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EJC/REC, Volume 15(1 & 2)

 

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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 15 Numbers 1 & 2, 2005


 

THE POWER OF THE AUDIENCE

INTERCULTURALITY, INTERACTVITY AND TRUST IN INTERNET COMMUNICATION:

THEORY, RESEARCH DESIGN AND EMPIRICAL RESULTS

 

Hans-Juergen Bucher

University of Trier

 

Abstract. The question of the power of the Internet is investigated in this paper from the perspective of the audience. One cannot fully understand Internet communication without taking into account the role of an interactive audience. To clarify the relationship between Internet communication and culture, therefore, this paper proceeds in three steps. First, I argue for a paradigm shift from the power of the communicator to the power of the audience. Second, I characterize Internet communication with respect to three basic concepts: the concepts of interactivity, intercultural communication, and trust. And third, I present a research design and some empirical results on how the power of the audience could be verified.

 

1. Paradigm Shift: From Power of Communicators to Power of the Audience

 

Power in communication normally means power of the communicator. The one who sends the message seems to be the one who has the power to select topics, to decide what is relevant for the addressee and what is not, to determine who is addressed and to determine time, duration and location of the speech or communicative event. The outcomes of this communicator-centred paradigm are different communication models; for example, the “propaganda model” of Herman and Chomsky (1988), the “ideology model” of the Frankfurt School in the 1940s and 1950s, Weaver’s (1949) mathematical “sender-receiver-model”, or Hovland’s (1949) “stimulus-response-model”. Despite some striking differences, all these models have in common that they picture the mass audience as a more or less passive and helpless victim of media influence from the side of the communicator. Of course there are communicative events which legitimise this kind of perspective; for example, manipulating forms of media communication in totalitarian societies, or different strategies of information politics in the communication of war and crisis. Take, for example, the propaganda via newspaper and radio by the Nazis, the press control by the NATO in the Kosovo-conflict, or the press politics of the USA in the Gulf war of 1991. It seems to be naïve, to talk about the power of the audience. The power of the communicator seems to be overwhelming in these cases.

 

However, despite these counter-examples, it still makes sense for different reasons to focus on the role of the audience. One group of reasons can be traced back to the nature of media communication as a special form of intercultural communication, the other group of reasons grounds in the specific character of Internet communication.

 

To refer to the audience as an instance of power is not meant metaphorical. The audience, for example, the Internet user, decides what websites to visit, how to interact with a website, how deeply it is understood, or whom to trust as a partner or interactor. These “what”, “how”, “how deep” and “whom” are deeply rooted in the cultural knowledge and competence of the user. But it is not determined by culture in a causal sense or in a sense of culture as a kind of super power; nor has the communicator the power to command the addressee to believe, to understand, or to trust the communicator. Understanding, believing, attentiveness and trust are strictly individual and therefore under the power of the audience. Of course, we could see culture as an instance of power by itself, for example, as structural power (Castells, 1997) or symbolic power (Bourdieu, 1993), which limits the wiggle room of the respective audience. But from an action theoretical point of view, we have to focus on the user and acquisition activities to find out how the interplay of culture and interaction in Internet communication works. The relevant instance for what happens is the individual user or, as we can learn from Manuel Castells, the people’s mind:

 

The new power [of the information age] lies in the codes of information and in the images of representation around which societies organize their institutions, and people build their lives, and decide their behaviour. The sites of this power are people’s mind. (Castells, 1997, p.359).

 

This shift of focus from the communicator and the message to the audience has wide ranging consequences for the theoretical approach of communication analysis and for the design of empirical research. One of the most famous models in this user-centred approach is the so-called use-and-gratification approach. The main factors of media use are the gratifications, for example, information or entertainment values, that websites, radio or television programs offer in the eyes of the audience. That means the power to decide what and how media are used is clearly seen on the side of the audience, not on the side of the communicator. Another model within an audience-centred paradigm is the so-called interactional or transactional model, which is much older than sometimes supposed:

 

My proposal that we look at communications as a transactional relationship (..) encourages us to look at the initiative of the audience as it goes about its own business of getting the information it wants and avoiding what it does not want, at how the audience affects what will be said, and at the changes which take place in the communicator in the process of communication (Bauer, 1963, p.7).

