided to journalists. Journalists in crisis events
don’t necessarily collect but instead collate material provided by eyewitnesses. The
content they use depends on both their ability to source it from fast-moving and
chaotic social networks like Twitter and YouTube, and the ability of activists to
create and get the content directly to journalists. As social networks become a
source of content it can have problematic consequences. Journalists, used to trusting
their sources, find fact-checking increasingly difficult. For example, in the days
following the 2013 Boston bombing, people on social networking sites like Reddit
trawled through user-generated videos and images of the event looking for likely
suspects. The online ‘mob’ incorrectly identified individuals who were then falsely
reported as suspects by journalists relying on social networking sites’ interpretation
of eyewitness footage.

As journalists use content generated by the networked public their claims to
legitimacy shifts from objective truth to the authenticity of live, unedited, eyewitness
accounts (Andén-Papadopoulos 2013: 344). The journalist’s claim isn’t to present an
objective account of events but to enable us to bear witness to events as they unfold
as if we are there. The journalist mediates the feeling of being present at the event.

The subjective first-person content produced by eyewitnesses is affective and
partisan. Its authenticity is grounded in the raw, non-narrative and hypermobile
nature of the footage (Andén-Papadopoulos 2013: 347). The footage mobilizes
emotions and feelings as it frames events for the viewer from the perspective of a
live, engaged participant. Rather than offer an objective account of events,
journalists are a conduit or channel to an authentic first-hand perspective. Just as we
have argued that journalistic formulas over-simplify complex realities, we can
argue that the formula emerging around use of eyewitness footage is a similarly
simplified way of representing complex events like political protest, crises and
violence. We see these events in their raw and visceral chaos without necessary
careful explanation. Journalists use the footage as part of attention-grabbing live
coverage, but don’t necessarily verify or contextualize the material because their
claim isn’t to truth but to a direct authentic subjective experience. As journalists
become conduits for content that ordinary people generate by circulating and
thereby legitimizing it, they need to consider how they explain, verify and
contextualize the material.

Professional journalists have always been embedded within power relationships.
The content they produce needs to serve the commercial and political interests of
the institutions that employ them. Journalists are a key node in a constant flow of
data and content through the networks of the information society. As much as
journalism might help us make sense of the deluge of data that goes with living in
the information age, we must also recognize that journalists are central to enabling
the smooth functioning of power relationships in this society. They remain central
gatekeepers, framers and agenda setters.

Further Reading
The readings below examine how journalists give meaning to their work (Deuze
2005, North 2009), how journalistic norms and routines frame representations of
events (Kitzinger 2000, McKnight 2010), and how technologies change the way
conflicts are represented (Alper 2013, Andén-Papadopoulos 2013). Deuze (2005)
examines how the professional ideologies of journalists inform their practice.
North (2009) examines the role that gender plays in the production of news.
Kitzinger (2000) describes the role journalism plays in representing and managing
crisis events. McKnight (2010) examines how News Corporation represents climate
change. Alper (2013) and Andén-Papadopoulos (2013) each examine the role that
mobile media technologies play in representing conflict.

Alper, M. (2013) ‘War on Instagram: framing conflict photojournalism with mobile
photography apps’, New Media & Society, 1–16.

Andén-Papadopoulos, K. (2013) ‘Media witnessing and the “crowd-sourced video
revolution”’, Visual Communication, 12 (3): 341–357.

Deuze, M. (2005) ‘What is journalism? Professional identity and ideology of
journalists reconsidered’, Journalism, 6 (4): 442–464.

Kitzinger, J. (2000) ‘Media templates: patterns of association and the
(re)construction of meaning over time’, Media, Culture & Society, 22 (1): 61–84.

McKnight, D. (2010) ‘A change in the climate? The journalism of opinion at News
Corporation’, Journalism, 11 (6): 693–706.

North, L. (2009) ‘Rejecting the “F-word”: how “feminism” and “feminists” are
understood in the newsroom’, Journalism, 10 (6): 739–757.

Any article marked with is available to download at the website

7 Politics and Communication Strategists
Professional communicators are critical
actors in the management of the political

* What is strategic political communication?
* How has professional communication changed the political process?
* How do contemporary political campaigns engage with popular culture, use
data and manage the participation of ordinary people?

In this chapter we:
Chart the rise of professional political communicators
Define strategic political communication
Examine the relationship between journalism and strategic political communication
Explore the changes that strategic communication has made to the political process
Analyse Barack Obama’s publicity machinery.

The Rise of Communication Strategists as Political
In the 1920s, Walter Lippmann (1965) described the emergence of a new
professional class of publicists and press agents standing between US politicians
and the media (McNair 1999: xi). While Sabato (1981: 11) traces the first consultants
engaging in today’s genre of political communication strategy back to 1930s
Californian politics, communication strategy became central to politics in the USA
during the 1950s (Sabato 1981: 12). Jamieson (1984: 59) argues that the Democrat
candidate Stevenson’s defeat at the hands of Eisenhower in 1952 and Nixon in 1956
occurred because Stevenson, as the last of the old pre-television politicians, could
not adjust to the requirements of televisualized politics. Eisenhower, on the other
hand, was ‘made over ’ by his media consultants, who televisualized his style
(Jamieson 1984: 60). His media consultants had a candidate who understood the
importance of managing images, messages and impressions. During the Second
World War General Eisenhower had learned to use propaganda as an adjunct to
warfare. He successfully mobilized media and public relations to promote himself
as a war hero. The Stevenson and Eisenhower campaigns were the turning point.
After the 1950s, communication strategists specializing in scripting televisual
performances became a key feature of US politics – proliferating numerically,
honing new tools and becoming ever more influential. This phenomenon
subsequently spread beyond the USA.

Strategic political communication involves five sets of players:

politicians who act as media performers
the spin industry who manage impressions
media workers like journalists, presenters, hosts and researchers
media audiences
policy makers who remain deliberately backstage, shielded from as much
scrutiny as possible by the smoke-and-mirrors show.

Political consultants have emerged as public actors in their own right. Professional
communicators are more than just behind-the-scenes advisors. The spin industry
that undergirds the political process of mass democracies is readily visible. Spin
doctors, minders, image specialists, opinion researchers and advertisers are key
actors in the political process. In fact, to be taken seriously, politicians must now
possess communication campaign machines. Consultants have become status
symbols and media stars, performing alongside politicians-as-performers and
celebrity journalists (see Sabato 1981: 19–20). As Boorstin said in the 1970s, ‘Most

true celebrities have press agents. And these press agents sometimes themselves
become celebrities. The hat, the rabbit, and the magician are all equally news’ (1971:

Why did a class of political communication
professionals arise?
Liberal democracy is grounded upon the notion of legitimate governance.
Legitimacy requires the consent of the governed. But as McNair says, ‘consent can
be manufactured’ (McNair 1999: 26). Ultimately, policy makers within liberal
democracies have two (possibly contradictory) needs:

To try to prevent the masses from disrupting and convoluting the policy
process by keeping them at arm’s length from the actual decision-making
To try to make the masses believe they are actually participating in governance
as a way of building consent.

Part of the solution for generating consent, while simultaneously keeping the
masses disengaged from the real process of governance, is to pursue ‘calculated
strategies of distraction’ (Jamieson 1992: 205). This is where the spin industry
comes in.

A second reason for the rise of political consultants was the arrival of television.
The pioneer political consultants in 1950s America were technical advisors about
television (Jamieson 1984: 35). The media advisors and highly influential campaign
strategists of today evolved from these not-very- powerful technical advisory
positions (1984: 36). Television made the difficult process of mobilizing and
steering citizenries much easier, because television delivers low-involvement
viewers to political players who understand how to use television’s manipulative
powers (see Jamieson 1992: 52–53). Effectively television can splice together,
speedily and seamlessly, images and ideas that are in reality unrelated. Furthermore,
television creates such linkages in ways defying scrutiny and logic. These can have
enormous political impacts because of the emotions generated by montage
(Jamieson 1992: 54–56). It is not surprising that televisual politics first emerged in
the USA given its very visual culture. Political communication strategists use filmic
optical illusions to arouse, assemble and magnify viewer emotions (Ewen 1996).
This ‘optic-power ’ has become a central tool for steering public opinion. As
televisual politics spread from the USA to other liberal democracies, so spin
industry techniques followed.

Undermining the establishment media
A further impetus for the rise of US political consultants was the capacity of the
‘eastern establishment’ media in New York and Washington to influence political
agendas (Maltese 1994: 42). If these journalists disliked a particular politician they
could negatively impact upon his or her political career through their agenda setting
role. Journalists do not have power, but in certain locations they have influence
derivative of being authoritative. They can authorize certain versions of reality. This
gives journalists opportunities to:

disrupt the agendas policy makers wish to pursue by raising issues that
undermine policy planning
intimidate policy makers
trivialize some issues and hype or exaggerate others
direct attention one way or another.

To control the policy agenda, politicians need to limit journalists’ capacities to
disrupt, intimidate, trivialize and direct attention. Politicians employ communication
professionals who deploy their knowledge of media practices to side-step the
establishment media and facilitate unmediated communication with voters.

Richard Nixon regarded ‘eastern establishment’ journalists as hostile. Not
surprisingly, President Nixon was a central facilitator of the revolution that saw
campaign strategists emerge as powerful players within US politics. He stood for
President three times – losing to Kennedy in 1960, but beating Humphrey in 1968
and McGovern in 1972. His loss in 1960 because of a poor television profile taught
Nixon to take the media seriously. Consequently Nixon’s Republican administration
sought ways to use strategic communication to both tame the media and develop
mechanisms to communicate directly with voters over the heads of ‘hostile’
journalists in the elite Washington and New York presses. Nixon’s presidency
(1969–1974) was important for the evolution of spin doctors, who ultimately
became political players in their own right due to their skill at using media,
especially visual media, to build consent and steer public opinion. By the 1990s
there was a large US spin industry, skilled in using the media as partners or side-
stepping hostile journalists and communicating directly with voters when necessary.
Serious political players need media teams. Bill Clinton’s Democrat media team
adopted and masterfully deployed a range of media and popular cultural forms to
successfully reach ‘ordinary people’ (Newman 1994: 5–7). These US techniques
were introduced to Britain by Tony Blair ’s Labour media team. Australia’s adoption
of these techniques has been fed by influences from both the US and UK versions. It
has become commonplace for British, American and Australian spin doctors to

migrate back and forth between campaign and political teams (Louw 2010b: 80).

Effectively, Nixon’s belief that the media were hostile led to a range of media
management and ‘spinning’ techniques that eventually became commonplace
political practice in many Anglo-countries, although the US remains the pace-setter
for developing new techniques. What has emerged is a political process investing
considerable energy into producing stage-managed and largely televisual ‘faces’.
These stage-managed faces are ultimately the outcome of an often symbiotic
relationship between two sets of communication professionals: those working for
the media (journalists) and those working for the political machines (spin doctors
and communication strategists). Politicians are the third party to the ‘face
manufacturing’ process. There is a constant struggle for dominance within the
relationship between journalists, politicians and spin doctors. Depending on the
contextual conditions, spin doctors sometimes have the upper hand. On other
occasions journalists are dominant, while at other times, politicians assume control.
Sometimes power is shared. Who dominates at any moment depends upon the
following variables:

The resources available to the players: generally, the player with the most
resources has an advantage over the others.
How skilled the spin doctors are at dealing with the media: the more skilled, the
more they are able to dominate relationships.
The level of political agitation among the mass public: an agitated and unhappy
public generates challenges for politicians and spin machines, which often
increases the bargaining position of journalists.
How skilled spin doctors are at steering mass public opinion: the more
successful they are, the more power they accumulate.
The nature and intensity of the struggles between politicians: the more intense
the struggle, the more politicians need their spin doctors and journalists. This
diminishes the bargaining position of politicians.

In general terms, although journalists have not been rendered completely powerless,
the capacity of journalists to frame and interpret the news has been declining
(Graber 2001: 440) for several reasons:

New media forms have provided alternative sources of information.
The political communication strategy and spin industry has been growing at the
expense of journalists as news production is increasingly outsourced. For
instance, the US Department of Labor said there were 320,000 strategic
communication professionals and 59,000 journalists in America in 2010. A
decade earlier it was 150,000 strategic communicators and 130,000 journalists.

Spin doctors have grown increasingly skilled at using both old and new media
forms to bypass ‘problem’ journalists.

What is Strategic Political Communication?
The strategic communication and spin industry aims to plant stories in the media by
using journalists to disseminate stories serving the spin doctors’ agenda. Both
strategic political communicators and journalists attempt to play an agenda setting
function. Good journalists resist being used, and do their best to turn the tables on
spin doctors by using political communication machines as resources that can serve
the journalists’ agendas. For example, journalists can use the fact that all serious
politicians now have strategic communication machines that are in competition with
each other. Good journalists can potentially use this competition to play the various
communication machineries off against each other in their search for stories. This
is one reason why the strategic communication and spin industry is not always
successful: it has a particular problem when ruling elites are deeply divided over
policy options. Not surprisingly, during periods when elite consensus breaks down,
journalists are more likely to unearth damaging stories. For example, the USA’s
torturing of Iraqi prisoners became a story during the consensus breakdown around
the Iraq war. On issues where there is broad consensus among policy elites,
journalists are unlikely to find exploitable cracks in the spin machine because the
line being spun will be uniform and the consensus difficult to crack. Perhaps more
troubling is the fact that there are some issues where policy elites and journalists
build up a joint consensus. In these instances the symbiotic relationship between
journalists, politicians and communication strategists generates a total closure of
discourse. The process of decolonization that unfolded between the 1950s and 1970s
was a case in point.

Margaret Thatcher ’s Chief Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, described the
relationship between communication strategists and journalists as one of symbiotic
tension: ‘The relationship is essentially cannibalistic. They feed off each other but
no one knows who is next on the menu’ (Franklin 1994: 14). However, on balance,
the spin industry probably has the edge over journalists because spin doctors and
communication strategists are well paid and so their industry attracts very talented
people who know exactly how to steer journalists. Many are skilled ex-journalists
lured by higher salaries. Ultimately, whoever dominates the journalist–
communication strategist relationship, one thing is clear: spin doctors and
communication strategists are now an integral part of the political processes of
liberal democracies.

Spin tactics
A core feature of spinning is understanding how the media works, and exploiting
one’s knowledge of journalistic practices and discourses to provide newsrooms
with what they need. Tactics of good communication strategists include:

Supplying journalists with the sorts of stories and images they need to please
their bosses.
Doing background research for time-pressed journalists to supply the
information needed to produce stories. This allows journalists to believe they
have control and ownership over their stories.
Leaking stories to journalists who are not experienced enough to know they
are being used.
Leaking stories to experienced journalists with whom one needs to develop and
maintain a symbiotic relationship – for instance, by providing them with an
exclusive story. This can create a debt that communication strategists can use to
negotiate future favours. Developing such relationships requires great care,
tact and mutual trust in order that journalists do not get the impression they are
being used or ‘spun a line’. Journalists must be handled in a way that allows
them to maintain their professional ideology.
Scripting speeches to provide sound bites and leads, making the journalistic
task easier.
Arranging photo opportunities guaranteeing good, cost-effective images. This
often involves arranging staged pseudo-events geared to the needs of time-
pressed newsrooms. Pseudo-events are often used as bait to catch journalists.
They are designed to attract media attention. Once attracted, other information
can be supplied.
Arranging news conferences to make the collection of quotes as easy as
possible. Well-arranged news conferences supply good sound bites, good
visuals and a good information package of background research for
journalists. This makes it as easy as possible for journalists to construct the
news with what is supplied. In some instances, news conferences become
pseudo-events. News conferences can also be constructed to make it difficult
for journalists to ask questions.
Running smear campaigns against opponents. This involves running an
effective research department that gathers information about the opposition.
This information is leaked to journalists to undermine opponents. The
Republicans used information about Clinton’s sexual exploits in this way.
Although smear campaigns are more commonly deployed against those in
opposition political parties, they are also used inside political parties during

struggles to select or undermine rivals. This works the other way too.
Communication strategists prepare contingency plans to deal with problems
they anticipate with their team or candidate. This allows for a rapid response to
crises. Communication strategists can immediately spin a new line to
journalists to minimize damage, create ‘plausible deniability’, or if possible to
deflect attention elsewhere.
Staged or planted questions when politicians meet the public in shopping malls
or during question time in televised parliamentary sessions.

Managing journalists
Communication strategists must ensure that journalists feel like they retain their
independence. Tactics that communication strategists use to craft legitimacy for
their ideas include:

Organizing teams to write letters to the press. Even if not published, the
impression can be created within newsrooms of a groundswell of public
opinion. Nixon called this ‘the silent majority’ that the elite media ignore.
Organizing teams who monitor and phone radio talkback programmes.
Lobbying key columnists and editorial writers.
Providing journalists with discreet off-the-record backgrounders. This can
involve politicians rather than their staffers having personal meetings with
‘negative’ journalists, to try to charm them and given them off-the-record
Communication strategists can influence journalists’ career-paths by providing
stories to those deemed friendly while squeezing out the hostile. If journalists
assigned to cover stories about politics are frozen out and denied access they
will face career problems.
Providing ostensibly objective information or evidence for journalists to

Sometimes, the best strategy is ‘jumping over ’ the heads of journalists deemed
problematic. Both Nixon’s and Clinton’s teams used this approach to communicate
with the public via local and niche media, cable TV, direct mail and advertisements,
as a substitute for dealing with a negative White House media corps.
Communication strategists call this ‘going public’, ‘disintermediation’ or ‘end-
running’ journalists (Maltese 1994: 216). This tactic must be used with great care to
avoid overly alienating the elite media.

Political communication strategists do more than engage with journalists. They are
also in the business of creating celebrities. This involves being able to spot and
recruit latent talent: those who are telegenic, can speak in sound bites, sound sincere,
and have the discipline and theatrical abilities to follow a script. It also involves
training politicians to be televisual performers, to use autoprompts and to give only
appropriate answers to journalists. Communication strategists teach them to dress
appropriately and possibly improve their appearance through dentistry, contact
lenses, hair styling or implants, diet and exercise. Some politicians need to be
accompanied by handlers and minders to help them manage their micro-
relationships with the media.

Contemporary political communication strategists also use marketing, branding and
advertising techniques because politicians have become products to be sold to
audiences (see Newman 1994). This involves scripting celebrity performances to
position the politician as a brand matching a particular voter profile. ‘Candidate
positioning’ often involves mobilizing the icons and symbols of popular culture and
linking politicians to these to make them more credible and appealing.
Communication strategists obviously prefer to gain free access to mass or niche
audiences by getting journalists to use media releases, cover their pseudo-events
and pick up their scripted sound bites. But communication strategists cannot afford
to rely exclusively upon free media coverage. Sometimes they must pay to ensure
access is gained to the audiences they want to reach. Political communication
strategists also engage in the business of paid marketing and advertising, and this
involves them in audience and public opinion research. This dimension of selling
politicians has seen the growth of a strategic political communication industry that
is increasingly expensive to run.

Finally, political communication strategists are also involved in internal
communication within political parties. Such internal communication can take many
forms, including internal lobbying, rumours, direct mail or scripting party
congresses. Further, stories placed in the media (such as leaks) are sometimes
actually designed to influence people inside one’s own political party.

Changes to the Political Process
How has strategic communication changed the political process of liberal
democracies? To some extent, each country has been impacted differently because
of the different political cultures in each, and because strategic communication
became central to politics at different stages in each country. The changes wrought
by strategic communication on the political process are most pronounced in the US.
Many of the developments in the US soon flow onto other liberal democracies. For
this reason, we will focus on developments in the US in mapping how strategic
communication has changed the political process.

Strategic communication changes political parties
Strategic communication has changed political parties, as power shifted away from
party bosses and hacks towards consultants and spin doctors (Newman 1994: 15).
Party machines once fulfilled the role of delivering voters. Party bosses cajoled the
grassroots party faithful to ensure voters turned up on election day. Party bosses
acquired power by being able to deliver and organize functioning election
machines. Strategic communication professionalized the whole process, reducing
the importance of party hacks. The new power brokers are no longer faithful party
members. Rather, brokers now need to possess media and research skills in order to
analyse and steer public opinion. People with these skills expect to be paid as
professionals. These professionals are also increasingly involved in selecting
political leaders, based not on party faithfulness, but upon how well they can
perform in televisual formats.

Strategic communication changes political leaders
Political leaders now require different attributes to be selected as candidates. They
need to be credible and convincing performers in image-based media, be visually
appealing and be able to speak in sound bites. They must also be able to follow
scripts designed by spin doctors. Leaders possessing these skills can, with the help
of spin doctors, jump over the heads of party hierarchies to appeal directly to
voters. Hence, aspiring leaders with televisual charisma, backed by good spin
doctors, can force the hand of party-nominating processes. This has also altered
party power relationships in favour of those who best understand the mechanics of
strategic communication, television and the internet.

Strategic communication makes politics more resource
Strategic communication has made politics a very expensive business because of the
cost of the spin industry and opinion pollsters, and associated media production like
direct mail, TV spots, web content and databases. This has placed an enormous
burden on political parties to raise money. The result, in the USA, is a
professionalized fundraising industry of PACs (see Sabato 1989: 145–151), Super
PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations. PACs are political action committees that raise
funds for campaigns. Super PACS raise funds but rather than give them directly to
campaigns, spend them on promoting a political cause or viewpoint. Super PACs
have unlimited funding. 501(c)(4) groups are non-profit organizations that promote
social welfare; these organizational structures can also be used to fund political
communication. The cost of running this fundraising industry is also high. There
has been considerable concern in the USA that the resultant drive for funds has
distorted the political process by forcing politicians to sell themselves to large
campaign donors. Attempts to regulate PACs have not altered these underlying
financial pressures – pressures evident in all liberal democracies that have been
remodelled on strategic communication logic.

Strategic communication makes popular culture
central to political communication
Strategic communicators have learned to systematically mobilize popular culture to
reach voters (see Street 1997). This has generated a new genre of scripted politics,
requiring politicians to step outside the normal genre of political performance and
adopt a new range of popular and populist faces. For instance, Bill Clinton playing
saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show (Newman 1994: 135), Barack Obama
appearing on The Daily Show, and politicians appearing on morning breakfast
television and radio, game shows and variety formats.

Strategic communication amplifies the affective and
emotional dimension of political communication
Television reaches mass publics and stirs emotions by presenting audiences with
simplified and idealized presentations. As such, it is well suited to deflecting voter
attention away from policy problems by:

mobilizing support for a person or position
demonizing people
creating pariah groups
building selective outrage, indignation and hostility.

Television provides the perfect vehicle for politics-as-hype. Hence, it has become a
valued spin industry tool. This has driven political spinning into an ever more
visual art. Televisual performances have become the preferred tool for reaching
and steering voters. With the growth of the internet, those driving this visualized
hype-politics have also learned to use platforms like YouTube and Facebook. Those
unable or unwilling to play the game of visual politics will find it difficult to
achieve political success in today’s democracies.

Strategic communication undermines deliberative
modes of political communication
The combination of strategic communication and televisual politics has undermined
local political meetings where voters were addressed face-to-face. The arts of
oratory, making policy speeches, and question and answer formats of discussion
and debate do not mesh easily with the techniques of spinning sound bites and slick
images designed for passive mass audiences. Politicians skilled in working a
meeting are no longer required and have been replaced by politicians skilled in
working mass television audiences. Television has pushed politicians away from
engaging in debate, discussion and selling policies, and towards reciting and
performing lines scripted by others (Selnow 1994: 142). This televisual politics has
also migrated to the internet.

Strategic communication undermines the power of the
press within the political process
The power of the press within the political process has declined. Strategic political
communication now reaches voters either via television and the internet or by
deploying marketing techniques using individualized media like direct mail. The
latter is becoming especially important and, as Selnow (1994: 147) notes, falls
beneath journalists’ radar. Print journalists, who used to be extremely influential
within the political process, are increasingly bypassed. Essentially, the press can no
longer monitor the multitude of political messages generated because of the
complexity of the spin industry’s communication activities.

Strategic communication turns politics into a
permanent campaign
Strategic communication produces a ‘politics of avoidance’ (Selnow 1994: 178)
because the news process is governed by ongoing opinion polls. Strategic political
communication involves running a permanent campaign (Selnow 1994: 177).
Building legitimacy requires not just manufacturing consent, but maintaining
popularity too. This translates into trying to avoid any issue that might destabilize
consent. The spin industry not only constantly tests and monitors public opinion
shifts, but also runs focus groups to test the acceptability of issues before publicly
discussing them. Issues that look too contentious, or which focus groups reveal may
cause problems with important sections of the electorate, are avoided. The result is
that politics becomes a bland repetition of comfortable, non-controversial, middle-
of-the-road ideas. Real debate is stymied in favour of fluff and distraction. This
produces political machines effectively geared towards avoiding the emergence of
real controversy. Pseudo-controversy, manufactured by sensationalized images and
messages or hyped-up pseudo-adversarial journalism, is acceptable. The result is
politics as a poll-driven spectacle geared towards permanently entertaining and
distracting the masses within an environment where television and internet imagery
is ubiquitous.

Dark Money
Dark money is a term that describes money that flows from powerful interests into the political
process but is not open to public scrutiny. This money is often not direct donations to political parties,
but rather funnelled through secretive foundations and organizations that invest it in advocating for
particular causes.

A core feature of mass democracies is elections within which spin doctors compete for millions of
votes. For politicians their careers are at stake, and for political parties the outcome of these
competitions determine whether or not they will have power. Not surprisingly, given what is at stake,
persuasive communication campaigns (run by spin doctors) have become a core feature of the political
process. And because these communication campaigns have become enormously expensive, raising
huge sums of money becomes central to political success. This has created a fear that large donors
(who pay for these communication campaigns) could acquire undue influence over their political
benefactors. In places like the USA this has led to legislation geared to regulating the funding of
political campaigns. But the emergence of the phenomenon of dark money has only served to
demonstrate the naïvety of believing that regulation can either reign in funders or bring about funding
transparency. Essentially the 2010 US Supreme Court’s ruling on a lobby group, Citizens United,
created an opportunity that spin doctors were quick to exploit. This ruling has led to the growth of a
whole new industry of non-profit and limited-liability companies who operate independently of
political candidates and political parties, but who pay for communication campaigns that help them win
voters. Although this expenditure is supposed to be disclosed, the dark money industry has creatively
found ways to only disclose support long after the elections are over. The result is that huge amounts
of money are made available to run focus groups, develop advertising, run public education
campaigns or reach out to voters. American conservatives have been especially creative in building a
network of groups such as Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, Center to Protect Patient Rights,
Americans for Responsible Leadership, Freedom Path, II and A Better America
Now. The result is that hundreds of millions of dollars have been made available (effectively
anonymously) for the purchase of election advertisements that praise some candidates and some
issues, while criticizing others. This has impacted on political outcomes at the national, state and local

What the dark money phenomenon shows is that well-designed communication campaigns do sway
election outcomes. Political parties and politicians understand this and so they invest considerable
energy into finding ways to fund political communication campaigns.

What are the consequences of dark money for the democratic process?
Identify some organizations that attempt to influence the political process. How are they
funded? What communication techniques do they use?

For links to resources on dark money see the Media and Society website

Barack Obama’s Publicity Machine
The Obama 2008 and 2012 Presidential election campaigns demonstrated how
sophisticated American strategic political communication has become (Sabato
2013). Obama’s team used a mix of communication forms to target their various
audiences. These included:

visual media: television, web content, posters, photographs
mass rallies
celebrity endorsements
interactive websites
viral web content
peer-to-peer web content
direct mail and email
on-the-ground canvassing of voters (organized using sophisticated databases)
traditional news management.

This range of communication forms was used to target multiple audiences with
differently nuanced messages at key moments in the campaign. Obama’s senior
strategist, David Axelrod, constructed a large team comprising a diversified array
of communication specialists who made Obama’s popularity appear to be the result
of natural grassroots support, when in fact Obama’s legitimacy was the product of a
magnificently planned and orchestrated communication operation. Axelrod’s spin
was extremely professional. Axelrod built his career specializing in getting black
mayoral candidates elected. He became expert in getting his candidates elected by
simultaneously mobilizing white voters to vote for a black candidate, plus getting
black voters who were often apathetic and demobilized to register and turn out on
election day. Axelrod is skilled in researching and targeting his audiences, and in
using a range of mass to niche media to reach the audiences he is after with specific
messages. Axelrod himself appears somewhat conflicted about the profession he left
journalism to enter:

I believe there is nobility in politics. I believe there is great good that can be
done. I know my business and the technology of politics and polling and focus
groups, all of what we do, in some way contributes to an atmosphere of
cynicism. I try to fight that. I can’t say I’m totally blameless. I think everyone in
this business has a hand on that bloody dagger. (Montgomery 2007)

A campaign begins by crafting an overall political brand and identity for a candidate

that is recognizable, coherent and likeable. Voters need to be able to recognize a
future leader, understand what they stand for and feel good about them. Obama’s
team did this using carefully chosen and compelling visuals; slogans like ‘hope’,
‘change’ and ‘forward’; mass public rallies that generated excitement and
positioned him as a legitimate leader; celebrity endorsements; and well-written,
emotive speeches.

Visual communication
Visual content is highly valuable because it is more likely to generate affective
resonance with an audience, and is therefore more likely to be engaged with,
circulated and shared. Obama’s July 2008 Berlin rally was a magnificent piece of
televisual show business used by Obama’s spin team to address an American
audience all the way from Berlin. Even though Obama’s team did not manage to get
the Brandenburg gate as a backdrop as was originally scripted, they still managed to
construct visuals that reminded audiences of Kennedy’s Berlin Wall speech. By
mobilizing a cheering crowd of two hundred thousand Berliners, Obama’s team
successfully built a sense of liberalism’s victory over communism and of a benign
Pax Americana that Americans could be proud of. Specifically, Obama was
constructed as someone fit to lead this Pax Americana into a glorious new post-
Bush future of globalized liberalism, where the world would be filled with happy
cheering crowds instead of Bush’s wars. It was a highly skilled piece of spin

Obama’s team continuously created images that presented Obama, his family and
his supporters as typical middle Americans who were the proud product of
multiculturalism. To announce the 2012 victory his team posted to Twitter an image
of Barack and Michelle Obama embracing. The beautifully shot and carefully
crafted image is the most shared item of content in the history of Twitter. Obama’s
official photographer Pete Souza is widely credited with crafting the visual image
of Obama. Obama is the first President to recognize that the official photographer
not only plays an important historical archiving role, but also is central to
constructing a credible and appealing visual narrative about the President. The
images that the Obama team circulate via social media are a combination of serious
‘Commander in Chief’ images and warm and playful behindthescenes moments
where the public get to see the ‘real’ Obama. This stream of images crafts Obama’s
personality, building up a strong resonance with the public that makes it easier for
the campaign to attract the attention of voters and get them to listen. In Figure 7.1
Obama ‘fist bumps’ with a janitor. The image visually depicts how Obama’s respect
for working-class and multicultural America is naturally embedded in his everyday
life. The image makes Obama’s values appear natural and unscripted.

Figure 7.1 Obama ‘fistbumps’ a janitor


In addition to creating a visual narrative about Obama, his team also position him
within niche communities. Often, the campaign would use celebrities or public
figures strongly identified with those communities as a conduit. Jennifer Lopez was
used to appeal to Latin American voters, Ricky Martin to progressive, gay and Latin
American voters, and Bruce Springsteen to appeal to the white working class and
the progressive professional class alike. The celebrities created an affective link
between Obama and these niche identity groups. They could also use their sense of
humour, life stories and identities to create and convey other facets to Obama’s
personality that he himself could not coherently deploy within a tightly managed
campaign. For instance, Obama could not make the jokes Will Ferrell could or
express the sentiments that Springsteen could without alienating other groups. But
using these celebrities he could craft a link to specific niche identities without losing
the overall coherence of his political brand.

Axelrod left nothing to chance in his news management planning. Before the 2008
election a study was conducted of Obama’s vulnerabilities. Having identified these,
Axelrod prepared anti-Obama advertisements and screened these to focus groups.
From their responses Obama’s spin team designed response advertisements and had
these prepared in advance. One such advertisement was an answer to the charge that
Obama had long-standing links to radicals like Bill Ayers. When McCain’s
campaign did in fact attack Obama in this way, Axelrod had a counter-advertisement
pre-prepared and ready to roll. Overall Obama’s spin team proved to be highly
competent news agenda managers who successfully kept the news messages under

control and remained in tight control of the media images required to construct the
Obama celebrity persona that Axelrod’s team had scripted.

Political campaigns need to sell and advertise a political brand. The campaign
managers get powerful journalists, media organizations and public figures to adopt
their key messages so that the candidate is represented favourably and coherently in
the mass media. They make and distribute advertisements and web content that also
convey the candidate and the political brand on a mass scale. At this point, if the
campaign is going well, they have a candidate who is recognized, coherent and

Images of Obama
Collect and examine iconic images of Barack Obama such as Obama watching the assassination of Bin
Laden, Obama and Spiderman, Obama and the janitor fist bump, Obama’s ‘Four more years’ Twitter
announcements, and the Obama ‘Not bad’ meme. You can find links to these images on the Media
and Society website

You might also search for images the official White House photographer Pete Souza has taken of
Obama and his presidency. Souza is widely credited with crafting the visual image of Obama. You can
find a link to a feature on Souza on the Media and Society website

How do these images construct Obama’s identity?

What do the images say about his values and personality?

How do the images make him appear credible, legitimate and powerful?

Managing data, audiences and participation
Having crafted a compelling political brand, the next step is to mobilize voters by
convincing them that the candidate understands their lives, communities and the
issues that matter to them. To do this they need to connect the candidate to many
different issues to target many different groups of people. This is where a highly
sophisticated ‘ground game’ and differentiated media strategy comes into play. The
candidate’s overall brand provides a framework or umbrella under which many
different communication tactics are used. Campaigns need to be able to find ways to
speak directly with individuals about specific issues that matter to them and
convince them to get out and vote, while at the same time avoiding accidentally
triggering issues that will prompt other voters to get out and vote against them. The
ground game is a term that strategic political communicators use for the door-to-
door and peer-to-peer aspects of campaign communication. Traditionally, the
ground game is played door-to-door in local neighbourhoods. Candidates and their
local volunteers walk the streets speaking with locals, attend local meetings and
public events, and have ongoing conversations. Obama’s team used data to both
organize the ‘real world’ ground game and create a new ‘online’ ground game.

Online ground game
Obama’s team greatly refined their publicity machinery between the 2008 and 2012
Presidential campaigns. Perhaps the most notable development was the investment in
database technologies, recruitment of data and social media experts, and use of a
sophisticated networked ground game. While mass rallies and publicity were central
to the Obama brand, where the campaign pushed into a new frontier of campaigning
was the use of data to identify, target and mobilize individuals and issues within
social networks. The Obama campaign had begun collecting data during the 2008
campaign. In addition to collecting the personal details of supporters who attended
rallies, they also built a database of contributors who had donated to the campaign,
and volunteers who had signed up to the MyBO site.

MyBO allowed supporters to post their own online profiles so that they could meet
other volunteers online. This allowed people to effectively create their own support
groups and to plan events like picnics, neighbourhood clean-ups or running phone
banks. MyBO also allowed people to download campaign materials and badges to
help them organize their own fundraising events or to go out and canvass voters. In
this way MyBO bridged the central and local parts of the campaign – enabling local
groups to form and campaign in local areas, but making sure they were distributing
content and messages from the central campaign. The campaign organized Camp
Obama training workshops where MyBO volunteers learned leadership and
campaigning skills. The people trained at these workshops became skilled on-the-
ground activists who understood how to roll out the campaign in their local
neighbourhoods. All this volunteer activity was used to help promote the carefully
crafted image of Obama as a ‘man of the people’ who was not part of a slick
Washington-led machine. But, of course, Obama’s ‘man of the people’ campaign
was being run by a well-organized professional team who were precisely
marshalling the volunteers into a valuable team of voter recruiters.

Obama’s team used data to enhance their grassroots effort by identifying which
doors to knock on and the specific issues to speak about with the people who
answered the door. This data was gleaned from a myriad of databases from market
research companies, public and government records, and information accumulated
from previous campaigns. The campaign wanted to ensure they knocked on doors
likely to vote Democrat, and avoided doors that would be staunchly Republican.
Their aim was to mobilize as many likely Democrat voters as possible, while
keeping potential Republican voters dormant. They also knew that to mobilize
voters they needed to hit the specific issues those voters cared about and even send
volunteers that potential voters would identify with. For example, middle-aged

women voters would be canvassed by women volunteers who they would identify
with. And the volunteers would address issues that the databases had identified
voters in that demographic, or even that specific individual, cared about. Sometimes
they would talk about healthcare, other times environmental issues, other times tax

This door knocking also fed data back into the campaign machinery. After visiting a
house volunteers would use a mobile app to record whether the database analysts’
algorithms were correct. For example, if the database had predicted that the targeted
voter was a married mother of four who was interested in healthcare the volunteers
confirmed whether this was the case. This enabled the data experts to incrementally
improve their algorithms and predictions. Furthermore, the data would then shape
future communication from the campaign. If a volunteer was told by a voter that
they cared about environmental issues, this information was fed back into the
database and the campaign would ensure that the next Facebook post or item of
direct mail from the campaign would target that specific issue or at a more general
level the campaign could learn in real time which issues were important to key
demographics, regions or neighbourhoods.

The online ground game was a virtual extension of these practices. Campaign
volunteers could connect their social networks to the Obama campaign, enabling
their data experts to identify likely voters within their Facebook networks. The
campaign would then advise volunteers to target specific friends with highly
engaging content about specific issues that mattered to them. A volunteer might
receive an email from the campaign encouraging them to post a video from Obama
about environmental issues on a specific friend’s Facebook page, while forwarding
an email about healthcare to another person in their social network.

Using data
This sophisticated use of data meant that the Obama team was working
simultaneously at both mass and niche levels. While at the mass level they created a
compelling and resonant brand for Obama, at the niche level, volunteers were
delivering highly targeted content within their local neighbourhoods and online
social networks about a range of issues. For instance, at the same time they were
running highly targeted messaging through email, direct mail and social
networking sites, they also bought 30 minutes of national network television prime
time at the end of the 2008 campaign. No campaign had done this in modern
professionalized campaigns because of the huge cost. The prime time media spot
was 30 minutes of expertly crafted narrative about Obama’s identity, life history and
values. This narrative offered a highly resonant background or framework within
which niche messages could be organized.

To achieve this highly sophisticated use of data the campaign team worked between
2008 and 2012 to link together all the databases of information they could acquire,
and figure out ways to constantly mine those databases for preferences and patterns.
Databases were used to integrate communications across all platforms in the
campaign – mass media, email, social, face to face, neighbourhoods and outdoor.

Data drives content
Obama’s team used data to inform the decisions they made about the creation and
circulation of content in three ways:

Synchronized: the campaign could ensure that the messages specific individuals
or niche audiences received were synchronized so that over the course of the
campaign they heard a coherent and continuous narrative. The campaign could
track and control which audiences and individuals received specific messages
and at what times of the campaign.
Customized: the campaign customized the messages it sent to individuals and
audiences. This meant customizing not only the content but also the delivery,
not only what was said but who said it. For instance, the campaign could
analyse an online social network and determine which friend an individual
would find most credible on a specific issue. As much as possible, they would
ensure individuals received messages about issues that mattered to them from
friends that they trusted. Or, after knocking on a door and speaking with a
potential voter the campaign ensured that the next piece of content the voter
received was about the issues they had identified as important to them.
Real time and responsive: the campaign constantly analysed data to drive real-
time shifts in the management of messages and circulation of content. For
example, during Presidential debates data experts would undertake live analysis
of online social networking sites to determine how specific demographics
were reacting to parts of the debate, and then respond immediately. Data experts
noticed during one of the debates that younger voters had reacted to Romney’s
‘binders full of women’ line. While the campaign strategists didn’t recognize
the significance of this line at first, the data experts saw the immediate reaction
among key demographics. The campaign responded quickly by producing
customized content that picked up on the reaction, using the line to frame
Romney as out of touch with the concerns about gender widely held by specific
demographics. Much of the mediation of the Romney gaffe was via internet
memes – visual images that appropriate ‘in jokes’ from popular culture. The
campaign understood that the best way to generate resonance around this issue
was via the jokes young and hip audiences shared online; this would create the
impression Romney was out of touch and didn’t ‘get it’.

