We live in a spectacular society fully saturated with media. Our attention is bought and sold between media distributors, advertising agencies, and social media influencers. And beyond the nearly constant presence of smartphones over the last decade, 2020 has ushered in a moment in which jobs and social lives are playing out entirely online. We don’t yet know how permanent this online living will be, but it’s very likely that things are not going back to the way they were.
Within our grim new reality, there is some hope in one tiny but significant factor: our attention is produced and managed entirely by us. The collective audience has the power to decide which products, both those that are tangible and intangible media creations, fail, which succeed, and who becomes “American royalty.”
How Culture Works
Without the hashtags, retweets, follows, and likes (not to mention the memes, GIFs, cosplay, fan art, and other stand-alone creations derived from TV shows, movies, and other media content), many cultural products would fail. Without our eyes and clicks, shows are cancelled, movies flop, and influencers drift back into obscurity. All that “hate watching?” It still contributes to making people rich, famous, and powerful. Retweeting to drag someone does the same. Whether we engage out of love or hate, we’re helping to build media empires and even get people elected to the presidency. This commodity is entirely the product of our own labor, and it’s usually given willingly and continuously for free.
Let’s consider the circles of influence and economics that revolve around a hit TV show or popular YouTube channel. The production company/influencer (producer) creates a show/channel (the product) for an audience (the consumer). Simultaneously, the program/channel itself acts as a producer by attracting an audience (the product). The audience’s viewership can then be sold to an advertiser/sponsor (the consumer). This arrangement creates two sets of consumers (advertisers and audience), with the audience ostensibly playing the role of double consumer (of both the show and the advertisers’ products).
An argument could be made for an influencer being simultaneously the producer, the product, and the consumer, especially if you consider beauty or fashion bloggers. Behind this system is a cast of characters all with different motivations — creators who want to bring their ideas to life, producers and advertisers trying to generate the biggest audiences, and audiences just looking for a good time. Advertisers buying time helps to keep shows/channels on the air and fuels their budgets, but their outsized influence is also a reflection of how capitalism shapes our lives in so many unseen ways. It has penetrated our leisure time in such a way that audiences are performing labor without realizing it.
Obviously, lounging on the couch binge-watching isn’t akin to going to work, but our consumption functions as labor insofar as it creates profit for the producers when they sell our eyes to advertisers. The biggest commodity of the 21st century is turning out to be us (the audience) — or more specifically, our ghostly image rendered in shifting data points — constructed through our posts, likes, and comments on social media platforms. In other words, it is the curated version of ourselves in residence online. While we are waiting for viable ways to reclaim ownership and monetize that info for ourselves (the way Facebook and Google do), employing tactical consumption is one option for wielding our influence (thus, our power) within the cultural economy.
Introduced by scholar Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life and further extrapolated upon by media studies scholar John Fiske, tactical consumption is a productive tool for our new media landscape. It allows us, the collective audience, to exert our power to shape culture, social values, and ultimately the future.
De Certeau described the “tactics” of the consumer as a response to the “strategies” utilized by the powers that be. Tactics can be explicit or simply reactive, but what really defines them is that they are the ways we act outside of the intent of institutional producers. If the strategy is to guide us to walk down a street, tactical consumption is taking a short-cut through an alleyway. When applied to media it becomes largely about modes of consumption. If the strategy is for you to root for this season’s Bachelorette to find her soul-mate, tactical consumption is watching to critique the invisible hand of the producers creating reality TV. It’s about not using the media as prescribed.
Our attention gives us power. The cultural economy is an exchange of ideas, meaning-making, and pleasure. But it is also about the circulation of money. Ultimately, we are in control of nearly every level of these economic processes, as they are symbiotic, reliant upon a process of continuous consumption, internalization, and interpretation between producer and audience. When we harness the power we have as consumers to boost media products with our views and interactions, we can engage in tactical consumption and move from solely generating dollars toward generating change.
We saw a successful deployment of tactical consumption this past summer, during the revitalization of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. Activists called for the amplification of Black voices, and listicles of Black creators to follow flooded digital media outlets. Many corporations jumped on the bandwagon with statements of solidarity. Those who were shown to be offering mere lip service were called out, while support for companies who “are doing it right” were shared across social media. Soon, online platforms such as YouTube and Facebook pledged millions to help support black creators. None of this would have happened without millions of social media users utilizing these platforms for progressive social change.
Despite these recent examples, screen-based media continues to be viewed as largely negative. This assumption is predicated on the reductive notion that the act of observance is detached from the actual lived experience of the viewer. It suggests a binary relationship between observing and acting, where the first is disparaged as doing nothing, just mindlessly taking in whatever it is you’re observing.
But what happens if you flip this and claim that those who sit inside contemplating ideas are superior to those who labor with their bodies outside? This would be a clear example of elitism, and would be roundly critiqued. What if we posited that audiences have agency as well? We hold, within our minds, references and experiences that advertisers could never foresee. The producers’ intentions are no match for the perceptions of the individuals interacting with images. Media is not an external monster pulling our strings while we sit by helplessly. The power of the audience needs to be recognized, instead of discussing media as outside of us, outside of our control. We are popular culture; we are social media; we are society.
Dominant cultural ideals are asserted, either consciously or unconsciously, via the massive amount of images we engage with daily. Now, whether advertisers consciously set out to reinforce, for example, sexist tropes, or whether this ideology is so ingrained that it’s unconsciously reproduced in commercials, is difficult to determine. Nonetheless, we adapt and transform the messages and ideology they disseminate, creating products that serve our own agenda. Through internet portals and social media, those reinterpretations are then reabsorbed into dominant culture by advertisers, producers, and CEOs, and adapted into new products to turn around and market back to the public. It’s all very circular.
Exhibit A is the Christmas 2019 ad from Peloton, a maker of high-end exercise bikes with accompanying subscription-based, video spin classes. Consumers didn’t like the “dystopian and sexist” message of the commercial, in which a husband surprises his wife with a Peloton bike. The rest of the commercial played out as a series of video diary clips, where the wife’s nervous demeanor and seeming isolation had some comparing it to a horror movie. The backlash was equal amounts hilarity and horror, spawning dozens of memes, parodies, articles, and tweets that resulted in a significant plunge in Peloton stock. Ultimately the response came full circle, with consumer backlash being distilled into a commercial made by Aviation Gin, featuring the actress from the Peloton ad as a newly divorced woman out with her friends. This was tactical consumption in action. (For more reflections on the Peloton backlash, check out this piece by Susannah Bartlow.)
Becoming Conscious Media Consumers
Within our current moment, with a pandemic still raging, we have to forge a new, more realistic relationship with media and technology. We can’t just turn it off because we have Zoom fatigue. That’s where work meetings take place. You want to spend time with your friends? That’s cocktails on Zoom, maybe even accompanied by an Amazon Watch Party. Disengaging from social media and throwing away your television doesn’t do anything to resituate our collective relationship with media, and it’s unrealistic to expect the rest of society will do the same.
I am not suggesting that we do nothing to reduce our screen time when possible, or that spending less time doom-scrolling our social media feeds wouldn’t be beneficial. But these things are irrevocably part of modern life and require a more insightful approach. We need to develop tools that reject the old binaries that consider anyone engaging with a screen as passive bystanders who believe and internalize anything shown to them.
Tactical consumption and the recognition of the control we have as a collective audience can help us navigate the evolving challenges of a mediated world. When we think carefully about what our attention helps empower in media, we can redirect that commodity to serve our own objectives. We can have a direct impact on the world we inhabit, both online and off. The good news is that we have much more influence and power than we ever imagined.
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