 

From this point of view the audience has not only the power to select information but the power to influence the communicator and the message as well.

 

It is quite clear that a model which focuses on the perceptions of the audience as constructions of meanings and sense, and of a mutual influencing relationship between audience and communicator, is more open to questions of cultural and intercultural understanding than causal theories of media influence. So it is logical that Dennis McQuail labelled this family of theories as “cultural tradition”. He states: “The clearest line of development in audience theory has been a move away from the perspective of the media communicator and toward that of the receiver” (McQuail, 1997, p.16).

 

2. The Internet and Intercultural Communication: The Interactive Audience

 

In traditional media, like newspaper, radio or television, we normally have a defined audience, be it a local, regional or national one. Things for the first time chanced with global television programs like, for example, CNN or Sky News. In the case of the Internet, the global reach of communication has become the standard feature of the media. The question arises: does this strengthen or weaken the power of the audience? One can find reasons for both answers. On the one side, one could suggest that the more programs or websites we have for selection, the more cultural differences we get presented, the more alternatives the audience has. We are not limited, for example, to read only our daily regional or national newspaper, but we can compare different newspapers world wide to get a better understanding of international affairs. On the other side, one could argue, the more alternatives a single user has to deal with, the more the user is dependant on help from the communicators to make a rational choice. Without deciding which of the two alternatives is the right one, one can state that the communicative and intercultural competence of the audience is a decisive feature for its power or its weakness. If we follow a communicative interpretation of globalization, as for example Anthony Giddens defines this concept, one can say that global communication is always intercultural: “Globalisation can thus be defined as the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa” (Giddens, 1990, p.64). To emphasize this function of global communication, some authors are using the concept of “glocalization” (Beck, 2000), which should indicate that the main effect of global communication is not (yet) the evolution of a global public sphere but the connections between distant local cultures.

 

With reference to intercultural communication, the power of the audience has become visible in the actions of the anti-globalisation movement at the different economic summits in Seattle, Genoa, New York or Bombay. Without the Internet as a communication tool, the mobilisation of the movement in different parts of the world would not have been possible.

 

Another example of the power of the audience is the emancipation from traditional media in the case of international news coverage. For the first time, during the Kosovo war in 1999, there was a constant coverage of the conflict besides the classical media of newspaper, radio and television, and without references to the official sources of the NATO or the different national governments. This new power of the audience could be observed on two levels: on the level of information seeking, and on the level of information distributing:

 

For the first time [during the Kosovo war] anyone on the Internet can receive a flow of combatant news, comments and pictures (…) But the real point is that anyone with such an equipment could also transmit their news, comments and pictures to a global audience, by passing the traditional mass media (Taylor, 2000, pp. 194-195).

 

Although this is not “the end of journalism”, as Elihu Katz (1992) stated in respect to the Gulf war coverage, the multiplicity of sources of information leads indeed to a change in the role of journalism. Journalism is in the act of losing its power of information and interpretation to the Internet audience. Media is about to change from push communication to pull communication.

 

The crisis of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is another striking example of an active audience in Internet communication. The New York Times commented on September 12, 2001:

 

More than news, what people all over the world craved in the wake of yesterday's terrorist attacks was connection to each other, and many of them found that most easily achieved by going online.

 

Data from log file analysis and polls show that Internet traffic increased heavily after the terror attacks. Traffic to USA sites from other countries doubled during the weeks of the attacks, from six million visitors to about twelve million on a weekly average. Sixty-four per cent of Americans used the Internet to find information on the attacks. They went online to find more detailed information, to find information they could not get elsewhere, to find more up to date information, and to find out what was happening while they were at work. Sixty-four per cent used the Internet as a secondary source of information, whereas television remained the most used primary information source. More than 17 million users visited the CNN website. The number of German online surfers who used USA-American websites, doubled between 10 and 16 September. But these patterns of media consumption are not a kind of resurrection of journalism: “when seeking out information online, people were not limiting their search to traditional sources” (Williams, 2003, p.176). For example, the website of gossip journalist Matt Drudge was the 20th most popular website for the week following the terrorist attacks, which made his online service more popular than the online New York Times, Washington Post or USA Today (Williams, 2003, p.177).