Decision making becomes pragmatic, incremental and
Political mythology holds that campaigns are run by highly skilled and experienced
political gurus who have the ability to craft compelling narratives and make ‘gut
feel’ decisions about how to frame issues and respond to events. This mythology
sits alongside the growth over the past generation of a variety of techniques
borrowed from social and behavioural sciences and market research, which attempt
to deduce how voters feel about specific issues, images, words or narratives. Focus
groups and polling have become central to the decision-making processes of
professional campaigns as they test ideas out on voters.

The assembly of massive databases by Obama’s campaign illustrates a further
evolution in the nature of decision making within political campaigns. Obama’s
strategists were constantly tracking and mining their vast troves of data to identify
issues, trends and niche groups to respond to. Combining databases with interactive
customized media they could constantly road-test communication on small test
audiences. This meant that messages, web pages and social media techniques could
be developed iteratively. This was perhaps most clearly demonstrated in their
development of online fundraising appeals. The campaign iteratively developed an
easy-to-use donation widget that was incredibly successful. They were stunningly
successful in raising tens of millions of dollars in small donations. The widget was
gradually developed in hundreds of small steps targeted at different audiences.

They would design a version of the tool – testing out different combinations of
words, images, buttons and donation amounts. They would then make that version
available to some users, while making another version with a slightly different
combination of elements available to another niche audience. They would then see
which combination generated the most donations from what kind of demographics.
Over time, they developed a range of customized donation widgets that they knew
worked effectively for specific targeted individuals. This process was a pragmatic
one based on a continuous testing of communicative tools and appeals, and
monitoring the responses, to determine what works. The campaign’s use of data was
not always targeted in finding out or understanding why specific demographics or
groups thought specific issues were important or particular messages appealed;
rather they were more interested in simply being able to monitor how people act
and then make accurate predictions about how they will act in the future.

While the creation of an overall narrative about a candidate is still significant, this is
complemented by the increasing use of data to iteratively respond to and manage an

array of different niche audiences.

Much of the fundamental actions of Obama’s team were not new. They simply
deployed a mix of communication platforms known to all professional
communicators. However, what Obama’s spin team added to this established
foundation was the innovative use of a combination of customized and responsive
media, databases, online social networks and grassroots participation. They
demonstrated how both the internet and databases are another communication tool
that professional communicators can use to reach and manage massive audiences.
They showed how the internet can be used to simultaneously manage mass
audiences, niche interests and even individuals. Their campaign was perhaps the
first mass customized political campaign.

Figure 7.2 Staffers for Obama 2012 in the group’s downtown Chicago campaign

© Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis

Significantly, much of this enhanced targeting appeared natural. When individuals
received a Facebook post or a knock on the door it wasn’t apparent that the message
was specifically crafted and targeted at them. The people being mobilized do not
feel that they are being organized, steered or used. This shows the tremendous
potential the internet has as a tool to build populism. People who are being steered
in a top-down communication operation can actually be made to feel empowered by

their involvement in this communication process. This was one of the triumphs of
Obama’s publicity machine. Millions of voters were led to believe that Obama was
not using top-down manipulative communication. Obama was constructed as
representing a new kind of politics in which grassroots bottom-up communication
empowered the people. The truth was that Obama was the product of a highly
scripted and managed campaign that expertly harnessed the participation of many
citizens and their social networks.

Data and Campaigning
Watch Obama’s campaign strategists Larry Grisolano and Andrew Bleeker speak at the 2013 Kenneth
Owler Smith Symposium at Annenberg School of Communication. You can find a link to the talk on
the Media and Society website

How did Obama’s team use data to manage the campaign’s communication?
How did the use of data relate to Obama’s other communication strategies?
How is data used to change how political campaigns make and manage identities and

A wide range of professional communicators are central actors in the political
process of networked media-dense societies. These professionals have reshaped the
political process both by developing relationships with established media and
popular cultural production, and by developing their own publicity, data and
participation infrastructure. Strategic political communication is a complex set of
techniques involving managing media, branding, marketing and advertising, online
social networks, grassroots participation and data.

Further Reading
Several of the readings below examine the construction of powerful political
identities using media and popular culture. Campus (2010) illustrates how
Berlusconi and Sarkozy each leverage and manage a mediatized political process.
Part of their success is attributed to their capacity to create attention-grabbing and
affective personalities. Pease and Brewer (2008) use data from an experiment to
determine how news about celebrity endorsements benefit political campaigns. They
examine Oprah’s endorsement of Obama’s campaign. Kellner (2009) examines how
Obama mastered celebrity spectacle. Nielsen and Vaccari (2013) examine the role
social media plays in election campaigns. They find that few politicians generate
much direct engagement with citizens. Kreiss and Howard (2010) examine the
development of a data infrastructure in political campaigns.

Campus, D. (2010) ‘Mediatization and personalization of politics in Italy and
France: the cases of Berlusconi and Sarkozy’, International Journal of
Press/Politics, 15 (2): 219–235.

Kellner, D. (2009) ‘Barack Obama and celebrity spectacle’, International Journal of
Communication, 3: 715–741.

Kreiss, D. and Howard, P. (2010) ‘New challenges to political privacy: lessons from
the first U.S. Presidential race of the Web 2.0 era’, International Journal of
Communication, 4: 1032–1050.

Nielsen, R. and Vaccari, C. (2013) ‘Do people “Like” politicians on Facebook? Not
really. Large-scale direct candidate-to-voter online communication as an outlier
phenomenon’, International Journal of Communication, 7: 2333–2356.

Pease, A. and Brewer, P. R. (2008) ‘The Oprah factor: the effects of a celebrity
endorsement in a presidential primary campaign’, International Journal of
Press/Politics, 13 (4): 386–400.

Any article marked with is available to download at the website

8 Producing and Negotiating Identities Media
representations empower and disempower

* What is identity?
* How do media empower and disempower identities?
* How are media used to make collective identities?
* How do marginalized identities use media to make themselves visible?

In this chapter we examine how media:
Are central to the ongoing process of constructing and negotiating identities
Offer resources and spaces through which groups seek to develop, resist and reconstruct identities
Afford certain identities the symbolic resources to articulate their narratives and ways of life
Produce collective identities that are related to broader political and economic processes.

Empowering and Disempowering Identities
Identities are a means to acquiring and circulating power. The project of
constructing and mediating identity is never fully achieved. The mediation of
identities is connected with the ongoing formation and maintenance of power
relations. Throughout this chapter we develop an account of the struggle between
different groups to construct identity and the consequences that struggle has for
social, cultural and political life.

What is Identity?
Identities are living social relationships that we create via our interrelations with the
symbolic and material world. Identities are contingent on the symbolic resources
they can access. Identity construction is always organized and maintained in relation
to political, economic and cultural circuits of power. Below we set out four key
characteristics of identities:

They are embedded within representations and meanings.
They are social and constructed.
They are relational and differential.
They are never fixed, final or accomplished.

Identity is embedded within representation
Identity is the process of locating ourselves within the social world and its power
relationships. We do this by drawing on the representations and discourses available
to us. Identities are an ongoing process of marking out who we are and who we
might become in relation to how we have been represented and what capacities we
have to represent ourselves (Hall 1996: 4).

Identity is social and constructed
Identities are social positions that we enact. They are a result of us using
representations and making them meaningful within our social lives and worlds.
They are the product of us interacting with others to determine what we are and what
we are not. We learn to draw on representations that enable us to construct identities
that position us in the social world in order to get attention from others and access
to material resources and social relations. Whatever identity we create, others will
be pressing on it with their own claims and resources. Our identities sit at the
intersection between our own individual agency and creativity, and the socially
constructed discourses and subject positions available to us. While we are free as
humans to imagine ourselves in unexpected and original ways, we are also
constrained by the social structures within which we live and the material and
symbolic resources that we have access to.

Identity is relational and differential
Identity is dependent on the process of relating and differentiating ourselves from
others and their ways of life. Our own identities are a product of our coming to
terms with, and never fully reconciling, our difference from others. The
performance of our identity is a creative playing out of our differences with others.
The assertion of identities is often associated with desires for, anger about and
anxiety over other people and their ways of life, experiences and values. Our
identity is dependent to some degree on a lack – a sense of what we are not and can
never be. This is often felt as a kind of aching or longing feeling in our
imagination. What we are imagining often are the affects and feelings we would
experience from the different kinds of attention that would come if we occupied a
different place in social relations. Identities attempt to fix and naturalize meanings
and social relations as part of the play of power relationships. They are interrelated
with the broader social and political processes of creating winners and losers.

Identity is never accomplished
Identity is always in process and under construction. Identity is a key building block
of human society and history. We use struggles over meaning to organize the social
and material world, to decide who gets access to material, social and symbolic
resources. Whichever group establishes themselves and their identities as powerful
and dominant, other groups will attempt to create identities and subject positions that
resist them. People learn when to accommodate their identities to broader social
structures and when to resist them. We remake and reconstitute our identities as part
of the continual effort to mark out, protect, contest and consolidate our position in
social relations.

In the rest of the chapter we unpack these concepts via:

analysis of the role the media play in constructing and reflecting identity
examining how the struggles over identities unfold within media-dense
societies and are connected to broader configurations of power and access to
material and symbolic resources.

Making Collective Identity
During the twentieth century, media – particularly cinema, radio and television –
were used to construct mass national identities (Buck-Morss 2002). Media became
the ‘cultural mechanism for constructing [the] collective life and culture of the
nation’ (Morley and Robbins 1995: 10). Media produced nations as ‘imagined
communities’ (Andersen 1983). National systems of media brought into being
shared lives across vast populations. Millions of people within an enormous
geographical area, who would never meet each other or even see each other, could
imagine themselves as a more or less homogenous collective of people with shared
visions and values. Nation states are one attempt to contain identities within political,
economic and territorial boundaries. Modern media technologies enabled the
leaders of mass societies to address the population directly, immediately and over
large distances (Buck-Morss 2002: 134). Wherever the dominant ideologies of
liberal democracy, socialism and fascism established themselves politically, large
culture industries emerged that fashioned corresponding collective identities. Each
of these societies attempted to construct and represent a ‘mass utopia’ (Buck-Morss
2002). The representations produced by media affirmed the dominant ideas and
ways of life of those systems.

National media systems established a web of meaning in which to make sense of the
material power of the industrial society and its transformation of the natural world.
Media invested industrially produced objects like cars and appliances, and built
environments like cities and skyscrapers, with meaning. The material processes
taking place in the mass society were represented to their populations as expressions
of collective values and ways of life (Buck-Morss 2002: viii). In liberal-democratic,
socialist and fascist societies broader social, political and economic processes were
presented as part of a positive project of creating and shaping the ‘good life’.
Industrial society promised material happiness for ordinary people within a
gleaming and cohesive urban environment.

Cinema and television were critically important in shaping representations of mass
society. When individuals all over a nation tuned into a radio station or went to a
local cinema – whether they were in a socialist, fascist or liberal-democratic society
– they would hear stories about, and see images of, themselves and their way of life
(Buck-Morss 2002: 14). The mass media didn’t so much tell them what to think, as
reflect back at them their own lives – demonstrating to them how they were part of a
broader imagined community, how the life they lived was one shared by and no
different from millions of other people living over an enormous geographic area.
In America Hollywood played an important role in constructing a homogenous

national identity out of an enormous melting-pot of immigrants with a variety of
cultural backgrounds, values and ways of life (Buck-Morss 2002: 148). Cinema
could position a way of life within the common denominator of the American
landscape, and the collective effort to civilize and industrialize it. Films articulated a
common desire – an ‘American Dream’ – that individuals throughout the
geographical area ‘America’ could believe in and use to construct their own life.
Through cinema people could see how they were a part of something bigger.

The symbolic project of creating a collective national identity is interrelated with
the material effort of creating the nation state. For the identities the mass media
produced to make sense and to work within the lives of ordinary people, they had to
have some real world purchase. Ordinary people had to be able to recognize the
reality presented on the screen. They had to both feel the dreams and desires and
believe they were possible. If the cinema of Hollywood presented a middle-class
suburban dream – a new home, a modern kitchen, an automobile – then reality had
to deliver on the promise. For most Americans in the twentieth century they could
see some correspondence between the dream presented by the national culture
industry and the reality or possibilities of their own lives. For people whose reality
didn’t correspond they at least had to be able to believe it might be possible for
them. Where groups of people felt they were denied the ‘good life’ presented as
intrinsic to the national identity, new identities and resistances emerged. We observe
this for instance in the civil rights struggle, where black Americans used political,
economic and cultural methods to resist their exclusion from American life and
identity. Throughout that struggle, and into contemporary times, we see forms of
culture produced by minority identities that point out how they are excluded from
the dominant American Dream and over time their place in it. For instance, the
history of black American music from blues and jazz to hip-hop is one of both
symbolically resisting dominant ways of life and being appropriated into dominant
identities. Mass collective identities have given way both because they were
increasingly unable to deliver the mass ‘good life’ they promised and because they
were no longer necessary to the political and economic institutions of the nation
state. That is, their symbolic power and their material usefulness both faded. In the
rest of the chapter we consider largely the emergence of reflexive identities – at
macro and individual levels – in a globally connected and networked world.

From the mass to the individual
With the collapse of state socialism and the emergence of global capitalism and
neoliberalism these ‘dreams of mass collective identity’ (Buck-Morss 2002: x) have
given way to personal dreams and desires. Rather than imagine ourselves
predominantly as members of a collective national identity enacting a collective
project of striving for the good life, we now also aspire to more individual and
entrepreneurial identities. Rather than form identities that do their duty to the
collective nation, media implore us to create identities that seek individual
enjoyment, empowerment and satisfaction (Žižek 1999). While we might live within
nation states, we are less committed to the nation as a collective project. Instead, we
each compete with each other to achieve a sense of the good life attached more to
our own individual desires and dreams. These too are often dreams of material
happiness, but importantly, they aren’t necessarily embedded in a larger
homogenous collective national identity.

Just as the large factories of the industrial era are being reformatted as flexible
nodes in a networked economy, the large or mass identity projects of the twentieth
century are giving way to contingent and reflexive identity processes. Identity is an
important resource within a flexible global economy. For nation states, identity is a
crucial resource in constructing a brand that enables them to position themselves as
a good place for capital to invest, with a stable political system, an educated
workforce, an attractive tourist destination and a wealthy middle class. For
individuals, identity is an important resource to be cultivated and worked on in
presenting themselves as creative, clever and valuable to potential employers,
contacts, acquaintances, or even friends and lovers. Identity is valuable because it is
the process of articulating ourselves within flows of meaning. In a society and
economy that is increasingly informational, positioning ourselves both as
individuals and nations within the right flows of information is critically important.

As the media have been reshaped by global network capitalism, national culture
industries have been incorporated into global flows of meaning. While local and
national identities are still constructed through media, they exist alongside
consumer, liberal-democratic and middle-class identities that are constructed from
global flows of information. Global media create a kind of virtual territory out of
global flows of ideas, identity and capital (Morley and Robbins 1995: 19). Morley
and Robbins (1995: 38) argue that as a consequence, for those with access to global
flows of media and culture, identity becomes more reflexive. As individuals we
mediate between global, national and local culture. Our sense of place is organized
within these complex flows. Global media have reconfigured our identities by

expanding the flows of meaning we use to position ourselves in the world and the
social relationships we consider our lives to be a part of. We are no longer
addressed only as members of a collective national public, but also as consumers,
global citizens and niche lifestyle groups connected to a global network. We now
fashion our identities in a dramatically expanded flow of media content, culture and

The reorganization of national culture industries into nodes in a global network has
brought to the fore debates about how societies value and construct identities as both
profitable audiences or markets and valued ways of life. Where identities are valued
as a way of life, but aren’t a profitable audience, they are dependent on societies
deciding to protect social and cultural space for them. The challenge is that local
and national media and identities are embedded within a global network geared to
the commercial and political interests of the American culture industries.

Within this global system America is the key node. All significant flows of meaning
and identity happen in relation to America. Local and national identities can be

alongside and compatible with American values and ways of life
in distinction from American values as part of an effort to defend particular
local or national practices and ways of life
in opposition to American values: in cases where oppositional identities do not
have the power to threaten or gain traction in the global network system they
can be ignored or contained; where they threaten to become a powerful node in
the global network they are removed from the network using a combination of
technical, cultural, political and economic tools.

Most commonly, identities incorporate global flows of meaning within everyday
practices. Media plays a crucial role in organizing our domestic space and daily
routines and connecting them to larger public spaces and political and social
processes. Those spaces and processes are no longer confined to the nation. But we
still tune in every day to a media system; we participate in rituals of media
consumption that construct shared identities and ways of life. Importantly, we’re
increasingly consuming a proliferating and fragmenting flow of content. We still
feel a part of imagined communities but we see those communities from our
vantage point – one of many – in a global network of flows of identity and meaning.
Identity is always made within the flow of history, bound up within the political,
economic and cultural structures that powerful groups develop.

Cultural Imperialism
Global network capitalism has transformed identities and power relationships
locally, regionally and globally. Global electronic communication channels are
central to both the economy and politics of the Pax Americana. The practices,
discourses and power relationships of global network capitalism are unimaginable
outside of these communication infrastructures.

Debates about the role of the west and more specifically America in circulating
culture date back to the 1960s. Two conceptualizations of cultural imperialism were

The first argued that cultural imperialism was the result of a deliberate elite
conspiracy (Schiller 1969). This account argued that during the 1950s and
1960s the United States had developed a military-industrial complex
completely under the control of the federal government in Washington.
Schiller believed the 1960s expansion of American television around the world
resulted from a planned effort by an American industrial elite to deliberately
subject the world to US military control, multinational capitalism and
American values. An American elite was seen to be deliberately conspiring to
make other nations dependent on the United States, and the world’s mass media
were being enlisted to promote appropriate capitalist ideology as part of their
broader United States military capitalist plan. Schiller ’s approach required an
assumption that the United States’ elite was extraordinarily coherent, effective
and goal directed. That is, it assumed an elite possessing the competence and
capacity to impose its ideological machinery across the globe.
The second argued that cultural imperialism was a mediatized process
involving ‘cultural loss’ rather than ‘cultural imposition’ (Tomlinson 1991:
173). This account developed non-conspiratorial understandings of cultural
imperialism by focusing on media processes that caused ‘authentic local
cultures’ to be displaced (Boyd-Barrett 1977, Tunstall 1978). Smaller cultures
disappeared not because of an elite conspiracy but because they simply could
not compete with the dominant global cultural machinery.

The cultural imperialism and media imperialism arguments were developed upon
an analysis of the twentieth century’s mass culture industry. Where cultural
imperialism focuses on simplistic villain/victim dichotomies and conspiratorial
explanations, it is not helpful in understanding a networked and fragmented mode of
cultural production.

The global media network is used for a number of hegemonic purposes. An

emergent hegemonic elite, plus a wider group of second-tier information-rich
functionaries and compradors, now use the global media and information network
to intermesh with each other. This group is developing similar practices and living
environments. Their lifestyles and global cities, from New York to Munich and
Sydney to Singapore, are increasingly interchangeable. Although they are not all
Americans or westerners, the global information rich appear to be almost
universally familiar with western discourses, and are able to use the new global
lingua franca of English. The rapid diffusion of western culture is not happening
because an American elite is conspiring to culturally dominate others. Rather, it is
happening because the global media network is American built; and a globally
dispersed Anglophile group exists which wants to immerse itself in western
discourse and cultural products. Under these circumstances – English as a coding
system – Anglo-discourse and western cultural products necessarily acquire a
prestige, status and usefulness derived from their already-existing dominance. This
encourages their use by both elite and non-elite non-westerners from Taiwan to
Russia. Effectively, the growth of western cultural domination now seems globally
unstoppable, not because it is being manipulated or conspired into existence, but
because of the perceived centrality of western players within the hubs of global
network capitalism. In a sense, western economic and cultural power is so
overwhelming in the early twenty-first century that westerners do not have to
conspire to be dominant. There are few parts of the world where a functioning elite
exist with no connection at all to western global network capitalism. Even in China,
the political and industrial elite have created a class of traders who interface with
western production, culture and politics.

Western discourses tend to be dominant within global network capitalism’s media
networks because westerners mostly built the network, and westerners dominate the
emergent hegemonic elite of global network capitalism. While western cultural
products dominate global media flows, the network has also enabled a flow of
content reflecting a plethora of niche identities. Even so, for the most part these
niche identities fit within the rubric of global network capitalism’s culture industry.
Global flows of cultural content generate a number of questions:

Is global network capitalism simply a form of United States-driven cultural
Does global network capitalism subsume or acculturate other cultures? If it
does, what are the consequences?
Why have some cultures consciously resisted being subsumed – like the French
and Afrikaners – whereas others put up little or no resistance or even actively
participate in being subsumed via popular culture, production hubs or trade

If cultures are seen to naturally absorb outside influences, grow and mutate – as
witnessed by western culture itself – why is there concern about preserving
cultural formations?
Which is preferable: having to adapt to western cultural practices and
discourses because of inclusion into global network capitalism, or preserving
one’s culture at the cost of non-inclusion?
Does the Pax Americana offer no option other than complete exclusion or

Identity Politics
If the mass utopias and collective identities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
have become less powerful and useful, identity itself has remained significant and
important to contemporary social, political and economic formations. Below we
examine several examples that help to demonstrate how identity politics is
simultaneously organized from above and below. That is, identity politics is a
process instigated and organized by the powerful as a means of maintaining power,
and by groups seeking to acquire power by building coalitions and positioning
themselves in relation to dominant power structures. We examine the South African
Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Australian Apology to Indigenous
People, gay activism and terrorism. While these might appear to be a collection of
markedly different identity projects, we argue that they share a common origin in
social-democratic politics that emerged in the United States during the twentieth
century and spread across the globe.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century the Democrats in the United
States went beyond their working-class support base and effectively constructed a
broad-based coalition that cohered around social-democrat goals. In addition to
their traditional base of workers, the Democratic Party built a coalition that consists
of Jews, Irish Catholics, African-Americans, Chicanos, native Americans, gays,
feminists, environmentalists and the emerging middle class of urban knowledge
workers. This coalition has effectively adopted a form of negative identity politics
based on deconstructing the dominant white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP)
identity that dominated American politics, industry and society. WASPs were seen as
an exclusive old establishment. The Democrats constructed an alliance of people
who perceived themselves as outsiders discriminated against by the WASP
establishment. The Democrats engaged in a process of deconstruction that involved
demonizing, vilifying and attacking WASPs and seeking ways to dismantle the
dominant WASP American culture. To deconstruct the old dominant culture and
build a new set of cultural identities and values social democrats had to capture and
use media, cultural and educational infrastructure to promote their ideas as
universal values.

The United States is at the centre of global flows of culture. The Democrats have
had enormous influence with other social-democrat parties around the world. The
agendas of this negative identity politics can certainly be found in the UK, Australia
and Canada. In the case of the UK the British Labour Party has developed its own
version of negative identity politics which takes the form of delegitimizing the old
British establishment. Since 1945 Britain’s old ruling class have been under

prolonged and systematic attack. Their dominance of institutions such as the House
of Lords has been slowly dismantled.

In this process British national identity has been reconstructed. In the case of
Australia the Australian Labor Party (ALP) has undermined the British colonial
establishment associated with the Menzies era. The British and Australian Labour
parties and Canadian Liberal Party have consequently played a major role in
facilitating the importation of American cultural values in their countries. This
process has reconstructed their national identities in ways that have brought
American, British, Canadian and Australian cultures closer together.

The power of the United States has also given the Democratic Party, when it has
been in power, the capacity to export its progressive social-democrat agenda to
countries across the globe. Most significantly, this has seen western interventions to
promote agendas of development and human rights. These agendas effectively
promote westernization and Americanization by undermining and deconstructing
traditional value systems and the identities associated with non-western and
traditional ways of life. This progressive westernization is, of course, useful for
promoting groups, practices and institutions that support the functioning of
America’s informal global empire. Media and communication has played a central
role in the construction of new identities around the world that align with the
interests and values of America and its system of global networked capitalism.
Alongside the construction of new identities comes the destruction of old ones. Just
as this process has provided opportunities for groups whose interests are aligned
with the constructed universal values of America’s informal empire to empower
their identities, groups marginalized by this system have sought ways to resist. One
example of this is the growth of fundamentalist Islam, which in its militant form has
adopted terrorism as a tactic for resisting progressive westernization. We have also
seen the emergence or re-emergence of conservative, traditionalist or far-right
political movements in the United States, Europe, United Kingdom and Australia.

Using Apology to Position National Identity Within
Universal Values of Global Network Capitalism
The process of deconstructing mass collective national identities in colonial
societies has involved mediated gestures of reconciliation. Reconciliation and
apology are notable post-colonial political gestures in post-imperial societies
(Cunningham 2002, Gibney et al. 2008). The purpose of these gestures is to
symbolically mark the reordering of power relationships (Thompson 2008: 42).
Gestures of apology are part of the process of making and maintaining power.
Mediated rituals of apology and reconciliation disempower old dominant identities
and empower new western ‘universal’ identities. The powerful apologize when ‘it is
in their interests to do so’ (Thompson 2008: 45). In some cases a formerly powerful
group is made to apologize to a newly empowered group; in other cases a powerful
group maintains their power by allowing symbolic space for a formerly
disempowered group. Apologies ‘order ’ and ‘reorder ’ relationships between the
‘West and the rest of the world’ (Gibney et al. 2008: 1). In Australia apology and
reconciliation have been used to reorient the nation from an imperial British
identity to an identity serving America’s informal empire. In South Africa
reconciliation was used to legitimize the post-apartheid transfer of power and
wealth. Apologies are meaningful to the groups involved, but they also have utility
within power relationships (Gibney et al. 2008: 5).

Apologies are an interesting gesture because they mark the transition from one set
of identity–power relations to another. In doing so, they demonstrate the role that
media play in constructing identities, and how that construction is embedded in
power relations. These rituals are less about recuperating or repairing mass
collective identity, and instead are aimed at recognizing a multiplicity of possible
identities that fit within the universal values of the Pax Americana. Below we
consider the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Australian
Apology to Indigenous People. We examine how these processes functioned as
media events that construct, empower and resist particular formations of identity.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was an exercise in
identity politics. One way of thinking about ‘South African-ness’ was to be
deconstructed so that a new South African identity could be made legitimate. By
demonizing and humiliating those who had served apartheid through a carefully
constructed televisualized spectacle that ran from 1996 to 1998, the identities
constructed by apartheid were effectively made illegitimate. Apartheid had sought to
deconstruct the South African state and replace it with smaller states, one for each
ethnic group (one for Zulus, one for Xhosas, one for Tswana and so on), and one
white Afrikaner dominated state. Under apartheid, Zulus, Xhosas, Tswanas and so
on could not have South African identity because they were to become citizens of
other countries. Anti-apartheid forces rejected this apartheid vision and insisted on a
single unified South African state. By the 1980s a bloody civil war raged between
apartheid and anti-apartheid forces. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission built
a new South African identity out of constructing this civil war as a struggle between
villains (pro-apartheid forces) and victims (anti-apartheid forces). Apartheid had
involved the attempt to construct separate national identities for each ethnic group:
Zulus, Xhosa, Tswana, Afrikaners and so on. Those who had fought for these
separate nationalist identities were paraded before the Truth and Reconciliation
Commission as villains. They were accused of using power and violence
illegitimately and of human rights abuses. The Truth and Reconciliation
Commission constructed a highly emotive theatre of accusations and confessions
based upon a binary of victims and victimizers. Those constructed as victimizers
were made to face the accusations of their victims. The Commission presented a
quasi-religious form of theatre because they were adjudicated by Archbishop
Desmond Tutu. Instead of ending with an execution – as religious inquisitions of the
past might have done – the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions ended with a
symbolic reconciliation that required the villains to express remorse and beg
forgiveness from their victims.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a process of representation within
which identities were deconstructed and constructed. The Commission process
opened up discourses and subject positions for individuals to articulate themselves
within by confessing and asking forgiveness. The Commission closed out other
subject positions, and therefore identities. There was no way for those who fought
as part of the pro-apartheid struggle to articulate their actions and identity as
legitimate. Those watching this theatre on television were left with no doubt that the
Afrikaner nationalists who had constructed apartheid were villains and, by
extension, that the idea of separate nationalist identities was wrong. Because so

many Afrikaners were publically humbled and humiliated by the Truth and
Reconciliation process, many Afrikaners reported feeling that their identity was
under attack.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s theatre dramatized the real transfer of
political power – from a South Africa ruled by whites to a South Africa ruled by
blacks. The construction of a new configuration of legitimate and illegitimate
identities corresponded with a new arrangement of power in South Africa. This was
encoded into the way the Commission repeatedly represented ‘black victims’ being
empowered; while former white power-holders were constructed as villains and
made to apologize for being ‘victimizers’. For many whites the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission consequently became a symbol of their
disempowerment within a new kind of political system wherein whites were now a
permanent minority in a black-dominated polity. On the other hand, for black South
Africans, the sight of apartheid functionaries being humbled and humiliated was
uplifting and empowering. Essentially, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
served to make black people feel in charge. It was a formal process of media
representation that explicitly constructed the legitimate and dominant identity
relationships in post-apartheid South Africa. This empowerment of black people, of
course, greatly assisted the new ANC government’s identity building project. The
Commission helped to promote a dominant black South African-ness in
replacement of the tribal identities of Zulu-ness, Xhosa-ness, Tswana-ness and so
on. One dominant white identity was to be replaced both symbolically and
materially by one dominant black identity. The Truth and Reconciliation
Commission served both to solidify a feeling of black South African identity, and
also to parade across South Africa’s television screens the arrival of this group as
the new rulers of South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission served as
a vehicle for deconstructing a South African value and identity system that was
anathema to progressive social-democrat values. The Truth and Reconciliation
Commission had the added bonus of symbolically demonstrating the progressive
values of the Pax Americana by empowering ‘good’ and ‘oppressed’ black people
and defeating ‘bad’ and ‘oppressive’ white people.

Apology and branding Australia
In Australia, the politics of guilt and apology emerged around a series of events. In
1992 the High Court ruled on a case brought by indigenous man Eddie Mabo that
the doctrine of terra nullius, which held that Australian land belonged to no one at
the time of white settlement, was illegitimate. The Court found that native title
survived white settlement. In 1997 the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report detailed how
generations of Aboriginal children were removed from their families. The policy
was labelled an act of genocide and detailed the continuing effects it had on
Aboriginal people and their culture. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s calls for a
formal process of reconciliation and apology materialized but were resisted by the
conservative liberal-national coalition government. In 2008, the incoming
progressive Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology in
Parliament to Australia’s indigenous peoples.

These processes of legal and political recognition, reconciliation and apology have
had profound effects on the Australian identity, and the relationship between white
Australian identity and indigenous identity. There are several ways to make sense of
these impacts. Some argue that the process of reconciliation erases the achievements
of white settlement and makes ordinary white Australians feel guilty about their
history and culture. On the other hand, others argue that the process enables white
Australians to come to terms with the violent reality of settlement and to go through
the process of establishing an Australian identity that acknowledges that history.
Some argue that the process of reconciliation and apology is critical to
incorporating indigenous people within ordinary Australian life and culture; that it
is an important symbolic process in creating indigenous identities and histories that
are broadly understood and recognized. Others point out that these symbolic
processes are only really meaningful if they are accompanied by changes in the
material economic and social circumstances of indigenous people and their

The legal and political events that led to the formal apology have been reflected in
media and cultural representations of reconciliation and apology. Since the 1990s
apology and reconciliation have been prominent themes in Australian cinema
(Collins 2010). Where indigenous people were arguably invisible or passive within
the construction of Australian national identity associated with the British Empire
period, post-1990 cinema has seen an active engagement with indigenous stories
and characters. Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia (2008) is the most expensive and
highest grossing film in Australian history (Connell 2010). The film uses the visual
and narrative form of a Hollywood epic to construct a mythological history for the

Australian identity. Australia attempts to reimagine Australian identity by addressing
questions of native title, colonial and frontier relations, the stolen generations and

Using advertising to craft national identity
While cinema has long been recognized for its role in constructing and mediating
national identities, Australia was also an exercise in branding and promoting the
nation. The film was accompanied by a $50 million print and television advertising
campaign funded by Tourism Australia that reached an estimated audience of 580
million viewers worldwide (Hogan 2010). The campaign featured Come Walkabout
television advertisements produced and directed by Luhrmann using characters and
themes from the film. The film and advertising campaign each visualize Australia’s
empty interior landscapes, presenting them as places of adventure, self-discovery,
personal transformation and redemption. In Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and the Come
Walkabout advertisements white people are transformed when they recognize the
sovereignty of indigenous people and their connection to the land.

Both the film and advertisements work around a gesture where a westerner
apologizes by recognizing the sovereignty and connection to land of indigenous
people. When they do they are forgiven and transformed, yet retain their wealth,
status and power. In the Come Walkabout advertisements tourism is not only about
pleasure and consumption, it also has a deeper meaning. Connected to the ‘Stolen
Generations’ narrative of the film, it is imbued with a political and ethical content.
Tourism is reimagined as an apology. The film invites audiences and travellers to
identify their journey as acknowledging indigenous connection to the country and
apologizing for colonial exploitation. Westerners implicitly uncomfortable with
tourism in a colonial sense – consuming exotic cultures, exploiting the under-
developed world, using culture as a resource for individual pleasure and enjoyment
– feel more comfortable with tourism in the post-colonial sense as a transformative
journey. If apologies are substantially political gestures, here we see how they are
also used to connect cultural consumption like tourism to the performance of
meaningful political identities.

While the importance of collective national identities has become less important, the
importance of nations being able to convey their economic, social and cultural
advantages is critically important in a globalized world. National identities may no
longer be as important to controlling a domestic population, but they are important
for leveraging that population – and its histories, places, cultural products and ways
of life – as economic and cultural capital. As nations have shifted their emphasis to
competing in a global network they have also developed corresponding
communication activities. The crafting of national identity has become explicitly
promotional, seeking to position the nation within a global economic and cultural
order. National identity then draws both on its history and specific cultural practices,

and on the universal values of a global order (such as consumerism,
cosmopolitanism and liberalism).

Australia and Come Walkabout are both media products that brand the nation by
using the identity politics of apology. Where in the past, nations present themselves
as mass collectives, in global network capitalism, nations use the logic of branding
to position themselves as players in a global networked political and market system.
Nation branding is a ‘communications strategy and a practical initiative’ that ‘allows
national governments to better manage and control the image they project to the
world’ (Aronczyk 2008: 42). A nation’s brand links it with the ‘shared values of a
global order ’ and in doing so necessarily frames the parameters within which the
nation imagines and projects itself (Aronczyk 2008). While a nation’s brand works
to distinguish itself from competitors, it does that by first agreeing to the criteria
for a ‘good’ nation state. Under the logic of branding, national identities become
largely indistinguishable. Every nation claims to have beautiful wilderness,
wonderful food and nightlife, great cultural institutions, traditional regions and
ways of life and so on. Most nations appeal to the world as a place that is open for
business, charming and friendly. This is not so much about presenting a distinctive
way of life but instead connecting the nation to universal values of beauty,
enjoyment and individual fulfilment.

Australia and Come Walkabout each stage the recognition of indigenous people that
has taken place as the British colonial empire has been replaced with an American
informal global empire. Building and maintaining a global empire is a cultural
project, which relies on creating identities that share common values and ways of
life between people in the empire. Advertisements can appropriate and commodify
the nation’s ongoing process of identity formation in a canny way. In doing so, they
articulate the prevailing political project of the nation with promotional objectives.
Mediated gestures of apology demonstrate the importance of identity to making and
maintaining power relationships. They produce promotional narratives that the
nation’s citizens can identify as part of a globalized identity process. They position
the nation and its way of life within a networked global political and economic

Apology in Cinema and Advertising
In his examination of the politics of apology Cunningham (2002) outlines several arguments against
and in favour of apologies. The objections to apology, he suggests, are:

Apology is absurd if you can’t be held responsible for events you apologize for.
Apology is only a political gesture. It has no consequence and may even be immoral.
Apology takes the form of reductio ad absurdum. If we begin apologizing for historical
events, we would never stop because human history is full of winners and losers.
Apology is associated with an attack on the integrity of the national identity and history.
Apologies are the product of a ‘guilt industry’ working in favour of minority groups.

In response, Cunningham (2002) makes two arguments in favour of apology:

Apologies are symbolically important. They recognize and acknowledge past suffering that
lives on in the present. We might not be responsible but we acknowledge how our collective
identities and contemporary social relations are a product of the struggles of the past.
Apologies have utility. Recognition and acknowledgement enables better social relations.

In Australia, all of these arguments have been mobilized for and against an apology to indigenous
people since Bringing Them Home put the idea of an apology clearly within the mainstream political
debate in 1997. While progressive forces argued for the symbolic and practical importance of the
apology, it has also been met with resistance and cynicism. Apologies can be seen as the product of a
‘guilt industry’ working in favour of those deemed to have been victimized by the old order.
Apologizing becomes a mechanism for demonizing former elites and thereby de-legitimizing their

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous People, in part, stated:

We apologize for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have
inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these, our fellow Australians.

We apologize especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from
their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their
families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and
communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we
say sorry.

You can find links to the Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples and Baz Luhrmann’s Come
Walkabout advertisements on the Media and Society website

How do Luhrmann’s advertisements mobilize the politics and gestures of apology?
How are the apology as a political gesture and the advertisements as a commercial text
related? What are their similarities and differences?

Check out some of Australia’s post-apology films:

Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008)

Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
Paul Goldman’s Australian Rules (2002)
Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002)
Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds (2002)
Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009)
Brendan Fletcher’s Mad Bastards (2011)
The television series First Australians (2008) and Mabo (2012)
Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes (2006) is significant, as well as being the first feature entirely in an
Australian indigenous language.

Adding another distinctive element to post-apology Australian films are the recent ensemble comedies
Brand Nue Dae (2009, Rachel Perkins) and The Sapphires (2012, Wayne Blair). These two films are
musicals featuring a cast of indigenous popular musicians.

Many of these post-apology films have acquired critical acclaim and found large audiences in
Australia. Critics have argued that these films help to reimagine Australian national identity (Collins
2010, Haag 2010). The narratives and claims of post-apology cinema are contested. Some praise its
engagement with indigenous culture and country and presentation of colonization as illegitimate.
Others see it as denying and demonizing the achievements of settler Australia.

Which arguments for and against symbolic apologies do you find plausible?
Compare Kevin Rudd’s apology to the way apology is represented in the films and
How are apologies a form of identity politics?
How do apologies reflect power relationships between identities?

Acquiring Visibility Within the Universal Values of
Global Network Capitalism
If so far we have considered how power relationships form, maintain and leverage
identity as part of the political, economic and cultural life of nation states, then we
also need to consider how identity is deployed within societies by marginalized
groups seeking to resist dominant values or assert their own ways of life. Identity-
based constituencies have emerged from global network capitalism’s facilitation of
lifestyle groups, identities and diasporas. The tactics of niche identity politics are
used by both the powerful to retain power, and the marginalized seeking to resist or
acquire power.

Larry Gross (2001) documents the role media played in the process of gay and
lesbian Americans becoming visible in politics and culture. Like other forms of
political activism generated by minority identities, gay and lesbian groups
recognized and used media as a source of power in a variety of ways. Firstly, they
used independent media to construct their identity (Gross 2001). Gay and lesbian
identities were invisible in mainstream politics, culture and media. Individuals
seized whatever media they could to construct their identity, way of life and values.
These publications made identities and structures of oppression visible. They also
gave a constructive and positive account of these identities that individuals could
relate to themselves. Where mainstream media banned the word ‘gay’ or use
derogatory terms like ‘faggot’ they made the people and ways of life attached to the
term invisible. They blocked the language that might be used to articulate that
identity. Independent media responded by deliberately using language that
mainstream media ignored. For instance, a private individual might come to see
themselves as ‘gay’ in a positive sense, rather than a ‘pervert’ or a ‘faggot’. In most
cases this involved the production of independent newsletters and pamphlets that
were passed around local networks. These small-scale publications played the role
of providing a ‘space’ within which gay and lesbian identities could be articulated.

