Thinking about New Media: Interactivity

19 02 2011

My TiVo is on the verge of exploding with films about stardom, but I’m going to take a brief break from that series. Spring break will be here soon (one more week of classes!) and TiVo and I have a date for a stardom film series that will hopefully result in some more posts as well. But for now, I’ve been working on a couple of more think piece oriented posts about new media and its influence not only on how we get our content, but also on what that content looks like and how audiences actually engage with/read/invest in that content.

I’ve been considering new media in a broad sense this semester, for a variety of reasons, and here I am just trying to work out some major ideas that have been floating around in my head. This is sort of like a comps exam (because weren’t those fun?) where I’m trying to get a hold of scholarly approaches to new media and relate them to my own particular interests. In short, these are some ideas informed by a lot of the reading I’ve been doing this semester as well as some questions that I’m still working through. This is the beginning of my thinking—not the end—so I would definitely appreciate feedback.

What’s so “new” about new media?
The umbrella term “new media” has been used to refer to a wide range of media platforms and technologies. But the vast array of platforms makes it somewhat confusing to really think through exactly what new media are, and, indeed, what’s so new about them. If Netflix streaming is clearly a new media platform, does that mean that Netflix home delivery system is not? Or, is an iPhone the same sort of new media as Netflix? Each technology serves a different function, but the potential spaces of overlap (using your iPhone to watch streamed movies as opposed to using it to make a phone call or send a text) makes, I think, a precise definition of “new media” pretty challenging.

But then again, part of the shifts brought about by new media come from the fact that the technologies are so varied and can be harnessed for many different purposes. Though the technologies that have reshaped everyday communication and media are vital to understanding this new category, but, as I suggest to my students based on the work of numerous scholars in this area (including Henry Jenkins, Sonia Livingstone, Nancy Baym and many others), what’s so new about new media are the ways the technologies enable users to interact with information and with each other. These interactions are tied to how the technology functions or what it makes possible (e.g. the iPhone lets you make phone calls, text, surf the web etc through its digital platform) but also to how individuals actually use that technology in their everyday lives. (

What’s so new about new media, then, is the fact that users can be both producers and consumers of content (even if that production is limited to a very small audience). New media trouble traditional media consumption models that assume users/audiences are on the receiving end of the communication and do little but absorb meaning. Instead, new media shed light on the range of (sometimes invisible) active meaning making that goes when one consumes media and/or communicates with others through these platforms. While it’s easy to see how things like iPhones or Twitter are considered new media, I think we should also consider how older media forms have transformed to meet the demands of our new media society. I think new media, for all the fancy technological advancements, also offer new sorts of ways to think about and engage with “old media.”

One example I’ve been considering recently is the case of reality television. Reality TV certainly has roots traced back to the early days of television (in the form of game shows, documentaries, etc), its explosion into our television consciousness within the past 10 years is, I think, tied to the simultaneous shifts in media platforms and consumption practices. In other words, I want to argue (and I know I’m not the first to do so) that reality TV is a form of new media. Even if you view it on regular “old” broadcast television, I think reality television embodies some important characteristics that, at the very least, strongly tie it (and its contemporary ubiquity/success as a genre) to new media.

1. Reality television assumes (varying levels of) interactivity
Some reality shows are explicitly built upon the audience as a participant in the production of the show, making new media technology and engagement central to the existence of the program. The most obvious examples here are reality shows, like American Idol or Big Brother, where audiences vote for their favorite contestants, thus securing participants a place on future episodes and, ultimately, choosing the winner of the show. Of course these votes come through a range of new media platforms, like text messages or online voting, but the key is that they enable the audience to play (or at least think they are playing) a vital role in creating content of the show.

Text message voting for American Idol

The success of Idol comes, in part, from the idea that we are the ones that are deciding who will be our next pop star or who will stay in the house for the next week. The (in)famous “Vote for the Worst” campaign that, for example, kept mediocre singer Sanjaya in the running for several weeks during the show’s sixth season, is clear evidence that audience participation shapes the show, and sometimes in ways unanticipated/unintended by the show’s producers. Nevertheless, if no one voted, there would be no show. The feeling of participation in the show is an important space for audience pleasure that hinges on interactivity.