 

Traffic to the website for the Centre for Disease Control surged by more than 118 per cent during the week of October 7, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, a Web audience measurement company. The website drew about a half million visitors, and more than 250,000 looked up pages containing information on the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of anthrax. The data not only show the increase of Internet traffic but also that Internet traffic had become more international and more intercultural. And that is maybe the most interesting aspect of the whole issue.

 

Normally, as is stated in empirical research on linking patterns of the Internet from the year 2000, “national cultures continue to exert a substantial influence on how transnational connections are made” (Halavais, 2000, p.22). So normally 90 per cent of links on USA websites are directed to other USA-sites; in European countries, between 60 and 70 per cent of links refer to websites at home. If they refer to websites across the national borders, 70 per cent of links from Europe are directed to USA websites. However, information habits after September11 seem to have changed.

 

Data from Hitwise, which tracks traffic to the most popular news sites, show that traffic to sites such as Islamic Gateway, Dawn.com (Pakistan’s national newspaper), ExpressIndia.com, HindustanTimes.com, and Haaretz.co.il (Isreali newspaper) grew noticeably in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The biggest increase in traffic was that of Afghanistan Online (afghan-web.com), which jumped more than 11,000 places in the Hitwise rankings. Traffic to Al Jazeera.net, the site of the independent Middle East television station, also soared. The online edition of Germany’s most influential news magazine, Der Spiegel, covered a story in which they portrayed some of the online news sites from Islamic countries to support the German user in searching foreign news. The regional newspaper in Minneapolis, the Pioneer Press, presented its readers with the same service of portraying some of the Arabic and Islamic websites.

 

The patterns of Internet usage, as one could detect after September 11, were recapitulated by the audience during the war against Iraq in 2003: increasing web communications supplementing the usage of traditional media, online information gathering via Internet during the course of the day, searching activities for international and intercultural sources of information, and a significant shift in audience attentiveness (Rainie et al., 2003). “War ousted Sex and Britney” was the headline of a news article by the agency Reuters in a survey of the mostly used searching term in the Internet. Normally the rankings of the terms used in search engines are headed by entertainment oriented terms. With the beginning of the war on Iraq, terms like “US Army”, “Al-Jazeera”, “MOAB-Bomb”, “Saddam Hussein” and “George W. Bush” were among the Top-Twenty of the Lycos searching terms.

 

Besides these increasing activities of the audience in searching for serious information, the war on Iraq showed more clearly than any other crisis before, increasing activities in disseminating information. In the weblogs, sometimes called warblogs, the audience itself became an active and important part of the coverage on the war events (Blood, 2002, 2003; Glaser, 2003, 2004). Some are calling these activities open-source-journalism or grassroots-journalism (Nieman Reports, 2003), which does not mean a kind of second-hand journalism. The weblogSalam Pax”, edited by an Iraqi student who reported during the bombing of Baghdad, was judged by the British Guardian as “the most compelling description of life during the war” and MSNBC wrote on that weblog:

 

For the almost uninterrupted glut of war coverage flowing from the media, none of it has captured the humanity and the practical reality of the Iraqi citizenry like the ‘Where is Raed?’ Weblog.

 