Powerful groups – like government, police and churches – respond to these
emerging forms of independent identity making in a range of ways. They can
ignore them, monitor and constrain them, or ban them. The degree of response
depends on the extent to which these publications threaten to disrupt existing
networks of power. Independent publications are a primary building block in
constructing a public or counter-public that people can think of themselves as
belonging to (Warner 2005: 10). They create ideas, language and identities that
people can draw on to articulate their sense of a shared world. Independent
publications can facilitate counter-publics that are in ‘tension with a larger public’

(Warner 2005: 56). They perform the important function of contravening ‘what can
be said or what goes without saying’ and in doing so ‘work to elaborate new worlds
of culture and social relations in which gender and sexuality can be lived, including
forms of intimate association, vocabularies of affect, styles of embodiment, erotic
practices, and relations of care and pedagogy’ (Warner 2005: 56).

Secondly, gay and lesbian activists used independent media to organize political
action (Gross 2001). Independent media were usually embedded within local social
networks like activist organizations, clubs or bars. The production of media became
a fulcrum for organizing and publicizing other forms of political action. Activists
used local publications to organize protests and mobilized targeted forms of action.

Thirdly, gay and lesbian activists sought to challenge mainstream representations
(Gross 2001). In addition to producing alternative forms of representation, gay and
lesbian people also worked to challenge representations in mainstream media.
Gross illustrates, for instance, placing pressure on journalists and news
organizations to use the word ‘gay’ rather than ‘pervert’ or ‘faggot’, demanding
that television producers and writers create gay characters who weren’t presented as
victims or villains. Gross (2001: 30) details the history of journalists deferring to
official sources – politicians, police and court judgements, medical practitioners,
psychologists and religious leaders – to construct homosexuality as problematic.
Paradoxically though, in constructing homosexuality as a problem the media were
also making it visible. They played a part in creating a discourse around which
activists could generate conflict and debate. Mobilizing to challenge the media
required gay and lesbian activists to build networks of power that comprised
activists groups, while also working to bring other influential actors into their
network. As they convinced the American Psychiatric Association to declare that
homosexuality was not an illness, or prominent public figures to come out, or
journalists to represent their views accurately, they gradually developed a network
of power and legitimacy.

Finally, gay and lesbian activists understood and took advantage of mainstream
media rituals (Gross 2001). Simply pressuring mainstream media to change their
modes of representation would not be effective on its own. Gay and lesbian activists
also learned to use – or hijack – media events to make themselves visible. If
mainstream media were ignoring gay and lesbian issues, then they would go to
events where there were likely to be prominent political and cultural figures and
media attention, and stage snap protests.

Challenging mainstream media portrayals of identity
Over several decades gay and lesbian activists and groups developed a variety of
ways of using media to make their own identities visible and to challenge
mainstream media to recognize them. Identity politics takes place within established
networks of power. The culture industry tends towards representing the majority
view. Representations of minority identities are mostly produced by the majority for
the majority. Gross argues that, ‘When previously ignored groups or perspectives
do gain visibility, the manner of their representation will reflect the bias and
interests of those people who define the public agenda’ (Gross 2001: 4–11). As such,
they position minorities in relation to their own world-view: as a problem, a victim,
an outsider, an oddity, a villain. For minority groups seeking visibility and
recognition they often have to proceed by first acknowledging the power of
majority groups. For gay and lesbian Americans to be accepted by majority
American culture they needed to articulate their common ground as much as their
difference with mainstream American culture. They needed to articulate acceptable
forms of difference while assimilating themselves to dominant identities and values
(Gross 2001: xvi).

In western societies we can see this logic playing out around the gay marriage
debate. There is a widely held view that the legalization of gay marriage is
inevitable. This view has been constructed not so much by distinguishing gay and
lesbian people as a distinct group in need of special provisions, but rather as
entirely normal and ordinary people deserving of the same recognition as any other
person. For those groups who resist gay marriage this argument is difficult to
challenge. They argue that expanding the practice of marriage to homosexual
relationships undermines an institution that, although historically constructed, is
fundamental to all forms of human society. Those making the case for gay marriage
have proceeded by affirming majority power relations. Their claim is not
‘Marriage is a hetero-normative institution that should be outlawed’; instead it is
‘We’re just like you and we want to be included’. Gay marriage is presented as a
simple case of correcting a historical anomaly by affording equal rights to all
relationships. This closes out the space for debating how gay marriage marks a
fundamental change in the organization of human families and reproduction.

Gross (2001) illustrates how over the course of several decades gay and lesbian
Americans became visible within everyday cultural and political life. Gay and
lesbian people are visible in political and public debate, and issues affecting them
are discussed productively by journalists, politicians and other public figures.
Thoughtful, funny and well-developed gay and lesbian characters are seen on

television and in film. Gay and lesbian people are prominent and proud in sport,
music and cultural life. Their identity is a normal and acceptable part of everyday
life. This power base gives them a platform for responding to still-existing forms
of discrimination and disadvantage they face. But simply being visible and broadly
legally equal to all other citizens does not mean their political project is complete.

It Gets Better
Gay and lesbian activists have adapted to online social and identity networks. For instance,
technology industry employees made a series of ‘It Gets Better’ videos assuring young gay and
lesbian people that while being young and gay or lesbian can be difficult, especially if you grow up in
regional or conservative areas, over time life gets better. The videos presented the stories of
successful, well-educated, middle-class gay and lesbian professionals. The videos demonstrated the
capacity of activists to adapt their messages to new communication networks and styles by drawing on
affective narratives within short videos that could be virally distributed through social networks.

How is It Gets Better an extension of LGBT activism?
How does It Gets Better use identity to make its message powerful?
What makes It Gets Better a creative tactical use of new media and identity?

You can find links to It Gets Better on the Media and Society website

Resisting the Universal Values of Global Network
Not all identity coalitions play within liberal-democratic rules. Some identities use
global networks and the politics of identity for violence. The beginning of the
twenty-first century has been defined by a greater political, social, cultural and
economic engagement between the west and Islam. This involves a struggle over
power, resources and identity. One way of viewing radical Islam’s use of terror is as
a form of communicative identity politics. Terrorism is the weapon of the
politically weak – those who are so marginalized from the mainstream political
process that their identity is one that takes itself to be wholly excluded. This
disempowerment comes from feeling that their beliefs and ideas are not heard, and
even worse that their world-view is being deliberately marginalized and silenced.
The powerful are an enemy who deserve to be attacked. For some people this sense
of being silenced by powerful persecutors can generate feeling of helplessness and
apathy. For those who become terrorists, the anger and disempowerment does not
lead to apathetic victimhood – instead it leads to a drive to do something that breaks
the silence.

Terrorists are doers. They act to make their beliefs heard. Terrorism is propaganda
of the deed because it involves doing something spectacular in order to draw
attention to whatever message the terrorist is trying to advertise. We often think of
violent conflict as aimed at acquiring material territory. Terror uses violence for
predominantly communicative purposes. The act attracts attention and causes the
circulation of meanings and feelings. Terrorism is a form of identity politics that
becomes particularly effective in a media-dense networked society. Recent terrorist
events in Boston and London have seen terrorists rely on citizens on the street with
smartphones to mediate their violent acts. The more people film and circulate
images of their violence and its aftermath the more it satisfies their objectives.
Terrorists rely on the media to publicize their identities and activities. Like other
forms of marginal identity politics, terrorist organizations have been particularly
effective at using new forms of interactive and social media to circulate content,
ideas and build communities around shared identities and causes. If terrorists are
weak politically, they have learnt to exploit the global media’s attention to acts of
violence as a way of making themselves visible and felt within the everyday life of
nations. They have learnt to harness the media system’s circuits of attention as a
resource for publicizing themselves.

Terrorists on Social Media
Just like any other politicians, terrorists need to publicize their identities and activities to target
audiences. Depending on the audience they can use mass media (like television), social media (like
Twitter), non-mediated communication (like executions in a public space), or institutionalized
communication (like mosques and churches). Or they can combine these – for example, executing
someone in a public space and posting photographs of the executed on Twitter, knowing that journalists
will pick these up and distribute them to a wider audience on television.

An example of this was the way Isis terrorists executed Syrian soldiers then posted photos of the
mutilated bodies on Twitter. Western mass media then distributed these images globally. Like other
forms of marginal identity politics, terrorist organizations have been particularly effective at using new
forms of interactive and social media to circulate content and ideas, and build communities around
shared identities and causes.

Identify the different audiences with whom Isis must communicate.
Identify which types of messages and which types of media would fit each audience.
Consider other conflicts. How do marginalized groups use a combination of media and violence
to be seen and heard?
How do new media technologies change the way terrorists communicate?

You can find links to stories about Isis on Twitter on the Media and Society website

The Power of Identity within a Global Network
Minority groups that are able to articulate themselves within a broadly liberal,
democratic and consumerist mainstream thrive in the relationships of global
network capitalism. In an increasingly networked and flexible society, power
operates less by enforcing and policing narrow identities and ways of life, and more
by enabling and channelling a network of different identities and lifestyles. Minority
identities are not a threat to this system; instead they are a crucial and valuable
resource. They are both a source of cultural innovation and a potential market.
Global network capitalism is characterized by a proliferation of identities that
corresponds with expanding media choices and niche markets. Minority groups
have found their political projects fit well with a media system that is seeking to
package them as valuable audiences. To some extent, political projects around
sexuality, gender, ethnicity, religion and race are interrelated with the recognition of
those groups by media organizations and advertisers as valuable audiences.
Television channels, magazines, films, books and musicians seek out women, gays
and lesbians, and ethnic groups as valuable audiences. To gain their attention and
allegiance they both represent the identities those groups aspire to, and give
credibility and visibility to their political causes. This is not a cynical exercise
necessarily, but simply an illustration of the complex nature of power relationships
and the way they are informed by the aspirations and goals of different groups of

As much as a proliferation of identity is commercially lucrative, managing identity
is now central to the production and maintenance of power. This is evident both
within our national life and at a larger global level. At a national level we can
observe how mainstream political parties now assemble a coalition of identity-
based groups around which they attempt to build coherent narratives. For
progressive political parties this is evident in their appeal to a broad range of
identities and causes related to sexuality, ethnicity, gender and the environment. For
conservatives, a range of traditional cultural and religious values are articulated
together. Each coalition of identities – progressive or conservative – is organized
within the large neoliberal economic and cultural framework of global network

At a larger global level we can observe the United States using an identity rights
agenda to build consensus and legitimacy in the developing world. This form of
‘soft’ diplomacy bypasses traditional or entrenched nodes of power in countries and
reaches out to aspirational groups who identify with the values of the United States.
As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton travelled the world conspicuously focusing

on talking with women, girls and young people around rights issues. In doing so,
Clinton mobilized a global network of activists that shared identity and rights
visions. Clinton’s diplomacy was matched with State Department investment in
youth and identity movements in many countries in the developing world. The State
Department provided resources and training to minority groups, young people, and
women and girls. In particular, they taught them how to use new media technologies
to make themselves and their causes visible, to network with others like them
around the globe, and to place pressure on established nodes of power. The
Americans explicitly use identity as a conduit for building legitimacy and power
within their global network.

We no longer simply construct our identity out of media representations we
consume: we are called on to produce and circulate our identity, to position
ourselves and make ourselves visible using media technologies, images and
resources. This networked system isn’t as focused on articulating coherent
collective identities, but instead on providing opportunities for individuals to be
seen and felt in peer networks. An individual clicks, likes or shares an item of
content because of what it says about them. We are able to access media
technologies to produce stories about ourselves and our lives. This is visible
throughout our popular culture, from the everyday maintenance of our social media
profiles using updates and images we create, news stories we like, brands we
interact with; through to the rise of influential bloggers and YouTube celebrities
who trade on their sense of taste, ethnicity, sexuality and other cultural resources.

The problem with proliferating and flexible performances of identities is that the
political power of identity politics loses its purchase. As McRobbie (2004) – writing
specifically about post-feminism – argues, an interactive and participatory media
and cultural system produces identity politics already ‘taken into account’. By this
she means that the cultural system acts as if ‘equality is achieved’ and all that is
required for us to be empowered is for us to participate and perform our identities
as we desire. This co-optation of identity is demobilizing. Identity becomes less a
fulcrum around which we can destabilize and reorganize power relationships, and
more a resource that enables and conserves the current communication system and
its relations of power. While we may now be empowered to construct and mediate
our identities however we like, both relatively free to say what we like and able to
access media technologies to publicize our views, those affordances exist largely
because – rather than threaten the system – they are its very lifeblood. The
continuous performance of individual identity is at the core of interactive media,
just as the representation of collective identity underpinned the mass media of the
twentieth century.

In this chapter we have:

defined identity as embedded in processes of representation and always under
examined the role of media in manufacturing collective identities
illustrated how making and managing identity is interrelated with acquiring and
maintaining power.

The chapter has traced the arc from the production of mass collective identities in
the twentieth century to the contemporary management of networks and coalitions
of niche identities. Identity in the twentieth century was more recognizable as an
explicit ideological project. Nation states built enormous media and cultural systems
that produced largely homogenous collective identities. Minority identities were
largely invisible within these systems. Throughout the second half of the twentieth
century, the development of a global and networked system of production
corresponded with the proliferation of visible and powerful identities. The
production and circulation of multiple identities is central to the political and
economic functioning of global network capitalism. A networked and interactive
media system depends on our constant participation in the production and
circulation of identity.

Further Reading
Each of the readings listed here takes up themes related to identity that we addressed
in the chapter. The reading by Hall (1996) is a foundational reading in
understanding the relationship between identity, culture and media. The readings by
Aronczyk (2008) and Volcic and Andrejevic (2011) both consider the role that
branding plays in the production of national identity. Bratich (2011) examines the
role the US State Department plays in promoting identity politics around the globe.
McRobbie (2004) considers the possibilities for feminist identity politics in a
popular culture that appropriates critique and resistance. Gross (2001) offers a
detailed account of gay activism and media in the United States.

Aronczyk, M. (2008) ‘“Living the brand”: nationality, globality and the identity
strategies of nation branding consultants’, International Journal of Communication,
2 (1): 41–65.

Bratich, J. (2011) ‘User-generated discontent: convergence, polemology and
dissent’, Cultural Studies, 25 (4–5): 621–640.

Gross, L. (2001) Up from Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in
America. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hall, S. (1996) ‘Introduction: who needs “identity”?’, in S. Hall and P. Du Gay (eds),
Questions of Cultural Identity. London: Sage, pp. 1–17.

McRobbie, A. (2004) ‘Post-feminism and popular culture’, Feminist Media Studies,
4 (3): 255–264.

Volcic, Z. and Andrejevic, M. (2011) ‘Nation branding in the era of commercial
nationalism’, International Journal of Communication, 5 (1): 598–618.

Any article marked with is available to download at the website

9 Consumer Culture, Branding and Advertising
Branding is a critical communicative process
in our culture, media and everyday lives.

* What is branding?
* Who builds brands?
* How are brands embedded in culture?
* How do brands claim to be meaningful and ethical?

In this chapter we:
Define branding as a social process
Consider the relationship between brands and culture
Examine the labour of branding
Explore the relationships between brands, social spaces and interactive media
Consider the role of branding in the ethics and practices of everyday life.

What is a Brand?
Brands are woven into our everyday life – inscribed on objects that we use, printed
on our clothes, visible on buildings, and embedded in nearly every media text we
read, watch or interact with. If brands were first found on products, packaging and
advertisements, they now roam much further. They are also much more than just
symbols that convey meanings. In this chapter we will examine how branding works
as a social process. That is, brands aren’t just logos that suggest particular attributes.
Brands are continuously created and circulated within culture. They are created out
of interactions between cultural producers and consumers.

Brands and mass consumption
Brands and advertisements were crucial to the development of the culture industry.
Early brands and advertisements made claims about the specific qualities of
products. Typical information in advertisements included the ingredients, quality of
the manufacture, the family name and place of the producers, and the applications
and uses of the product. These claims all related to specific and tangible qualities in
the product. It contained specific ingredients, was from a particular place and had
certain uses. The brand was simply a name and logo that enabled consumers to
recognize the product as having those particular qualities.

Brands became important when products started moving further and being marketed
to wider audiences. Industrialization enabled the production of quantities of goods
much larger than local markets required; the development of transport systems like
railway enabled those goods to be transported to wider markets; and the
development of media enabled messages about those products to be distributed to
those larger markets. With the emergence of mass production, markets and media
ordinary people began to much more regularly purchase products from producers
and places they didn’t know first-hand. The brand became a device for enabling
relationships of recognition and trust to form over much wider distances. Brands
were a way of socially facilitating the market exchanges that technologies like mass
production and transport made possible. Brands also played a role in creating and
stimulating desires in newly emerging markets. If industrial production and
transport enabled a wider circulation of commodities, then mass media enabled the
recognition and desire for those commodities. This wider circulation of
commodities also brought producers into contact with each other in new ways.
Producers of commodities in one area found their products competing with
producers from other areas. If you were able to distribute your products nation-
wide, then so were your competitors. Your product now sat alongside them in shops
and in the minds of consumers. This competition brought forth the need to
differentiate products from one another in terms of their qualities.

The interests of manufacturers coincided with the interests of the early mass media
entrepreneurs. Manufacturers were looking for ways to make their products known
and desired by the larger markets they could now reach. Early mass media
entrepreneurs were looking for ways to generate revenue to support their
operations. The newspaper business model was built on generating advertising
revenue to support their operations. Smythe (1981) asked the question, ‘What does
the mass media make?’ The answer that immediately comes to mind is ‘content’: the
mass media make news stories or television programmes. Smythe though explained

that the content is not the product, but rather a part of the process of producing the
final product – audiences. The mass media produce and sell audiences to
advertisers. More specifically, they sell audience attention. The content is a device
that captures our attention, which advertisers will pay for. An important dynamic at
work here is that advertisers will pay for certain kinds of audiences, namely middle-
class consumers with disposable income. For this reason, many critics have argued
that mass media content tends to reflect middle-class life and values. This basic
relationship underpinned the development of mass culture in the twentieth century,
and that is why brands are so integral to an understanding of media and cultural
production. As we shall argue in this chapter, changes in the way brands are made
and managed are also integral to the changing functioning of media and cultural
production in the twenty-first century. In this chapter then, we examine brands not
just as meanings, but as processes that create and exploit audience attention and
participation in ways that stimulate desires and facilitate the circulation of products.

Brands are social processes
Brands aren’t contained only in their advertisements. While advertising has shifted
towards making more associational claims, brands have also moved their
production processes directly into the cultural spaces, practices and lifestyles that
their advertisements represent. In Australia, for instance, Coca-Cola has screened
summer advertisements over a number of years that depict typical Australian
summer pastimes like playing beach cricket or going to music festivals. While the
advertisements depict these cultural pastimes, the brand also enacts them. In the
summer of 2013 they built a large beach – complete with lifeguards, sand, a pool
and Coca-Cola – at sports stadiums during summer cricket matches. Images of the
beach were part of the television coverage of the cricket match and circulated on
social media. Brands don’t just represent lifestyles in their advertisements, they also
engage directly in those cultural practices. In this chapter we examine how brands
stimulate identities and facilitate the circulation of their products as part of those
cultural practices.

Brands are social processes. By this we mean that to understand how brands work
we need to pay attention not just to texts and their meanings, but also to the social
interactions between people of which those texts are a part. To understand how
Coca-Cola works as a brand we need to look not just at the television
advertisements, but also at the cultural practices it embeds itself within. Importantly,
we need to pay attention too to the work that cultural intermediaries – like sports
stars, pop musicians and other celebrities – and ordinary people do in making brand
value. This can be as simple as using products as part of our everyday life. When we
consume a product, wear particular fashions, or use a certain brand of phone or
computer, we say something about that brand to our peers. We also say something
about brands when we interact with them online, enter competitions, go to branded
events, or are visible on our social media profiles consuming or using them. This
view of branding draws our attention away from thinking of brands as something
that professionals in advertising agencies create, and towards thinking about the
work we all do in creating and circulating brands. Brands only create value when
they are meaningfully incorporated into our identities and cultural worlds.

The mode of branding we examine in this chapter – one which is interactive,
participatory and reflexive – is attuned to the form of global network capitalism we
have discussed so far in this book. Global network capitalism thrives on serving
proliferating and fragmenting niches. In this system brands need to both position
themselves with different appeals to many different markets at once, and be able to
rapidly adapt themselves to changing consumer identities and rituals (Harvey 1989,

Lash 1990: 41). Brands are also embedded in the production and maintenance of
power relationships in global network capitalism. Individuals use brands to
communicate their status and social hierarchy. Fashion, leisure activities, restaurants
and holiday destinations are all communicative cultural experiences. By consuming
these experiences we construct our identity and communicate it to others.

Brands and Culture
Brands began as a device to convey the ‘legitimacy, prestige, and stability of the
manufacturer; to educate the consumer about the product’s basic value proposition;
and to instruct on the use of novel products’ (Holt 2002: 80). Holt (2002) describes
this mid-twentieth-century branding as ‘cultural engineering’. By the mid-twentieth
century, brands shifted to appeals that were only ‘tenuously linked to functional
benefits’ of products, and spoke instead to people’s ideals, aspirations and desires
about the ‘modern good life’. This mode of branding grew alongside the post-war
middle-class boom which for the first time created ‘a large non-elite class that had
significant disposable income’ (Holt 2002: 82), leisure time, and were moving to
rapidly developing suburbs. Branding, as we know it today, is a mode of
communicating with ordinary middle-class people. Branding is a set of power
relationships that manages the desires, identities and practices of ordinary life. In
this period brands aimed to facilitate the ‘good life’ of middle-class suburban
homes, leisure time, television and mass consumption. This mode of branding
underwent major changes with the rise of the counter-culture in the 1960s. Branding
moved from facilitating a mass homogenous suburban middle-class identity to
promoting ‘the use of consumer goods to pursue individuated identity projects
(Holt 2002: 83). The counter-culture posed an opportunity for brands to embed
themselves much more directly in the creative identity-making activities of
individuals. If branding emerged as part of the effort to engineer collective
identities built around the nation, in the second half of the twentieth century,
branding became critical to the liberal project of shifting away from collective
national identities and towards individual consumer identities. Branding became part
of the social, political and cultural process of mediating desire for individual
freedoms, forms of expression and ways of life.

Brands have a complex relationship with cultural and social movements. While it is
tempting to consider brands as products of mass culture that co-opt organic and
grassroots cultural practices, such a view misses a more complex interface between
brands and culture. From the 1960s onwards three important changes began to take
place in the communicative practices of brands and advertisements. Firstly, brands
began to incorporate a critique of the mass consumer society into their claims. This
appeared paradoxical at first, that advertisers would promote consumption via a
critique of the consumer society. Secondly, advertising began to expose its own
artifice. Rather than pretend their claims were sincere and unmotivated by their own
interests, brands began to point out to consumers the constructed nature of their
appeals. And thirdly, brands began to invoke the popular idea of an empowered and
savvy individual consumer.

The popular view of the 1960s counter-culture portrays it as an organic social
movement that rose up to challenge the conformity of the mass society and culture
industry. Rock music, denim jeans, sexual freedom, drugs and radical politics were
all articulated together in a social movement that claimed to press back against the
sprawling suburban conformity of post-war America. This symbolic antagonism
between the mainstream and the alternative has been a recurring cultural theme for
each generation since. The 1990s saw the rise of ‘alternative’ popular and music
culture that was interrelated in various ways with the anti-globalization movement.
Cultural scenes of the first decade of this century have celebrated ‘indie’ and ‘DIY’
culture often in conjunction with the participatory promise of interactive media.

Each of these movements presented itself as somehow ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ against
the ‘manufactured’ and ‘oppressive’ culture of the mainstream. The counter-culture
appeared to threaten the homogenous status quo of middle-American life with its
radical cultural and identity politics. The alternative movement at first seemed to
rage against the greed of corporate America and the cultural homogenization and
labour exploitation of global capitalism (see Klein 2000). The indie and DIY
aesthetic of the past decade has been connected with bespoke, handmade, local and
environmentally sustainable forms of cultural production and ethical consumption
(see Lewis and Potter 2011). Each of these movements positioned themselves against
an imagined mainstream by articulating different identities, values and politics.
Rather than present a threat to capitalism and consumption, however, each of these
movements was in part created and stimulated by corporate cultural production, and
proved to be a valuable resource for brands. In many cases their ‘counter ’ and
‘alternative’ ideas turned out to be conventional and commercially lucrative. We
often like to think of ourselves as creative and autonomous individuals rather than
passive dupes of the mass society. We need to consider then how ideas and practices
like the counter-culture, alternative and indie are embedded within cultural
production and inform how brands work. Branding is a significant part of the media
machinery that broke down old dominant identities and associated power bases, and
reconstructed new ones that aligned with the power relationships, values and ways
of life favoured by American global network capitalism.

The creative revolution
The 1960s saw a ‘creative revolution’ in the kinds of claims advertisements made
(Frank 1997). Bill Bernbach at the advertising agency DDB invented ‘anti-
advertising: a style which harnessed public mistrust of communication’ (1997: 55).
In his famous campaign for Volkswagen in the 1960s Bernbach’s advertisements
began to both critique the mass society and call ‘attention to themselves as
advertisements’ (1997: 65). By taking into account the critique of mass society and
the public’s knowledge of their constructed nature advertisements reflexively said to
the audience, ‘We know that you know we are trying to persuade you.’ Once
advertising made this move, it was no longer caught up in trying to construct and
protect an idealized artifice. It was no longer hampered by the anxiety of protecting
the authenticity and credibility of its claims. It was free to move into ironic, creative,
savvy and associational forms of communication.

Anticipating the emergence of networked modes of production organized around
creativity and cultural capital, Bernbach was at the forefront of a generation of
cultural producers who recognized that organizations and societies were most
productive when they encouraged freedom and critique, rather than trying to
discipline and control in a hierarchical fashion. Anticipating a form of cultural
production that is commonplace today, he reorganized his agency around creative
teams. Bernbach propagated a narrative about advertising as a serious creative and
artistic endeavour. Bernbach conspicuously constructed a theory of the meaning and
value of his work. His public statements, interviews, memoirs, the organization of
his agency and the advertisements he produced can all be seen as ‘deep texts’
(Caldwell 2008) that help us to construct a portrait of how he understood the
practices and value of advertising.

Where most advertising agencies worked to standardized processes and scientific
formulas and produced advertisements that sincerely represented the mass
consumer society, Bernbach and his agency began to deconstruct both how
advertisements were produced and the kind of appeals they made. Bernbach was the
first advertiser to incorporate a critique of mass society into advertising itself. His
advertisements demonstrate how advertising works not only as promotion but also
as ‘cultural criticism’ (Frank 1997: 55). By examining Bernbach’s advertisements in
relation to the counter-culture, we can see that advertising didn’t co-opt the counter-
culture as some organic social movement. Instead, the counter-culture was
‘triggered as much by developments in mass culture as changes at the grassroots. Its
heroes were rock stars and rebel celebrities, millionaire performers and employees
of the culture industry; its greatest moments occurred on television, on the radio, at

rock concerts and in the movies’ (Frank 1997: 8). The same can be said for the
alternative culture of the 1990s that couldn’t have exploded into a mass movement
without MTV, major record labels and corporate sponsors (Klein 2000, Heath and
Potter 2005). And again, the indie culture of the past decade is deeply incorporated
within corporate production. Brands promote ethical consumption and bespoke
products, and interactive media stimulate and profit from more diffuse and
fragmented forms of DIY and user-generated production (Andrejevic 2007, Lewis
and Potter 2011, Banet-Weiser 2012). Being individual, creative and different is a
continuous project. Outmanoeuvring our peers in the game of life and style is hard
work. It makes us productive consumers. Advertising constructs and speaks to the
savvy consumer. The counter-culture wasn’t a threat to consumerism, but instead a
productive mechanism for continuously generating ideas and trends. Furthermore,
by building self-critique into their claims advertisements could never be caught out
not living up to their claims.

Accounts of how brands work need to take stock of the work consumers do in
making those associations between the product and the cultural practices in their
own lives. Cultural products like films, music, novels and celebrities do the
‘ideological heavy lifting. Brands then act as ideological parasites, tagging along
on these cultural practices’ (Holt 2006: 374). Once brands have established this
connection they then expand ideological expression of those myths: they
‘proselytise’ them (2006: 375). Brands enhance the amplification of certain cultural
practices and identities, that might reinforce broader cultural and political ideas, but
they are ultimately only made meaningful and valuable from the work of consumers
and cultural intermediaries.

Brand Value
Branding is now ‘premised upon the idea that brands will be more valuable if they
are offered not as cultural blueprints but as cultural resources, as useful ingredients
to produce the self as one chooses’ (Holt 2002: 83). Based on the idea of offering
‘cultural resources’, Holt (2002) argues that brands engage in tactics such as:

Developing ironic and reflexive personas. They distance themselves from
being overtly persuasive; they encourage consumers to adapt their claims and
imagery; they make fun of themselves, which protects them from critique
(critique is taken into account in advance).
Embedding in cultural spaces and practices. Brands develop relationships with
art, fashion, subcultures, sport and music communities. They make themselves
an invested part of those practices.
Brands engage with us as part of everyday cultural practices. Consumers then
incorporate brands into their lives, connecting them with their values, practices
and identities.
Brands engage in below-the-line activities that rely on word-of-mouth and
everyday interactions between peers.

Holt (2002) suggests that these activities cause contradictions. On the one hand
brands present themselves as an authentic and disinterested part of cultural life, but
on the other hand we all know their commercial intentions. The result is consumers
who are cynical about brands’ sincerity. This can manifest itself in forms of
consumer activism. When consumers pressured athletics companies like Nike over
their sweatshop practices (Klein 2000) they called out the difference between Nike’s
‘Just Do It’ manifestos and its real world exploitation of labourers. Holt (2002) also
claims that brands will run out of authentic things to co-opt. Perhaps more important
is not whether brands are authentic or not, but whether they attract our attention and
whether we engage with them. Brands rely on our creative participation rather than
our sincere belief in their claims.

Brands are social processes that rely on the participation of consumers and other
cultural actors to create value. They work by ‘enabling and empowering the
freedom of consumers so that it is likely to evolve in particular directions’ rather
than impose a ‘certain structure of tastes and desires’ (Arvidsson 2005: 244). Brands
relate to the process of constructing our individual identity. Individual freedom and
expression are central to progressive and flexible forms of capitalism that emerged
in the past generation. Brands become valuable through the social actions of
consumers. Contemporary accounts of branding emphasize the unpredictability of
contemporary consumers as they create meaning and take brands in unintended

directions (Holt 2002, Arvidsson 2005, Zwick et al. 2008). This unpredictability is
both a challenge to brand managers and a source of value. Brands need to cultivate
and constrain consumer creativity (Foster 2008: xix).

Brands are at the centre of corporate business strategy. They are assets to be
managed (Aaker 1991). Brand loyalty reduces the cost of keeping old customers and
attracting new ones. They create value by facilitating a network of meanings that can
be realized as economic value. Some of the ways brands facilitate value creation

Brands prompt increasing sales of a product or service. For instance,
marketing managers examine how brand activity corresponds with sales
Value can be accrued in the brand itself where consumers will pay a premium
for products they have added value to through their own creative and
communicative capacities (Zwick et al. 2008). Consumers may pay a premium
for a brand they associate with their identity and values. They may be
transferrable from product to product via the brand logo.
Brand value may be registered in stock market valuations (Arvidsson 2005). In
this case, the stock market values both the associations and affects that exist in
consumers’ minds around the brand, and its enduring capacity to act as a device
to realize economic value from a market.

Brands are a device for making value. That value creation process relies on the
participation of consumers. In Robert Foster ’s (2008: 29) formulation, by
participating in the production of brands we ‘transfer control’ over aspects of our
own identities ‘to corporate owners of the brand, who defend their brands legally as
intellectual property’.

Brands do not just promote individual products; they are more broadly involved in
the process of assembling markets and contexts for consumption. Brands work over
time to accumulate audiences, data and recognition that can be assembled into
durable markets. These market structures are stabilized by organizing the economic,
political and cultural frameworks that undergird them. Branding involves working
to legitimize uses of urban space, the collection and application of data, ways of life
and forms of knowledge. In doing so brands have a larger social impact on how we
qualify and value ideas, political issues, identities and ways of life (Hawkins 2009).

Brands play a central role in the development of media technologies and products.
They invest significant resources into the media industries in order to establish and
maintain relationships with audiences. Once, these relationships were facilitated by

selling advertising space alongside media content. Television stations sold time in
ad breaks. Magazines sold pages between editorial content. Now the production and
selling of audiences is much more complex. Media organizations produce content
and experiences that construct, maintain and manage the kinds of audiences that
advertisers want to buy. Media aren’t just responsible for finding audiences out
there and attracting their attention; they are responsible for a much more dynamic
process of constructing audiences, and shaping and crafting their practices,
identities, lifestyles and values. Brands play an important role then in stimulating
media organizations, technologies, products and content, because they are always
interacting with media organizations and telling them what they want.

If brands rely on our participation, and we incorporate them into our identities and
cultural practices, then we need to pay careful attention to the work they do in
addition to creating value for their corporate owners. If brands are a part of culture
they are part of the way we ‘construct our individual lives, our communities, our
histories’ (Banet-Weiser 2012: 9). Brands that are open to critique, point out their
own construction and rely on consumer participation are fit for a mode of
production that doesn’t try to transmit messages in a linear fashion, but instead
negotiates, reappropriates and circulates meaning as part of larger cultural
processes. Brands then don’t seek to create and control messages, but rather to
facilitate affective relationships as part of cultural life. In this cultural context,
‘critique and commentary about branding in advanced capitalism do not lessen the
value of the brand but rather expand it as something that is ambivalent, a
recognisable part of culture, indeed a recognisable part of ourselves’ (Banet-Weiser
2012: 92–93).

The Labour of Branding
Branding involves the labour of an array of communicative and creative

Analysts, researchers and communication professionals
Modern marketing and branding was first institutionalized with the scientific
management and economic disciplines of the early twentieth century. Marketing
aimed to rationalize supply and distribution processes. From the mid-twentieth
century, marketers developed research and analytic techniques for segmenting and
targeting markets with particular messages and products. With the relationships
between consumption and everyday life that developed in the post-war societies,
marketing began to engage with psychological, sociological and cultural
approaches. Today, branding requires an array of technical and cultural experts:
economists, data experts, distribution and logistics engineers, sociologists,
psychologists and anthropologists. All of these professionals design branding as an
ongoing system of conceptualizing, stimulating and managing consumer demand.
Within this system of branding, advertising creatives and public relations
professionals play a critical role in translating brand strategies into symbols and
meanings that will attract the attention and resonate with identified target audiences.

The design of products themselves and spaces of consumption have been
incorporated into the process of branding. As brands have become more than just
logos that are attached to products, designers have become critical to designing
products that embody brand identities and creating social spaces within which
brands can be created and performed by service staff, cultural intermediaries and
consumers. Think for example of how critical the design of Apple devices is to the
meaning, legitimacy and value of the brand. The functionality and appearance of the
device communicates the principles and values of the brand.

Designers are also involved in the creation of ‘servicescapes’ and ‘brandscapes’
(Sherry 1998, Thompson and Arsel 2004) where the brand is performed by service
personnel, cultural intermediaries and consumers. Brands like Starbucks are
constructed via the branded space of their chain stores. Designers create stores that
not only efficiently manage the production of the product and service, but also
create a cultural ambience for the brand. The Starbucks store produces both a cup of
coffee and a social context within which the coffee is consumed as the customers sit,
chat or use the free WiFi.

Front-line staff
In service-and experience-oriented economies the aesthetic and emotional labour of
employees who interact with consumers is also important in performing the brand.
In addition to making the basic product or providing the service (like making and
serving the cup of coffee), they engage too in emotional, aesthetic and affective
forms of labour that mediate the exchange. Retail and customer service staff are
front-line embodiments of the brand (Pettinger 2004, Parmentier and Fischer 2011).
Fashion chains employ staff who are good looking and have personalities that
match the brand, and mandate that they wear clothes in keeping with the brand
image. They are required to engage with customers in ways that perform the
personality of the brand.

Cultural producers
Brands rely on cultural intermediaries like musicians, actors, celebrity chefs and
fashion bloggers to create value. These cultural producers deploy their identity, and
the attention they attract, to embed the brand within their lifestyle and social
networks. This can be as subtle as wearing certain clothes or using a device in
public. Or it can be more detailed like direct endorsements of brands as part of their
own cultural production. The celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is a personal brand in his
own right; in his sponsorship deals and television programmes he cross-promotes
other brands by incorporating them into his narratives about cooking good food at
home. Brands increasingly engage with cultural intermediaries to produce branded
content. Sainsbury’s contracted Jamie Oliver to produce recipes and cooking tips
using products from their store. In the fashion industry, brands increasingly
cultivate relationships with leading style-bloggers who are highly influential with
hipster audiences.

Brands engage consumers in the creation and circulation of brand messages. While
consumers have always added meaning to products and services by incorporating
them into their everyday life, brands invest resources in engaging with consumers
in cultural spaces and encouraging them to circulate content on their social media

Brands, Social Space and Participation
Brands engage with consumers by offering cultural resources and experiences that
encourage their active participation in meaning making. Everyday life is
increasingly characterized by social and cultural spaces where we are invited to
interact with brands. Retail spaces like Apple and Starbucks stores are designed as
branded experiences; online spaces like Facebook, and public cultural spaces like
music festivals and sports events, are all places where we engage with brands within
our everyday lives. Branded spaces are designed to anticipate and harness the
creativity and innovation of consumers (Moor 2003: 58). Analysing a Guinness-
branded music festival in Ireland, Moor (2003) explains how participants create and
then embed the brand into the social enjoyment of music.

Where brands use culturally embedded strategies they rely less on telling
consumers what to think or believe, and more on creating and managing social
spaces where they anticipate and harness the freedom and creativity of consumers.
The capacity to channel and cultivate consumer participation is greatly enhanced by
a networked and interactive media system that can watch and respond to consumers
in real time. While participants in interactive media and branded social spaces are
free to create meanings, identities and social relations, they do that within
communicative processes controlled by media organizations and brands
(Andrejevic 2011: 287). The more they participate, the more their communicative
and social capacities are rendered visible and appropriable by brands.

Brands at cultural events
At music festivals – like Lollapalooza and Coachella in the United States,
Glastonbury and Reading in the United Kingdom, and Splendour in the Grass in
Australia – the production of brands is incorporated into the enjoyment of popular
music and culture. Music festivals are a productive site for brands because music
fans use the festival to circulate and mediate their identity and cultural practices
using smartphones and social media. Popular music plays the role of stimulating a
circulation of memories, emotions and feelings between people. Popular music is
part of our practices of giving and gaining attention (Meier 2011). Festival attendees
use their smartphones to create and circulate images that position them within a flow
of content related to the festival. The festival offers a set of cultural resources
audience members use to portray and position their identity within the network of
hundreds of thousands of images, updates, likes, comments and tags generated by
the thousands of festival goers. These images are part of the story they tell about
themselves and their enjoyment of the festival.

Splendour in the Grass is a music and arts festival held in Australia. The festival
features music performances by international acts and an extensive arts programme.
Partnering alcohol brands build large themed bars where they attract festival
attendees to drink, dance, socialize, take photos and circulate them online. These
themed bars are woven into the festival experience. The festival assembles a
productive audience, cultural resources and brand activations within a purpose-built
social space. In recent years, Smirnoff built a multi-level cocktail bar, Jägermeister
a hunting-lodge-themed bar, and Strongbow a bar on the deck of a large antique
sailing ship. The themed nature of these spaces weaves the brands into the way fans
enjoy and remember the festival. For instance, sitting on the deck of the Strongbow
ship, audience members could drink cider, watch the bands and imagine themselves
sailing through the festival. The branded spaces contribute to feelings of wonder,
fantasy and enjoyment as they drink, relax, dance and socialize. Festival goers
engage with these branded spaces as part of their movement through a wonderland
experience composed of affective engagement with each other, mood-altering
substances, and music and arts performances.

