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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