Chapter 16: The Evolution of Audience Labor: Appropriating Online Activities

Fernando Bermejo

One possible approach to studying the historical dimension of communication media consists in looking at its economic functioning and examining how it changes over time. The aim of this chapter is to do just that by analyzing the evolution of one specific element of media economics: audience labor. The audience’s relationship with the media involves a variety of activities that can be conceptualized in many different ways and from multiple points of view. Perhaps the most common ones are those that look at the audience as interpreter and the audience as user. Most literature in the field of audience studies examines the meaning-making activities and capabilities of audiences, and the uses to which the media are put by those audiences. The idea of audiences as workers, though not so habitual in communication’s literature, may help us complement and expand these two main views.

In a sense, interpretations, uses, and labor can be conceived as separate and complementary dimensions. However, instead of viewing the three approaches as separate, we may add an extra dimension to our understanding of these processes if we examine interpretation and use from the economic point of view. In order to do this, this chapter will look at the different audience activities afforded by communication media in their historical evolution and will examine the economic significance of those activities. In particular, it will examine how the increasing interactivity and flexibility provided by digital media contrasts with the limitations of legacy media and opens the door for new forms of audience labor.

If in the cultural industries the audience works outside the realm of the media to be able to pay the price of accessing cultural goods, in the realm of traditional mass media the audience gets those culture goods for free, but works at watching ads and learning to purchase certain consumer goods. In the world of digital media the range of possibilities increases and they often overlap, the audience can pay, it can read, listen or watch extra, it can learn to consume, it can click and it can search, and it can produce. As a consequence, a new media economic logic seems to be developing.