Encoding/Decoding Theory as It Relates to the New Media Audience behaviour has always been a complex but nonetheless essential part of the material framework for theatre or theatrical events. In its extreme forms (e. g. , at live wrestling matches, at exuberant and spirited plays, etc. ) is more easily identified and also gives the passive observer some inkling as to where the boundaries for decent behaviour in the given society really are. Audiences are increasingly becoming involved in a multi-layered assortment of activities and affections (greatly contrasting in importance and fervour).
It is interesting to note that the audience is now intrinsically intertwined with familiar social relations. There is an unravelling of the difference between the audience and the public as these very concepts have increasingly less to do with practices of media production and control over content. For example, thousands of content creators have attained great reach with their resultant media and they are displacing media works from transnational media conglomerates, national broadcasting groups, and other publicly-funded organizations.
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One means for understanding audience behaviour is to focus on large body of work pertaining to audience reception theory. Stuart Hall pioneered such studies with the publication of his communication model in the essay Encoding/Decoding (Hall, 1980). Hall utilized semiotics in order to propose a new model of mass communication. In it, he had drawn attention to the significance of active interpretation within relevant codes. Also, the work deemphasized the notion that the media could potently effect a particular behaviour on a person.
There are three central tenets to the model: (1) the same event can be encoded in more than one way, (2) the message can contain more than one possible interpretation, and (3) understanding the message can be a vexing process, no matter how natural it might seem. Hall had frequently used examples involving television in order to expound on his encoding/decoding theory. One of the more interesting arguments put forward by Hall was that while the ruling ideology is often imprinted as the preferred reading in a media text, such a reading is not automatically appropriated by the audience.
Socioeconomic factors of the audience influence their adoption of different viewpoints. Since decades have passed since the original publication of Hall’s essay, how does his theory hold up to today’s media where the large media corporations have lost major ground to a bevy of smaller media creators? Has the escalation of internet-related media rendered null the tenets of Hall’s model of mass communication?
This essay will contextualize some of Hall’s early work in encoding/decoding theory in order to examine the interests of both the media and the citizens, how the encoding of media content might be different whenever stronger considerations for monetization are involved, and how the regulation of the mass media serves to temper their business motivations and impose journalistic integrity. Hall had underlined in particular two factors that are of particular importance for encoding/decoding in media.
First, mass media’s encoding of messages are carefully chosen ideological and institutional proposes to elicit a preferred reading (Lorimer, 2008). The mass media have this built-in tendency to construct social formations and shape history itself by carefully composing images of reality in a predicable and patterned way. Such methods have their own vocabulary and the style is unmistakable. Secondly, those consuming those encoded messages, the decoders, are not beholden to accept those messages but they can and often do resist ideological authority by ascribing dissimilar or oppositional interpretations.
Such interpretations are heavily coloured by the decoders own experiences, values, and beliefs (Lorimer, 2008). They will construct for themselves their own personal view of social reality and their place in it. By way of example, suppose one were to read the same book several times throughout his life. The reader will quite possibly appreciate different aspects of the work (e. g. , sympathizing with certain characters, appreciating the depth of the storytelling, discerning different meanings, etc. because the reader will have undergone different experiences and essentially become a different person upon every reading. Certainly the static text in that book hasn’t changed (the encoded messages) but the particular readings have (the decoded messages). Although the concepts underlined in Hall’s encoding/decoding paper seems to form a highly systematic theory, several external factors are not incorporated into it. It is widely held that the effects of media are very much moulded by the contexts and happenings in a certain time and place.
There is a dynamic and fluctuating influence by means of various environmental factors. Of those environmental factors, there are many including the activities of lobbyist groups, those with special interests, the influence of the government and judicial bodies, the wavering tide of public opinion, technological innovation and advances, and the education of the decoding members of society. To put in more in perspective, consider the case of media messages they are transmitted within a certain sociocultural environment.
These very messages must rely on conventions and restrict potentially unintended meanings to bear the consensus value of the dominating ideology. One might now consider the changes, or decline, in the mass media with the ever-increasing influence of internet based media. As far as mind-share is concerned, the larger media corporations are having less reach with the multitudes of smaller content creators available online (Wright, 1993). It really is as Hall once stated that the audience holds great power. Today’s audiences are more wary of old media’s interests and have thus latched onto content generated by newer media sources.
Old media is anxious when it comes to the omnipresence of blogs, the exponential rise in twitter messages, and aggregators that summarize content and link back to the original source. In such a world, their profit-driven business model (and, by extension, their very reason for being) is shot. So what happens to the encoding/decoding model if traditional mass media is increasingly playing a smaller role and is losing influence? It seems that the rise in alternative forms of information dissemination are changing the very messages that are being transmitted and, by extension, changing the expectations of the decoders as well.