The brand activations are part of the atmospherics and memories of the festival.
Festival goers incorporate them into the flow of images they create and circulate
online using their smartphones. The brands get caught up in a network of images of
festival goers, musicians, artists and performances. In mediating their own identity
as part of the cultural schema of the festival, consumers also create value for
brands. To create an image using a smartphone, festival goers use their capacities to

observe, judge and affect one another. After capturing the image they crop it and
add filters that articulate its mood, and they log hashtags that position it within
social networks online. They watch the flow of images they contribute to, adding
information to them in the form of likes, shares and comments. These practices
create valuable attention and data, which begins in the first instance with the festival
goer using their creativity to capture images and circulate them through social

The music festival and its partnering brands create a material cultural space that
brings together cultural experiences and resources that festival goers use to curate
and structure as flows of images on social media. Contained within the fences of the
music festival are not just performances and brand logos but a productive audience
who use their smartphones to position themselves within a flow of images. The
circulation of images reproduces the cultural schema of the festival and its
sponsoring brands. They link together their own identities, cultural performances
and brands. Brands also employ photographers who take photos of audience
members and upload them to Facebook. In addition to creating themed spaces with
brand logos, they also hand out branded items like sunglasses, bags, beach balls,
blow-up couches, t-shirts and so on that also get captured in the thousands of images
circulated by the audience at the festival. These images become micro-
advertisements that connect the brand to many different identities and their online
social networks.

As festival goers participate in branded spaces and use their smartphones to record
those experiences on social media they craft a network of shared associations,
dispositions and affects that are valuable to brands. The images have a double

As content that connects together the brand, a cultural experience and their
identity. The images circulate highly credible brand messages through online
peer networks.
As devices that generate data within the databases of social media. As images
circulate, friends view, click, like, tag, share or comment on them. Each of
these interactions generates valuable data for social media platforms and
brands. Over time, brands develop profiles of the kinds of people that attend
music festivals and engage with branded spaces. This enables them to design
and target future engagements with cultural spaces and audiences.

Brands that create value by establishing and managing social spaces and processes
appear to be able to adapt to the creative meaning-making activities of consumers.
Through these spaces and activities brands create value by enabling and managing

consumer participation with cultural resources and purpose-built social spaces (Holt
2002, Moor 2003, Thompson and Arsel 2004, Arvidsson 2005, Foster 2008).

Brands and mobile media devices
Within social spaces like music festivals we can see how cultural experiences,
smartphones and social media are assembled in the creation of an open-ended form
of branding. This mode of branding brings together ‘soft’, culturally embedded
activities with ‘hard’, calculative and predictive analytics. The brand engages with
the cultural experiences of consumers; this prompts them to create media content
that is registered online where it generates data that is used to assemble and manage
markets. Brands connect together real-world cultural spaces with the technical
capacities of interactive media. This enables them to develop brands as ‘devices for
the reflexive organisation of a set of multi-dimensional relationships’ between
brands, culture and people (Lury 2009: 69). The brand is not only, or even
primarily, a symbol representing a particular meaning; instead, it is a device that
assembles ongoing relationships between people, places, experiences and products.
The brand becomes coextensive with the social relations it stimulates and manages.

The creative participation of consumers and cultural intermediaries creates value
even ‘where their experimentation and innovation is “resistive in nature”’ (Zwick et
al. 2008: 168) because value is made via the capacity of individuals to affect one
another, rather than adhere to specific meanings. Brands rely less on particular
representations of authentic, cool or counter-cultural values. Instead, authenticity is
grounded in the capacity of participants to animate affective connections and
circuits of attention and recognition (Taylor 2007, Meier 2011). As far as the
creation of brand value is concerned, authenticity is simply the capacity of popular
music to establish an affective link between the brand and target market (Meier
2011: 409). The brand doesn’t attempt to appropriate some particular meaning, but
instead to position itself within cultural practices and circulation of affect and
meaning that changes continuously.

The Merchants of Cool and Generation Like
The media critic and filmmaker Douglas Rushkoff has made two films about branding and
promotional culture. The first film, The Merchants of Cool (2001), examined the emergence of
‘coolhunting’ as part of brands’ efforts to make themselves a part of constantly-evolving frameworks
of meaning. The second film, Generation Like (2014), examines how social media have evolved into
a platform for harnessing the productive activities of fans in the publicization, promotion and branding
of products.

Both films can be watched online at the PBS website ( You can find links to these films
and other resources about brands and culture on the Media and Society website

What is coolhunting? What are the limitations of coolhunting?
What does coolhunting tell us about the relationship between brands and culture?
How have brands adapted to social media?
Select brands that you use or are familiar with. How are they embedded within your everyday
life, cultural practices and identities?
Imagine you are a brand but you cannot make advertisements or buy advertising space on
television, newspapers or magazines. How would you build and manage the brand?
What kinds of information and data would you need about consumers and their lives to manage
the brand?
How would you collect and analyse information about consumers to manage the brand?
What kinds of cultural intermediaries would you need to work with to promote the brand?
How do brands make use of social and mobile media to engage us in everyday life?

Ethical Brands and Everyday Life
In this chapter we’ve conceptualized brands as social processes. We’ve claimed that
they are embedded in culture, rely on the participation of cultural intermediaries and
consumers, draw on critiques of the mass society and draw attention to their own
appeals. Once brands are embedded into everyday life and culture, they become part
of the way we construct our everyday practices, ethics and politics. They become
one of the resources we use to make our lives meaningful. Brands now make claims
about their broader role in society and their environmental, ethical and political
standpoints. This is just as much a deliberate commercial strategy as it is a
consequence of brands’ more complex engagements with culture. For brands to
engage in cultural and identity-based forms of communication they inevitably end
up making claims about the things people care about in their everyday lives. This
sets in motion a series of consequences. As much as brands profit from their
engagements with culture, they are also accountable to them. Consumers and
citizens expect them to match up to the cultural and ethical claims they make (Klein
2000, Lewis and Potter 2011, Banet-Weiser 2012). Banet-Weiser (2012) suggests that
one consequence is a more ambivalent relationship between consumers and brands.
On the one hand we use and engage with them every day, we find them meaningful,
we agree with the ethics of some of the claims they make. On the other hand we are
frequently cynical and dismissive of their sincerity, motivations and intentions.

Žižek (2010a: 53) draws our attention to the ethical claims embedded in everyday
practices of consumption. He suggests that a traditional way of thinking about
philanthropy and charity held that some individuals were wealthy and powerful.
They used that wealth and power to donate to causes they believed were important.
The powerful were patrons of causes that they either cared about or believed were
important. ‘In the morning’, Žižek (2010b) argues, the wealthy ‘grab the money, in
the afternoon [they] give half the money back to charity.’ In today’s capitalism,
however, ‘When you buy something your anti-consumerist duty to do something for
others is already included into it.’ He offers the example of Starbucks’ claim that:
‘It’s not just what you are buying, it’s what you are buying into … when you buy
Starbucks, whether you realize it or not, you are buying something bigger than a
cup of coffee. You are buying into a coffee ethics. Through our Starbucks Shared
Planet program we purchase more Fair Trade coffee than any company in the
world, ensuring the farmers receive a fair price for their hard work, and we invest
in and improve coffee growing practices and communities around the globe’. Žižek
describes this as ‘cultural capitalism’. Consumption is an ethical, symbolic
communicative act: ‘You don’t just buy a coffee; in the very consumerist act you
buy your redemption from being only a consumerist.’ This form of branding aligns

with the progressive social-democrat values that construct ‘capitalism with a human
face’ and position identity-based forms of consumption as acts that express the
values of global network capitalism.

The ethical consumer
Writing about Fairtrade coffee shops where customers choose where the profits will
be donated from each cup of coffee, Lewis and Potter (2011: 4) argue that ‘Attempts
by social justice-oriented businesses to reconfigure the privatized moment of
spending as a communal act, thus positioning consumer choice as a site of
responsibility, are increasingly commonplace in today’s marketplace.’ Ordinary
everyday life is beset by questions and decisions that seem attached to larger ethical
and political concerns. Purchasing goods and services is more than just about
satisfying our demands for the necessities of life; it has become a social and
political act that constitutes our identities, social worlds and power relationships. We
now feel we need to mark out who we are, what we value and what kind of society
we want via our consumption practices. Our everyday lives seem connected to
larger ‘community, national and global concerns’ (Lewis and Potter 2011: 10).

The flexible and networked society of global capitalism poses new kinds of ethical
questions and political possibilities. Our ethics are no longer moored in traditional
communities and moral codes, but in everyday choices we make in a reflexive
communicative network. Buying a coffee or a bottle of water becomes an act that
says something about the fate of natural resources and labourers in the developing
world. As global network capitalism creates new kinds of connectivity, we develop
new ways of understanding our place in complex networks. As much as brands
make claims about their ethics, those claims make consumers aware that products
don’t just have particular attributes they desire – those objects themselves are part of
a network of social and material relations. Our decision to purchase a coffee isn’t
just about the taste, but also about the ethics of its production, as well as the
ambience, affects or meanings of consuming it in the store, office or as we walk
through the city. In a networked consumer society, responsibility devolves to every
individual in the network. Consumption becomes a symbolic communicative act
marking out not just what we want, but how we understand our place in the social
world, what our values are and how we want to be seen by others.

Brands stimulate and manage ethical consumption. Ethical consumption displaces
collective action as a means of shaping the kind of society we want to live in in
favour of individual and private choices (Potter 2011). Ethical consumption invites
consumers to ‘work on themselves’ at the same time as they monitor corporations’
values and practices (2011: 119). When we purchase a bottle of water that claims to
donate money to clean water projects in the developing world we both mark out our
own values and send a message to the network or market about the kinds of products
we desire. We communicate our ethics via our consumption. In doing so though we

also add qualities and value to brands by making them ethical and meaningful
(Foster 2008, Potter 2011).

On the one hand where a bottle of water or a cup of coffee claims to us that it will
contribute to clean water or sustainable production, it works as a sincere ethical
claim. On the other hand, Žižek (2010a) provocatively suggests that despite the
apparent sincerity of ethical consumption, we are in fact often cynics. That is, we
know the bottle of water or cup of coffee won’t actually fix the problems in the
developing world. We aren’t naïve enough to believe that disposable bottles of water
and coffee cups could ever be environmentally sustainable. But these acts of
consumption make us feel good. They help us build an identity that works for us,
positions us in our social networks and makes life enjoyable. So we do them
anyway. Regardless of whether our thoughts about ethical consumption are sincere
or cynical, by participating in it we validate the idea that we must act. Brands
encourage us not to think but to act. Ethical consumption is an important part of the
way network capitalism functions. Ethical brands produce ‘capitalism with a human
face’. Žižek agrees that helping others and protecting the environment are good
causes, but in appending these principles to brands we obscure how global network
capitalism causes many of these problems in the first place.

The ‘ethicalization’ of everyday life
In the famous ‘chicken’ scene in Portlandia – a satire of hipster life in Portland,
Oregon – contemporary anxieties about ethical consumption are astutely skewered.
A couple ask a waiter in a restaurant about the chicken on the menu. The waiter tells
them, ‘The chicken is heritage breed, woodland raised chicken, that’s been fed a diet
of sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts.’ The diners continue to enquire about the
chicken: Is it local? Is it organic? Are the hazelnuts local? How big is the area where
the chickens are able to roam free? Taking their enquiries seriously, the waiter goes
away and returns with a biography of the chicken including a photo and life story.
She tells them, ‘The chicken you will be enjoying tonight … his name was Colin,
here are his papers.’ The waiter assures them the farm does a lot to ensure the
chickens are happy. The couple make further enquiries about the farm and its
owners, telling the waiter, ‘It tears at the core of my being someone just cashing in
on a trend like organic.’ The diners then ask if the restaurant will hold their seats
while they go to the farm to check on the living conditions of the chicken before
placing their order.

The scene is a satire of the ‘ethicalization’ of everyday life and the ‘reflexive doubt’
(Dean 2010) that characterizes ethical consumption. As much as we feel compelled
to consider the ethical consequences of our everyday life and consumption, we
simultaneously are unable to make any firm judgements. We are encouraged to be
informed consumers, but the networked society’s modes of production and
communication are so complex and fragmented that we are unable to get and assess
information. Faced with decisions like this we become anxious, static or cynical.
This leads us to be increasingly dismissive or anxious about the consequences of
our choices. Brands’ ethical claims conceal their role in stimulating these anxieties
as much as offering solutions to them. As much as brands’ ethical claims respond to
consumers’ demands for more responsible forms of production, they also construct
and anticipate them.

In this chapter we’ve examined how brands facilitate cultural and communicative
practices. Branding appears to be part of the communicative logic of global
network capitalism. It is a series of symbols, social spaces and processes embedded
into our everyday lives, politics and culture. We live in a ‘promotional culture’
(Wernick 1991) that informs how we think about our lives, politics and societies. We
are each engaged in the day-to-day promotional work of positioning ourselves in
networks of communication and production.

Brands’ Stories about their Ethics and Values
Apple is one of the most valuable brands in the world. It was initially built on positioning itself in
relation to ‘cool outsiders’ who identified with progressive political and identity narratives. The Apple
brand of the early 1980s positioned itself by drawing on the ‘mass society critique’. The famous
‘1984’ advertisement depicted a homogenous mass watching an anonymous figure speak at them. The
imagery conjured up the mass society idea of a passive audience consuming content. A woman arrives
and throws a sledgehammer through the screen, blowing it up. A voice-over tells us, ‘On January
24th Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984”.’
The advertisement promised that Apple would ‘break’ the dystopian mass society depicted by Orwell
in his famous novel. Apple’s brand narrative used the counter-culture mythology to position its
customers as creative, independent and autonomous. While everyone else was watching TV, Apple
consumers were creating the future.

Apple relied on its passionate consumers to embed the brand in their cultural narratives and identities.
Apple consumers presented themselves as intelligent, savvy, urban hipsters. They worked in cool
creative jobs in hip cities and shared progressive cultural and political values. As much as the Apple
brand was created with clever product design and advertising, it was also created by strategically
managing its hip adopter-elite. Online communities and influential bloggers were part of the
development of the Apple brand (see Muniz and O’Guinn 2001). Over the past decade Apple has
rapidly risen from a niche brand to a market leader. This has presented Apple challenges as it tries to
manage an adopter-elite niche market segment alongside a mass consumer market. The Apple flagship
stores have been an important part of this strategy. The stores are a material space that embody the
brand for the mass market. Ordinary consumers can go to these stores to speak with Apple experts at
the stores’ Genius Bars. These stores are important material ‘brandscapes’ (Thompson and Arsel
2004) where the brand is performed and materialized. Apple also uses stage-managed product
launches to generate discussion among technology journalists, bloggers and adopters.

The Apple brand is not just made in its advertising and stores: the use of the products by consumers
and cultural intermediaries, and the way those products are organized within an Apple ecosystem, also
build the brand. The ecosystem organizes consumer interaction with the product within a network
wholly owned and controlled by Apple.

In recent times, Apple has also had to contend with an identity crisis as consumers perceive a gap
between the clean, innovative and ethical brand rhetoric and the production conditions in Chinese
factories, and the control of innovation through its closed eco-system, application and content stores.
In these instances we can see what Banet-Weiser (2012) calls the ‘ambivalent’ nature of brands. On
the one hand Apple connects with things we believe in, on the other hand it embodies the
contradictions of the globally networked consumer society. The brand is a device for managing a
globally networked information business – a way of articulating production and consumption together
in profitable ways.

Consider some of your favourite brands today. How do they both celebrate and critique the
mass society?
How is today’s mass society different from the one imagined by Orwell, or the mass society of
the mid-twentieth century?
What are Apple’s brand values?
How does Apple prove or demonstrate those values?
How do their narratives develop over time?
Examine the ethics, responsibility and Fairtrade policies of brands that you use. You can find
links to policies and other resources about ethical brands on the Media and Society website
What claims do brands make about citizenship?
What forms of citizenship do they offer consumers?
How do brands make purchasing goods and services meaningful?

What does buying an ethical brand communicate about you?
What impact does buying an ethical brand have on our society?
What contributions do ethical brands make to society?
Are contemporary brands that offer us ways to convey the environmental, social and cultural
causes that matter to us better than brands that simply offer us qualities within the product and

In this chapter, we considered how brands work as a social process. Brands only
become meaningful and valuable when we interact with them, incorporating them
into our identities, cultural practices and social lives. While we can determine their
efforts to take advantage, stimulate, amplify and even exploit particular identities
and practices, we can also sense their possibilities and limitations. They don’t exert
control over us, but they do structure the social spaces and processes in which we
relate to each other. Cohen (1963) argued that mass media don’t tell us what to think,
but do tell us what to think about. The interactive and participatory forms of
branding we have examined here follow a similar logic: they establish the
communication spaces and processes within which we construct our identities. As
brands have become more open-ended and participatory processes, and as our
media systems have become more interactive, brands have become more embedded
in our everyday cultural practices.

Examining the contemporary processes of branding helps us to consider how the
identity and communicative work of ordinary individuals is increasingly important
to how media functions to create and maintain power relationships. It doesn’t work
only by telling ordinary people what to think and do, but by constructing their action
and participation in particular contexts. Ordinary people and the way they
communicate and live their lives are very important to the production of brand
value. Their communicative and identity-making capacities need to be incorporated
into the social process of branding. Their identities take on the features of brands,
and vice versa. Banet-Weiser (2012: 43) argues that brands rely on our labour, and
that labour is the capacity to produce affective relationships around brands. This
makes brands flexible and ambivalent. They are not monolithic objects, but adaptive
social processes.

Brands offer us opportunities and resources to express ourselves and make our
identities visible to others. As we become engaged in the process of connecting self-
expression to the creation of brand value, we may also become less engaged in
forms of communication directed towards encountering others (Chouliaraki 2013).
Brands invite us to reflect on the self rather than encounter the experience of others.
As brands incorporate ethical duties and claims into the forms of participation they
offer us, we use them as devices for expressing our own values. In the process, we
make brands meaningful, durable and ethical parts of our cultural world, and we
format our identities within the logic of brands. This neuters processes by which we
might encounter others and reflect on our role in global processes of consumption
(Chouliaraki 2013). In this chapter, by examining brands as a social process, we’ve

considered how promotion and participation are practices central to the functioning
of the globally networked media system.

Further Reading
The readings by Banet-Weiser (2012) and Holt (2002) are useful in charting the
development of brands that are embedded within culture, rely on the participation of
consumers, and adopt savvy and ironic dispositions. The reading by Holt (2002) in
particular charts the transition from branding as a mode of ‘cultural engineering’ to
a more open-ended and participatory process that draws on cultural life. Meier
(2011) explores the connections between branding and popular music. Meier offers
critical arguments that consider how authenticity functions within commercial
popular culture. The readings by Banet-Weiser (2012), Chouliaraki (2010) and
Lewis (2008) each examine the interrelationships between promotion and branding,
culture, politics and ethics. They address themes related to ethical consumption,
humanitarianism and activism within a commercial popular culture.

Banet-Weiser, S. (2012) Authentic TM: The Politics and Ambivalence in a Brand
Culture. New York: NYU Press.

Chouliaraki, L. (2010) ‘Post-humanitarianism: Humanitarian communication
beyond a politics of pity’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 13 (2): 107–

Holt, D. B. (2002) ‘Why do brands cause trouble? A dialectical theory of consumer
culture and branding’, Journal of Consumer Research, 29 (1): 70–90.

Lewis, T. (2008) ‘Transforming citizens? Green politics and ethical consumption on
lifestyle television’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 22 (2): 227–

Meier, L. M. (2011) ‘Promotional ubiquitous musics: recording artists, brands, and
“rendering authenticity”’, Popular Music and Society, 34 (4): 399–415.

Any article marked with is available to download at the website

10 Popular Culture Popular culture is integral
to the creation of meaning and exercise of

* How are power relationships represented in popular culture?
* How does popular culture provide instructions for everyday life?
* How do powerful groups use popular culture?

In this chapter we consider the uses of popular

Crafting and mediating identities and social life
Making sense of social reality
Making value from the mediation of identity
Mediating political participation
Managing power relationships.

Popular Culture and Governing Everyday Life
Popular culture is a pervasive part of everyday life in western societies. Our
identities, leisure activities, cultural practices and political participation are all
mediated through popular culture. Our interest in this chapter is examining the role
popular culture plays in mediating social reality and managing power relationships.

Popular culture is often used as a term that incorporates mass culture, celebrity
culture, commercial culture and amateur cultural production. To begin with we
might think of popular culture as the culture of the people or ordinary people. In
doing so, however, we must acknowledge that often popular culture shapes our
understanding of ordinary everyday life in the first place. Popular culture constructs
and shapes everyday life and identities as much as it reflects them. Furthermore, in
western societies there is arguably no useful distinction to be made between the
popular culture of ordinary people and industrialized, mass-produced and
commercial culture. Given our interest in this book, we pay particular attention to
the relationship between popular culture and media production. These circuits of
production and cultural practices are interrelated with each other. For this very
reason, popular culture helps us understand power relationships. In particular, it
helps us to consider why the everyday cultural practices and identities of ordinary
people are so important to the creation and maintenance of power relationships in
contemporary societies.

Popular culture is a symptom of larger social
Janice Peck (2008) suggests that we approach popular culture by moving back and
forth between texts (like television programmes, music, magazines, even fashion or
trends) and context (that is, larger historical, political or social processes and
formations). We should aim to understand popular culture’s texts as symptomatic of,
and conditioned by, social, cultural and political formations. By approaching
popular culture in this way we can conduct an analysis that avoids falling into the
trap of debunking the claims of popular culture, and instead try to understand how
popular culture works to enact identities and power relationships, and how it
constructs our understanding of social formations. Our analysis of popular culture,
we propose, has to be wise to – astute about – the way we are embedded in popular
culture, and often already approach it in a canny and knowing way. As ordinary
people, living in a media-dense world, we already participate on a daily basis in
practices of critically dissecting and deconstructing the popular culture we live in.
One of the central claims of this chapter is that we need to think in a more nuanced
fashion rather than simply being savvy know-alls who think to ourselves ‘I get it’: ‘I
get that reality TV isn’t really real’, ‘I get that Oprah’s invocation to read that best-
selling life-changing book is a promotional tactic’, ‘I get that this home
improvement programme is trying to get me to shop at Home Depot or Bunnings
on the weekend’. There really isn’t any point to this kind of critical – yet apathetic –
savvy deconstructing and debunking. We need to think about popular culture in a
productively critical way – in a way that enhances how we understand the world we
live in.

With this in mind, we argue that we should look carefully at how popular culture is
made, how popular culture makes its claims, and how they work despite that fact the
we can see how they work. Rather than doing a simple ‘ideology critique’ that points
to the constructed nature of media representations, we instead are trying to think
about how ideology functions as something people do, and therefore works despite
the fact we can see through how it works. This is different from an ideology critique
that stops at simply pointing out the contrivances of popular culture texts. Part of the
reason we must approach popular culture like this is that popular culture today
rapidly appropriates and recuperates a critique of itself. One way to think about this
is as a ‘wink’. Popular culture constantly winks at us, to let us know: ‘We know you
know how things really are. We know that you get it.’ Deconstructing popular
culture’s representations has become a central part of its rituals of entertainment and
enjoyment. Think of reality TV programmes like American Idol or Big Brother that
give viewers constant backstage access to contestants’ preparations or backstories

so that we can judge and critique the authenticity of their performances. Popular
culture makes deconstruction an element of the way its representations function.
Popular culture constructs a critique of itself as part of its very functioning. This has
been described as a strategy of ‘protecting artifice by exposing it’ (Andrejevic 2004:
16). Audiences are part of these practices too; they are conscious, savvy and cynical
about the contrived nature of popular culture (Andrejevic 2004: 19, Teurlings 2010).

The questions we need to ask then are not just about the meaning of texts and the gap
between the meanings in the text and the social reality they claim to represent. We
know that life isn’t really how it appears in fashion magazines, or home renovation
shows or television dramas. Following Peck (2008: 7), the questions we might ask
about popular culture are instead:

How are power relationships represented in popular culture?
Who is presented as powerful?
Who is powerful and why?
By what means does one become empowered and to what ends?

By asking these questions we can approach popular culture in terms of the way it
facilitates power relationships. This means we think about the meanings it creates
differently, less concerned with the content of meanings and their authenticity, and
more concerned with how those meanings facilitate social relations.

Popular Culture in Neoliberal Times
In this chapter we address forms of popular culture that are grounded in the power
relationships of global network capitalism. Contemporary popular culture reflects
social and political relationships that have been characterized as neoliberal. Where
in the managerial era the state took direct responsibility for managing mass
populations via institutions, laws, education and media and culture, in the global
network era the management of populations changes its character. ‘Governing at a
distance’ is a way of describing the shift away from big government, big labour and
mass consumption (Harvey 1989) and towards smaller government, free market and
flexible labour relations and niche markets. Ouellette and Hay (2008a) employ
Foucault’s idea of ‘governmentality’ to describe how this process works.
Governmentality refers to ‘how we think about governing others and ourselves’
using ‘techniques’ to ‘reflect upon, work on, and organize [our] lives’ (2008a: 9). In
this approach power functions via the ‘knowledge and procedures associated with
social institutions’ (2008a: 9). Power is facilitated via interactions between
institutions and people. Institutions seek to shape knowledge via the practices,
technologies and processes they create and enable individuals to participate in.
Those living in liberal societies are free, but that freedom is organized by particular
institutions who set rules for what we can and can’t do and what we do and don’t say.
This conception of governing expects individuals to participate in their own
governance and exercise personal responsibility. The success of the contemporary
liberal state is built upon its capacity to create an assembly of institutions, practices
and values through which people govern, discipline and police themselves. This
system encourages people to see their life circumstances as the outcome of their
own choices and changeable through their own actions. Governing at a distance then
involves developing cultural institutions and practices that act as broad frameworks
within which people take care of their own lives.

Popular culture and government at a distance
Popular culture plays a role in facilitating ‘government at a distance’ by creating
institutions and practices that fashion responsible individuals who take care of
themselves. For instance, television talk shows, fashion magazines, talk radio,
breakfast television and reality TV all provide an instruction manual for everyday
life. This mode of thinking about government fits well with global liberal-
democratic capitalism’s belief in a free market that incentivizes individual initiative.
Popular culture produces and legitimizes these identities and cultural practices.
Critics argue that by celebrating the productive and enterprising individual, popular
culture elides the ‘vital difference between conceiving empowerment at the level of
individual well-being versus understanding it as a socio-political, hence collective,
undertaking’ (Peck 2008: 7).

Governing at a distance by making individuals responsible for their own lives has
two consequences for thinking about power relationships. Firstly, this mode of
power is exercised in a participatory rather than authoritarian fashion. Individuals
are encouraged to participate in practices that make and maintain social and power
relationships. Popular culture might be disciplinary in terms of giving us advice on
how to discipline and organize our lives, but it isn’t repressive, it doesn’t force us to
do it; rather it advises us on what we should do if we want to be successful in this
society. This leads us to the second point: that popular culture is now much more
about managing populations than constructing mass identities. Popular culture helps
to produce and manage populations that see themselves as part of the power
relationships of a neoliberal society. It offers schemas for making sense of their
position in those power relationships, and offers techniques or practices through
which people believe they are empowering themselves. Communication
professionals effectively steer people into systems and identity which embed them
into rituals of self-governance.

Popular culture became important to power relationships with the birth of mass
liberal democracies. The mass enfranchisement of ordinary people – from the
underclasses, to the working class, to the growing middle class – presented the
challenge of making sure they were appropriately incorporated into the power
relationships and institutions of society. As far as the emerging mass media was
concerned this involved using it to ensure that appropriate forms of citizenship,
civil society and democracy were promoted, that people were educated on the right
way to think about themselves as citizens. With the rise of neoliberalism and its
emphasis on the responsible individual, this role for popular culture becomes
arguably even more important to the functioning of power relationships. While

popular culture of the twentieth century was characterized as a mass project to
create mass national identities, with the emergence of global network capitalism and
networked communication technologies – like cable TV and internet – we see a
fragmentation of that mass into a diversity of niches who can all be served by
popular culture. Popular culture becomes fragmented, not so much organizing a
homogenous mass identity, but managing the identities of proliferating niche
groups. Popular culture facilitates identities that serve commercial and political
ends, but they don’t have to adhere to homogenous ideologies, as long as they act
within the broad framework of rules and values of society. Ouellette and Hay
(2008a: 13) argue that contemporary television diffuses and amplifies governing at
a distance, ‘utilising the cultural power of television … to assess and guide the
ethics, behaviours, aspirations and routines of ordinary people’.

Popular culture as lived social practices
The power relationships framework of this book encourages us to pay attention to
both the cultural content of media and the political economic context within which it
is produced and consumed. The shape this approach takes in a chapter addressing
popular culture is one that moves back and forth between popular culture texts and
the context within which they are produced and consumed. It is important to note that
we aren’t making either a simplistic ‘direct effects’ or ‘ideology critique’ argument
about popular culture – as if it implants ideas in our minds that we act on. Instead we
are paying careful attention to how popular culture produces, and is produced by,
power relationships.

Popular culture isn’t an inert product made and delivered to us; we as individuals
engage in the production of cultural practices and social relationships. In neoliberal
times popular culture often involves the work of producing, monitoring, evaluating
and improving ourselves using the resources and within the institutions of the
society in which we live. This can be as simple as thinking about a cooking show
like MasterChef. It instructs us on how to cook better, which will make us better
people, healthier and more popular with our friends who will like coming over for
dinner. Watching the show is part of developing our ability to cook; we buy
cookbooks and better food at the market, and act to improve our skills. But this also
makes us actors within a system of popular culture that commodifies food culture,
and connects it to big food and home appliance brands, supermarkets, restaurants,
celebrity chefs and their cookbooks. We don’t just work on ourselves; we also –
through our freely chosen actions – give form and validation to the institution of
cooking shows and the cultural practices they enact. It isn’t just that we sat on the
couch and the ideas went into our minds: the popular culture text was one part of
framing a whole way of life. Popular culture then becomes a ‘cultural technology’
that is part of broader institutions of politics and commerce. Popular culture
assembles cultural identities and practices within market structures. Whatever
popular culture text we look at – in this chapter we mainly look at contemporary
genres of television – we need to understand those popular culture texts not just as
isolated containers of meanings, but as a part of broader cultural and economic

Ordinary People and Popular Culture’s Promises and
If popular culture is the culture of ordinary people then this chapter considers how
the experience of the ordinary person has become central to the creation and
maintenance of power relations. In this section we frame our discussion by
considering some of the claims and practices of contemporary popular culture.

Access to reality
Media and popular culture claim to offer unmediated access to reality so that we can
see ‘how things really are’ (Couldry 2003, Andrejevic 2004, Turner 2010, Wood
and Skeggs 2011). Nick Couldry describes these claims as the myth of the mediated
centre. This refers to the common belief and everyday practices that suggest the
media are the centre of the social world and ‘that in some sense the media speak
from and for that centre’ (Couldry 2003: 46). Media establish themselves as
speaking on our behalf and in our interests. This centres the media as a ‘privileged
frame through which we access the reality that matters to us as social beings’ (2003:
58). By constructing themselves as a privileged window onto reality the media first
and foremost communicate their own power and their own centrality to the
production of identities, culture and social relationships.

Participation and surveillance
The production of popular culture is increasingly organized around the
participation and surveillance of ordinary people and everyday life. Graeme Turner
(2010) argues that ordinary people are much more visible in today’s popular culture
than they once were. Talk radio, tabloids, reality TV and social media all
incorporate ordinary people’s practices and everyday life into their media rituals
and representations. We are asked to vote, comment, express our opinion, perform
and judge as ordinary and aspiring people participating in the production of popular
culture. These forms of participation are also increasingly connected to surveillance
technologies. Mark Andrejevic (2007) has described these technologies as
constituting a ‘digital enclosure’ within which the media processes that we
participate in are watched, tracked and responded to. While we take this issue up at
length in Chapter 11, for the purposes of our discussion of popular culture in this
chapter what we are interested in is the way that popular culture popularizes
surveillance and monitoring as ordinary everyday practices (Andrejevic 2004,
Ouellette and Hay 2008a).

By thinking about how participation and surveillance are related we can consider the
difference between talk and celebration of participation in popular culture and the
actual quality of that participation. Many critics argue that participatory rhetoric
tells ordinary people they are empowered, while organizing them within uneven
power structures (see, for instance, Andrejevic 2007, Ouellette and Hay 2008a,
Hindman 2009, Couldry 2010). As we come to see the media as the platform
through which we participate, they gain legitimacy and importance. We can’t
imagine social, cultural or political processes without the media organizing our
participation. This invokes the promise that participation will create media that
reflect our way of life, identities and values. This implicitly suggests that if the
twentieth century was ‘bad’ because it produced top-down homogenous content for
mass audiences, then the new interactive cultural industry is ‘good’ because
audiences get to participate in shaping its content. This promise obscures the way
this participation facilitates commercial and political processes. The emergence of
interactive media and popular culture continues the management of cultural
production begun by the twentieth-century culture industry. Contemporary popular
culture presents itself as an antidote to the mass society, claiming to empower
ordinary people, at the same time that surveillance technologies give it increasing
control over the construction and management of social life. Popular culture
encourages us to carefully monitor, inspect and judge ourselves and our peers; at
the same time it in turn carefully monitors and responds to us.

Rules, regulations and personal responsibility
Popular culture enacts rules and rituals for making judgements about ourselves and
others (Couldry 2003, Ouellette and Hay 2008a). When we watch reality TV we see
the production of frameworks for governing everyday life. Big Brother sets the
rules within the house; American Idol judges act according to the rules of the music
business; Supernanny tells parents and children what the household rules are; Trinny
and Susannah tell us what clothes we should wear. These rules cannot be challenged
from within the popular culture formats. Contestants on Big Brother play by the
rules or leave, American Idol judges’ advice is gospel, Supernanny’s rules cannot be
challenged. These rules and regulations are often set out and employed by expert
judges on the show. Experts give advice and make final decisions or call on the
public to decide, based on their advice. The judgements we are encouraged to make
are always about individuals’ compliance with the rules, rather than the rules
themselves and how they might reflect broader social or political structures. By
participating in spectacles of making judgements against pre-set rules we arguably
don’t see broader social structures.

By engaging us in rituals of making judgements against set rules, popular culture
obfuscates how social relations are produced, even as it promises to show ‘how
things really are’. We might think of reality TV here having a disciplinary function,
in so far as it produces a spectacle of teaching us the rules for everyday life, and
demonstrating to us how the powerful enact those rules (Andrejevic 2011, Wood and
Skeggs 2011, Couldry 2011). The judges on America’s Next Top Model are fashion
industry insiders who know the rules for making it in the business; the police
officers on Cops and Highway Patrol are state officials who enforce the law and so
on. Popular culture formats like reality TV do the work of positioning who has
power and how to judge people (Woods and Skeggs 2011: 9). Those rules and
judgements create and facilitate power relationships. While we all have the power to
participate, we have to play in social structures controlled by others. As viewers we
can also position ourselves relative to other ordinary people. We are encouraged to
judge and place people in a social hierarchy (Couldry 2011). Think of the conceited
enjoyment of middle-class audiences judging ‘white trash’ contestants on reality TV
programmes. The book and film The Hunger Games can be read as a comment on
these practices, where poor and ordinary people have to fight to the death for the
enjoyment of a more refined urban middle-class audience. These spectacles of
judging people are a visible and enjoyable part of our consumption of popular

Producing commercially valuable and politically useful
Popular culture and media don’t corrupt or ‘spectacularize’ some pre-existing mass
democracy; rather they enact democracy as it is now, as a product of today’s power
relationships (Ouellette and Hay 2008a: 206). If neoliberal popular culture envisions
democracy as self-government, then forms of popular culture like reality TV can be
seen as doing that work of government. The media’s commercial imperatives direct
them first and foremost to generate audience and participant behaviours which will
result in commercially viable popular culture. While these activities are a ‘direct
and sustained intervention into the construction of people’s desires, cultural
identities and expectations of the real’, they don’t necessarily have ‘intrinsic content
or necessary politics’ (Turner 2010: 24). Popular culture reinforces the economic
and cultural power of the media, driven in the first instance by commercial
imperatives. It operates ‘like an ideological system but without an ideological
project’ (Turner 2010: 25). While we can discern connections between the content of
media texts and broader political projects, we can’t assume the media have a
particular interest in those political projects.

Popular culture enterprises don’t reflect dominant values because they are motivated
by sincere belief in personal responsibility or because they are in some kind of
conspiratorial relationship with other political or corporate elites. Rather,
producing content that reflects power relationships makes commercial sense. What
we can discern from these different perspectives is that popular culture is the
outcome of power relationships between commercial, political and cultural elites, in
a messy and fragmented way. They interact with each other to create a cultural
hegemony – a system of meaning making – that reflects their commercial and
political interests relative to each other. The question we should ask isn’t ‘Does
popular culture succeed or fail in enhancing democracy or the quality of our lives
together?’, but rather ‘How does popular culture conduct liberal democracy and
make its processes appear rational and common sense?’

Personal Responsibility on Talk Shows and Reality TV
Popular culture’s narratives of personal responsibility are acted out by people who
producers select on the basis that they can emotionally perform their identities. They
need to be able to connect their identities and everyday experiences to the broader
narrative of the programme and the commercial interests of its sponsors. What
participants offer television producers is not their skills, but themselves – their
identities and life stories – and often in doing so, what they are selling is their place,
their vantage point, in social relations. In doing so, they make sense of those social
relations and how they live them. Participants must construct themselves in
questionnaires, audition tapes and meetings as the right identities for the production
(Mayer 2011b). Initial applications and casting calls require ordinary people to
divulge aspects of their life stories, personal circumstances and beliefs. This
involves affective and emotional labour, the capacity to exploit your life situation
with compelling stories, emotions and imagery.

Performing our identities
These emotional performances by ordinary people arguably first emerged on
television talk shows during the 1980s. Oprah Winfrey is perhaps the icon or
archetype of this genre. Oprah encourages viewers to see their life circumstances as
a consequence of individual choice, rather than larger social, cultural and political
structures (Peck 2008: 44). Neoliberalism presents rewarding individual initiative as
a common-sense foundation reconstructing the economy, society and culture. These
narratives of individual initiative worked hegemonically to serve both liberal
political and commercial ends. For Oprah, narratives of personal responsibility and
self-improvement can inform the production of an ‘enterprising self’. That
enterprising self engages in practices of self-improvement by drawing on resources
provided by the culture industry: books, media products, fashion, exercise regimes,
diets and supplements, information technologies and so on. Oprah succeeded by
fashioning deep affective connections with her audience. They participate with her
in the practices of self-improvement she advocates. She is able to mobilize these
connections as a commercially lucrative set of relationships and as politically
powerful identities connected to a liberal account of the American Dream. Her
audience works hard for her on themselves, and by extension, this shapes how they
think and act as citizens and consumers within a liberal capitalist order.

Popular culture does the work of stimulating and fashioning cultural practices:
identities are built not just out of what we think, but how we go about living our
lives. Oprah doesn’t just tell her audience what to think, she instructs them on what
to do and how to live their lives. Oprah doesn’t necessarily explicitly promote and
celebrate the economic and social changes of neoliberalism. Her programme
doesn’t explain for instance why massive changes in employment conditions were
necessary or how they made America a better society. Instead, what Oprah’s
programme does is construct identities and practices that shape the way people
understand processes that affect them. So, when individuals lose their jobs or find
themselves living in communities that no longer have viable industries or social
networks, and begin to feel lonely or depressed or struggle financially, they don’t
see those processes as the outcome of the power relationships – the new rules – that
neoliberalism created. Instead they see them as individual problems that they
themselves must fix. Oprah becomes a hero because she offers them understanding
and empathy, and moreover, a kind of cure – a set of meanings and practices that
they can undertake to make their life better (Peck 2008). Popular culture works here
in an implicit and indirect way, shaping the cultural resources and practices we
engage with in making sense of our world and our lives and our relations with
others. This works as both a political and commercial appeal. For instance, Oprah’s

book club offers books that contain content that serves her narratives of self-
improvement and enable the further mediation of her brand, and at the same time it
is a powerful marketing tool for the book industry. Publishers report seeking out
authors whose narratives fit within the Oprah brand. The Oprah brand becomes a
way of life that other products and brands can be inserted into.