Of course it is assumed that the activities of the audience in Internet communication are interrelated with the respective cultural background. This becomes rather evident if we compare, for example, Internet user profiles and patterns of use in Germany and in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). According to the data of CNNIC, the typical Internet user in China is currently a 20-30 year old male, living in an urban area, well-educated with a bachelor degree and uses the Internet more than 10 hours a week. In Germany, the picture is much more complex: nearly half of Internet users are female; Internet use differs little between country and city; the rate of the highly educated with BA or MA is not higher than the rate of users with the lowest education level; the rate of users between 20 and 30, between 30 and 40, between 40 and 50 years old is nearly the same; and only one third of Internet users are still in school or at university or college. Also the patterns of Internet use are different between the two cultures. Entertainment is a much more important motive for Chinese Internet users than it is for German users. In both countries, seeking information is the main purpose, although the two groups are interested in different kinds of information: in China, for example, beside news, users are very interested in hardware and software information; in Germany, besides news, users are more interested in economic and service information. About 70 per cent of the visited sites in China are domestic sites and the most serious problem for the Chinese user is slow access speed, whereas in Germany the most bothering aspect is advertising. The relevant question in regard to the problem of audience power is: how do patterns of use and profile of users correlate with content and design of websites, and how do they influence intercultural communication via Internet?

 

What became rather clear from the presented data is that a full understanding of the power of the Net is only available if audience research does not take a back seat but becomes an independent part of an overall research design. How to perform such a research I will describe in section 4.

 

3. The Problem of Trust in Internet-Communication

 

Trust is a powerful means of the audience in every form of communication – no communicator can force the addressee to trust him or her. Trust is a voluntary gift of the addressee to the communicator. If we summarize the different approaches to the problem of trust in communication we can find three functional explanations. Trust is a constitutive feature of successful communication because of complexity, risk and time-space-distance. Niklas Luhmann (2000) defines trust as a “mechanism to reduce complexity”. Ulrich Beck sees trust as a means to communicate under the conditions of social risk and for Anthony Giddens “trust is related to the absence in time and in space” (Giddens, 1990, p.33). All these types of definitions and explanations fit exactly on human-computer-interaction and on Internet communication. Therefore we can use these concepts to get a better understanding of these specific forms of communication and of the role of the audience.

 

Risk and trust are subjective, not objective, categories. They are subjective in a deep sense: you can neither command a person to trust in you or someone or something nor can you command a person not to feel uncertain or risky. Risk and trust are built up in communication. They are, to say it in words of constructivism, “constructs of the observer”.

Media communication has a double connection with risk and trust. First, media communication should transfer the knowledge which helps us to minimize uncertainty and build up trust. Second, media communication has itself become a risk, a risk of information, and therefore minimizes trust. As Anthony Giddens said in an interview:

 

An alarming phenomenon is that the old Enlightenment assumption that uncertainties were dissolved by the acquisition of knowledge is increasingly giving way to the realization that the present production of knowledge produces uncertainty. A lot of the uncertainties of the world come not from ignorance, but from knowledge. If you consider the new risk environments, they come from scientific breakthroughs as much as from a lack of them. (Giddens, 1996, p.2)

 

And one can add: they come from media coverage and information outlets as much as from the lack of them. One of the main reasons for that is the time-space difference, especially in global forms of communication. Giddens describes this feature of communication under the aspect of “disembedding”: “By disembedding I mean the lifting out of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time-space” (Giddens, 1990, p. 21). From this point of view all media communication is disembedded, as it leaves behind the direct face-to-face-communication. Media communication is a clear example of what Giddens called “faceless commitments” in “abstract systems” (Giddens, 1990, p. 80). But the Internet is the most disembedded media and the most abstract system as it has moved most far away from face-to-face-communication.

 

First, in Internet communication we do not have limitations of space: there are no borders for circulation and there is unlimited memory space for content. This dimension of disembedding constitutes the globalization of the medium.

 

Second, we have no limitations of time, which means messages can be posted at every time, communicators do not have to wait for datelines of publishing, coverage can happen in real time without any delay of production and distribution and, as one should add, without any quality control (real-time character of the media).

 

Third, we have no limitations of communicators and participant roles: whoever has the technical capacities to receive messages with a computer is able to send them. And he or she can do that without restrictions on his or her role, be it as a commentator, a reporter, a businessman, citizen, or a politician (interactivity).

 

And fourth, in the Internet there are no limitations of content. “All the news that is fit to print” is no longer the limitation of Internet content. Whether are we limited to content that is fit to print, we can also present content that is fit to be videotaped, audiotaped or visualized in other ways. Nor are we restricted to “news”. E-business offers, games, stock brokerage are also parts of Internet communication (multimediality and multimodality).