Smaller content creators come with their own sets of rules and some may have less concern to conform to socially-accepted norms whilst others may be raging propagandists. All the while, old media continue to deliver their carefully crafted messages while being careful to please all special interests, maintain journalistic integrity, and not damage their reputations in the process. Either way, the rise in smaller media creators (e. g. , individual persons, small start ups, and other creative groups) has shaken the system and often has little regard or desire for carefully crafting a specific encoded message.
The impact of this is a whole new set of expectations for the audience. It seems that the simple and direct encoded messages as are typically found online have less built in distortion. With time, it could be that audiences accustomed to messages relayed by new media (not having the affectations of old media, possibly having less journalistic integrity) may not be able or willing to decode the more sinuous encoded messages of old media. Media content that is borne from the need for increasing profits results in a lack of diversity of content.
Such as it is with mass media, that is, of the old media tradition, where the attention of the largest audiences possible results in content that appeals to the lowest common denominator (i. e. , bland content that entertains an imagined homogeneous culture without challenging them). Such content is obviously not in the best interest of citizens and society. Old media’s institutionalized production and scattering of symbolic goods through the broadcast of symbolic content treats the audience as passive and therefore doesn’t really engage the minds of those receiving the messages.
This is all not to say that all old media is not worth having; quite a bit of it is very good. As it is governed by professionalism and social responsibility, profit motives are kept in check. Although there are ever-increasing gaps between the theory and practice of social responsibility amongst old media, this is much less the case for public service broadcasting. New media is certainly more engaging and it blurs the lines between the sender and the receiver. A sort of interactivity can take the form of reader comments and discussions (i. e. resulting in a computer-mediated community formation or a ‘virtual community’), new ways of political participation, and a means to display one’s creative works to a potentially huge audience (e. g. , YouTube, Dailymotion, Vimeo, etc. ). Thus, new media may lead to positive and tangible outcomes should the ideas gained from participation within its sphere result in change outside the virtual community. With different audience expectations (and the corresponding shift in way that newer audiences decode messages) there has been a rise in what could be called fast-food media.
Within the sphere of internet-related media, there is still quite a lot of anonymity. Coupled with the speed at which messages are decoded (and that those specific messages have a very short “shelf-life”), there are a great many websites that utterly steal content from original source and carry out very minimal rewriting without citing the original source of that content. The result is the multiplication and amplification of essentially the same encoded message. Furthermore, these encoded messages are often not typical of those crafted by mass media, given the legal ramifications of stealing copy from corporations with large legal budgets.
So, the encoded messages do not, then, often consider special interests of other large corporations or are biased by political leanings. It is interesting to note that this phenomenon is is not just the case within spam blogs (artificially cloned websites spawned by a single organization in order to increase page hits and ad impressions) but even illustrious old media companies transitioning toward new media (e. g. , the New York Times, the Washington Post, etc) engage in this practice by incorporating third-party blogs into their widely visited webpages (Vinton, 1997).
Where once the stories were written by people who might be actual journalists (having journalistic integrity and all its restrictive trappings for composing the encoded messages), those who take the news and rewrite it often strip out various parts of the encoded message for a different set of decoders (i. e. , a specific audience). This incorporation of a slant for specific readership in written materials is nothing new. Transcoding, actually, has existed for quite some time amongst even old media since AP news articles are sometimes given very subtle modifications (i. e. omissions of text, changes in orthography, etc. ) by smaller news outlets in different locales to suit their specific audiences. However, the transcoding practices more recently are less subtle and, from a fiscal point of view, it is much less expensive for a new media outlet to simply take a specific news article, for instance, and give it the rewriting treatment. This is because those who rewrite can turn over many more rewritten articles in any given day, and, they are not actual journalists (i. e. , journalists typically fetch much larger salaries and perform original research on any given news article).
So the question remains: will smaller media outlets and their style of encoded messaging overtake old media resulting in more change in how the public will decode future messages? Those small content creators that are creating original content have certainly attracted much attention and focus from the public. Large media such as the CNN television news network are even increasingly displaying content from small-time players and even video from individuals. When old media should change (and the operative word is when) will it adopt the encoding practices of the current, new media?
References Hall, Stuart (1980): ‘Encoding/decoding’. In Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (Ed. ): Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972???79, London: Hutchinson, pp. 128???138. Lorimer, R. , Gasher, M. , & Skinner, D. (2008). Mass Communication in Canada. Toronto: Oxford University Press. Vinton, G. (1997). Computer Networking: Global Infrastructure for the 21st Century. Computing Research Association. Wright, R. (1993). Overhearing The Internet. The New Republic.