Oprah’s Book Club
Oprah’s book club provides an example of how her show integrates political and commercial
processes. Oprah’s book club was credited with revitalizing the commercial publishing industry and
reading as a public practice. That is, it was said to have both commercial value to the book industry
while also making a political contribution to American life. Over time Oprah positioned reading as part
of the work of ‘building’, improving and working on ourselves. For Oprah, books are a resource in a
regime of self-improvement and work. The book club positioned these narratives within a sense of
public deliberation and discussion, which fits American democratic ideals. By reading the carefully
selected books and engaging in discussions facilitated by Oprah, her audience engage in local-level
forms of democracy organized around self-improvement. Furthermore, the books Oprah selects are a
kind of ‘therapeutic toolbox’ (Peck 2008: 186) for her readers, books that contain content that serves
her narratives of self-improvement and enable the further mediation of her brand. Literature serves as
a resource for building, mediating and valorizing the Oprah brand. The Oprah brand becomes a way
of life that other products and brands can be inserted into.

Peck (2008) argues that narratives of ‘self-care’ and personal responsibility go hand in hand with
more precarious forms of economic and social life. The more vulnerable we are the more work we
need to do to improve ourselves. If neoliberalism celebrates the enterprising individual it also blames
the vulnerable and suffering individual for their own circumstances. Oprah mediates, manages – and
profits from – these political, social and cultural arrangements. The Oprah brand stimulates and profits
from the precariousness and vulnerability ordinary people feel in neoliberalism’s power relationships.
It isn’t just that Oprah’s narratives ‘naturalize’ neoliberalism with their narratives of personal
responsibility; it is that Oprah also sells a cure that is highly economically profitable for her and her
associated brands. The more vulnerable ordinary people are the more they seek out Oprah – and her
brand – as a set of meanings and cultural practices for making sense of and coping with their life
circumstances. Oprah’s advice can’t ever solve their problems; in fact it has an economic interest in
sustaining them. Oprah prompts a desire for self-improvement, and then captures and commodifies it as
both attention and a set of cultural practices. Oprah profits from the desiring subjects she crafts.
Oprah’s spirituality stimulates the anxiety that her programme claims to address. Popular culture
provides ‘imaginary resolutions’ to ‘manage desires’. Oprah creates self-enterprising neoliberal
subjects who do the work of enacting the ‘natural’ values of a neoliberal economic order (Peck 2008:
222). Those prescriptions have to be repeated because they cannot resolve the real-world social

What impacts does Oprah’s book club have on the book industry, novelists, audiences and
reading as a part of cultural life?
How does Oprah’s book club change the kinds of stories, characters and identities that the
publishing industry produces?
How does the production of these kinds of stories and characters reflect power relationships?
What kinds of ‘instructions’ do books selected for Oprah’s book club offer on how to live a
good life?

Popular Culture’s Explanation of Social Relationships
Popular culture shapes how we understand and respond to social problems. While
Oprah is a global icon, narratives of self-improvement and entrepreneurialism are
more broadly evident within our popular culture. Ouellette and Hay (2008a)
describe the genre of ‘charity TV’ which provides healthcare, home improvement
and other forms of assistance to those it deems needy and deserving. The deserving
are those who have shown appropriate initiative, and in doing so fit the values of an
enterprising society. Television programmes that provide housing or healthcare to
the misfortunate demonstrate needs being met, but don’t address how those needs
are socially situated in wider power relationships. The genre draws attention only to
those problems that can be fixed within the schema of popular culture: a house that
can be rebuilt, or a surgery that will be successful, or a school meals programme
that can be changed. It doesn’t consider the power relationships underlying those
problems. While these genres appear to have a pedagogical ideological function –
to teach ordinary people certain values – that political function is interrelated with a
commercial system of production. Charity TV integrates products and brands into
this welfare provision and narratives of personal responsibility. In Australia, for
instance, The Block’s provision of home renovations to needy and deserving
families gives opportunities for retailers, homeware and technology brands, and
construction companies to provide goods and services. The brands use popular
culture to embed themselves within narratives of personal responsibility, social
responsibility and community building. Brands aren’t just advertising their
products, they are part of the liberal social practices and values that popular culture

Television Drama and Making Sense of the Global
Network Society
If above we’ve argued that genres like talk shows and reality TV reflect but don’t
critically address larger social and political formations, in this section we consider
how television drama attempts to illustrate how the experience of ordinary people is
embedded in larger political and economic structures. Popular culture can
contribute to larger public understanding of social and political structures. The Wire
(2002–2008) and Treme (2010–) are two dramas produced by David Simon for the
HBO network, a cable network that has created a profitable market segment
providing quality television to an educated middle-class audience.

The Wire examined the decay of the American city and public institutions through
intersecting storylines about police and law enforcement, the drug trade, working-
class industry, the school system, local government and the journalistic print media.
Treme documents and dramatizes the efforts of the people of New Orleans to rebuild
their city and culture in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The programme features
New Orleans locals and musicians performing in New Orleans bars and venues, and
connects this portrait of everyday life to wider political and economic processes
associated with the reconstruction. The Wire and Treme are each popular culture
texts that reflect and work through the social and cultural world produced by global
network capitalism. Each series documents the challenges that ordinary people face
navigating the processes of government and everyday life in the post-industrial or
post-disaster American city.

We might argue that these dramas counteract the ‘bad’ representations of popular
culture with ‘good’ ones. The Wire has been praised for stimulating the
‘sociological imagination’ (see Penfold-Mounce et al. 2011: 155) and a
‘commitment to a complex understanding of the social’ (Bramall and Pitcher 2013).
Where reality TV ignores social and political structures, these programmes pay
attention to them. Where other aspects of popular culture are said to present
stereotypical characters and images of gender and race, these programmes offer a
different perspective. Producer David Simon makes a sustained argument for the
power of popular culture’s representations. Simon’s many interviews, letters, blog
posts about the programmes, show ‘bible’ and pitch documents offer an account of
the meaning, power and value of the programmes. Simon wants to produce
reflections of the social world, to talk about it, in ways that might change it. He
hopes that his stories about the American city will ‘matter somehow’.

Representing ‘real’ life?
Several characters and storylines on The Wire and Treme are based on real life
characters and events. One example is the character Snoop, played by Felicia
‘Snoop’ Pearson on The Wire. On the show she plays the role of a drug gang
member; in real life she was part of the drug trade and had spent time in prison as a
teenager for manslaughter. The Wire producers sought out characters like Snoop,
asking them to act out scenes in their own words and style. After her role on the
show ended Snoop was arrested by police in an inner-city estate for drug offences.
David Simon (cited in Rastogi 2011) responded to these events in a public statement.
We can read the statement as a ‘deep text’ that explains part of the way Simon
understands The Wire as a popular culture text that makes a contribution to the
understanding of contemporary social life. Simon wrote that the ‘war on drugs has
devolved into a war on the underclass’ who lived in parts of America where the
‘drug economy was the only factory still hiring’, and that the education system is
‘crippled’. He argued that the campaign to imprison this underclass for drug
offences was amoral:

Our constitution and our common law guarantee that we will be judged by our
peers. But in truth, there are now two Americas, politically and economically
distinct. I, for one, do not qualify as a peer to Felicia Pearson. The
opportunities and experiences of her life do not correspond in any way with
my own, and her America is different from my own. I am therefore ill-
equipped to be her judge in this matter.

The statement demonstrates Simon’s efforts to illuminate broader political and
economic processes via his dramatization of everyday life and power relationships
in America. Simon hopes drama might change how people think and act.

After producing The Wire, David Simon moved on to produce Treme, a drama about
life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. With Treme we can see many of the
same complex relationships between reality and fiction, between cultural production
and the understanding and maintenance of broader social and political structures.
Critics have argued that in celebrating the music of New Orleans Treme contributes
to rebuilding and branding the city as a cultural tourism destination (Thomas 2012:
215). The programme repositions New Orleans within the new flexible economy. In
doing so, Treme’s depiction of the struggle to protect New Orleans culture
simultaneously contributes to its commodification. For critics, Treme makes a
promotional ‘good news’ argument for the city that ignores the power relations that

inform day-to-day life for residents of New Orleans before, during and after the
Katrina crisis.

Critical apathy
The show does pay attention to some of these issues: for instance, one character ’s
search for her brother who went missing after being arrested by police; the efforts
of residents working through labyrinthine government bureaucracies in order to get
their homes and neighbourhoods rebuilt; the corruption of ‘disaster capitalism’ in
the contractors and corporations that profited from the recovery money; and the
investigation of police shootings. But the fact is that none of these issues are
seriously connected to a consideration of class, underclass or institutionalized
racism (Gray 2012: 271). For Gray (2012: 272), Treme elides the exploitation that
produces the black identities which the rebranding of New Orleans profits from:
‘What the series does not show is that with these “precious” and “real” traditions
that are in danger of being sacrificed comes crushing poverty, economic isolation,
food injustice, and social inequality among the very people who are the source of
these unique gifts to the nation.’ And while the attention to life in post-Katrina New
Orleans should be ‘lauded’, we must also pay attention to the way that Treme is a
cultural commodity that sells ‘quality black programming’ to a valuable middle-
class audience: ‘This is all very much in keeping with the entrepreneurial neoliberal
project of branding and marketing blackness as quality television.’

Dramas like Treme and The Wire might satisfy the yearning of an educated, middle-
class and predominantly white audience for socially liberal and progressive
representations that they see as ‘good’ (Bramall and Pitcher 2013: 87). The culture
industry is capable of serving the desires of many niche audiences with different
views of reality. That doesn’t necessarily disrupt power relationships, but can in fact
serve to maintain them. If an educated middle class can watch content that serves to
legitimate their world-view, while other audiences watch different content that
legitimates their world-view, then this serves to maintain different positions in the
social order.

The view The Wire presents of ‘the complexities of post-industrial global capitalism
offers a seductively intelligent vision of social and cultural complexity’ (Bramall
and Pitcher 2013: 88). This vision responds to the desires of a middle-class audience
and their belief in the myth of the mediated centre (Couldry 2003), that is, their
fantasy of knowing how the social world really is via popular culture texts. Educated
middle-class viewers watching The Wire arguably encounter a cathartic vision of the
collapse of public institutions, and the futility of individuals struggling against the
system. They enjoy identifying with the characters in the show as they struggle
against arcane institutions and complex problems. Their continual failures and
abjectness are a kind of alibi for our apathy.

Treme and The Wire are each complex texts that both press on and facilitate the
power relations they critique. In some moments these popular culture texts appear to
have the capacity to disrupt social life and draw critical attention to power
relationships in productive ways; at other times they simply provide entertainment
that reinforces cultural identities and practices. As part of the power relations they
critique, we can say that they inevitably help to sustain them. But power relationships
– and their cultural form as hegemonies – are always under construction and
negotiation. Throughout all of the examples we have considered so far in this
chapter we see meaning and power being constantly enacted and performed as a
series of social relationships between producers, cultural intermediaries and

David Simon’s Deep Texts

The letter to New Orleans
On the eve of Treme’s debut David Simon wrote an open letter to the city of New Orleans where he
responded to the way the show brought drama and reality together. In the letter he explained that
Treme ‘sometimes lies about details to convey thematic truth’. He said to the people of the city that he
expected them to hold him ‘to certain standards’ as the drama takes ‘liberties with a profound
unforgettable period in [the] city’s history’. He finished his letter by asking ‘Why? Why not depict a
precise truth …?’:

Well, Pablo Picasso famously said that art is the lie that shows us the truth. Such might be the
case of a celebrated artist claiming more for himself and his work than he ought, or perhaps, this
Picasso fella was on to something. By referencing what is real, or historical, a fictional narrative
can speak in a powerful, full-throated way to the problems and issues of our time. And a wholly
imagined tale, set amid the intricate and accurate details of a real place and time, can resonate
with readers in profound ways. In short, drama is its own argument. (Simon 2010)

David Simon claimed that Treme was an argument for the city. The letter is a deep text in the sense it is
an attempt to theorize and explain the real meaning and value of the fictional drama.

How does Simon explain the value of Treme?
How do dramatizations of our cities, lives and histories affect us?
Does drama play a role in crafting and changing power relationships?

David Simon’s statement on Felicia ‘Snoop’
Pearson’s arrest
When Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson was arrested on drugs-related charges Simon made the following

We believe the war on drugs has devolved into a war on the underclass, that in places like West
and East Baltimore, where the drug economy is now the only factory still hiring and where the
educational system is so crippled that the vast majority of children are trained only for the corner,
a legal campaign to imprison our most vulnerable and damaged citizens is little more than
amoral. And we said then that if asked to serve on any jury considering a non-violent drug
offense, we would move to nullify that jury’s verdict and to vote to acquit. Regardless of the
defendant, I still believe such a course of action would be just in any case in which drug offenses
– absent proof of violent acts – are alleged. Both our constitution and our common law
guarantee that we will be judged by our peers. But in truth, there are now two Americas,
politically and economically distinct. I, for one, do not qualify as a peer to Felicia Pearson. The
opportunities and experiences of her life do not correspond in any way with my own, and her
America is different from my own. I am therefore ill-equipped to be her judge in this matter.
(Simon, cited in Rastogi 2011)

What does Simon’s statement say about his values?
How does television drama contribute towards public debate about and responses to crime and
Can drama prompt conversations that reshape how people think and act?
Can drama reveal power relationships in constructive ways?

You can find links to Simon’s letter to New Orleans and statement about Felicia ‘Snoop’ Pearson on
the Media and Society website

Comedy News and Political Participation
In this section we examine the forms of political participation that popular culture
genres like comedy news afford (for an overview of the genre see Baym 2005 or
Feldman 2008). Popular culture formats like comedy news ask us to feel
empowered and to enjoy participating in a spectacle where we see the real state of
things. Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert and John Oliver act as our confidants; we join
them in debunking the game of politics and laughing and snickering at our political
leaders. A preoccupation of these forms of political communication is debunking or
revealing the backstage process, motivations and real beliefs of politicians and their
parties. In the United States, political satirists have emerged on comedy news
programmes like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and This Week Tonight as
influential commentators on the political process. Audience research demonstrates
that audiences take their explanation and exposure of the political process to be
highly credible, even more credible than traditional news media (Baym 2005,
Feldman 2008).

Comedy news offers a spectacle of meaning making that makes fun of the powerful
and their modes of control. One way to read this is to celebrate it as evidence of the
openness of our democracy – that we are free to say whatever we like. Some
scholars have argued that the integration of the political process with comedy,
popular and celebrity culture democratizes politics and enables citizens to
understand complex political issues (Scammell 1995, van Zoonen 1998, Temple
2006). These accounts suggest that the satirical debunking of the political process
reinvents political coverage by opening up new forms of critical enquiry and
engaging an estranged audience of mostly younger citizens in the democratic
process (Baym 2005, Feldman 2008). Baym (2005) describes The Daily Show as
advocating a ‘conversational’ or ‘deliberative’ theory of democracy.

Powerful people making fun of themselves
We could though read it another way. Comedy news provides one example of
popular culture’s capacity to appropriate an ideology critique. By this we mean that
popular culture incorporates a critique of itself into its practices and
representations. Popular culture has demonstrated a canny ability to expose how
power relationships are constructed. This protects artifice by exposing it
(Andrejevic 2004). On comedy news, and other forms of snarky political culture
like internet memes, we view a packaged version of an ideological critique that
promises to show us how things really are. Instead of concealing how power
relationships work, popular culture constantly exposes them. Rather than being a
productive position that promotes better forms of democracy, this arguably
contributes to a kind of cynical inertia.

The game of debunking and exposing power relationships becomes a form of
entertainment and enjoyment, rather than a practice which materially changes our
democracy or the power relationships in our societies. Popular culture takes
critique into account by exposing to us how things really are. The risk is that
enjoying the game of politics takes over from its more important purpose of
imagining and creating a society. Guy Rundle (2010b) suggests this greatly
diminishes ‘the wider intellectual framework within which a more imaginative
politics might evolve’. Politics becomes a communicative game, rather than being
about the real business of acting in the world (Dean 2010). Critics argue that the
savvy attitude invoked by decoding, debunking, backstage revelations, confessions
and exposing politics is an apathetic and debilitating one (Postman 1987, Marshall
1997, Kerbel 1999, deVreese 2005, Andrejevic 2008, Teurlings 2010).

The powerful use popular culture to make fun of themselves, their institutions and
their power. In fact, when westerners see political leaders who use mass media to
demonstrate their immense power our immediate reaction is often to find it deluded
or self-indulgent or to make fun of it. Think of the way that images of North Korean
parades of military power are sniggered at by westerners in YouTube videos or in
Hollywood films like Team America.

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner began in 1920 as an event that recognized the achievements
of political reporting each year. Since the 1980s, the dinner has gradually transitioned towards an
event that satirized the President and Administration. Sitting Presidents have more regularly
participated in this satire, poking fun at themselves, their opponents and their relationships with the
press. The dinner has drawn criticism as an event that illustrates how symbiotic the relationships
between politicians and journalists are. We might also argue that the dinner offers a forum for powerful
political actors to position themselves as part of ‘in jokes’ that mock their own status. These activities
ought to prompt us to consider why the powerful now so routinely expose and mock the workings of

The Presidents’ performances at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner provide one example of the
powerful ‘winking’ and ‘nodding’ to the public, indicating to them that they know the public can see
through their power and their meanings; that they can see how their political interests drive the
meanings they make; that they can see how power really works. We might argue that the kind of
ideology we see at work here is one that in general celebrates a continuous revelation of the
backstage, of power relations and sites of power, by making fun of the powerful and having the
powerful make fun of themselves. This political culture maintains power relationships by letting the
public feel like they are part of the backstage action or inner circle of elites. This should prompt us to
consider how this disposition works to create and maintain power relationships, and why the powerful
would not only sanction it, but also actively participate in it.

At the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner President Obama began his speech with a
Hollywood-style montage that presented his birth certificate set against other symbols of real
Americana like the Stars and Stripes, Uncle Sam, eagles, Rocky, baseball, Michael Jordan and WWF
wrestling. The montage poked fun at the ‘birther’ controversy sparked by the conservative Tea Party
movement and right-wing figures like Donald Trump. He began his speech by noting that his birth
certificate had been released, but that he was prepared to go a ‘step further’ and release his ‘official
birth video’. He then screened the famous ‘Circle of Life’ scene of Simba’s birth from the Disney
cartoon The Lion King. Obama remarked, ‘I want to make clear to the Fox News table, that was a
joke. That was not my real birth video, that was a children’s cartoon.’ His speech featured many more
jokes that referenced contemporary political and popular culture, celebrities, comedians and
journalists, and poked fun at his opponents and himself.

Obama’s 2012 speech began with a spoof recording of Obama backstage before his speech. The gag
was that as Jimmy Kimmel was preparing to introduce him, his backstage remarks were broadcast
because his microphone had been ‘accidentally’ left on. Obama was backstage warming up his voice,
flushing the toilet, checking out his grey hairs, and complaining that he had to open for Jimmy Kimmel
and tell ‘knock-knock jokes to Kim Kardashian’ and other celebrities. When he was prompted to go
on stage by his minder he said, ‘OK I’m going, God forbid we keep Chuck Todd and the cast of Glee
waiting.’ He then took to the stage to tell the audience that he ‘could not be more thrilled’ to be
talking at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and went on to say that it was an ‘honour’ to open
for Jimmy Kimmel and he was ‘delighted’ to see Chuck Todd and the cast of Glee. In this opening
gag he poked fun at himself, as a political leader. He ‘winked’ at the public, saying ‘I know you
know’ that you think everything political leaders say is contrived based on what people want to hear.

Why would the most powerful person in the world publicly make jokes about himself?
Why in the past ten years have powerful political figures engaged in these comedy formats and
made jokes about their own power?
What does the President’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner say about
his identity, values and the way he exercises his power?

You can find links to Obama’s appearances at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on the Media
and Society website

Cynical participation
The mixing together of politics and popular culture appears to be part of the
construction of political identities that participate in the political process in a cynical
way. Their stance is a default distrust of elites. Be they progressive or conservative,
these political identities double as commercially lucrative audience segments.
During the 2010 congressional elections Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert staged a
Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in response to Glenn Beck’s Fox-sponsored
Restoring America rally. The rally was a media ritual that relied on the participation
of 250,000 of Stewart and Colbert’s progressive fan base. Fans participated in
amplifying and adding to the savvy and snarky critique of the media-political
process. This was evident in the signs that they brought to the rally, which both
expressed their exasperation at the political process itself and mocked conservative
populism. Slogans on the signs included:

‘I’m mad as hell but mostly in a passive aggressive way’
‘WTF I thought I voted for a muslim’ (with an image of Obama)
‘The Mad Hatter called, he wants his tea party back’
‘Don’t let Glenn Beck tea bag our children’
Sikh man holding a sign: ‘Am I acting suspicious?’
‘Real Americans drink coffee, I like mine black’
‘If your beliefs fit on a sign. Think harder ’
‘Don’t be a douche’
‘I like tea and you’re kind of ruining it’.

While we can read these signs as evidence of a healthy democratic process – here
we have citizens taking to the street, expressing their views collectively and holding
the powerful to ridicule, if not account – we can also detect other processes at work.
Stewart and Colbert’s audience faithfully reproduced their representative frame,
creating a collective, repetitive, exhausting, savvy ‘snarkasm’. If Jon Stewart is one
very funny and very clever satirist, here we get to see what it looks like when that
snarky disposition is taken to the street by a quarter of a million people. While the
form of their actions indicates democratic participation (taking to the streets in a
mass rally to express their views), the disposition of that participation (to express
complete exasperation in the political process) is entirely passive and resigned. As
Guy Rundle suggests, there is no idea being presented here, no vision for a different
kind of politics. Instead, progressives get off on the failure of their own politics
(Dean 2010). Writing about the rally Rundle (2010a: 89) reflected:

It was exciting, it was wild, it was a mad carnival – and, it has to be said,

something of a fizzer. It was all a little bit nothing, a little bit meh, it was
something that had to be great to be good, and was just all right. It was odd and
underdone and half-assed. It was a perfect expression of American
progressivism today.

Furthermore, the rally – in relentlessly mocking the populist conservative right –
arguably acts as one part of a larger process of ‘fragmentation’ in public political
discourse in America. Conservative Americans watch Fox News and go to Glenn
Beck and Tea Party rallies; progressives watch Stewart and Colbert and go to their
comedy rally. Each position is caught up in mocking the other, rather than finding a
productive space to examine their differences.

For Rundle, Stewart and Colbert’s sketches and the crowd’s passive-aggressive,
ironic and snarky signs weren’t symptomatic of public deliberation – as Baym
(2005) might argue – but were an example of an ‘exhaustion of ideas and purpose’
(Rundle 2010a: 92). The rally was adept at making fun of elites, articulating that
progressives knew how the political process worked and how broken it was, and
mocking conservative populists like the Tea Party, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. But
that doesn’t necessarily amount to a productive form of political debate. The rally
was unique because it removed Stewart from the routines and rituals of The Daily
Show. By placing himself within the ritual of a public political rally he had to
articulate his political vision. He had brought a quarter of a million people out; now
he had to tell them what they were marching for. In Rundle’s (2010a: 92) view he
was left with no option but to demonstrate he didn’t have any point:

After all there’s nothing wrong with holding a rally for reason, or more
moderation, but when you suggest that the latter is served by accepting
everyone’s world view as valid, then you betray the former. Some things can’t
be solved by asking everyone to play nice. At some point if you’re going to
draw a quarter of a million or so – six billion in Stephen Colbert’s estimate –
to hear what you have to say, you’d better stand up and say that while there are
many ways to look at a thing, some of them are plain wrong, and pernicious in
their error.

Rundle’s point is that progressive cynicism, in not making a positive argument of its
own, leaves the door open to pernicious conservative populist arguments. And it
then responds to those arguments by mocking them and making fun of them. This in
turn reinforces the politics of their perceived conservative populist enemies like

Glenn Beck, Fox News, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Each is dependent on the
other as something to mock.

Profitable niche audiences
This fragmentation of identities isn’t just a political process, it is also a commercial
one. As media can serve fragmented audiences, it has contributed to the creation of
increasingly fragmented identities. News networks no longer need to speak to
mainstream America. While it might appear that Fox News is an ideological project
(and in part it is), it is more substantially a commercial project. Murdoch and News
Corp identified that a conservative news network would attract a large and loyal
following. The political identity that Fox News cultivates is commercially lucrative.
It creates a loyal market segment. The business of Fox News is built around the
proposition that it makes business sense to have a highly engaged audience. Fox
convinces its audience that the American way of life is under threat and that it is the
only news network that cares (Farhi 2003).

While we could proceed down the path of critiquing one or both of these positions
as problematic for a healthy democracy, perhaps at the first instance we should just
simply observe that media have the capacity to cater to, amplify and stimulate an
array of political dispositions. And that, even where they then offer those
dispositions plenty of space to participate, that participation can be an end in itself,
or directed towards primarily commercial rather than political means. There is
nothing inherently democratic about participation, and therefore we shouldn’t see
participatory media rituals as automatically empowering. Instead, they might be
conservative in the sense that they enable the functioning of the status quo power
relationships. Progressive and conservative media rituals – be it Fox or The Daily
Show, Glenn Beck or Jon Stewart – are each reflective of the populist participatory
ideologies of the interactive era. What they share in common is that they each
display symptoms of the decline of symbolic efficiency, a distrust in representations
and power elites, and an unending drive to debunk, deconstruct and reveal some
truth, which is always just out of reach (Žižek 1999, Andrejevic 2013).

By examining TV talk shows, reality TV, television drama and comedy news
formats in this chapter we have argued that popular culture plays a role in
organizing our understanding of, and participation in, broader social and political
processes. Popular culture’s texts are symptomatic of, conditioned by, and play a
part in producing power relationships. Popular culture is adept at simultaneously
exposing its own constructed-ness, organizing audience participation and offering
frameworks that govern everyday life.

In this chapter we have:

considered the pedagogical function of popular culture in creating and
structuring rules and frameworks for everyday life, and how we think about
considered the role of popular culture in making sense of society and
providing access to reality
examined the forms of political participation that popular culture invokes
considered popular culture’s role in cultivating cultural formations that serve
both cultural and political ends.

Further Reading
The readings below address a range of issues we explored in the chapter. Ouellette
and Hay (2008b) analyse how reality TV offers a framework for governing
everyday life. Turner (2006) offers an argument about the participation of ordinary
people in popular-culture formats like reality TV. Peck (2010) examines the
frameworks of self-improvement offered by Oprah. The readings by Baym (2005)
and Feldman (2008) consider the role that comedy news plays in informing the
public and enabling deliberative forms of democracy.

Baym, G. (2005) ‘The Daily Show: discursive integration and the reinvention of
political journalism’, Political Communication, 22 (3): 259–276.

Feldman, L. (2008) ‘The news about comedy: young audiences, The Daily Show, and
evolving notions of journalism’, Journalism, 8 (4): 406–427.

Ouellette, L. and Hay, J. (2008b) ‘Makeover television, governmentality and the
good citizen’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 22 (4): 471–484.

Peck, J. (2010) ‘The secret of her success: Oprah Winfrey and the seductions of self-
transformation’, Journal of Communication Inquiry, 34 (1): 7–14.

Turner, G. (2006) ‘The mass production of celebrity “Celetoids”, reality TV and the
“demotic turn”’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 9 (2): 153–165.

Any article marked with is available to download at the website

11 Social Media, Interactivity and Participation
Media manage power by structuring our
participation in the creation and circulation
of meaning.

* How do interactive media technologies organize participation in public life?
* What are some of the differing accounts of interactivity?
* How are power relationships formed and managed in an interactive media

We begin this chapter by conceptualizing social and
interactive media. We then map out some key claims
about interactivity. Interactive media:

Enable new forms of participation: ordinary people can create and circulate content and express their
point of view
Are responsive and customized
Facilitate greater transparency and surveillance.

Interactivity, Participation and Power
In the Utah desert the US National Security Agency has built one of the largest data
centres on earth. Many of the activities taking place at the centre were revealed by
Edward Snowden during 2013. The purpose of the facility is to ‘intercept, decipher,
analyse, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down
from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of
international, foreign and domestic networks’. The centre collects the ‘complete
contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts
of personal data trails – parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases’ in
order to paint ‘detailed portraits’ of our lives (Bamford 2012).

We often think of the power interactive media have granted to ordinary people.
Where once we were merely consumers of mass media, now we can actively
produce and distribute content. Where once we could only listen, now we can speak
back. Although these narratives sound good, they deserve scrutiny. While some
celebrate the capacity of interactive media to enable various forms of public
expression (Benkler 2006, Jenkins 2006, Hartley 2010, Jarvis 2011, Jenkins et al.
2012), others argue these claims to empowerment are overstated and misleading,
that in fact this is a far more controlling system and that our participation is an
integral part of established concentrations of power. Interactivity, so the argument
goes, does little in its own right to increase the quality of life or economic, political
and social power of ordinary people (Andrejevic 2007, Dean 2010, Lanier 2010,
2013 Morozov 2011). While we can blog, upload videos and photos, comment, like
and share content with each other, each of those activities takes place within a system
that watches, responds, manages and profits from those activities. There is no doubt
the audience is active, and we live in a media culture that calls on us to participate
every day. What matters though is that we make careful distinctions between being
‘active’ and being ‘powerful’ (Morley 1993: 16). What are the qualities of our
participation? Who does participation benefit? What kind of political and cultural
formations does participating in interactive media produce? How do interactive
forms of media change the way meaning is made and circulated? And what role do
ordinary people play in making and circulating meaning? How are interactive
media implicated in the exercise of power?

The media system being built around us can no longer be understood simply in
terms of who says what to whom with what effect. We must also account for how
speaking is interrelated with watching and listening. Power is concentrated not just
in the capacity to speak, but also in the ability to collect and analyse information and
create and manage interactive networks. This involves watching and responding to

what others say and do – channelling, amplifying and constraining them. The data
centre in the Utah desert offers one illustration of the immense concentrations of
power that go hand in hand with the development of interactive media. If we are to
have a robust account of the power that interactive media grant ordinary people to
speak, we need a corresponding account of the power that interactive media grant
often-established actors like states and corporations to watch everyday life. We then
need to consider how this watching conditions the social spaces and processes in
which we act. We need to carefully examine the capacity to speak in relation to how
we are heard in meaningful ways.

What are Social Media?
Social media are embedded within interactive digital networks. Interactive digital
networks comprise the whole range of internet technologies that collect, organize
and circulate information. Social media refer to the emergence of web and mobile
technologies that enable users to create and circulate content within social networks.

Users create and circulate content
Social media are characterized by users who create and circulate content within a
network of other users. Those networks are shaped by a combination of user
preferences and automated decisions made by those who control the network. On
social media we tell a story about ourselves and our everyday lives (Livingstone
2008). Our peers, corporations, media organizations, political parties and
governments provide us with content and cultural resources that we incorporate into
our identities. We communicate who we are via the news stories we comment on, the
brands we like, and the political and popular figures we makes jokes about or
express faith in. This story about ourselves is constructed as a mobile and real-time
part of our daily life.

Commercialization of the web
Social media are part of the ongoing technical development and commercialization
of the web. Google, for example, bought YouTube for $1.6 billion in 2006 as part of
their strategy of integrating ‘search engines with content, social networking and
advertising’ (van Dijck 2009: 42). Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 for $1 billion
so that they could retain control over the flow of personal photographs through the
social web. Social media are increasingly central to how the web and networked
economy function. Social media networks are converging with the provision of
services and the databases of state and commercial institutions. Web technologies
are becoming more responsive and flexible. Algorithms that intuitively read,
organize and interpret information for users will be intrinsic to the next generation
of the web. Social media users’ creation and circulation of information is
increasingly integrated with automated algorithms and databases that shape, manage
and harness those activities.

Media devices and everyday life
The web that is developing around us is one that not only affords greater
opportunities to make and circulate information, it will also be more intuitively
integrated into our everyday life. Via devices that we carry around with us it will be
able to locate, organize and present information to us in real time based on an array
of different variables: where we are, what we’re looking at, who we’re with, who
has come to this location in the past, where we’re going, where it predicts we will
go next, what we’re talking about, what our mood is, what our tastes are, what our
past movements or preferences are, what people like us have done or thought or
said in the past, and so on. The web is a series of interconnected databases and
algorithms that delivers customized information to us, just as much as we contribute
and circulate information through it. The fundamental difference between this media
system and a broadcast one is two-fold. Firstly, on broadcast media like television
every member of the audience saw the same content. That is no longer the case; the
interactive media system customizes content to individuals by watching and
responding to users. Secondly, on television we saw content produced by
professionals within bounded institutions. That is also no longer the case; we now
see a mix of content that is produced by individuals and ordinary people.
Professionals play the role of producing, editing and managing the flow of content.

Social media and social life
Media are social practices, something humans do (Couldry 2012: 33). Practices are
enabled and constrained by power relations. We use media to organize the social
world: coordinate societies, interact with each other, build communities, create and
maintain trust, and convey and legitimize ideas, people and values. We use media to
create and maintain social institutions and our way of life. Couldry (2012) maps out
some of the intrinsic practices that form interactive and social media:

Searching: search engines are a hub of online networks (2012: 45). The
information we access online about news, politics, health issues, maps, popular
culture, finance and so on begins with search engines. Increasingly, those
searches are informed by information that Google collects about us. Search
engines are key points of organizing information and representations and are
therefore key nodes of control in the creation and maintenance of networks
(2012: 105).
Showing: everyday life is mediated and shown in online networks (2012: 47–
48). Whether it is a large public event like a protest or a disaster, or a personal
event like a party, ordinary people use smartphones to record, upload and
circulate images and content in real time. Whenever something happens
someone will be there to record and circulate it. Much of what we show online
isn’t so much a product of our own creative and analytic efforts to represent
the social world, but rather an immediate live cataloguing of daily life.
Presencing and archiving: individuals and institutions put information about
themselves online to sustain a public presence (2012: 50). These activities are
key to constructing a social identity. Being present in networks is critical to
building social, economic and political capital. If presenting is the live real-
time maintenance of being seen and felt in networks, then archiving is the
process of managing information traces over time (2012: 51) to create
ongoing narratives and histories about our lives, identities and communities
(2012: 51).

Social media are part of a series of social practices that we use to create our
identities and organize our lives. As we move through everyday life with our
smartphone in hand we search for places on maps and recommendations on review
sites; we show images of events that unfold around us; and we create digital traces
that position us in social networks in ways that are visible publicly to our peers and
privately to the databases and algorithms of platforms.

Social media and the active user
Social media platforms need active users who create and circulate content. The
active user is a provider of sociality, content and data (van Dijck 2009: 47). Without
them the platforms couldn’t function or create value. Social media platforms,
though, work to channel and contain user activity by ‘brokering sociality’ and
‘engineering connectivity’ (van Dijck 2011: 10). Platforms are built around dynamic
power relationships. The forms of communication and control that social media
enable are the result of an ongoing ‘negotiation between owners, users, content
producers, law makers, engineers, marketers about the control of data and
technology’ (2011: 12). The active user is constructed and constrained within the
possibilities of the platform (2011). Users can only be active on the terms that are set
by the social media platforms they use.

Social media platforms are a combination of material structures and hardware (like
server farms and broadband networks) and immaterial processes like databases,
software and user interfaces. These platforms, protocols and interfaces set the
coordinates and protocols for communication (van Dijck 2011: 3). Just as broadcast
media of the twentieth century called into being particular publics and action, and
reshaped how commercial and state institutions interacted with those publics,
networks of today are transforming public communication and life (2011: 3). Power
on a social media platform is not grounded only in relationships of who produces
and who consumes content, but more fundamentally in who controls the
communicative spaces, processes, networks and flows of content.

Interactive Media Enable New Forms of Participation
Throughout the twentieth century our active meaning making and decoding of
media texts was largely confined to our private lives. We could read the newspaper
or watch a television programme and come to our own interpretations and views of
the representations we encountered. We had little capacity, however, to express our
ideas in a wider public context. For most of us, our views were confined to our
friends and family, and perhaps to other civic bodies we participated in (like a trade
union, a church, a sporting club or a local pub). Interactive media have expanded the
capacity for us to publicize ourselves, our everyday lives and our perspectives to a
wider audience. Via blogs and social media platforms anyone with access to the
internet can create and circulate content. Using the communication conventions of
online networks – like hashtags, discussion boards or groups – we can also
circulate our views to a network of people who are interested in the same issues or
events as us. We can also use those technologies to organize social networks and
formations around shared interests and ideas. The fact of this capacity of ordinary
people to publish and circulate their views and organize social networks shouldn’t
automatically lead us to conclude, however, that they are now more powerful, or
that mainstream media are less powerful, or that elites are now more accountable.
Instead, we need to consider how these technologies organize how power is made
and maintained.

Arguments about the active audience have come and gone since the emergence of
mass broadcast media in the 1930s. Media and audiences have always been
‘interdependent … joint constructors of meaning’ (Livingstone 1993: 7). While
hegemonic discourses are always under construction and contingent, they weren’t
ever dependent on a media system that prevented people from thinking or saying
what they really thought. In western democracies most people appear to consent with
the ideology of the mass media. In this context, the more active the audience is the
more they circulate and promote the messages and content of the mainstream media
and its commercial and political allies. Morley (1993: 14) argues that while
hegemonic discourses are always insecure and incomplete, this doesn’t mean they
are easily deconstructed in practice. In fact, we need to understand how the active
meaning making of audiences – and indeed their resistant decoding and creative
modification of meanings – are interlaced with their submission and complicity
with hegemonic structures. Our creativity and resistance helps hegemonies function:
it helps them to appear legitimate, accommodating and open-ended. If this could be
said about television, it becomes even more important when we examine interactive
forms of media that are even more dependent on our participation.

Considering the quality of participation
What interactive media bring to the mix perhaps is the mass amplification of the
ability of audiences to create and circulate meaning. This participation appears to
more readily affirm hegemonies than disrupt them. What we need in the interactive
era is not just an understanding of the interaction between audience and text, but also
how interactive media manage audience participation – encoding them into the
continuous production of texts and meanings. Texts are no longer discrete bundles
of meaning produced and distributed to an audience for decoding. Interactive media
continuously incorporate the audience into the production of the text. The audience
watches itself participating. What we need to pay attention to then is how texts
establish and manage the coordinates within which that participation takes place.
One reason this matters is that increasingly our participation as audience members
is coextensive with our participation as citizens (Livingstone 1998: 197). It is in our
everyday practices as audience members that we reproduce larger social structures
and communicative processes (Morley 1993: 17).

This raises some important considerations:

Ordinary people may have more opportunity to speak but this doesn’t mean
they are circulating new or different meanings. Much audience participation
involves recirculating already existing media content without adding new
meaning to it.
Even if ordinary people are free to say whatever they want and circulate truly
oppositional or radical ideas online, it doesn’t necessarily follow that this will
have any material effect on the real world. Where we do see real change, the
activities of citizens on interactive media networks is often unfolding within a
context where hegemonies are under other material, political and economic
We need to pay careful attention to the quality of public dialogue on interactive
and social media. The capacity to circulate information is only meaningful if
the content we circulate is accurate, credible or constructive.
Interactive and social media networks are often characterized by emotional or
affective forms of communication. These media networks mobilize how we
feel as much as what we think. Social media can rapidly amplify and circulate
feelings of outrage and anger. These affective responses can be uneven,
spontaneous, unpredictable and reactive. They can also spread quickly
throughout a network.
Online networks are often organized around a small group of ‘knowing’,
educated and elite users. These are people who are educated, media-savvy and

socially connected. They know how to channel publicity to generate responses
from the network, and to use those responses to advance their own political and
commercial interests.
Interactive and social media platforms are increasingly composed of
fragmented sectional interests. Users gravitate towards networks composed of
people like them. Media organizations and social media platforms encourage
and engineer this segmentation. In liberal democracies this segmentation is
mostly undertaken for commercial reasons; in other states it can also be
undertaken for political reasons. Regardless of the purpose, this segmentation
does have effects on the nature of public life and political debate.
Interactive and social media are characterized by savvy, snarky and ironic
forms of communication. On the surface, participants who make clever and
informed jokes about the powerful, or convey their cynical distance from the
claims of the powerful, appear empowered. They appear informed and
knowledgeable. But too often this surface disposition belies a fundamental

While there is no dispute that we are now more active participants in the creation
and circulation of media content, what really matters is careful analysis of the
qualities of that participation. We need to distinguish between ‘speaking and being
heard’ (Hindman 2009). It doesn’t matter that we can speak if no one is listening, or
if our capacity to express ourselves isn’t interrelated with material political
processes that might change the world. That is, we need to pay attention to how our
voices are valued both in terms of the quality and content of what we have to say,
and the process of speaking and being heard (Couldry 2010). Nick Couldry
encourages us not to fall for the claim that growing incitements to speak and
participate are automatically empowering; instead we have to carefully examine
how media, cultural and political processes engage us and value our voices. While
ordinary people have the capacity to make and distribute meaning within interactive
media, it does not appear to give them the ability to shape the way interactive space
is organized (Hindman 2009, Turner 2010, Andrejevic 2011). We need to distinguish
between the capacity to create content and the capacity to manage the spaces within
which meaning is circulated.