 

This high degree of disembeddedness makes Internet communication a highly risky one, because disembedding always means loss of control: control over sources and their reliability, control over selection, or control over verification. The audience has to cope with the problem of informational risk and of communication collapse. Trust is normally a means to compensate for our lack of knowledge in handling complex systems. Trust reduces uncertainty. Trust does not make up for lack of knowledge, but it allows us to believe and act as if we were in a state of full and certain knowledge. But trust is at the disposal of the audience, not at the disposal of the communicator. To understand the role of trust in Internet communication we need a user-centered approach which I will describe in the last section.

 

4. Interactivity in Internet Communication: Research Design and Empirical Results

 

4.1. How interactive is human-computer-interaction?

 

The concept of interactivity has become a buzzword in human-computer-communication. Its use is so inflationary that sometimes even a cigarette machine seems to be interactive. The different approaches to disambiguate the concept of interactivity, roughly speaking, can be divided into two groups: members of the first group try to define interactivity technically, which leads to a rather wide concept; and members of the second group define interactivity on the basis of sociological or psychological theories. Crucial for these definitions is the idea of reciprocity. If it is the case that A interacts with B then that implies that B interacts with A. As this definition does not fit human-computer interaction, representatives of the latter group normally argue against using the term “interactivity” for this kind of communication and try to restrict it to human-human interaction. To escape this dilemma I will try to define interactivity and usability based on action theory and a theory of problem solving in a hypertext environment (Bucher, 2002). Within this perspective, interactivity in human-computer communication is defined as a kind of “as-if activity”. A user who is communicating, for example, on an Internet platform – be it a learning system, an e-business-platform or an online-newspaper – implies that he or she acts with the online program as if it were a real partner in a face-to-face-interaction. The thinking aloud procedure, in particular, provides a lot of evidence for this kind of as-if interaction. The utterances and the behavior of the user show that interaction in human-computer communication is not virtual, but that it is a natural implication with real consequences for the acquirement of websites.

 

We can get a better understanding of interactivity in human-computer communication if we look at that process as a kind of problem solving in a hypertext environment. The common feature of all Internet content is the nonlinear hypertext or hypermedia structure. Browsing in hypertext means that the user has to solve the following typical problems:

 

§         The problem of entrance: is the page relevant, interesting for me, and what can I select?

§         The problem of navigation: where can I go to and how to manage?

§         The problem of orientation: where did I come from and where am I?

§         The problem of coherence: what has this page to do with the preceding ones?

§         The problem of framing: which parts of a page form a functional unity and which parts serve different functions on different levels of structure?

 

These types of problems of online communication form a good basis for systematic research, on the one hand, and for defining aspects of usability on the other hand: The more a website enables a user to solve the named types of problems, the higher the usability of that website. From that we can deduce the most central dimensions of quality for evaluating a nonlinear hypertextual program: coherence – on the macro and the micro level, clarity, orientation quality, navigation quality and open-up quality.

 

The typology of problems is not only of theoretical interest but is used as a starting point for empirical usability research. It provides an orientation of what features of a website are relevant for usability research and it provides standards as to what degree a website fulfill criteria of usability. So the data of the empirical research can be analyzed in two ways: they can be analyzed for building a theory of media reception, including a better understanding of usability and interactivity; and the data can be analyzed in respect to an evaluation of a website – that is, to what degree does it fulfill the criteria of usability.

 

4.2. Methods and testing design

 

An adequate strategy for empirical research, which tries to generate user-centered data, is to follow qualitative methods. Data from quantitative methods, like counting click rate or page views, log file analysis, standardized questionnaires for users or experts, only generate secondary data from which one has to deduce hypotheses about the how and why of using an online program. The following approach combines different qualitative methods and could therefore generate primary data on how, why and to which result website is used. The empirical results which are presented are based on tests with about 150 users, each one tested between 60 and 90 minutes.