There are, of course, elimination style shows where viewers do not directly vote for contestants, such as Survivor, The Bachelor/Bachelorette, Top Chef, Project Runway etc., as well as a range of reality television shows that do not feature any sort of elimination (docu-soaps like The Real Housewives or any number of celeb-reality shows focused on the private life of a star). But even these shows encourage audience interactivity as a key part of viewing the show. There is something about the focus on back stories of contestants or narratives about what goes on outside the competition (like on Top Chef) that calls up a certain notion of interactivity to me. That audiences are given “more” than “just” the competition narrative seems to be a different sort of engagement. Not sure how to work this out yet, but something about this extended engagement strikes me as more interactive than fictional TV in its style and form.

On one hand, I think new media technologies play an important role in increasing this sort of implied interactivity. Advances in digital and handheld cameras are important to how reality television is actually produced. For the most part, we’re not talking about the participants creating their own footage for the show, though we do sometimes get some glimpses of this (an old example: Britney and Kevin: Chaotic was based in large part on the actual footage shot by Brit-Brit and K-Fed during the early days of their courtship). I’ve written elsewhere about how this emphasizes her “authenticity” as a star, and that’s related to the way the digital camera allows the audience to interact with the real person behind the pop star image. Here’s an outtake that didn’t make the show that shows the use of her personal footage. You’ll see how riviting this footage is and why this show lasted a full half season!

Even without the sense of the footage being shot by the participants, digital technologies have increased the range of the voyeuristic eye of the camera, allowing it to more easily go wherever the “reality” is happening. We are in the homes, cars, work places, etc of reality show participants. The fact that the bathroom is the only place where cameras don’t go on The Real World means that we are able to get into the lives of the housemates and, in a sense, interact with–or at least observe–them at any and every moment.

But it’s also about how audiences are encouraged to engage with these shows that highlights the centrality of interactivity to the overall style and narrative of these programs. Fictional narrative television has, of course, long inspired fan communities and people who want to take their engagement with a show and its characters beyond the boundaries of the narrative offered in the weekly broadcast. I think narrative reality television shows as well as the non-audience voted elimination shows named above are increasingly built on the assumption that audiences engage with the characters/participants and narrative outside the boundaries of the weekly broadcast.

The internet plays a key role here, with character/participant blogs giving us a way to read beyond the actual events of the show itself. In other words, to interact with the characters/participants in other platforms as a way to extend viewing pleasure. I, for one, was pretty obsessed with the RHONJ blogs as a way to get each woman’s perspective on the drama of that week’s episode as a way to see what was left out in the actual episode. Yes, I know that many fictional television shows have websites where their characters “blog” about that week’s episode. I’m wondering if those stay as closely tied to the overall narrative of the show as reality TV character blogs? I have to admit that I don’t know because I don’t follow any fictional character blogs.

However, in another connection between “old” and “new” media, the reality shows have the added extratextual site of engagement in the tabloids. Print tabloids like Us Weekly and In Touch are increasingly built upon the backs of reality television stars. The women of The Hills, Teen Mom, or Keeping Up With the Kardashians would not have the same level of fame, nor would their shows have such high ratings, without the constant coverage from these outside sources. More on the connection between celebrity and reality in my next post.

Interacting with Teen Mom in tabloids

What’s fascinating to me is the “inside information” revealed by these gossip magazines is pretty much always the plot of the next week’s episode, as opposed to any new information! So they are giving audiences some information to bring with them to their viewing of the episode, allowing them to interact with the narrative using that knowledge, as well as encouraging them to watch the show. You don’t see Michael Scott on the cover of a magazine talking about his argument with Dwight on next week’s episode of The Office because he is clearly a fictional character. The appeal to “reality” in RTV means that even though we know these shows are edited and that the action is scripted or at least prompted by producers, we are still encouraged to see the participants as “real” people. Thus, by interacting with them in these outside sources, the audience enriches their viewing experience.

Audiences do have some choice in how they interact (or not) with these shows, a topic I will return to in a later post. Additionally, reality television is certainly not the only television genre where new media technologies have had an impact in form and content. Nevertheless, I think the case of reality TV provides some clear insight into the ties between new media interactivity and the production and consumption of media in this shifting landscape.

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