Interactive Media are Responsive and Customized
During the twentieth century we developed an understanding of media
representations appropriate for a broadcast media system. We grew accustomed to
thinking of media representations as being publicly distributed and relatively static.
Whatever a newspaper printed or a television station broadcast was final at the
moment of transmission and available to anyone who accessed that publication or
channel. In distinction, an interactive media system is responsive and customized.
There are many ways that interactive media respond and adapt to users. The basic
conceptual distinction though is that a broadcast media system couldn’t make
immediate and real-time decisions about the content it served a specific audience
member, whereas an interactive media system can. A print publication or television
station could conduct market research that informed their content and programming
decisions. This research would shape content over a long period of time. And it did
have effects on the way that audiences were segmented (see Turow 1997). This was a
relatively imprecise activity, however, and viewers could still actively choose to
view content that wasn’t targeted at them. An interactive media system, however,
shapes the content that it serves based on rapidly increasing flows of information it
collects about users.

The more that audience members engage with interactive media systems, the more
information they collect about them and the more effectively they can control the
content served. For the most part, the decisions of organizations like Facebook and
Google on the content that is served is guided by their commercial interests to serve
content that fits their advertising-driven business models.

The sorting and customization of content enabled by interactive and networked
media systems has benefits for both media organizations and consumers. For
consumers, customization arguably offers greater convenience. As the interactive
networks we use learn our interests and preferences they can make it easier for us to
find the content we are seeking. As Amazon collects your purchase history it can
recommend books it predicts you might like. As Google collects your search
history and location it can serve you search results appropriate to where you live
and what your interests are. These networks can also deliver content on-demand.
The rise of businesses like Netflix and Hulu are rapidly moving television towards a
post-broadcast business model. Viewers no longer sit down at a specified time to
watch a television programme; they log on and stream content at their own
convenience, often suggested to them by the platform’s algorithms. There are
opportunities for organizations that can take advantage of these more networked,
asynchronous and fragmented forms of content production and delivery. They are
no longer confined to having to create a mass audience that will consume one
selection of content. They can continuously serve an array of different combinations
of content to individuals based on their interests and demands. This increases the
capacity for selling content and targeting advertisements.

A number of critiques (Hindman 2009, Lanier 2010, Morozov 2011, Pariser 2011,
Turow 2011) have raised questions about the social and political consequences of a
media system built on the routine sorting and customizing of content based on
information collected from users. Pariser (2011) coins the term ‘filter bubbles’ to
describe the selections of content we are served based on the information that
networks collect about us. He uses the example of Facebook’s news feed algorithm
to make his point. Facebook makes decisions about the content it shows in a user ’s
news feed based in part on decisions it makes about the closeness or affinity
between that user and other users in their network. The algorithm recognizes
affinity being performed when users acknowledge each other with likes or
comments, share similar interests, express similar ideas or share connections in
common. Pariser explains that although he has both progressive and conservative
friends on Facebook, he is more inclined to express progressive views himself and
share items of content to his own profile from progressive friends. Over time,
Facebook learns that he has an affinity with progressive political views and news
content, and so gradually removes conservative friends and content from his news
feed. It is important to note that Facebook does not do this by deliberately labelling
people and content ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative’ based on a judgement about the
meaning of content being circulated. Its algorithm doesn’t understand meaning; it

makes a judgement based on the affinity between people based on who and what they
interact with. It determines that some people are like others in terms of their
interactions and expressions, but it doesn’t necessarily know what the specific nature
of that affinity is.

Pariser argues that he wants to read the views of his conservative friends, he just
doesn’t often post those views himself or engage with them. Aside from his
personal preference to read conservative content, he makes a broader political
point. That is, democracy depends on us encountering the views of people who
aren’t like us. During the twentieth century we lived in largely broadcast
democracies, where the function of the media in part was to construct a public
within which different points of view were disseminated, canvassed and debated
over periods of time (although this is partly an idealized account of broadcast
democracy). In an interactive post-broadcast democracy we risk losing this broad-
based public, as we are sorted into smaller bubbles of people who are already like

These observations about the filtering of content online raise three important issues:

Automatic algorithms become the new gatekeepers. Media systems have always
had gatekeepers who decide what information is shared with the public and
how events and ideas are represented. Traditional gatekeepers are journalists,
editors and media advisors. They interact with each other to shape the way
events are represented. While these gatekeepers still exist, in an interactive
media system automatic algorithms also make decisions about the content that
you see, and this can shape your view of immediate events or longer term
understanding of issues.
In a networked form of communication we can only see those parts of the
network that we are connected to. The system learns which connections matter
to us, and prompts us to make new connections based on our past or current
interests. It predicts the kind of position we would like to have in a network.
This means, though, that parts of public life, points of view and people become
increasingly invisible to us. We are confined to parts of the network consisting
of people like us.
Networks are asymmetrical. Publics are constructed, performed and called into
being continuously. Networks create a constantly-shifting set of connections
between individuals based on convenience, proximity and affinity. They do not
create publics where people with different points of view encounter and
negotiate with each other.

Predictions and decisions
The consequences of increasingly customized information don’t only extend to
what we know about. They arguably also change our orientation to the truthfulness
of representations. The ability to customize our media also leads us to choose
between interpretations of events and issues. The problem is not only that we don’t
see the multiple sides of a debate, but also that we increasingly become immersed in
a chosen perspective. We choose the facts that match how we feel about an event or
issue (Andrejevic 2013: 49). We don’t make choices based on our judicious or
evidentiary assessment of perspectives. News becomes a customizable commodity.
We customize based on our feelings and identity, as much as our assessments of the
veracity of representations.

The responsive and customizable nature of interactive media doesn’t just impact on
the news and views we see in our Facebook news feeds, news sites we visit, and
Google or Amazon searches. It has far-reaching and constantly evolving impacts.
This is not just a matter of the information used about us as individuals, but also the
information collected and used to make predictions about people like you
(Andrejevic 2011). Consider the kinds of information an organization like
Facebook could collect over the course of your life. It would know not just about
your life, but the life course and prospects of the many thousands and even millions
of people who share similar demographic characteristics, interests and everyday
patterns as you. It can use that information not just to make decisions about what
kind of person you are now but what life you are likely to lead in the future.

Algorithmic culture
As we use mobile devices we generate flows of information that algorithms make
decisions about. Algorithms are the range of automated or procedural decisions
media systems make in assembling flows of content and brokering audience
attention. Hallinan and Striphas (2014: 3) define algorithmic culture as the ‘use of
computational processes to sort, classify, and hierarchize people, places, objects,
and ideas, and also the habits of thought, conduct and expression that arise in
relationship to those processes’. Algorithms are part of an interactive media system.
As they become more important to how content is sorted and displayed to audiences,
professional communicators devise ways to tune their activities to the decision-
making logic of algorithms. News organizations, film and television producers,
brands, politicians and any group seeking publicity need to create content that
algorithms will judge to be of interest to audiences.

Hallinan and Striphas (2014) warn that this might create a new kind of cultural
conformity. Algorithmic decision making tends to ignore objects that can’t be
categorized, that polarize opinion or that get an unpredictable reaction. As
algorithms play a larger role in deciding what cultural content we see, we may see
less culture that is genuinely disruptive, innovative and speculative.

Filter Bubbles
Watch Eli Pariser’s TED talk ‘Beware online “filter bubbles”’. You can find a link on the Media and
Society website

Pariser argues that algorithms like Facebook’s news feed or the Netflix recommendation system tend
to show us content that reflects ideas we already agree with, while making the lives and ideas of
people who are different to us less visible.

Some argue that these algorithms give audiences what they want, while others say media and cultural
producers have an important public role to play in challenging audiences and exposing them to
alternative ways of life and points of view.

What are the consequences of algorithms deciding what content we see?

Shaping how we experience space
Responsive and customized forms of media shape the way we see the world around
us in the first place. Morozov (2013) takes the example of the map, a media text that
for hundreds of years has remained relatively objective. That is, the map of a city
was the same for me as it was for you. Google, however, are making maps
increasingly responsive and customized. The map of your city might appear
differently to you compared to another citizen. The maps we see will give
preference to our interests and the places frequented by our friends and people like
us. Businesses might be able to pay to make themselves more visible on the maps of
individuals they are seeking to target. This makes our choices far more predictable
over time. We will go to the places that Google nudges us towards by making them
more visible to us, instead of discovering places in our city accidentally over time.
These media technologies profoundly change the everyday experience of life in a
big city.

Space and our experience of it becomes just another form of information that can be
collected, organized and customized as part of an interactive media system. The
problem, as Morozov (2013) puts it, is that this system doesn’t allow for the
‘disorder, chaos and novelty’ that have been an essential ingredient in creative and
innovative cities and societies. Furthermore, these maps likely privilege
commercial spaces with recommendations to us as consumers, and slowly the
public spaces on maps become less visible and less important. These interactive
maps might play a role in shaping our understanding of our cities and public spaces
in the first place. They represent sites of consumption as important, because these
will have reviews, recommendations and advertisements, whereas public spaces slip
from view. ‘In Google’s world’, Morozov (2013) argues, ‘public space is just
something that stands between your house and the well-reviewed restaurant that you
are dying to get to. Since no one formally reviews public space or mentions it in
their emails, it might as well disappear from Google’s highly personalised maps.’
Morozov’s example points to the mobile and locational aspect of the responsiveness
of media. Broadcast and print media were largely confined to particular sites of
consumption; they didn’t follow us around on a device in our pocket all day. The
interface between Google search, targeted advertisements, maps and mobile devices
prompts us to consider the way increasingly responsive forms of media reshape
how that content is embedded in, and structures, our everyday life.

Algorithms organize and shape content you see, which in turn might affect your
world-view and your capacity to use the media to participate in public life. This has
a collective impact as it fragments public discourses. Profiled and sorted into

niches, do we lose the capacity to use media to negotiate important social, cultural
and political issues? Importantly, it also calls for a new understanding of control.
Rather than shape our identities and lives only with ideological content, media shape
our lives with a responsive and predictive mode of control that constantly
anticipates our interests, life chances, life course and political viewpoints in ways
that don’t tell us what to think, as much as they anticipate and shape the information
we use to construct our understanding of the world.

Interactive Media Watch Us
Above we argued that in a broadcast media system we have become accustomed to
thinking of media texts as relatively stable. We have also come to think of media
production as predominantly the process of creating and distributing meaning.
Interactive media though don’t just speak, they also watch. On the one hand we need
to consider how surveillance is intrinsic to interactive media and the networked
economy. On the other hand we need to consider how interactive communication
technologies enable greater transparency of social and political institutions and
power. At the same time as we are seeing states and corporations rapidly develop
enormous surveillance capacities, we are also seeing the emergence of new forms
of transparency based on the ability to collect and share information. Broad-based
and accessible Freedom of Information systems in many democracies, sites and
communities of information sharing and disclosure like WikiLeaks or Reddit, and
the use of blogs and micro-blogging networks in many developing and
authoritarian countries, all point to ways in which interactive technologies can
enable ordinary people to reshape power relations by subjecting the powerful to
greater scrutiny and transparency. At the same time though many of these activities
are readily incorporated into the power relationships of network societies. The
more citizens use social media to organize themselves politically the more easily
the powerful can track their opinions and movements. The revelations of
WikiLeaks, despite being the largest leak of classified information in history, did
not disrupt the US hegemony in any meaningful way. Governments all over the
world are developing increasingly savvy ways of circumventing and managing
Freedom of Information regimes. As quickly as interactive media afford new
opportunities for transparency, the powerful work out ways to both control and
benefit from those opportunities.

What is Surveillance?
Surveillance is watching with purpose (Lyon 2011: 14–16). Surveillance involves
the ‘focused, systematic and routine attention to personal details for purposes of
influence, management, production or direction’. Surveillance technologies are a
routine and normal part of everyday life in industrialized and networked societies.
Surveillance was instrumental in the creation of institutions, discourses and
mechanisms for producing, disciplining and managing populations (Foucault 1977).
Institutions set rules, standards, procedures and norms for governing life in liberal
societies. Techniques of observation, examination and judgement are used to ensure
individuals comply with the discourses of institutions. Those individuals who
internalize the rules monitor and govern themselves. The collection and
organization of information underpins the very functioning of modern societies.
With the emergence of interactive media, however, surveillance has dramatically
expanded, becoming a ubiquitous part of our everyday public, private and work

Surveillance involves relations of power in which ‘watchers are privileged’ (Lyon
2011: 14). One group watches another in order to manage them as a market, public
or population. Importantly though, surveillance usually also relies on the
participation and consent of the watched. When we use the internet, travel through
public space, open a bank account or take out an insurance policy, make purchases
on our credit card, or upload content to our social media profile, we consent in
practice to that information being collected, analysed and used to manage further
relationships with us and the population of which we are a part.

Surveillance technologies are interwoven with our everyday social lives. We make
ourselves and our lives visible to the cameras, databases and algorithms of the
networked society. As we move through the city we leave information behind (Lyon
2011: 111). Surveillance is a process of assembling or linking together media
technologies, databases, social spaces and practices. Think of your smartphone as a
node in an assembly or network of surveillance processes. The camera in the phone,
its GPS capabilities, and the internet searches, maps and apps all generate
information that is logged in various databases. Surveillance isn’t something that
just happens ‘in the clouds’. It is a material process that requires large amounts of
investment in server farms, hardware and labour at one end, and users logging
information about their everyday practices and expressions at the other.
Surveillance and media technologies are constantly being assembled in relation to
each other. We do our part in integrating surveillance into everyday life. We
routinely engage in mutual (Trottier 2011) and lateral (Andrejevic 2002b) forms of

surveillance as part of our social lives – when we trawl through the photos of
acquaintances on Facebook or search the names of work colleagues on Google.
Surveillance is not imposed on us by some Big Brother ‘out there’: it is an ordinary
and visible part of our everyday lives.

In a networked society the process of making and managing populations is
information intensive, and therefore relies on technologies that collect, manage and
organize that information. Surveillance involves a series of commercial and state
activities that are entwined with each other. Corporations and states need to track,
profile and classify people and populations in order to make decisions about them
and to manage them. Interactive societies and economies have developed within a
neoliberal context characterized by links between governments and corporations.
Corporate innovations in surveillance technologies have been adapted to the state,
and corporate and state databases are integrated (or at least share access with each
other). As states and corporations interact with each other to build these very large
surveillance systems it raises important questions about who ‘defines categories’
(Lyon 2011: 186): ‘When people’s life-chances depend upon what category they
have been placed in, it is very important to know who designed the categories, who
defines their significance and who decides the circumstances under which those
categories will be decisive.’ The issue is that those who are watched have decisions
made about them but the information used to make those decisions is opaque.

Disciplinary and productive forms of surveillance
While we commonly think of surveillance in a disciplinary sense – that is,
surveillance systems are used to watch over and identify individuals who are deviant
– surveillance more commonly serves productive purposes. It doesn’t just identify
risks, it also identifies opportunities (Lyon 2011). Databases produce populations
that can be used for some purpose: potential consumers, voters or participants.
Careful observation of populations generates opportunities by identifying new
patterns, practices and innovations (Zwick and Knott 2009). A database is also a tool
for producing new network formations that are useful and valuable. Databases can
identify ‘creative, non-conforming, and unexpected forms of consumer life’ that
often ‘evolve out of the social and cultural innovations generated in uncontrolled
and undisciplined spaces of consumer culture’ (2009: 225). Databases are part of an
interactive media system that doesn’t need to control populations with particular
ideas and beliefs – that is, in a representational and ideological sense – but rather
controls them by watching and responding to them. Used in real time, databases
respond to individuals depending on their location, place in a network, mood,
activity or demands. Databases organize populations, identify risks, modulate social
relationships, anticipate interests and actions, and capture opportunities (Zwick and
Knott 2009, Lyon 2011).

Productive forms of surveillance are emergent, convergent and increasingly
predictive (Andrejevic 2013). In a networked interactive media system, data is
collected continuously and uses for it are constantly emerging. Data collected for
one purpose is readily appropriated for other uses as the capacities of databases
expand. Increasingly, networked organizations bring data together to create new and
useful assemblages. For instance, Facebook collects data about its users’ everyday
lives, while credit card companies collect information about their purchases. The
two organizations might agree to converge their databases to examine patterns that
might be mutually beneficial in building their markets and the value of their
respective networks. Social and interactive media also offer whole new kinds of
data, and new connections between data sets. In addition to who we are, where we
are and who we interact with, databases can increasingly collect and use affective
data – that is, how we feel about particular things, places, times and people.
Tracking the expressions and sentiments of people and populations in real time is
useful in predicting and managing consumption, political events and economic

Just as we often think of surveillance in a disciplinary sense, we also often imagine
information in a representational way. That is, data is useful because it contains a

particular meaning. Mark Andrejevic (2013: 35) argues that the forms of
information management and surveillance enabled by interactive technologies

Two different information cultures will come to exist side by side: on the one
hand, the familiar, ‘old-fashioned’ one in which people attempt to make sense
of the world based on the information they can access: news reports, blog
posts, the words of others and the evidence of their own experience. On the
other hand, computers equipped with algorithms that can ‘teach’ themselves
will advance the instrumental pragmatics of the database: the ability to use
tremendous amounts of data without understanding it.

Big data analysis is pushing towards predictive rather than explanatory forms of
analysis. That is, we don’t need to know why something works, just that it works.
For example, Facebook might notice that you often check in at particular places and
times of the week and that other people like you do the same thing. It doesn’t
necessarily need to know why you do it or what it means (for instance, people who
like a certain music genre go to a particular bar each Friday night), but this data
enables Facebook to predict this pattern of behaviour over time and perhaps connect
that data with other content or information it has in useful ways (targeting content or
advertisements, or understanding how the social graph intersects with social places
and practices).

Surveillance raises many questions about what are personal, private and public
goods or resources. While we could think about privacy in terms of secrecy (things
we don’t want people to know) or intimacy (aspects of our lives that are personal),
we should think beyond just our personal privacy to larger questions about control:

Who owns these networks?
Who collects, stores, analyses and uses the data?
What do they do with this information now and in the future?
How is information used to make decisions about us?
How do we address the control of information within a democratic society?

In a networked society interactive media assume an importance to the functioning of
the economy and politics beyond simply circulating ideas. Power rests with those
who build and control the networks of information and communication used to run
markets, manage populations and increasingly also organize ‘hard’ forms of power
like warfare.

Participation and Public Life
So far we have argued that rather than take the internet to be inherently
democratizing because it enables ordinary people to express their point of view and
to bypass traditional information gatekeepers, we need to examine:

What kinds of participation do the internet and social media enable?
Who gets to participate?
What kinds of public social processes and institutions do the internet and social
media facilitate?

Hindman (2009) canvasses three key claims that have been made about the
democratizing nature of the internet:

The internet broadens debate. Where broadcast media were the preserve of
select voices, online anyone can speak.
The internet enables participation. Where traditional forms of political activity
like joining a party are declining, the internet enables the rise of a range of new
informal forms of political action that are appealing to citizens traditionally
disengaged from politics.
The internet makes politics more transparent. Information about the political
process can be shared and accessed by members of the public more broadly
and easily. There are no constraints on the amount of information that can be
distributed and who distributes it, and there is less ability for gatekeepers to
control what information is distributed.

To these arguments Hindman (2009) offers two responses:

Firstly, most traffic on the web travels between a small number of powerful
nodes. Major search engines, social networks and news organizations control
the flow of most content through the web. If you are going to find out some
information about a political event or issue you will most likely go to a search
engine like Google, a social network like Facebook, or a major news
organization’s website. These players shape the flow of political information
through the web.
Secondly, blogs are predominantly the media of a new elite, who largely
reflect entrenched forms of power and privilege. To produce the content
required for a popular and widely read political blog, a blogger needs to be a
well-trained professional communicator with the economic and cultural
resources to produce compelling content. This includes: the time and money to
fund the production of content; the cultural capital to understand politics;
access to political insiders and sources to glean information; and the critical
analytical skills to find, read and interpret documents. Furthermore, he finds
that the more educated the blogger, the bigger their audience is.

Hindman (2009) argues that there is a difference between speaking and being heard
online. Online audiences are just as concentrated as traditional media audiences.
Only a few are really heard. To become powerful in this network you need not just
to create content, but also to gain the attention of other nodes – who read your
content, circulate it further, link to you and so on. To become a powerful node

requires technical, economic, social and cultural capital. In recent times, Nate Silver
is perhaps emblematic of the highly educated and well-regarded political bloggers.
Silver produces a form of content that draws on the resources available in the
interactive, networked, big data era. He works for major media organizations, and
is highly educated and well connected with the political elite. His blog is widely read
because he offers highly skilled analytics of population-level data. Silver doesn’t
necessarily provide new and alternative understandings of politics, rather he uses
data to offer a well-educated audience ways of enjoying the prediction of election

Nate Silver and Data-Driven Blogging
The popularity of Nate Silver during the 2012 US Presidential race offers one example of the
attention and influence a well-resourced and educated blogger can exert on the coverage of politics.
Silver uses big data to offer a new kind of meta-coverage of the political process. Where established
cable news pundits continually called the Obama–Romney race as very close, Silver predicted a 90
per cent chance that Obama would win. Silver illustrates and extends Hindman’s arguments. He is a
highly educated, white, middle-class male. After rising to prominence as a blogger, he joined the New
York Times, and moved into the centre of the media-political process in the US during the 2008 and
2012 Presidential elections. Silver is not just a blogger; he is also symptomatic of another aspect of
interactive media – the way big data analysis reshapes how we use information to represent public life.
Silver can only do big data analysis of politics in a society where vast sets of data are readily
available and where he can get access to those (often private and commercial) sets of data. He is part
of a new kind of political elite, reshaping public discussions of politics and upsetting and undermining
established elites along the way. His blog doesn’t necessarily reshape the way the public participates
in the political process, but rather how they understand the way that political preferences are
aggregated, predictable and – in his words – designable. Silver, unlike the political bloggers Hindman
studied, produces a form of content that draws on the resources available in the interactive,
networked, big data era. This reshapes how we understand the political. We shift away from using
media to attempt to understand each other, and towards using media to predict each other’s actions and

Silver’s combination of analysing big data sets and blogging about his findings is a new form of meta-
coverage; he enables the public to be insiders who have access to how the political events will
unfold. This data is used to shape, as much as inform, the public. Silver argues that his meta-coverage
of the political process – that is, calling the race – is ‘good’ whereas pundits’ coverage is ‘bad’,
because his is based on empirical data. The issue is that this kind of meta-coverage encourages us to
imagine populations as predictable. As we do so, social and political questions become a matter of
having enough data to diagnose and solve the problem. Silver’s analysis is underpinned by the
creation of a particular kind of public – one that willingly submits to surveillance. The more they
participate, the more they register their information, the more they can be told about predictions being
made about them. Those predictions shape them as a public. Silver illustrates how bloggers aren’t just
a new elite in the sense that they get to speak about the political process; they also legitimize the
networked, informational, predictive form of politics brought about in part by interactive technologies.
As our public and political culture celebrates interactivity as politically empowering, it legitimatizes an
interactive media system that promises democratization, while at the same time engaging in ever more
sophisticated modes of control of information and concentrations of power.

How does Nate Silver’s coverage contribute to democratic debate and participation?

You can find links to Nate Silver stories and talks on the Media and Society website

Social media and political events
If blogging is primarily the media of a well-resourced and educated elite, then it
might be argued that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook facilitate
more broad-based participation of ordinary people in public life and political
events. The events of the Arab Spring, and other uprisings and protests in
authoritarian regimes, have been lauded for demonstrating the role that social
media play in facilitating political revolutions. It goes without saying that these
claims should be treated cautiously. While social media may have been a tool used
to circulate information in these events, it was most likely not the catalyst or a
determining factor in any political revolution. The events like the Arab Spring or
the 2009 Iranian elections are far more complex than that.

Social media do though change the way information circulates about political
events, and that does shape the way people think, feel and act. Papacharissi and
Oliveira (2012) offer a helpful study of tweets using #egypt during the Egyptian
revolution in 2011. They argue that ‘Twitter is frequently used to call networked
publics into being and into action during periods of political instability’ (2012: 268).
Twitter is used to distribute information about events by mainstream media,
established actors and ordinary people. The live, repetitive and mobile nature of the
platform creates a background ambience for events. Twitter users augment
traditional news values with other features (2012: 273–275):

Instantaneity: Twitter users post ongoing and instant updates of events as they
Crowdsourced elites: elite status is granted via interaction (retweeting and
replying) based on how important or useful their content is to the network. The
network produces elites by bringing them to the centre of information flows.
Some elites are established actors like journalists or political figures central to
events who people look to as events unfold. Others have a temporary value to
the network given their proximity to events or their live coverage. The
networks link them in and out as it requires them.
Solidarity: tweets express solidarity via common identity, cause and values.
Twitter functions not only as a site for debate or information, but for the large-
scale amplification of sentiments and beliefs. Twitter provides important
affective energy for events.
Ambience: the constant feed of tweets sustains an always-on live coverage and
anticipation of events. Individuals take events and narrate them via their own
emotions and sentiments. This creates an ‘ambient information sharing

The continuous, live, unfolding ambience of Twitter ’s coverage of events can be
described as an ‘affective network’. As individuals convey their feelings they
anticipate and shape events. How people feel in relation to each other and seek the
attention of others shapes public networks like Twitter. Rather than a rational
exchange of meaning, ideas or debate, what takes place is a continuous circulation
of feelings and affects. In the case of a political revolution, social media doesn’t
play the role of making the case for the revolution, or mediating between competing
demands, but rather in sustaining and mediating the network of actors facilitating
political events. News gets caught up in these networks, and takes on an affective
dimension. As journalists and individuals report events, others in the network
circulate those reports together with their own sentiments. Rather than create
content, they circulate and amplify affect. Individuals tweet from their place in the
network, blending ‘drama with fact’ (Papacharissi and Oliveira 2012: 278) and news
with emotion and opinion. Individuals use Twitter to find and convey their place in
the story. This repetition and mimicry engages participants emotionally rather than
cognitively (2012: 278). Participants in a social network re-tweet, share, endorse,
disagree, joke and express their feelings about events. They take an aspect of events,
their position in relation to it, and circulate it through the network, often with their
emotions, sentiments or identities attached. This ongoing process determines the
trajectory of messages (or memes) through a social network.

Networks have nodes of power and influence:

The link structure of networks makes some websites – search engines, social
networks, news sites – central hubs of information.
Economic, institutional and cultural resources make some individuals –
bloggers, journalists, political figures, industry leaders – prominent within
Proximity to events make some individuals temporarily important conduits of
information in networks. Proximity can take material and cultural forms. If you
are physically at a political event with a smartphone your content will quickly
flow to the centre of networks. Or, if you have a specialist understanding of
events because you know the key players or drivers, the network will seek out
your expertise for as long as it is useful to narrating and explaining events.

The affective nature of these online networks is significant and important. None of
these leaders can autonomously make themselves a centre of power. They always
depend on attracting and sustaining the attention and interaction of others in the
network to maintain their presence.

Networks can also be used by powerful actors to promote and drive conflicts and

disruptions, as much as they are used for collaboration and dialogue (Bratich 2011).
Bratich (2011: 621) details how the US State Department funded groups that
distributed ‘technical knowledge and social media skills’ to young protestors in
authoritarian regimes. This illustrates how powerful established actors use social
media to organize political movements. For Bratich (2011: 622) ‘we are witnessing
a convergence of sovereign and network powers’ where states integrate into
networks. The State Department’s Alliance of Youth Movements brought together
established and new media organizations to train youth in building genetically
modified grassroots organizations. This involved a mixture of top-down and
bottom-up cultural production. The use of social media in political protests and
events does not necessarily ‘spring from authentic populist or spontaneous
community aspirations’ (Bratich 2011: 627).

What each of these perspectives demonstrates is that networks are complex and
evolving configurations of attention, influence and power. They are not necessarily
more or less empowering for ordinary people than other forms of public
communication. They do enact different configurations of power that inform how
public and political life unfolds.

The Visual Nature of Social Media
Visual content is critical to the live and affective dynamics of social media. Kraidy (2005, 2006)
examines the use of popular culture and new media in political activity in the Arab world. Kraidy
(2012) illustrates the connection between videos and social media in circulating sentiments about
political events. He argues that videos – often made on smartphones and laptops – adapt old forms of
political action like satire, theatre and home-made puppetry with the new digital video and social
networks. Videos become especially powerful for several reasons:

Using smartphones and laptops, citizens can easily produce videos.
Using the internet, videos can be widely distributed, bypassing state and media gatekeepers.
Videos can use popular culture codes and images that are easily understood around the globe.
Videos can be resent and recirculated.

To illustrate, Kraidy (2012) examines videos produced by Syrians during the uprising and civil war.
Top Goon is a satirical series of videos produced by a group of young Syrians living in Beirut. The
videos used finger-puppets, theatre and popular culture formats to satirize Assad and the Syrian
regime. One of the videos uses the global format of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? television
game show. The video makers adapted the format to ‘Who Wants to Kill a Million?’, with Assad
appearing as the contestant answering questions such as ‘If you could commit a massacre in the
capital, Damascus, who would you put in charge?’ and ‘Who’s the dumbest person in your regime?’

Kraidy (2012) describes videos like Top Goon as creative insurrection: the use of cultural resources
and media technologies under life threatening duress. This below-the-line media circulates online and
gets appropriated by mainstream media where it creates alternative perspectives on political events.
Kraidy argues that the videos are powerful not because they attempt to facilitate debate and dialogue
(they don’t), but because they capture attention. Videos circulate across platforms like mobile,
television, web and tablet and become the talk of everyday life. They animate ordinary and popular
discussions. The videos and their circulation create a performative public as they are replayed and
circulated. Aside from their content the practice of sharing jokes about the regime creates social

Public life is performed via the circulation of texts. The repetitive circulation of texts gains attention,
brings a public into being and acts as a petition against the powerful. The content of the arguments of
the videos is not what matters, the arguments against Assad and the Syrian regime are well known, the
role the videos play is in creating content that can be circulated to gain attention. They gain attention
because they affect their audiences – with humour, anger and hope. By sharing the videos individuals
seek to express how they feel about the situation, and in doing so, affect their family, friends and
social networks.

How do insurgents exploit the visual, mobile and networked nature of online media?
What claims about the power of interactive media do you find plausible?
How do interactive media enable marginalized groups to resist dominant groups and represent
their identities?
What are the affordances and risks of interactive media to democracy?

You can find links to talks by Marwan Kraidy about the use of insurgent videos in Syria on the Media
and Society website

Mapping Out Positions on Interactivity
Interactive media ‘constitute the means to build a different type of social
organisation’ (Couldry 2012: 109). Our media and popular culture commonly
present interactive and participatory media as ‘good’. We are constantly encouraged
to participate, express our views, comment, like, vote and so on. We are told this
activity makes us active and empowered. Interactive media are presented as better –
more exciting, more enjoyable and more empowering – than old top-down
broadcast forms of media.

Government, corporations and established civil society actors actively resist
dramatic reorganizations of power. They see networks as tools to maintain their
power. Evidence of networks disrupting global flows of power over the past
generation have not materialized. The processes of neoliberalism, globalization and
concentration of wealth set in train at the beginning of the network society have
continued apace. Networks are incredibly useful and profitable tools to elites that
learn how to use them. And the already established elite are in the best position to
mobilize the resources required to build and maintain networks. Information
abundance and networks offer established actors just as many opportunities as they
do ordinary or disempowered people (Couldry 2012: 124).

While there may have been a moment when networks afforded new opportunities
for reshaping power relationships, established players are emerging that control
and constrain the uses of networks. The commercialization of the web and the large-
scale surveillance of the internet by the state are two examples of this. Given this, we
ought to ask (Couldry 2012: 115):

How do networks facilitate and constrain flows of power?
How do networks sustain political agency?
How are societies configured by networks?
How are narratives about interactive media and empowerment constructed?
How do different groups attempt to make their narrative about interactive
media legitimate?

There are a variety of responses to these questions that speak to the affordances and
capacities of interactive media (Dahlberg 2011). Interactive media:

enable the circulation of useful information that informs rational choices
allow for multiple positions and preferences to be accounted for
support deliberation, debate and argument that eventually arrive at agreement
and consensus

provide space for marginalized and excluded groups to resist and contest
dominant ideas or configurations of power
offer the technical capacity for new forms of social cooperation and
collaboration to emerge
enable performances that create networks of attention and affect.

Just as we can identify several ways interactive media might support political
agency, we can also point to some of their shortcomings. Couldry (2012) questions
the capacity of interactive media to sustain long-term, meaningful, positive political
projects. He implores us to think of the long-term contexts and structures that
sustain political action and the public. He cautions against views that foreshorten the
social by celebrating individuals acting in temporary networks around singular
issues (2012: 117). Without social institutions that support public life, networks are
empty (2012: 118).

While networks might enable new forms of communication and participation in
public life, they appear to (Couldry 2012: 125–128):

Be weighted towards short-term disruptions rather than long-term positive
projects; this serves the interests of established actors.
Enable established actors to amplify their messages and circulate information,
without increasing the capacity for ordinary people to be meaningfully heard.
Increase the opportunities for counter-politics, but displace opportunities for
sustained action around explicit goals. Networks encourage transparency,
revelation, being a watchdog, veto and feelings of outrage and anger: they
destabilize and amplify feelings rather than contribute to ongoing social
processes and publics.
Create forms of participation which serve the interests of corporate media:
there is no correlation between internet access and political participation (2012:
127). In an on-demand media system it is actually easier to avoid politics, and if
your social network incrementally avoids politics then algorithms and filters
will increasingly dis-embed you and your social world from the political
Saturate everyday life with media in ways that constrain the possibility of
political action: as ordinary people and their everyday lives become more
publicly visible this places a constraint on positive politics, that is, the hard
work of ‘persuading others to change how they live’ (2012: 128). This is
because networks inflate forms of disruptive counter-democracy while at the
same time closing out the possibilities and opportunities for ordinary forms of
democracy; formal forms of political action disappear, as informal,
temporary, disruptive forms of political activity proliferate.

Democratic politics needs trust in networks that do not categorically exclude any
group or allow any group to act autonomously from the public (Couldry 2012: 118).
Networks saturate everyday life with media, and this reinforces the status quo and
decreases trust, which both count against the possibility of meaningful forms of
change or dealing with complex social and political problems.

Managing Participation
The information abundance and short-term insurgent forms of political action
characteristic of interactive networks also require new forms of political
management. Political elites now need to invest significant resources in managing
information, open government and the continuous short-term demands of an
always-on information network. The spin and media management that are typical of
contemporary democratic government are at least in part interrelated with the
continuous, emotive, short-term revelations of social media. This arguably distracts
elites from doing their job: they too become oriented to short-term and reactive
democracy, rather than guiding populations in the establishment of long-term
positive political projects and corresponding social institutions and public spaces.
Furthermore, good governance involves taking hard and unpopular decisions. The
more that interactive networks orient publics towards continuous exposure,
transparency and instantaneous assessment of a population’s sentiment towards
those decisions, the higher the risks and consequences of those decisions. If all
decision making is in the open, subject to the continuous feedback of the network,
then taking hard decisions becomes difficult, perhaps impossible. Politics collapses
to managing real-time feedback from the public.

The continual and amplified circulation of information arguably distracts attention
both from examining the real workings of political power and from developing
material and meaningful political projects. The old critique of media focused on its
top-down structure and its control of particular meanings and representations. We
now need to think beyond control of the production of particular representations
and messages, controlling the ideas in our heads. Instead, we need to make sense of
a mode of control that manages the spaces in which we interact, modulating the
ideas we see and circulate, and predicting who we are, what we want and who we
might be. We need to think beyond individual privacy concerns to how an interactive
media system profiles, sorts and manages populations, flows of ideas, political
processes and cultural practices.

In this chapter we’ve examined the paradox that while on the one hand interactive
technologies enable forms of communication that are participatory, empowering
and democratic, they simultaneously lead to more intensive forms of surveillance
and control. While ordinary people are able to participate in making and circulating
meaning, in doing so they contribute to the creation of networks that watch, track
and respond to them. Mark Andrejevic (2009: 41) argues that our task is twofold:
‘To consider the ways in which the deployment of networked digital media
contribute to and reinforce the contemporary exercise of power, and to imagine
how it might be otherwise.’ To do that he suggests we distinguish between the ‘real
interactivity’ of participating in ‘shaping the structures that regulate our social lives,
not just in increasing the range of choices available within the horizon of those
structures and the social relations they help reproduce’ (Andrejevic 2009: 49).
Perhaps most importantly, we need to differentiate this form of interactivity from
what Žižek describes as ‘pseudointeractivity, the urge to “be active”, to
“participate”, to mask the nothingness of what goes on’ (Žižek 2008: 183). Such a
distinction is crucial to the project of making interactivity live up to its promise,
rather than settling for the claim that it already has’ (Andrejevic 2009: 49).

To conclude, we can offer some preliminary answers to some of the key questions
of this chapter. In an interactive and networked media system:

Where is power located? Power is located in networks that control the flow of
information: search engines like Google, social networks like Facebook,
database companies like Axciom and DoubleClick, political organizations like
Obama’s 2012 Presidential campaign, and state bureaucracies like the National
Security Agency.
How is power structured? Power is structured around participation and
interactivity. If a system can watch and respond to participation, it isn’t as
dependent on controlling what is said. The more we participate the more the
system can adapt and control.
What is the dominant form of communication? The dominant form of
communication is participatory.
How does interactivity legitimate itself? With the promise of giving voice to
ordinary people and by neutering opportunities to reflect critical points of
view. For instance, Facebook only has a ‘like’ button. Critical and challenging
views by their very nature don’t generate affinity or engagement and so are
filtered out of feeds and networks.
Who benefits from this system? Organizations and people who can collect,

access, organize, and manipulate information; organizations and people who
can build and manage networks; and organizations and people who can harness
and modulate participation.

Celebrations of interactivity that focus only on the ability of publics to access
information and speak avoid a thorough account of the qualities of participation and
good government. In these accounts, participation becomes an end in itself, rather
than a means to an end. This scuppers the possibility of careful deliberation about
the quality of participation (Couldry 2010), the difference between speaking and
being heard (Hindman 2009), and critique of a system that relies on participation in
general but pays no attention to particular ideas and expressions (Dean 2010). The
problem remains distinguishing between active and empowered, and deliberating
over what kinds of participation are desirable (Andrejevic 2007). In the interactive
era new divisions of power emerge within access to and control over flows of
information (Andrejevic 2013: 59).

Further Reading
The readings below offer a variety of critical perspectives and arguments about
interactivity and participation relating to personal privacy (boyd 2008, Fuchs 2012),
the way social media structures relationships (van Dijck 2011), political
participation (Dahlberg 2011), and the exploitation of audiences (Andrejevic 2011).