 

The websites for audience research were different kinds of online newspapers, e-business sites, information sites of television and radio stations. The procedure for the test persons was a mixture of free surfing and solving some retrieval tasks so that a quite natural situation of online communication was modeled. The methodological design of the test combines the following methods:

 

§         a pre-analysis of the site to specify the most relevant or most problematic parts

§         a moderated testing session of 60 to 90 minutes during which the test person could explore the site in a free surfing style and has to solve some specific tasks

§         the thinking aloud procedure

§         video and audio documentation of the test person

§         the digital documentation of the visited sites and navigation actions of the test person

§         a questionnaire or interview at the beginning and at the end of the session

 

The starting point for the analysis is a videotape which combines the digital documentation of the web navigation, the video documentation and the audio documentation of the thinking aloud utterances. This kind of research design guarantees primary data and direct access to human-computer interaction. The findings in the process of interactivity can be deduced from a wide range of different indicators: action indicators (curser moves, navigation actions like scrolling or clicking), utterance indicators (comments from the thinking aloud method), behavioral indicators (mimic and gesture, signals of surprise and of being asked too much of), and problem solving indicator (scrolling, back navigation, repeated reading). The interplay of these different indicators allows highly reliable assumptions on the reception of online programs and, of course, guarantees highly user-centered results for questions of usability and interactivity.

 

4.3. Empirical results

 

First, the empirical data show that using online programs is indeed a case of “as-if interaction”. Utterances of the test person, their actions, their difficulties and the corresponding strategies to solve them show clearly that acting on an Internet platform is indeed interacting with an implied partner on the assumption that he or she re-acts on what the test person is doing.

 

Second, the results of the empirical research prove a tight interrelation between knowledge or competence on the side of the user and their navigation strategy. In particular, knowledge of the structure of a website (on a micro and a macro level), knowledge of rules and patterns of online communication, and knowledge of the communicator, prove to be central factors of the chosen problem solving strategies.

 

Third, on the level of exploring a single website (e.g. the entering page), as well as on the level of navigating from page to page, one can observe patterns and rules that guide the actions of the test person. Although the Internet is a new media, we already can find standardization and prototyping in a high degree. Users try to build up special “scripts” to have standard solutions for the abovementioned typical problems of browsing in nonlinear, hypertextual and multimodal communications. A script, in the words of Schank and Abelson (1977, p. 41) “is a predetermined, stereotyped sequence of actions, that defines a well-known situation”.

 

Fourth, the consequences of the results may not be the most joyous for creative web designers. Under the aspect of usability and user orientation and in the light of the empirical results, the basic principle of web design should not be innovation but standardization. For most users the new media is full of surprise so that it is more economical to meet their “scripts” than to present them another surprise. The more similar a website is to this prototype the higher the usability rating by the audience in the reported tests. That must not be the end of creativity in web design, but each deviation from the standard form must be reasonable and understandable from the point of view of the audience.

 

Fifth, there is a strong correlation between usability and trust. The higher the usability of a website and the acquaintance with it, the more trustworthy a website is. We can see online communication as highly disembedded in the sense of Anthony Giddens which means “the lifting out of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite span of time-space” (Giddens, 1990, p. 21). Especially for these forms of communication, trust is a crucial feature to compensate the risk of communicative failure.

 

5. Conclusions

 

One way to study culture is to study communication. From an ethnomethodological point of view, one could say culture in the sense of knowledge, patterns and structures of actions, principles and norms is both the result (“construction”) and the basis of communication at the same time. I tried to show that, to understand this process of culture building and of cultural reference, we cannot neglect the actions of the audience. And to understand the notion of power we have to take into account the complete process of communication, including the part of the audience. And therefore we have to understand the specific form of communication (in our case Internet communication) in which the communicator and audience are engaged. I tried to explain Internet communication on the basis of the notions interactivity, disembededness, trust and nonlinearity. The features of interactivity – trust and interculturality – are fully understandable only in the light of an audience-centered approach. The results of the empirical research show that interactivity and the problem of trust are good starting points to get a better understanding of intercultural aspects of Internet communication. Audience research on how users of different cultures acquire websites are necessary to understand which principles of Internet communication are universal and which are specific for different cultures. Culturally-oriented audience research is still a blank space in media studies.

 

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