The business of participation

Media industry executives see the active user as a strategic asset, Espen Ytreberg argues.

Active par­tic­i­pa­tion is a defin­ing fea­ture of the mod­ern media user, accord­ing to Nor­we­gian dig­i­tal media exec­u­tives, strate­gists and edi­tors. The media indus­tries have strate­gic rea­sons for try­ing to attract those active users, says Pro­fes­sor Espen Ytre­berg at the Depart­ment of Media and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oslo.

“Con­ver­gent media indus­tries’ uses of the par­tic­i­pant” was the title of Ytre­berg’s con­tri­bu­tion to a sem­i­nar on pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing and the Inter­net at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bergen on April 26–27, 2007.

The media deci­sion­mak­ers were inter­viewed by Ytre­berg and col­leagues in 2005 for a research project focus­ing on how par­tic­i­pa­tion is “facil­i­tat­ed and exploit­ed” by the media. The researchers are look­ing for ways the media use par­tic­i­pa­tion as a new source of rev­enue and a new means of assert­ing power.

Among the find­ings: “build­ing loy­al­ty” among users is the most impor­tant rea­son for offer­ing inter­ac­tive for­mats, accord­ing to the exec­u­tives. Increased com­pe­ti­tion for users’ atten­tion makes it ever more impor­tant for the media to offer inter­ac­tive fea­tures that help keep the user at their site or chan­nel, Ytre­berg argued.

The Nor­we­gian word for par­tic­i­pa­tion, “deltakelse”, has a some­what dif­fer­ent ring than the Eng­lish con­cept, Ytre­berg said. “Deltakelse”, lit­er­al­ly “tak­ing part”, can often cov­er com­plete­ly unpo­lit­i­cal activ­i­ties, such as vot­ing in the “Pop Idol” pro­gramme. This does not mean that the demo­c­ra­t­ic aspect of media par­tic­i­pa­tion is lost on the media deci­sion­mak­ers. They list pos­i­tive effects on democ­ra­cy and free speech as the sec­ond most impor­tant rea­son for them to invest in inter­ac­tive offer­ings, after build­ing loy­al­ty. Inno­va­tion is the third most impor­tant rea­son. Oth­er findings:

  • Par­tic­i­pa­to­ry activ­i­ty will increase, the deci­sion­mak­ers strong­ly believe.
  • There are indi­ca­tions that media exec­u­tives do not see par­tic­i­pa­tion as an activ­i­ty dom­i­nat­ed by the young.
  • 22 out of the 39 respon­dents believe users are more will­ing to pay to con­tribute their own input than to pay to receive “con­tent” pro­duced by the media.
  • 34 out of 39 say that par­tic­i­pa­tion con­tributes to democ­ra­ti­za­tion and improves con­di­tions for free speech.
  • 25 out of 39 say peo­ple par­tic­i­pate main­ly to be entertained.

The dig­i­tal media deci­sion­mak­ers tend to see the audi­ence as inher­ent­ly active — peo­ple are not pas­sive media con­sumers, they real­ly want to par­tic­i­pate. This under­stand­ing of the user might be influ­enced by the expe­ri­ence of the active­ly nav­i­gat­ing web user, Ytre­berg sug­gest­ed. One respon­dent stat­ed that the more com­mu­ni­ty-based the mate­r­i­al is, the stronger the response from the audi­ence will be. Anoth­er believed that “activ­i­ty is a pri­mal thing” for the user.

Facil­i­tat­ing user par­tic­i­pa­tion is part of a strat­e­gy Ytre­berg called plat­form sat­u­ra­tion, where the media com­pa­nies seek to dis­trib­ute their offer­ings as wide­ly as pos­si­ble. Ytre­berg saw this as a change in the medi­a’s view of par­tic­i­pa­tion: pre­vi­ous­ly the media want­ed to encour­age par­tic­i­pa­tion in soci­ety out­side the media, such as in polit­i­cal par­ties, organ­i­sa­tions or in civ­il soci­ety. Now they want to monop­o­lize par­tic­i­pa­tion — to ensure it takes place inside their own medium.

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