Andrejevic, M. (2011) ‘Surveillance and alienation in the online economy’,
Surveillance & Society, 8 (3): 278–287.

boyd, d. (2008) ‘Facebook’s privacy trainwreck’, Convergence: The International
Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 14 (1): 13–20.

Dahlberg, L. (2011) Re-constructing digital democracy: an outline of four
“positions”’, New Media & Society, 13 (6): 855–872.

Fuchs, C. (2012) ‘The political economy of privacy on Facebook’, Television &
New Media, 13 (2): 139–159.

van Dijck, J. (2012) ‘Facebook as a tool for producing sociality and connectivity’,
Television & New Media, 13 (2): 160–176.

Any article marked with is available to download at the website

12 Mobile Media, Urban Space and Everyday

* How have the global networked economy and interactive media changed
urban life?
* How have mobile devices like smartphones changed urban life?
* How have mobile devices changed our intimate, personal and public lives?

In this chapter we:
Examine how media represent urban space
Consider how media organize our movement in and experience of urban space
Explore how we use media to make ourselves visible in urban space
Consider how media are used to monitor urban space.

Media and Urban Space
Media are central to organizing the symbolic structure of cities. Throughout the
twentieth century, broadcast forms of media like radio and television cultivated
mass publics and organized life in mass industrial cities. As media become more
mobile, pervasive and interactive they become part of the architecture of our cities
(McQuire 2008). Public space, workplaces and homes incorporate media
technologies. Digital networks enable decentralized and heterogeneous social
structures. Our lives are no longer confined to our immediate position in space: our
family, our home or neighbourhood or even our city. Via broadcast and networked
media technologies we can embed ourselves within social relations and flows of
culture that are organized in a relational sense across large and disparate
geographical areas. The city becomes a ‘relational space’ (McQuire 2008), one
where our experience is grounded in the social relations we construct using media.

In this chapter we examine how media organize life in urban space:

Media play a critical role in representing urban space and life. We use media to
imagine ourselves living together. It is through media that we come to
construct images in our minds of our city and its patterns of life.
Media facilitate power relationships within urban space: they make clear who
has power and how that power is exercised. They also mediate our
participation in political and community processes. Over time media play an
important role in making urban life cohesive. They fashion collective identities
and values that we adhere to. Without media playing these roles our urban
spaces would be chaotic, violent and dysfunctional.
Media organize space in a material sense. Public spaces and buildings are
organized around large screens. Large stadiums are built as sites of media
production. The living areas in our homes are organized around television
screens. Our trains and coffee shops have WiFi. Fast broadband networks are
built through our neighbourhoods.
Media organize interaction in everyday life. Media tell us what is happening,
where to go to get things and how to get there. Media are central to getting
things done in the city. When events unfold, media are critical to directing
populations, preventing chaos and asserting control.
Media are central to being seen and felt in urban space. We use media to make
ourselves visible to our peer networks and the broader public. We use media
technologies to stay present in large and dispersed social networks. We are
more likely to obliquely watch and be watched by a large range of
acquaintances in our online social network than we are to have ongoing

relationships with a range of people in our immediate neighbourhood.
Media technologies are used by corporations, governments and individuals to
monitor life in the city. Aside from the examples of corporate and state
surveillance we have already discussed, mobile devices are increasingly used
by individuals to monitor themselves and their lives. Take for instance
biometric and social fitness apps on mobile devices. These apps monitor our
physical activity together with biometric data like heart rates and sleep patterns.
This charts our own life rhythms and progress against that of our peers. The
smartphone is a ‘complex device for listening’ (Crawford 2012: 217). It listens
to us and we use it to listen to others. This monitoring extends the rationality of
modern capitalism and bureaucracy into our everyday lives and the way we
monitor and manage ourselves, our bodies and our relations with others (2012:

Media do more than just produce and circulate meaning. They organize social life.
As media technologies are incorporated into the infrastructure of our public and
private spaces their importance to social life becomes more central. Each of the
roles of media in urban space set out here is dramatically intensified by mobile
media. Mobile media are a key ingredient in creating lifestyles characterized by
constant flows of information, visibility and monitoring.

In addition to critical and celebratory accounts of mobile media and urban space, we
should also give consideration to the kinds of communication urban space ought to
enable. Hamelink (2008: 298) argues for cities where architecture and urban space
‘invite people to impart, seek, receive and exchange information, ideas and
opinions, to listen to each other and learn from each other in an ambience where
their autonomy, security and freedom is optimally guaranteed’. Recognizing the
reality that human life is predominantly urban, and that conflict in cities needs to be
managed, Hamelink presses against the increasingly rationalized forms of control
characteristic of mobile media and urban space. In place of cameras and databases,
Hamelink argues for urban designs that enable richer forms of human
communication. He proposes a number of provocative questions:

Does the city – despite the processes of privatization – have enough public
space left for people to meet?
Does the city have places that, although privately owned, function as public
meeting places (e.g. your favourite pub)?
Do meeting places provide for free speech? Can people express opinions and
ideas without the risk of intervention?
Can people communicate without being under 24/7 surveillance?
Does the city offer views that inspire people to converse with others?

Are there lots of small markets and myriad cultural events?
Are there places where people can withdraw for inner conversation with
Does the city have a good balance between large, open spaces and small,
intimate spaces?
Do city dwellers feel that their urban space has human proportions?
Are there a variety of architectural structures and socio-economic functions,
like in the world’s great streets?

As urban space is organized by economic and technological forces, Hamelink
prompts us to consider how media can be used to create a communicative city. He
argues for a city where urban space facilitates an array of distinctively human forms
of communication.

Media networks both disperse economic activity around the world while also
concentrating power in media cities that act as ‘command and control centres for the
global economy’ (McQuire 2008: 20). For the affluent in these global cities this
means greater interconnectedness through media, travel, cultural consumption and
flows of consumer goods. For the poor it means a life increasingly lived in
contained local spaces. New forms of connectedness are accompanied by new forms
of exclusion. These modes of control choose how nodes are connected to the
network. They can exclude and contain as much as they connect. The spaces we live
in, and the possibilities that exist within those spaces, are shaped by flows of
information and the way we are connected to and embedded in the networks of
global capitalism.

A New Geography of Power
As global network capitalism has taken shape a new geography of power has
emerged. Power is built on being connected to the electronic information network.
There are, of course, many different levels and qualities of connectivity, such as:

a super-elite who control networks and connectivity in general, setting the
terms on which others connect and interact
an information-rich elite who are connected to information networks and are
able to use them to acquire cultural, commercial and political capital, but who
ultimately do not control the network
a disconnected underclass with little or no meaningful access to the network;
not being connected or having only minimal connection is equivalent to being

Some examples of forms of disconnection and disempowerment include:

living in a society where information technologies are available, but you lack
the skills, education, cultural capital or economic resources to access them
living in a society where you cannot access the communication infrastructure
required to use information technologies – for instance, living in a rural or
regional area with no broadband or mobile reception, or living in a country
where there is no functioning infrastructure
living in a society where the state limits your access to the internet, or prevents
you from connecting altogether.

In theory, satellites make geography irrelevant by creating the possibility for
anyone, anywhere to be connected to the communication network. The reality is
quite different. Certain locations are clearly privileged because communication
networks are simply denser in places like New York, while virtually non-existent in
other places (like large parts of Africa).

Global cities
Global cities in particular have acquired an advantage that is now cumulative
because they have become the most wired locations on earth. The office towers that
make up the New York skyline are filled with information technologies. They have
become the telecommunication nodal points of the global economy (Lash and Urry
1994: 26). Within cities like New York, London, Berlin and Tokyo exist ‘smart’
wired buildings that become the logical sites for global networking capitalists to
locate the hubs of their networked empires. Global cities are communication-rich
sites because they are densely wired and possess large airports, both required to
facilitate rapid global communication. These cities are also the places that
information-rich and highly skilled people reside, because they are exciting places
to live, have good career opportunities, and are the best services and facilities for
cultural consumption. Many university students plan to head to cities like London,
Berlin, New York or San Francisco when they graduate, precisely because they
offer career and lifestyle opportunities. All these factors have tended to turn certain
cities into controlling hubs of the global economy. It is cost effective to locate
coordinating hubs where communicatively skilled people already live, and where
one can take advantage of already existing communication infrastructures. Many
cities around the world invest in rebranding and repositioning themselves
competitively within this network. Locations that are communications poor or have
poorly educated populations will necessarily be at the receiving end of the Pax
Americana’s power relationships. These cities find themselves on the periphery and
endpoints, rather than nodes, of the global economic networks.

Power and wealth are aggregating where the communication networks are thickest.
The United States’ urban areas, where the information rich live and work, are
emerging as the pre-eminent power centres of global network capitalism.
Considerable power is also accruing to the information rich living in the urban
areas of eastern Japan, Shanghai, trading centres like Hong Kong and Singapore,
north-west Europe, northern Italy and south-east England. A power network is
shaping up around the United States, European Union and Japan. The network
depends on cities that coordinate production and trade. These cities – for instance,
Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney and Sao Paulo – also have dense communications
infrastructures and skilled populations. The networker elite coordinate global
network capitalism from these global cities. They are increasingly clean cities with
dominant service economies specializing in financial, cultural and informational,
and high-end industrial production. These cities are the communication hubs from
which global network capitalism’s hegemonic dominance is coordinated. It is a
hegemonic dominance that is pre-eminently an exercise in networking. Power

derives from coordinating communicative complexity on a global scale.

Relocating industrial areas
Increasingly, industrial production involving dirty and monotonous labour practices
is relocated to places where there is:

cheap labour possessing a well-developed work ethic
lenient regulatory requirements concerning pollution and work practices
an effective legal and policing system to create a stable and predictable
operating environment
infrastructure like electricity, transport and telecommunications to facilitate
production – these cities need to be able to receive instructions from the global

This process has led to the deindustrialization of many cities in the United States,
Europe and Australia as production has been shipped off shore to South-East Asia,
coastal mainland China and parts of Latin America. The global elite coordinate
production facilitates from the urban nodes of the global network. They use
information technology to keep in touch with their comprador allies. Alternatively,
they conduct short-term inspection, education, marketing or familiarization tours of
the ‘margins’, as and when required. A middle class of multilingual financial,
engineering and cultural professionals travel the globe on behalf of the elite,
managing relationships throughout the network. The deindustrialization process has
been traumatic for many populations as cities and regions reshuffle their economic
bases. Whole populations have relocated to new wired growth points such as
Denver, Houston, Seattle, and Phoenix in the USA, Munich and Grenoble in Europe,
and Sydney and Melbourne in Australia. Some cities deindustrialized successfully,
such as London, New York, Sydney, Pittsburgh and Düsseldorf. These successfully
transformed and now-wired cities have developed a mix of high-end industry,
service and information economy sectors. But other cities and regions have failed to
successfully transform, such as Detroit. Others went through periods of rapid
transformation, like Dublin in Ireland, but found the new economy to be so flexible
that it just as quickly dissolved. These cities either became high-unemployment
ghettos or lost their populations through migration, or are characterized by high-
welfare dependency and slow growth. Other areas are still in the midst of traumatic
transformation, including most of the deindustrializing Eastern Europe. Significant
migration pressures have emerged as people try to relocate away from ‘losing’
areas of socio-economic decline towards growing or ‘winning’ areas. As a
consequence the international policing of migration has become a major policy
issue in the United States, Canada, European Union and Australia as they try to
simultaneously encourage the ‘right’ skilled migrants and deter the ‘wrong’

unskilled migrants. Other areas have experienced outflows of the most skilled parts
of their populations since the 1990s. These include the old Soviet empire, the
former Yugoslavia, South Africa and the Middle East.

Some new losing areas are located within the very heart of global network
capitalism. The inner-city ghettos of the United States and those deindustrialized
‘rust-belt’ cities that have not successfully made the transition to informational
capitalism offer very material evidence of how global network capitalism has
reshaped societies. The United States’ African American and Latin American
underclasses are heavily concentrated in these ghettos. The point is that this process
is uneven not only at a global level, but also within nation states, cities and even
neighbourhoods. Many poor inner-city neighbourhoods have gentrified pockets of
information-rich workers. Lash and Urry (1994: 146) suggested in the early 1990s
that approximately two-thirds of the population of OECD countries have been
integrated into the informational economy. They work in information or service
industries and are immersed in the consumer lifestyles and identities of the global
economy. The other third of the population in OECD countries have not been
successfully integrated. This third are often unemployed industrial workers, who
lost their jobs when industrial plants moved offshore. They appear to have drifted
into the status of a permanent unemployed underclass, living in high-unemployment
rust-belt cities like Buffalo in the USA, Roubaix in France and Wollongong in
Australia. Where industrial jobs have re-emerged they have not brought the forms
of social organization they did in the twentieth century. In Australia for instance the
mining boom of the last decade has mostly employed a large flyinflyout workforce.
Rather than rebuilding or establishing new industrial towns and cities, workers are
flown in to remote temporary communities where they live in mobile
accommodation like ‘dongas’. Where once industrialization stimulated the
development of communities and cities, global network capitalism has found ways
to build a labour force without building corresponding viable communities. Lash
and Urry (1994: 111) have noted that these problematic deindustrializing areas in
OECD societies share something in common with non-OECD countries. From the
point of view of the informational economy they are ‘dead spaces’.

Figure 12.1 The abandoned Book Tower, one of Downtown Detroit’s most noted

© Robert Wallace/Corbis

Figure 12.2 Abandoned factory near the city centre, Detroit

© Barry Lewis/In Pictures/Corbis

Dead zones
Much of Africa is also such a ‘dead area’. Except for South Africa, the continent is
not well plugged into the infrastructure of global information capitalism, and few
Africans have the cultural capital required to plug in. In fact, Africa currently looks
set to be the main loser of globalization because Africans simply cannot compete in
the global market. Many of the dead areas are at risk of socio-economic collapse
because global network capitalists are avoiding investing in those areas perceived to
be unruly and ungoverned (like large parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle
East); seen to have legal practices that are unhelpful to global network capitalists
(like Russia and Iran); or seen to have populations that are unproductive (like
Africa). It seems likely that the networker elite will respond differentially to these
dead areas, adopting one of three approaches:

Efforts will be made to integrate those areas perceived to be important for the
expanding hegemony of global network capitalism because of strategic
location, resources or potential markets (like Russia). This will involve
expanding the communications network to such areas; encouraging the
emergence of network hubs and a local networker elite in these areas; and
tying these hubs into the wider network of global informational capitalism.
Areas perceived to be problematic but strategically important to global
network capitalism’s existing hubs (like Bosnia, areas off the coast of Somalia
where pirates operate, and underclass areas of the developed countries) will be
policed and contained.
Dead areas where the costs of integration and/or policing are not seen as
warranted (like Congo) will be cordoned off or abandoned.

Each of these strategies is contingent. Russia’s political elites and oligarchs for
instance have an uneasy relationship with the hegemonic American elites. While the
west has been content to cordon off and abandon much of Africa, the Chinese have
undertaken massive economic and political investment in recent times, attempting to
bring African countries and resources into a Chinese node in the global network.
There is a constant adjustment regarding the areas that are integrated, cordoned off
or abandoned as the Pax Americana’s hegemonic alliance adjusts itself to ever-
changing conditions.

Portrait of a City
Consider the city or region you live in.

How does it fit in this network? Is it a global city, a regional hub, a post-industrial city?
How has it responded to the changes brought about by global network capitalism?
What economic and cultural activities happen in your city?
Who lives there and why do they come?

Compare your city to the nearest global city (like New York or London).

How are they connected?
How are they different?

At the beginning of this chapter we examined some of Hamelink’s (2008) questions about
communication and urban space. Use these questions as a guide for considering the urban spaces you
live in.

You can find links to resources about emerging and abandoned cities on the Media and Society

Public and Private Life in Media Cities
Media order and reorder the spaces in which we live our lives. Broadcast media like
television create relationships between public and private life. They position our
private everyday lives within larger public spaces via a constant stream of
representations. Interactive media reorder the relationship between intimacy and
publicity. The home is a key node within broadcast and interactive media networks.
With television, newspapers and radio we watch public life unfold from our vantage
point in private and intimate space. The walls of our homes are ‘electronic screens’
or ‘strange windows’ through which we ‘see the world from where we are not’
(McQuire 2008: 140). Via television we view the world from our home; with our
smartphone we represent our private lives to each other in a constantly unfolding
circulation of media. If television made our homes receptor nodes in the media city,
then smartphones are two-way interactive nodes connected to our bodies. With
smartphones we publicize our private and intimate selves in social networks. We
now use smartphones and social media to add another layer to the real-time
mediation of everyday life that television has beamed into our homes since the
twentieth century. Social media knit together private, public and intimate aspects of
our lives.

We carry smartphones wherever we go. We use them to organize life in the city: to
call and text people; to find information about transport, events and places to go;
and to create content about our experience in the city with photos and updates. If you
collected together all the information on your phone for six months you would have
a comprehensive record of where you have been, who you have interacted with,
what you have seen and done, what you were thinking and feeling, and perhaps even
how your body is functioning. Our phone traces our movement through urban
space; most of our communication with other people happens via its screen; it
contains all our calendar appointments and photos; we use it to interact with our
social network; we even install apps on it that monitor our heart rate, fitness and
sleep patterns. Your phone is a device that watches and mediates your life in the city.
The integration of mobile devices into our everyday life adds another important
dimension to the role media play in organizing urban life. Beyond providing
information, mediating power relationships and fashioning collective identities –
media now play a critical role in generating information that is central to managing
urban populations. Our phones make us visible to each other; they link us together
in new ways; they enable information to flow in far more reflexive and
instantaneous patterns. The phone dramatically compresses our sense of space and
time in the city. When we are waiting for a friend on a corner we can scan our
phone for news, send them a message to find out where they are, and scroll through
photos our friends have uploaded of their daily life in the city.

The smartphone is the most significant media technology since television primarily
because it brings together a range of media functions: interpersonal communication
technologies like telephone, text messaging and email; mass media technologies
like text, audio and video content; media-making technologies like a camera and
sound recorders and applications to process and edit images and video; locative
technologies like GPS; body-monitoring technologies; and access to information
and social networks. It is not just that the smartphone brings these technologies
together in one device, but that in doing so it creates new relations between them.
For example, the smartphone fundamentally changes how images work within our
popular culture. Not only does the camera enable us to create limitless digital
images; the web connection enables us to immediately share those images online.
Photographs are no longer confined by the availability and cost of camera and film,
or delayed or controlled by processing, or limited to display in photo albums.
Images are now made and circulated endlessly through social networks (Chesher
2012: 104). We communicate with each other online largely via images we create
with our phones. Images don’t just convey representations; they also assemble

social networks and register them in databases.

Smartphones and images
Images are particularly important to the development of the social web (Palmer
2012: 86). When Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion they were strategically
investing in controlling one of the key networks through which images flowed
through mobile devices. They couldn’t afford to lose control and access over the
flows of personal imagery through the web. On the social and mobile web, images
are more than just representations of people, events and places. We are accustomed
to thinking of images as being rich in representational meaning – they are said to
paint a thousand words. On the mobile and social web they also generate
information and networks (Palmer 2012: 90). We use images to affect one another.
We follow images to feel connected to our friends and the world around us. We
want to be seen and to see others. These images might be meaningful to us, but more
fundamentally they capture our attention. That attention is valuable because it
generates information about us and our social world. An image is a device that
holds in place a network of associations and affects that can be tracked and
responded to. Images are embedded in social networks (Chesher 2012). Our taking
and circulating of images creates information about where, who and what is in
them, who circulates them, and who views them. This registers information in
databases about who and what we pay attention to, and increasingly also, the
sentiments or dispositions attached to that attention.

Smartphones and communicative enclosure
The assembly of media technologies in smartphones enables a range of public and
personal communicative applications. We use our smartphone:

to create and circulate a public record of our lives and identities using text,
images and videos
to be seen and felt in our peer networks via updates, likes and comments
to access public news and information
to watch television and listen to music
to organize our personal lives
for intimate communication with friends and loved ones
to bear witness to and participate in public events
to monitor our bodies and movements
to shop and pay bills
to decipher and source information in the material world: we point it at signs
on the street and ask it to translate to another language, and we use it to direct
our movements through our city.

No other communicative device in history brings together this array of activities,
and is so interwoven into our public and private lives.

The smartphone is a key device in a media system where the control and production
of content is secondary to establishing spatial coordinates within which
communication takes place. Mark Andrejevic (2007) describes these spaces as
‘digital enclosures’ that are ‘filled in’ with digital technologies that watch and
respond to us. A digital enclosure is a social space where each action generates
information that can be gathered. The information is used to shape social and
communicative processes. This mode of media production relies less on telling
participants what to think or believe and more on facilitating the social spaces in
which we interact. In this system, ideological modes of control – controlling what is
said – give way to more open-ended, spatial and responsive modes of control. What
is said matters less than the capacity to harness and respond to communicative
activity in general (Dean 2010). Where the television was a media device that
embodied one-way, mass, ideological forms of power, the smartphone is
emblematic of more reflexive and participatory modes of managing participation.
The smartphone is an object that connects us to vast networks composed of urban
spaces, material hardware and immaterial social relationships. Social and mobile
forms of media can only function because we interact with them. We provide the
sociality and circuits of attention and information. The digital enclosures of
interactive media rely on us physically taking our mobiles out into our everyday

lives and using them to make, access, record and circulate content, information and
data. At the same time, the digital enclosure relies on the construction of urban
spaces that are wired into information networks. Think of how irritating or
disconcerting it is to be in a place without mobile reception when you need to find
something out or send someone a message. We are used to being in space that is
connected to communication networks.

Berlin resident Malte Spitz (2012) creatively drew attention to the data the
smartphone captures when he demanded that his mobile phone company provide
him with all the data it had collected about him over a six month period. After much
negotiation the company provided him with 35,830 lines of raw data. He used that
data to construct a live visualization of his movement throughout urban space over
many months. Those movements were tagged with his phone calls, texts, emails,
social media updates and calendar appointments. As he moved about on the map,
items of information would appear attached to those movements. As whole
populations move through a city every day, CCTV, public transport systems,
financial transactions, mobile phones and social media generate information about
their activity.

Spitz referenced his experiment to the history of surveillance in Berlin. Throughout
the Cold War daily life in East Berlin was undergirded by the pervasive information
collection of the Stasi – the state secret police who established a vast bureaucracy
and intelligence network that reached into the personal lives and relationships of
residents. Spitz used his experiment to ask, ‘Imagine [if] all the people on the streets
in Berlin in 1989 had a mobile phone in their pocket? The Stasi would have known
who took part in these protests and if the Stasi would have known who were the
leaders behind it, this [the collapse of East Germany and the Berlin Wall] would
never have happened’ (Spitz 2012). In making this connection, Spitz illustrates the
role that information plays in organizing populations within urban space.

Wearable and responsive media devices
Mobile media make urban space increasingly sentient and responsive. The can be
used to both manage populations in real time and offer us new ways of experiencing
everyday life. Spitz raises a critical view of the way mobile devices make our life
within urban space much more visible to corporate and state databases. In contrast,
technology companies offer more utopian visions of mobile devices and urban
space. In April 2012 Google posted on YouTube a concept video for Google Glass.
Glass is an augmented reality technology that integrates media and information into
our experience of urban space in real time. The first-person-perspective video
showed a man walking through a city wearing a pair of glasses with a computer
screen in the top right-hand corner. The glasses manage his communication and
information needs as he moves through the city. Eating breakfast he sees a message
pop up from a friend asking him to meet up. They agree to meet at a bookstore. As
he walks to the subway a message pops up in his Glass to advise him the subway is
suspended. Without being prompted Glass plots a walking route, displays it on a
map, and gives him walking directions through town. On the way he sees a poster
for a gig he wants to attend. Glass views the image, deciphers it and records the date
and time that tickets go on sale in his calendar. Arriving at the bookstore, Glass
directs him to the book he is looking for and then tells him how far away his friend
is. Meeting up with his friend, Glass checks him in at a food truck on his social
media network. He takes a photo of street art on a city wall and posts it on his social
media profile. His girlfriend calls him and he shows her his view across the city
while playing her a song on a ukulele.

Some of the activities and interactions depicted in the video are now an ordinary
part of life in the city. We text our friends when we’re out and about to see if they
want to meet up. We used to have to make plans in advance, face to face, by phone,
or even by mail. If public transport is suspended, or there is a traffic jam, we reach
for our phone, load a map and ask it to plot the shortest alternative route. We also
log on to Twitter or a news site to find out what the cause of the delay is or how
long it will last. We check in at cool bars and restaurants. We take photos of our
everyday lives in the city and post them to social media. Malls and shops now have
interactive maps and apps to make it easy for us to locate products. We even
encounter images and objects in the city that have QR and RFID chips that our
mobile devices recognize, enabling us to access content, make entries in our
calendar or directly purchase goods and services. Brands put QR codes on
advertisements on city walls or shop windows that enable passers-by to immediately
purchase the goods in the image. Nothing in the Google Glass video is that far-
fetched. Whereas our use of smartphones as we move through the city is

increasingly ordinary and mundane to us, the glasses in the video present a seamless
integration of media technologies into our experience of city life.

Google Glass naturalistically augments our reality. Speaking about Glass in
February 2013 Google founder Sergey Brin (2013) said that when he started
Google his vision was that eventually you ‘wouldn’t need to have a search query at
all you’d just have information come to you as you needed it’. Responsive media
technologies like Google Glass depend on the larger development of media-dense
urban spaces. These devices can only augment our experience of urban life if they
can access information via high speed mobile internet. The device is connected to a
network of material communication infrastructure and databases. It requires other
users entering and circulating information that it can find and use. Urban spaces are
adapting to mobile devices and information networks. When you check in or buy
tickets at a sports stadium, the stadium might use a database to tell you which of
your friends are seated nearby. When you pass by an advertisement or poster on a
city wall your mobile device will recognize a QR code that will take you to an
online store or media content. When you enter a bar or restaurant an RFID chip
might prompt your device to check you in on social media. When you get the bill
your friends might use a social app to transfer money to each other and pay. All of
these uses of mobile devices only work because the device is embedded within a
technical and social network of information and activity.

Google Glass is one manifestation of the fantasy of the ‘sentient city’ (Crang and
Graham 2007: 790). A sentient city remembers who we are and anticipates our
actions. Using mobile devices our experience of urban space is overlaid with
‘dynamically changing information’ (2007: 792). We are becoming used to the web
customizing its responses to us. As mobile media and material spaces become
integrated, real locations will also be able to remember and anticipate our actions
and interests. Using a combination of mobile devices, information and databases,
buildings, retail and public spaces will begin to recognize and respond to us.

Alternative Visions of Mobile Devices and Urban
Above we examined arguments about mobile devices from Malte Spitz and Sergey Brin. Brin is the
co-founder of Google and behind the development of Google Glass. Below we offer some further
visions of mobiles in everyday life.

Apple iPhone 5: Photos Every Day
In 2013, as part of the launch of iPhone 5, Apple released as series of television commercials
depicting the use of the iPhone in our everyday lives – taking photos, playing and listening to music,
creating and circulating videos.

In the Photos Every Day advertisement individuals use their iPhone to capture everyday moments of
their lives in the city. Two young skateboarders photograph each other doing tricks; a jogger
photographs a mountain as he jogs along a road; a man photographs some street art; a person films a
favourite song at a live music gig. These individuals are depicted cropping, filtering and uploading the
images to social networking sites. Technology companies present mobile devices as integral to people
experiencing, enjoying and making themselves present in the life of the city.

In distinction to Google’s and Apple’s celebratory and promotional accounts of these devices, we can
also consider alternative visions of the role these devices play in constructing and managing our
experience of urban space.

‘Admented reality’
Technology companies imagine that mobile devices will be background and ambient technologies
pre-empting and organizing our informational needs. In his remix of the Google Glass concept popular
culture hacker Jonathan McIntosh (2012) offered an ‘ADmented Reality’ video as a rejoinder to
Google’s ‘augmented reality’ fantasy. If Brin’s vision for Google Glass was one where real-time
information of the mobile web makes life in the city friction-free, seamless and easy, then McIntosh’s
remix was one where the objects and spaces we encounter in urban space prompt targeted advertising.
In the remix video, as he pours a coffee an advertisement for Starbucks pops up; as he eats breakfast
an advertisement for McDonalds is displayed; and the suspended subway service prompts an ad for
rental cars. The remix points to the commercial interests that drive the development of technologies
that knit together urban space and mobile media. The development of mobile media is propelled by
organizations seeking out ways to capitalize on denser and faster flows of information to identify,
target and respond to us as we move through the city. Mobile devices both position us within flows of
media content and subject our everyday lives to continuous surveillance.

‘I forgot my phone’
‘I Forgot My Phone’ is a short film by Miles Crawford released in 2013. The film depicts a woman
spending the day with her partner, going to lunch with her friends, watching children play in a
playground, having a drink with a friend, and going to a gig in the evening. In each of the scenes she is
the only one without a smartphone. In one scene where she goes bowling with friends, she scores a
strike but none of them see because they are all on their phones. At a birthday party everyone is
filming the cake as they sing ‘Happy Birthday’. In the evening she lies in bed in the dark with her
partner while he scrolls on his phone. The film taps a popular sentiment that as we use our phones to
capture everyday moments we become disconnected from the human relationships that make those
moments important to us.

Our use of smartphones as we move through the city is increasingly ordinary and mundane to us.
Google Glass imagines a future characterized by the seamless integration of media technologies into
our experience of city life. Apple’s iPhone ads characterize the smartphone as enriching our enjoyment
of everyday life in the city. ‘ADmented Reality’ and ‘I Forgot My Phone’ offer alternative visions of
the way these devices structure city life. Compare the visions of mobile media, urban space and
everyday life these the two films offer.

How will technologies like Google Glass change the quality of our lives in urban spaces?
What power relationships do technologies like Google Glass facilitate?
What are the political, commercial, cultural and interpersonal implications of a technology like
Google Glass?

Consider some of the arguments about the relationships between our smartphones and emerging
devices like Google Glass and our experience of urban space.

How do these devices construct, order and manage populations in urban space?

You can find links to the launch video for Google Glass, Sergey Brin’s Google Glass talk, Malte
Spitz’ mobile fine map, Apple iPhone advertisement, the ‘ADmented Reality’ spoof and ‘I Forgot My
Phone’ video on the Media and Society website

Smartphones facilitate new ways of publicizing our identities. They alter the
boundaries between public and intimate aspects of our lives. We use smartphones to
engage in ‘ego-casting’ and ‘life-casting’ as we post streams of content about our
actions, thoughts and feelings to social media profiles (Dean 2010). These are seen
by ever-widening networks of people (Livingstone 2008). At the same time, mobile
media devices enable us to send content to intimate others. Where once our intimate
thoughts were confined to our conversations or written letters, with smartphones
our intimate relationships are played out via a stream of images and videos. The use
of smartphones to craft the public and intimate aspects of our lives is part of the
process of fashioning our identities as lived social relations (Livingstone 2008). We
use smartphones to tell stories about ourselves and our lives (2008: 399). This
involves making judgements about how we position ourselves, and make ourselves
visible, in social networks.

We use the images we take with our phones to position our identities within a flow
of meanings that construct our social world. When we publicize ourselves as
members of a social network we seek attention from others: we want them to see us,
feel us and interact with us. Writing about young women’s depiction of going out
for the night on Facebook, Brown and Gregg (2012) observe posts anticipating the
night-out, live mobile updates and images while they are out drinking, and bonding
in the days after as they go through photo albums. As Brown and Gregg (2012: 362)

The ‘peak’ of the night out is also routinely documented by the live post or
photo update, as mobile devices allow a narrative thread to be maintained for
onlookers. One of the amusements for the Facebook audience is in discerning
the moment of intoxication, either during or after the event. Tell tale signs are
when words which may have been chosen carefully just hours earlier become
careless, provocative or even incoherent. These insider jokes extend to being
privy to a friend’s suffering the next day, when they are ‘dying’. Facebook and
drinking are thus a twinned entertainment, in that the experience of each is
mutually enhanced in combination.

Social media enhance the enjoyment of excessive alcohol consumption because they
enable people to amplify the telling of good stories and the sharing of memories
(Brown and Gregg 2012: 361). Participants use Facebook to mediate their
anticipation, enjoyment and memorialization of weekend drinking. This mediation

positions their identity within the shared rituals and pleasures of drinking culture.
Smartphones and social media are used to broadcast live events through social
networks and to archive them (Bennett 2012). These practices of witnessing,
recording, presencing and archiving (Couldry 2012) publicize our identities,
connecting them to the networks of attention our smartphones give us access to.

The flows of images we construct, and position ourselves within, are registered in
the databases of social media. Social media use analytics to capitalize on the way we
publicize our lives and identities. As we create, upload and interact with images, we
link together identities, practices and places. Images of ourselves and our lives
enrich other data that social media platforms might have. Our desire to be seen and
felt – our ‘will to image’ (Hearn 2008) – in peer networks produces texts that
assemble social networks online. The smartphone connects together our use of our
own appearance, bodies and human capacities to communicate within the social
world with the networks and databases of social media. The calculative and
predictive capacities of big data depend in part on the affective capacities of
smartphone users publicizing their lives and registering them on the databases of
social media (Clough 2008, Lury 2009).

At the same time as we use smartphones to make ourselves public, we also use them
to circulate intimate images between friends and lovers. When we send them via
mobile messaging applications like Snapchat – where the images are timed to expire
after being viewed for a short amount of time – we aren’t so much archiving our
relationships as we are using mobile media to perform them in real time. Snapchat
is an ephemeral and live performance of our identities and relationships. We use
these images to enact and negotiate the intimate, playful, amusing and erotic
dimensions of our relationships. Creating and sharing intimate images is part of
expressing pleasure, desire and forming relationships of trust (Hasinoff 2013). Even
though images might begin as an intimate exchange, the boundaries between the
intimate and the public online are socially and technically unstable. It is technically
easy to copy and exchange images that were originally shared privately; we have to
trust others we share the images with not to circulate them further. The circulation
of intimate images depends on trust between people. Even though applications like
Snapchat are designed to delete images, recipients can still easily make copies when
they view them. If intimate images spill outside of private relationships they can
intimidate and harm because we lose control over how our bodies and identities are

The circulation of intimate images can challenge social and legal frameworks.
When two young people send sexually explicit images to each other the law might
consider them to be producing and distributing child pornography. In many
jurisdictions young people have been placed on sex offender registers as a result of
images they made or received. In many cases images that were produced and
distributed in intimate relationships get more widely distributed in peer networks,
causing harm to the people in them. As the intimate becomes public we lose control
over how our identity is made visible and positioned in the social world. The use of
mobile media to circulate intimate images is embedded in complex networks of
interpersonal and institutional power. Smartphones make the intimate and public
aspects of our identities porous. As we register the intimate in images we open our
identities up to be seen in new ways.

Participants in Albury et al.’s (2013: 18) research offer a nuanced range of
explanations of these images and the way they circulate within social relationships:

private selfies or self-portraits for self-reflection rather than sharing
public selfies posted to social media platforms that are intended to be shown to
friends and strangers – these might include images of new clothes or hair-

joke images that display nudity in humorous ways
flirtatious sexual images created and shared consensually between intimate
offensive and unethical sexual pictures that might be produced consensually but
shared for revenge, or produced without consent, or distributed outside of a
peer or friendship context.

What matters to the young participants in Albury et al.’s (2013) research is the way
that the images circulate within relationships of trust. Both parties ought to consent
to the sharing of images and trust that the images will not be more widely circulated.
The images are important because they express how we feel about our relationships
with each other. To share intimate images expresses trust, excitement and intimacy.
These are affective and emotive relationships. The creation and sharing of intimate
images is part of the meaningful and creative formation of our relations with others
within contemporary mobile media culture.

We use smartphones to construct the public and intimate aspects of our identities.
Some of these practices raise social, legal, ethical and moral questions. While
‘sexting’ is one such practice that has attracted attention because of its vexed legal
status, there is a proliferation of image practices like the rituals of judgement
surrounding ‘selfies’, ‘Am I pretty or ugly?’ videos, the fitness culture surrounding
‘fitspo’, and the more transgressive ‘thinspo’ hashtags, blogs and networks. This
range of practices demonstrates the varying ways in which mobile devices are used
to publicize the intimate. The question to be considered is to what extent these
practices are creative and empowering representations of ourselves that enable us to
live richer and more playful relationships; and to what extent the circulation of these
images does harm to their subjects and viewers. To respond to these questions we
need to consider not only the images and their content, but also the relationships
they circulate within and facilitate. An image only makes sense when we examine the
rituals of judgement, meaning making and affecting that it enables.

Social networking platforms attempt to regulate these flows of images in a variety
of ways. On Instagram, ‘selfies’ and ‘fitspo’ images often stream alongside
‘thinspo’ and pornographic material. Instagram attempts to police these flows by
banning hashtags like #thinspiration. Users respond by reorganizing their identities,
and associated flows of images, through new hashtags like #thynspiration or
#thynspooo. This demonstrates the fluid and creative nature of these image-making
and -sharing practices. One thing all of these representations of the self appear to
have in common is their promotional and competitive positioning of our bodies and
selves in publicly visible ways. As these modes of media practice open up our
private lives and bodies to wider public visibility we become embedded in

competitive games of positioning and promoting ourselves and bodies within flows
of images. At a personal level we might consider whether this thwarts the
construction of reflective and thoughtful identities. At a larger social level we need
to examine how publicizing ourselves and monitoring each other via a constant
flow of images is implicated in the responsive forms of control characteristic of
interactive media. The more we participate in making ourselves and our
relationships visible within social networks, the more those relationships can be
tracked and responded to by those who control the networks.

Controlling Social Media
Above we examined how interactive media set the terms and coordinates within which we participate,
and how social media platforms attempt to regulate flows of content in the platform.

Instagram bans the use of over 200 hashtags to prevent users from forming communities to share
harmful content, sexually explicit content, content that attempts to ‘game’ the app’s popularity
algorithms, and content that is considered offensive. When users search for or click on these hashtags
no listings are shown. Banned hashtags include:



The Data Pack provide a banned hashtag search tool:

You can find links to this tool, lists of banned Instagram hashtags, Instagram’s terms of service and
guidelines against self-harm images, as well as reports on sexting on the Media and Society website

Should Instagram ban hashtags? If so, which ones should be banned?
Which hashtags constitute a grey area as to whether they should be banned or not?
Select some of the banned hashtags. What practices or identities are Instagram trying to ban and
How do social media platforms control the flow of content online? What content do they
prevent from circulating and why?
What kinds of information do we grant social media platforms the rights to collect? What do
they use it for? What are the consequences of these uses?
How do our likes or preferences shape relationships on social networking sites?
What are the differences between intimate, private and public content and data on social media?
How do social media organize social relationships? Who controls, manages and profits from
these relationships?
What responsibilities do social media platforms have to control the flow of content?
What flows of information should be regulated?
What kinds of control of information exist on social media?

Work with Mobile Devices
The smartphones we carry in our pockets are created by workers in factories from
cities on the edge of the global network. Global trading networks connect spaces
together and create uneven relationships between them (Harvey 2000: 23). As
technologies reshape how human activities are organized, they create and entrench
relationships of wealth and power. Mobile media depend on human labour to create
the material devices that enable networks to function. Smartphones, routers,
modems and servers all need to be produced and maintained. The development of
communication networks has underpinned the rapid industrialization of urban space
in the developing world. Qiu (2012) documents the experience of workers in
Foxconn factories that produce mobile devices for Apple, Nokia, HP, Sony and Dell.
The growth of networks involves the growth of networked forms of labour. Since
the 1990s the Chinese state has opened up industrial zones around the Pearl and
Yangtze River deltas. These zones have attracted enormous inflows of investment in
factories to produce products for global brands and an influx of rural people to
work in those factories.

Mobile device factories
In China, Foxconn is estimated to employ up to 1 million workers. They work in
‘iPod cities’ with up to 400,000 workers living in dormitory-style accommodation.
These cities rapidly upsize and downsize as demand from the global market rises
and falls. Qiu (2012: 175) describes these workers as ‘programmable labour ’ who
undertake tasks ‘calculated by computer to the precision of certain seconds per
movement of the worker ’s arm, turning workers into nothing but programmed parts
of the industrial machine. The daily quota of a female worker, for example, is to put
5800 tiny screws into 2900 devices.’ These labourers find themselves on the
periphery of mobile media networks. While in their spare time they might connect
to the information network in internet caf és, or buy counterfeit smartphones with
their meagre wages, for the most part their lives and aspirations are confined to the
industrial nodes of the global information economy.

Within these cities on the outskirts of the global networked economy, Qiu (2012:
184) finds workers using mobile technologies to develop tactics for everyday forms
of resistance – organizing solidarity activities and distributing subversive poems
and information about work practices. These tactics though take place from below,
while above, the strategies of global capital and the state structure the global
information network, and the workers’ place in it as labourers. Mayer (2011a) also
observes that workers use their creativity and ingenuity to survive in the
rationalized factories of the globally networked economy. Mayer (2011a) argues
that workers on a television production line in Brazil create the material devices that
are central to the immaterial forms of labour and creativity that global media and
information networks thrive on. Media device factories thrive in places like China
and Brazil where unskilled labour is cheap but dependable and where the state
provides stable and favourable political and economic conditions, cheap electricity
and functioning infrastructure. This process has been unfolding in the developing
world since the emergence of networked economies in the 1970s. These factories
both ‘exploit and support’ the cities they have developed (Mayer 2011a: 40). While
the factories generate enormous wealth and growth, very little of it is returned to the
workers in the form of public space and infrastructure. While workers are creative
and resourceful, they live and labour in precarious circumstances.

If devices are made on the plugged-in edges of the global information economy,
once they are disposed of many of them find their way out of the global network
altogether. E-waste is an ecological and health catastrophe on the edges of cities
completely unplugged from the information economy in Africa and South Asia.
Electronic devices are shipped here as part of bogus aid and other forms of corrupt

trade. The poorest of the poor, working often in slums or on the edge of city dumps,
dismantle, salvage and burn discarded electronic devices for their precious metals.
The toxic chemicals released by the burning devices poison people who live and
work in the dumps. Some devices are salvaged and sold to organized criminal
networks who trawl through the old hard drives looking for information they can
use for identify theft and fraud. Our mobile devices travel through a lifecycle from
industrial production cities of the global economy, to the middle-class information
cities, to the waste dumps in parts of the world disconnected from the information
network. Electronic waste overwhelmingly travels from the industrialized countries
to the undeveloped world. Greenpeace (2009) have used mobile media technologies
to track the movement of e-waste across the globe. They attached GPS devices to
track electronic goods as they travelled from industrialized countries to Nigeria and
Ghana. They have used the information to ask consumers to put pressure on
companies in their home countries. E-waste, however, remains a largely invisible
problem in the global information economy.

In the developing world the experience of labouring at the outskirts of the global
information economy is undertaken in highly rationalized factories or totally
unregulated dumps. In the developed world mobile devices have also dramatically
transformed work and home life. For information-rich workers in the global
middle class, mobile media technologies afford new forms of flexibility and
creativity at the same time they alter the rhythm, boundaries and expectations of
professional life.

Mobile professionals
For many professionals web-enabled mobile devices mean that work is no longer
confined to the workplace. They work continuously while travelling to and from
work and at home in the evenings and on weekends. Mobile media technologies
remake our homes into productive parts of the media and information economy.
While working from home is sold to workers in technology advertisements and by
managers as a creative and autonomous benefit, for many the reality is a dramatic
extension of work into private space (Gregg 2011a, 2011b). Technology
advertisements, corporate and government policy present mobile media
technologies as enabling work–life balance. No longer confined to the workplace
we are able to better accommodate work to our other interests and commitments.
Often advertisements present us as working in idyllic settings. Rather than the
office, we work in a public library, or café, or at the beach. This change to work
particularly affects women who are encouraged to use mobile media technologies
to balance home and work life. In particular, child-caring responsibilities can be
organized around work (Gregg 2011b). They can work when children are asleep, or
keep an eye on tasks via their laptop or phone. Rather than have their career
interrupted by parenthood, mobile media are presented as empowering to women.
Mobile media establish expectations that we are always available to respond to
emails, proffer ideas or undertake tasks. The rhetoric of technology advertisements
overlaps with the claims of government and industry investment in creative and
innovative industry policies. While these policies accelerate economic growth in the
developed information economies, they also make work seem enjoyable,
empowering and creative.

This examination of several kinds of life and work within the media city
demonstrates the differing tiers of experience and control. The experience of this
middle class is different from the global working class and majority poor in the
informal economies of the developing world. The working class experience power
in more direct and disciplinary fashion. Their livelihoods depend on maintaining
work in the factories of industrial cities. Their urban experience isn’t characterized
by the malls and leisure spaces familiar to the middle class because they don’t have
the income to spend there, but also because they don’t have a choice about where
they live and work. The global middle class have economic and cultural capital to
seek out employment and lifestyles in desirable urban spaces. Industrial cities do not
need to make their working-class populations feel empowered, because the
population has nowhere else to go. Likewise, the state can effectively ignore or
contain the majority poor who live their lives out beneath the formal nodes of the
global economy, while the information-rich middle classes find themselves

experiencing a greater incursion of mobile media and work into their private lives
and spaces. They experience power in a more participatory fashion, recognizing
that to get ahead they need to be continuously plugged in to the rhythms of
professional life.

In this chapter we have examined:

the role interactive and mobile media play in organizing urban space
how global network capitalism creates differentiated spaces and modes of
control depending on their centrality to the production and management of
labour, capital, information and populations
the increasing importance of mobile life in the mediation of public, private and
intimate life.

The modes of production, communication and control examined here illustrate key
trajectories in the application of mobile and interactive media in managing flows of
media, resources and power.

Further Reading
The readings below address a variety of perspectives relating to mobile devices and
life in the media city. Hamelink (2008) considers how urban space might foster
better forms of communication. Gregg (2011b) examines how mobile devices
change our work–life balance. Hasinoff (2013) explores cultural, legal and ethical
questions relating to the use of smartphones for sexting. Brown and Gregg (2012)
and Livingstone (2008) each examine how we use social media to construct and
perform our identities. Nardi and Kow (2010) and Nakamura (2009) each examine
labourers on the edges of the digital economy by exploring the case of ‘gold-
farming’ (people who build up characters for sale in networked games like World of

Brown, R. and Gregg, M. (2012) ‘The pedagogy of regret: Facebook, binge
drinking and young women’, Continuum, 26 (3): 357–369.

Gregg, M. (2011b) ‘Do your homework: new media, old problems’, Feminist Media
Studies, 11 (1): 73–81.

Hamelink, C. J. (2008) ‘Urban conflict and communication’, International
Communication Gazette, 70 (3–4): 291–301.

Hasinoff, A. A. (2013) ‘Sexting as media production: rethinking social media and
sexuality’, New Media & Society, 15 (4): 449–465.

Livingstone, S. (2008) ‘Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation:
teenagers’ use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression’,
New Media & Society, 10 (3): 393–411.

Nakamura, L. (2009) ‘Don’t hate the player, hate the game: the racialization of labor
in World of Warcraft’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, 26 (2): 128–144.

Nardi, B. and Kow, Y. M. (2010) ‘Digital imaginaries: how we know what we (think
we) know about Chinese gold farming’, First Monday, 15 (6). Retrieved from: (last accessed 17
September 2014).

Any article marked with is available to download at the website

13 Constructing and Managing Audiences
Media organizations make and manage

* How are audiences made?
* What work do audiences do?
* How have interactive media changed the production and management of

In this chapter we:
Examine how audiences are produced
Identify forms of audience work
Explore how audiences are becoming more fragmented and flexible as media organizations
assemble, watch and respond to them in real time.

Producing Audiences
Media institutions are organized around the strategic and rationalized production of
audiences. Attracting and sustaining the attention of people is the core activity of
professional communicators. Professional communicators cultivate, channel, direct,
segment and track audience attention as part of the process of assembling markets
and shaping public opinion. Their task is to get audiences to pay attention to media,
consume messages and incorporate them into their identities and ways of life, and to
manage audience participation in the creation and circulation of ideas. There are
four basic questions we can ask about audiences:

What do media do to audiences?
What do media mean to audiences?
How do audiences use media?
How do media produce audiences?

Asking what media do to audiences involves examining how media effect, shape or
cultivate attitudes, behaviours, beliefs and actions. Asking what media mean to
audiences or what audiences do with media draws our attention to how audiences
take media symbols and texts and use them to make sense of their world, organize
their everyday lives and construct their own identities. To understand how media
effect, shape or are meaningful and useful to audiences, we need to consider how
that is grounded in the rationalized production of audiences. Whatever audiences do
with media, they do it within coordinates and systems established and managed by
cultural producers.

Audiences do not just exist ‘out there’. They do not come into being by accident.
Making audiences is resource intensive. Media organizations and professional
communicators construct audiences because they are useful and valuable. Resources
and creativity are invested in creating particular kinds of audiences. Commercial
media produce audiences to sell to advertisers. Public, private, state or community
media produce audiences to shape cultural and political life. The content and
connectivity that media organizations produce is not the end product: it is a device
for attracting the attention of individuals who are then packaged into an audience.

How are media organizations funded?
The media system is assembled from the demands of many groups. Those who
invest resources shape the content, formats and platforms that get produced. There
are a variety of ways that media production is paid for:

Publicly funded: where a government funds media production often in order to
create national identities, legitimate ideas and ways of life, and facilitate social
Privately funded: where wealthy patrons fund media production. This can be to
serve their sense of the broader public interest or their specific political views
and ambitions.
Directly audience funded: where the audience directly pay for the full cost of
the content, for instance books and musical recordings.
Indirectly audience funded: media that are funded by advertising revenue.
Advertisers recoup their investment when the audience purchase the products
and services in the advertisements. The challenge with this model is assuring
advertisers of the return on investment. Media organizations and advertisers
need to produce evidence that the audience is paying attention and purchasing.
Research is conducted to give tangible value to the audience’s attention and
Mixed funding: many media businesses mix together several elements of these
models. For instance, newspapers and magazines collect revenue both through
direct payment from the audience and advertising. Many privately funded
media businesses generate revenue both through their wealthy patrons and

What all of these models share in common is the purposeful production of an
attentive audience that is valuable to some group because it serves their commercial
or political interests.

How are audiences made and packaged?
As media organizations grew and became more institutionalized and
commercialized they developed methods to quantify, describe and position their
audiences for advertisers. Audience and market research techniques and industries
developed in collaboration with media organizations. Audience research and ratings
provided ways of creating the audience as a reliable and quantifiable product that
could be sold to advertisers. Audience research constructs the audience on several
variables. The size, location and demographic characteristics of the audience are
quantified. Advertisers need to know how many of certain types of people’s
attention they are buying when they purchase advertising time and space. Qualitative
and cultural information about audiences is also important (Hackley 2002, Holt
2002). Media organizations and advertisers seek to qualify the lifestyles, cultural
interests, values and practices of their audiences. This informs both the production
of media content and advertising. Producers develop ways of understanding how
audiences consume media content as part of their everyday lives. They want to
understand how media, like television, are incorporated into the rhythms of
everyday life. The development of breakfast television for instance responds to the
morning routines of middle-class families. Breakfast programmes are light,
conversational and repetitive. They are attuned to an audience that has the television
on in the background as they get ready for work and school.

The development of media genres and content and their corresponding audiences is
embedded in the broader use of media to construct public life. While the primary
driver in the creation of audiences is often their commercial value, these processes
are also entwined with broader political and social processes. In Chapter 10, for
instance, we examined how popular culture genres like reality TV fashioned content
that shaped commercially valuable audiences within the framework of a neoliberal
and networked society. The commercial interests of media organizations and
advertisers correspond, or at least find a balance, with other powerful interests in
society. Advertising is a central part of the broader representational and social role
of the media. Just like news, films, books and television programmes, advertising
plays a role in creating public identities and social formations (Turow 1997: 26).
The work of producing audiences as valuable social formations overlaps with the
work of creating publics that sustain particular political formations and
configurations of power (Livingstone 2005).

How do audiences make value?
Advertisers and media organizations work together to maximize the productivity of
audiences. The easiest way to make an audience more productive is to get them to
watch more advertisements. For media organizations, the more advertisements an
audience watches, the more revenue that can be generated from advertisers.
Audiences will only watch a limited number of advertisements, though, before
tuning out. Television stations that only broadcast advertisements would end up with
very small audiences. Media organizations need to optimize their audience size and
quality with the volume of advertising. As the size and quality of the audience
grows, the more valuable it becomes; as the advertising space increases, the more
likely the audience size and quality will shrink. This limitation to increasing the
productivity of audiences is the basis of continuous innovation in the construction
and management of audiences. Media organizations are driven by the need to find
ways to make their audiences more productive.

If there is a limit to how many advertisements an audience will watch, then
advertisers and media organizations invest in extracting more value from their
attention by making their watching time more efficient. They do this in a number of

Refining the audience so that it contains higher concentrations of people that
advertisers want to talk to. This means attracting the attention of people with
certain levels of income, demographic and lifestyle characteristics.
Filtering out people who advertisers don’t want to talk to. Advertisers do not
want to pay for wasted viewers, and they also want to be able to discriminate
who they appeal to. They don’t want to attract people whose use of their
product might lessen its value in the estimation of their target market.
Integrating advertising into media content. From the development of MTV in
the 1980s through to the reality TV formats of today we have seen a wide array
of ways in which advertising and content have been embedded within each
other. This both quantitatively increases the available time for advertising,
while also making more qualitatively credible advertising where brands are
embedded within lifestyles and identities.
Expanding the range of formats and channels so that media and advertising can
be more continuously incorporated into everyday life. We now encounter
media content throughout our public, private and personal life. Whenever we
do, our attention is being packaged and sold as an audience commodity.

Each of these strategies expands and intensifies the reach of media content and
therefore the creation of larger, more engaged, more refined and therefore more

From mass to niche
As media organizations and advertisers sought ways to make audiences more
productive, they began to create more and more refined audiences. This
fragmentation of audiences for commercial reasons has arguably had larger social
ramifications. Turow (1997: 3) argues that a combination of technological and
social forces have brought about a ‘major shift in the balance between society
making media and segment making media. Segment making media are those that
encourage small slices of society to talk to themselves, while society making media
are those that have the potential to get all those segments to talk to each other.’ The
broadcast media system of the twentieth century, whether by design or by accident,
had ‘acted out concerns that people ought to share in a larger national community’
(Turow 1997: 3). This was partly historical accident: the available media
technologies – newspapers, radio and television – were limited in the array of
content they could produce, and media organizations had finite resources to create
content. Media organizations didn’t have the technologies or resources to serve a
proliferation of niche audiences, and advertisers had little use for them even if they
could, because the industrial economy could only produce mass ‘one size fits all’
products. Furthermore, the media were constrained within political formations that
pressed in favour of social cohesion. The emerging middle classes sought
comfortable homogenous lifestyles. The political class promoted these ideas and

Since the 1970s this arrangement of technological capacities, industrial economies
and political interests has been changing (Turow 1997, Hesmondhalgh 2007, Napoli

Media technologies have developed that enable the creation and delivery of
content to multiple niche audiences. From cable television through to the
internet we have seen a proliferation of channels, devices and formats that can
create content for increasingly refined audiences.
The broader economy has adapted to more customized goods, services and
experiences. Just-in-time, flexible and computerized manufacturing, the
emergence of global retail economies, and the growth of online retail have
greatly expanded the array of choices available to consumers.
Consumers identify with a multiplicity of niche lifestyle identities, rather than
mass class, cultural or ethnic identities. Politics has become increasingly
organized around loose identity formations, rather than broad class structures.

The technical capacity to produce niche audiences has developed as part of broader
social and economic changes that have created more flexible economies and more

fragmented identities, lifestyles and politics.

Innovation in the production of goods and services drives the demand for new niche
audiences, just as the creation of new audiences and their lifestyle and interests
drives the growth of goods and services to meet their demands. Markets are
assembled out of an interconnected series of relationships that unfold over time.
Societies and markets have fragmented alongside one another (Turow 1997). The
segmentation strategies of advertisers are interconnected with a broader breaking-
apart of western societies along economic, racial, regional and lifestyle
characteristics. Advertising industries and lifestyle brands have driven, profited
from and responded to these changes. As incomes become more polarized, or new
suburban communities are created tailored to specific classes and lifestyles, or as
new groups enter the middle class and become a powerful consumer base,
marketers respond to them as new commercial opportunities. At the same time,
marketers look for ways to use media technologies to create ever more refined
audiences. In doing so they play a part in further stimulating and entrenching the
change processes they respond to.

From representational to responsive control
In the mass media system the predominant tools for controlling the construction of
audiences were content and channels. These amounted to mostly representational
forms of control. Representations work within structures of identity and taste. They
attract the attention of some, while alienating others. Representations were the
primary tool mass media had for building audiences by attracting the attention of
specific kinds of people. If an advertiser wanted to speak to young middle-class
people, media organizations created content that would attract their attention. In
addition to content, media organizations could also use formats and channels to
control to some degree where and how their content was distributed. For instance,
some magazines and periodicals would only be distributed to middle-class
neighbourhoods or sold at quality stores (Turow 1997).

As much as they communicate specific meanings, representations have also always
been a key sorting mechanism, attracting the attention of some, and repelling the
attention of others. The emergence of interactive media enables representative
control to be complemented with responsive modes of control. Intensive
surveillance of audiences enables the shaping of content based on many variables
(Andrejevic 2011, Turow 2011). Media organizations can use information about
their audiences both to shape representations and to discriminate between who sees
what content in increasingly sophisticated ways. This enables further segmentation
and customization of audiences.

Advertisers don’t just produce content; they also contribute to the production of the
system of media and cultural production (Turow 1997: 186). Their media planning
and buying power influence the development of media channels and formats. Their
desire to deliver their messages embedded in particular lifestyles influences the
broader formation of the media system as a whole (Jhally 1990). The technologies,
content and form of media become coextensive with advertising (Hackley 2002,
Bratich 2005, Turow 2011). In addition to influencing the production of particular
types of content (like reality TV) they have also influenced the development of
technologies and media organizations that can manage and respond to audiences in
real time (like Facebook).

The work of producing audiences
In commercial media systems audiences are constructed as consumers. Bratich
(2005: 254) argues that ‘the rise of the consumer society was dependent upon the
ability to activate media subjects’ as desiring consumers. Producing and managing
audiences involves ongoing collaboration between many actors (Balnaves et al.
2011). Marketers, advertisers, media organizations and other influential social
institutions enable and constrain each other in the production of media content,
products and audiences. Marketers and media organizations constantly stimulate and
adapt to social, economic and technological change. Advertisers seek to understand,
shape and respond to society, lifestyles, identities and media use. Their use of
information is purposive and pragmatic (Turow 1997: 185). They build audiences
that have commercial value, and they adapt their methods based on what creates
value. They don’t have long-term positive or normative projects about the kind of
society they are creating, although their need to interact with other powerful social
institutions and elites means that the media system they are a part of might
pragmatically reflect certain ways of life and values. And they might pragmatically
learn that certain ways of life and values create more valuable audiences.

Advertisers and media organizations need knowledge of how society works in
order to do business (Turow 1997: 186). As much as they make particular audiences,
advertisers and media organizations increasingly watch and respond to social life in
order to continuously assemble the most efficient audience formations they can.
They track social change so that they can respond to changing technologies,
economic formations, social institutions and lifestyles. Advertisers and media
organizations watch, film, record, question and track audiences in an effort to
respond to their cultural identities and practices (Hackley 2002, Holt 2002). They
‘immerse themselves in consumer life in order to generate intimate knowledge,
insights and understanding of consumers and consumption within cultural contexts’
(Hackley 2002: 219). Advertising both reflects and shapes cultural identities and
practices. The development of audiences is embedded within broader social, cultural
and political changes or projects (Hesmondhalgh 2007, Napoli 2010). While
companies might work with other powerful actors to respond to and shape
audiences, they don’t control the processes within which this takes place. They don’t
entirely govern the factors that create new lifestyles, lead to the emergence of new
ethnic groups, or change configurations of economic and political power. But they
can work to respond to those changes and channel them to their own advantage. The
audiences that media organizations and advertisers create are never entirely their
own productions, but the production of audiences is characterized by asymmetrical
relationships where consumers are observed by market and media researchers

(Hackley 2002: 220). Marketers and media organizations work together to locate
and channel the productive capacity of audiences. Audience members are productive
subjects where they form desires, communicate them, affect each other and act on
them (Bratich 2005: 254).

Media Kits: Packaging the Audience
Media businesses package their audiences as commodities to sell to advertisers. Print publications like
magazines produce media kits that they make available to prospective advertisers. You can often find
these media kits on magazine and newspaper websites. Media kits promote the publication’s audience.
They detail the audience’s qualities: size, publication channels they access, their demographics, tastes
and interests.

Interactive media businesses like Google and Facebook often don’t provide media kits, but rather
provide advertising products where advertisers can construct and price audiences with a range of

Explore the media kits and advertising products of media that you use. You can find links to media kits
and advertising products on the Media and Society website

Make an advertisement for yourself or an identity group to which you belong.
What characteristics do you have that advertisers would seek?
What kind of attention do you offer? Where can you be found? What kinds of media attract
your attention?
How would an advertiser find you and appeal to you?

Audiences and Work
Audiences are a social construction. The active ingredient in the audiences that
media industries produce is human attention. Audiences are a valuable commodity
because they undertake social activity that is productive (Smythe 1981, Jhally 1990).
To understand the value of audiences we need to examine what they do. Audiences
undertake two kinds of work: watching and being watched. On the one hand we
might say that audiences are compensated for their productive work watching
advertisements with the free content that they enjoy consuming, and furthermore,
that the individuals who are part of audiences freely choose to consume media
content and advertising. On the other hand, we might say that audiences pay twice,
once by paying attention to the advertisements and then a second time when they buy
the products that include in the cost the price of producing the media content that
they received for ‘free’.

The work of watching
The work of watching involves the activity of paying attention to representations
(Smythe 1981, Jhally and Livant 1986, Jhally 1990). This includes watching
advertisements, but also consuming media representations that more broadly
construct our identities. When audiences watch advertisements they gain knowledge
about, form desires for, and learn to classify brands, products and services.
Audience members learn how to incorporate them into their identities and lifestyles;
and most importantly, they go and buy them. Watching also has a broader social
value. Watching advertisements and other forms of commercial media like lifestyle
television, drama or news also teaches us how to desire certain lifestyles and
acquire particular tastes. When an audience member watches an advertisement for a
luxury good like jewellery, or sees a celebrity wearing designer fashion, or sees an
expensive sports car in a Hollywood film, they might never be able to afford those
goods, but they learn that they are tasteful and desirable. The audience member
plays a part in giving those goods a social value and meaning. Part of what the
person who purchases the luxury good seeks is the attention and desire of others. A
wealthy person buys an expensive car not just because it is a pleasure to drive, but
because it distinguishes them in the eyes of others. Advertising is a social system
that relies fundamentally on our participation and communication. Audiences do the
work of making it function by watching the advertisements and content and
constructing meaning around them. Of course, it goes without saying that this
process of making meaning from advertisements is never assured. Many of us will
watch advertisements for luxury goods and distance ourselves from them. We’ll
profess to see through their appeals. From our own values, tastes and vantage points
in the social structure we’ll dismiss their claims. Nevertheless, despite the fact we
see through and attest not to believe advertisements, we still do the work of paying
attention to, recognizing and understanding advertisements. Advertising works
despite the fact that we see through it and understand how it works (Carah et al.
2012). By watching media and advertisements we craft our identities, our lifestyles
and our consumption habits from the cultural resources and ideas provided. The
mass media produce productive audiences who make meaning with these cultural
resources rather than through fixed ideologies.

The work of being watched
The work of being watched is critical to a flexible interactive economy (Andrejevic
2002a, 2004). The differentiation possible in production (like making customized
goods and services) finds its corollary in media technologies that can sort,
categorize and flexibly produce audiences. The work of being watched comprises
two key elements:

User-generated content: where audiences produce themselves and their lives as
media content that others consume. When audiences participate on reality and
lifestyle TV, upload photos to social media, comment on news stories and so
on, they undertake the productive activity of both producing and circulating
media content. Their lives and social world become an integral part of the
content they watch.
User-generated data: where audiences submit to forms of monitoring and
surveillance. Our use of interactive media technologies involves the pervasive
production and collection of information about us. As audiences watch and
produce content they also produce data that is used to rationalize their
productivity as an audience.

Watching, being watched by producing content, and being watched by producing
data are all interrelated. As audiences watch, interact with and produce media they
also generate data. Audiences both connect together their own identity and social
networks with the resources provided by media and cultural producers; and they
register those relationships in databases where they can be tracked and responded to
(Andrejevic 2011: 287).

Practices of audience participation and surveillance have existed in the media
system for a long time. Market research and audience ratings have monitored
audiences, and genres like quiz shows, talk shows and talkback radio have used
ordinary people and their lives as content. The contemporary media system though
is increasingly premised on the work of being watched. Audiences both submit to
monitoring and produce content as a continuous and intrinsic part of everyday
media use. This makes them more productive and efficient:

More efficient by responding and adapting the content so that the serving of
specific messages and advertisements to particular consumers is optimized. If
you know who is viewing at any given moment and location you can make sure
they are seeing the right content.
More productive by expanding the usefulness of the audience’s attention. No
longer is the audience productive only when viewing advertisements targeted at

them; they are now productive whenever they are being watched because they
are, at a minimum, generating data about their habits, tastes and preferences.

The work of being watched goes hand in hand with a broader popular culture that
presents interactivity and surveillance as good, empowering and fun. Confessional
talk shows which present self-revelation and self-improvement as core identity-
making practices; popular culture genres like ‘securitainment’, border and home
security; and celebrity culture – all call on our participation and use surveillance
technologies as forms of entertainment. These various cultural formations turn
being watched into an ordinary, and also inescapable, aspect of entertainment and
everyday life. As much as we willingly participate in the surveillance of ourselves
and our lives, it is increasingly difficult to live in society without participating in
being watched. If we want to use the internet, watch content online, be a part of
social networks, travel through the city, open a bank account or take out an
insurance policy we increasingly have no option other than to participate in
interactive media systems that watch us (Andrejevic 2002b).

Rationalizing watching is embedded within the broader development of a flexible
economy that sells more customized goods and services to increasingly refined
niches. Paying attention to audience participation in watching and being watched
illustrates how media are more than just the production of representations that set
ideological coordinates within which social life is contained. A system of media that
watches also responds to the innovation and open-ended communication of
audiences. Their activity becomes a productive resource to be steered and
channelled rather than something to be disciplined and contained. In this system, the
more active an audience is, the more they participate and the more value they create.

For a media system to be able to watch us, it requires our participation. Surveillance
involves deducing patterns, behaviours or qualities by watching the mediation of
social life. These analytic surveillance capacities depend in a large part on
audiences uploading continuous streams of personal and contextual information
about their lives and social world.

Ranking, rating and judging
The work of being watched involves audiences judging and promoting content,
products, services and experiences. While the data audiences generate about their
preferences is used to optimize marketing appeals, audiences are also continuously
drafted into the work of communicating their judgements and tastes to others. This
promotional work involves:

rating and ranking products, places and experiences
reviewing products, expressing tastes and preferences, and displaying our
consumption of goods and services within everyday life
creating and circulating images that link together our identities with social
spaces and brands.

Our identities become integrated with products, brands and consumer experiences in
‘one promotional package’ (Hearn 2008: 209). We shape the cultural context for
consumption where we circulate images of ourselves at branded events, like brands’
Facebook pages, or get packaged in social ads on social media platforms.

Much of the content we generate and circulate online expresses sentiments, feelings
and preferences. Social media and commerce sites work to capture and harness
these expressions. This activity generates information that connects together our
preferences for a product, place or experience with other demographic, behavioural
and locational data. Furthermore, our ranking and rating also generates media
content. Our peers see us promote commodities on our social media profiles when
we share experiences of products and places. The value of audience or consumer
reviews depends on their credibility in the estimation of others. Ranking, rating and
expressing taste is productive because brands can only generate valuable reputations
via the approval of other people (Hearn 2010: 423). Rankings and sentiments are
particularly valuable when they are expressed by people like us or people that we
trust. When social media sites use your identity within social ads to advertise
products to your friends, they are assuming that your friends will trust your sense of
judgement and taste. When you rate a hotel or review a book your action generates
content that those sites use to attract attention and package products for other
consumers (Hearn 2010). Even our purchasing history becomes promotional
content. For instance, when we log on to Amazon we see books that ‘other people
like us’ bought, or Netflix can predict films and Spotify predict songs based on the
preferences of people with similar viewing or listening habits to us.

The work of ranking and rating also extends to the variety of ways we critique,
reflect and position ourselves in relation to popular culture. This work is a form of

promotional labour where audiences participate in shaping the commodities that are
then sold back to them (Martens 2011). Audiences and consumers often pay a
premium for the commodities they have added value to or helped to create a context
of consumption for (Zwick et al. 2008). When we add content, provide feedback and
generate data through our use of products and services, we contribute to their
ongoing development. We are part of the social process of innovating their features
and uses.

The feedback and innovation of consumers, fans and users is often part of the
spectacle of consumption and popular culture itself. Fans feel empowered when
their ideas are incorporated into media production. Andrejevic (2008: 27) finds that
as fans engage in critiquing and reviewing television programmes they begin to
identify with the imperatives of producers. They take up industry discourses about
how best to promote the show, which audiences it appeals to, and how the show
might be developed in the future and tailored to those audiences. Andrejevic (2008:
27) argues that ‘The promise of virtual participation in the production process, in
short, invites viewers to adopt the standpoint of producers, and thereby facilitates
the conversion of viewer feedback into potentially productive marketing and
demographic information.’ Audience expressions of taste and criticism are
productive and valuable activities that help producers create more valuable
commodities. Fans are incorporated in a continuous feedback loop that rationalizes
the production of cultural products.

Audience Participation in the Work of Being Watched
Audiences don’t just create content and submit to monitoring, they also undertake
the work of constructing and legitimizing relationships of watching. This involves
creating relationships of affect and attention, identifying with the promotional logic
of the culture industry, and articulating a cynical distance towards their own
participation. This cynical distance sustains relationships of watching, making them
dependent on audience participation and impervious to their critique.

Creating networks of attention and affect
Audience members’ communicative capacities create the social networks through
which meanings circulate (Terranova 2000). Their activity is freely given and
unpaid, simultaneously enjoyed and exploited. This free labour is imperative to the
functioning of networked forms of cultural production that rely on the continuous
open-ended communication of users (Terranova 2000). Affecting is the social
process of stimulating and channelling the ‘living attention of others’ (Brennan
2004: 50). Where audiences produce and circulate content on social media or
participate in reality TV shows they do the work of channelling social interactions
through media platforms and registering networks of attention in databases. This
work is affective labour where audiences:

employ their identity and emotions to attract attention from each other
make judgements about taste, style, mood and dispositions that tell others how
they feel about something or someone.

The creativity of audiences is central to the value production and control
mechanisms of networks. The more audiences participate, the more information
they generate, the more they strengthen the capacity of networks to stimulate,
respond to and predict their interests. While audiences are often free to participate in
contributing to, and even creating aspects of, networks, ordinary users rarely have
control over how those networks develop or how their participation is directed and

The data that interactive media assemble depends in the first instance on audiences’
capacity to judge and understand their cultural identities, meanings and milieu. It is
audiences that improve the quality of data on the platforms of social media by
registering links between cultural content, social spaces and identities. When
audiences comment, like or rate each other ’s bodies, appearances, pastimes,
products, brands, services and cultural products, they add important sentiments and
affects to the data that interactive media collect and use. Audiences contribute
meanings that are grounded in their everyday lives. This is a kind of work only
audience members can do because only they can access and modulate social
connections, ideas and feelings from their vantage point in the social world. The
interactive media system’s ability to predict and respond to social life depends on
this important work of registering social lives and sentiments online. Rather than
specify particular meanings, media organizations and their partnering brands
establish coordinates within which they manage and harness audience participation
(Moor 2003, Foster 2008, Zwick et al. 2008).

Identifying with the promotional logic of the culture
We see audiences identify with the work of being watched where they adopt the
logic of branding and promotion into the production of their own lives and
identities (Hearn 2008). Just as we evaluate brands and products, we evaluate each
other and present ourselves in competitive and promotional ways. This normalizes
branding and promotional forms of communication. Not only are we fashioning
ourselves using resources provided by commercial popular culture, we are also
adopting a promotional form of communication in the way we convey our identities
to others. Writing about YouTube videos young girls create and share, Banet-Weiser
(2012: 65–66) observes that they use commercial pop songs, images from popular
culture, branded products and gestures from famous celebrities. While the young
audience members produce the content, they do so using the resources of
commercial popular culture. Not only does the production of their own identity
incorporate and promote brands, celebrities and products; they also construct their
identity as if it were a brand. Incorporating branding and promotional logic and the
commercial products of the culture industry into the production of our own
identities arguably legitimizes the work of being watched. It makes branding a
general and ordinary mode of communication within everyday life.

Articulating cynical distance
There is another aspect of audience activity that, perhaps counter-intuitively,
produces value. As much as they participate in interactive media and popular
culture, audience members also cannily distance themselves from that participation,
claiming to be cynical about the claims of media representations or the extent of
their involvement in shaping media content and systems. Audience members
distance themselves from the work of being watched by articulating savvy and
cynical attitudes to media representations. Savvy audiences seek to ‘be seen in a
particular way: as savvy viewers who are not taken in by the transparent forms of
manipulation practiced by producers’ (Andrejevic 2008: 37). Audiences produce a
savvy social disposition that protects commercial forms of media production. By
downplaying the value of their own participation in the media system they obfuscate
its value. Audience cynicism normalizes the promotional character of media and
advertising, rendering it legitimate (Hackley 2002: 221).

While audience members don’t sincerely buy into the promise that ‘interactive
technology will fundamentally alter the power relations between consumers and
producers’, they still participate nonetheless, using interactive media to ‘let others
know that he or she has not been taken in by the ruse’ (Andrejevic 2008: 39).
Audience debunking of the constructed nature and claims of media representations
inoculates a system of cultural production that functions despite the fact that it has
been exposed. This is a particularly valuable activity because it legitimizes and
positions our participation within the current power relationships of the commercial
media system. We participate without either believing in the ideological claims of
media or seeking to meaningfully resist them. This disposition is active in the sense
that it produces valuable attention and affect; at the same time it is docile in the sense
that it doesn’t threaten to undermine the social relationships encoded into
commercial forms of interactive media.

As audience members ‘get off’ on their failure to make an impression on a
debunked symbolic order, they create valuable attention and interaction without the
system having to rely on ideological cohesion. The problem, as Andrejevic (2008:
38) argues, is that their participation creates

a sense of political inertness – only the dupes imagine that things could be
otherwise; the nonduped may well crave social change, but they are not so
naïve as to be fooled by their desire into believing that it is actually possible. …
If the viewers cannot be insiders, at least they can make it clear that they are not
being fooled by the insiders, and this is the closest that the interactive

technologies bring them to the inner sanctum.

The desire to reveal ourselves as non-dupes doubles as labour that creates networks,
content and reputations that are useful in the interactive media system, while at the
same time it also insulates that system from its users’ critical faculties. Audiences
participate, continuously, on the terms of the producers and organizations that
control the networks. They create value by participating regardless of the content of
that participation.

Buzzfeed and Native Advertising
For much of the twentieth century the relationship between editorial and content was a relatively clear
one. A reader of a newspaper could clearly see the difference between the news and the advertising.
This was true in most mass and broadcast media. The audience could discern what was advertising and
what was the editorial or entertainment content.

The deal that formed between media organizations, their audiences and advertisers was relatively
stable. Media organizations produced content that audiences wanted to see, and to fund the production
of that content media organizations sold space to advertisers. The audience had to watch advertising to
support the production of the news and entertainment.

As we have discussed in this chapter, this model has changed dramatically with the emergence of
interactive and social media. One key change in the production and sale of audiences is native
branding and advertising. Native advertising refers to paid promotional content that is presented as part
of the editorial content.

One of the innovators in the development of native content is the news site BuzzFeed. Rather than sell
advertisements that sit alongside the editorial content, BuzzFeed sells brands opportunities to sponsor
and play a role in creating the editorial content.

BuzzFeed is a news service that has developed interdependently with the social web. It depends on
getting its audience to share its content through their own online social networks – 75 per cent of
views of BuzzFeed stories come from social media feeds, rather than people visiting the site. One of
the consequences of this is that there is little opportunity to provide advertising in the traditional sense
because the audience don’t visit the actual BuzzFeed website.

BuzzFeed therefore needs to ‘natively’ integrate the advertising content into the editorial and
entertainment content. Rather than sell advertising space BuzzFeed sells ‘social storytelling’. It has a
team of brand content writers who work with brands to write stories that combine brand messages with
news and entertainment content.

When the Australian government released its Federal budget in May 2014, the bank ING worked
with BuzzFeed to create a story: ‘What the budget means for anyone who doesn’t have an economics
degree’. The story was written in the standard BuzzFeed style: internet memes, images and humour.
The story went through a list of categories: people students, mums, drivers, the environment. For each
category a red cross or a green tick was added to indicate whether they were a ‘winner’ or ‘loser’
from the budget.

At the top of the story it explained it was published by a ‘brand publisher’ and at the bottom it stated:
‘Brought to you by ING Direct. Check out how their Orange Everyday account can help your salary
go further.’

BuzzFeed helps brands to get online audiences to share brand stories. It tells brands that this turns
them from a ‘fan who passively likes you on Facebook to an advocate who tells their friends they
love your brand’. The brand offers a news story that enables people in their target markets to tell
their friends what they think and how they feel. In this media model there is no distinction between
editorial and advertising content. BuzzFeed argues that its model works in part because younger
audiences don’t care about the separation between editorial and advertising in the way it is presumed
older audiences do.

BuzzFeed explains that it doesn’t aim to trick people into clicking on a brand post. Rather, audiences
say, ‘I know this is an ad, but it’s too interesting and too funny not to share, I know I’m doing the
work for you but I don’t care.’ What the audience member gets in return for sharing the item of brand
content is the opportunity to make themselves visible and present in their social networks.

Rather than sell empty advertising space for brands to fill, BuzzFeed works with brands to integrate
them into the storytelling and sharing practices of the site. This is a commercial media model attuned to
the way social media sorts and organizes flows of content. Buzzfeed helps brands generate attention
within the feeds of content people interact with on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Reddit.

How will native advertising change the relationship between news and advertising?

You can find links to BuzzFeed’s native advertising on the Media and Society website

The Watched Audience
The development of interactive networks and the growing power and lowering cost
of computing go hand in hand. Networks, computers, databases, servers, software
and smartphones are parts of a large technological assembly that collects, stores and
organizes data about populations. The proliferation and endless innovation in the
uses and applications of data are central to the continuing rationalization and
optimization of audiences. Data is central to describing a specific audience to a
potential buyer. Television stations’ ratings and market research are important in
defining the size and demographics, and setting the price for audiences. Increasing
amounts of data flowing through interactive networks enable advertisers to buy
audiences on-demand. They ask media organizations to assemble specific kinds of
audiences for them. Advertisers want to buy a customized product that they can
adapt and optimize in real time.

To be able to build and categorize these highly specified audiences, media
organizations have to engage in the development of a range of technologies for
monitoring audiences. Media organizations invested in the development of these
technologies throughout the twentieth century. Television for instance relied on a
combination of in-home meters, diaries and surveys (Balnaves et al. 2011: 100).
Each technology has limitations. Meters monitor what programme is watched
whenever the television is on. These provide an accurate count of what is being
watched, but they do not enable researchers to specify who in the family is watching.
Some research firms added push-button meters that required the members of a
family watching to press the button when they were watching. This provided some
measure of who was watching. But people wouldn’t push the button if they didn’t
want to disclose what they were watching. Diaries provide more detail on who
watches what, but they are hampered by getting participants to accurately complete
them. People routinely underestimate how much time they spend consuming media.
Surveys are hampered both by people’s recall of what they watched, and their
willingness to admit to watching certain kinds of content (Balnaves et al. 2011).

The development of research techniques takes place in a social context. Research
firms have developed screens with the capacity to recognise viewers