The radical decentralization of the means of cultural production and distribution it has brought about, that I mentioned in the slidecast in my last post, "Social Begins At Home," has changed the very nature of the audience—of what an audience is.
Until very recently, the means of production were in the hands of the few—governments and large corporations. The audience was functionally passive in its reception of ideas—like Victorian children, it was seen and not heard.
Thus we began to think of it as a target: a location that advertisers wished to bombard with persuasion (appropriating the language and strategies of war), an object to be acted upon, passive and attentive.
But now anyone with time and inclination and a computer and Internet access [which we think is everyone, but still isn't—one in five people in the USA have never sent an email—although those that haven't are mostly 65 plus with limited education] can create, modulate and propagate. A generation has grown up knowing it can publish whatever it wants to say and it increasingly demands to be heard. These digital natives have an participatory relationship with media, and by extension, with brands.
We are experiencing the beginning of a new era of culture, created bottom up by the many, not top down by the few. A brand is but one voice among a polyphony, hopefully providing the stimulus for conversations, but unable to dominate them: a brand's share of voice is now to be measured against all the conversations of the Web.
And many of these conversations are made up of other conversations, recombinant constructs built on cultural foundations of other things.
An example, by way of illustration:
This fan made "trailer" for the Thundercats movie is constructed entirely from scenes from other movies that have been rotoscoped.
One of the things that I hear a lot when showing people this kind of thing that is the internet is some variant of "Looks like someone has too much time on their hands."
Clay Shirky has also been confronted with this issue.
He answers a television producer's challenge about active online media, like World of Warcraft, or Wikipedia, thus:
"Where do people find the time?" That was her question. And I just kind of snapped. And I said, "No one who works in TV gets to ask that question. You know where the time comes from. It comes from the cognitive surplus you've been masking for 50 years."
Active consumers are different. If they aren't involved, they aren't interested.
It's the same challenge that people tend to make when thinking about immersive brand experiences, transmedia ideas or ARGs or anything complex that requires a lot from the people we hope to engage.
Of course there are levels of involvement, not every rabbit hole needs to go all the way to Wonderland.
But everything should have gaps for people to fit into—brands don't get, nor should they want, the final word.
The work of Henry Jenkins demonstrates that the "audience" is doing far more than listening. Stephen Johnson's book Everything Bad is Good For You demonstrates the increase in complexity of mainstream media. I stole liberally from both of them when writing my thesis about transmedia planning, which applies their thinking to brand communication.
42 Entertainment's transmedia ARG for The Dark Knight has just picked up numerous accolades at Cannes. For fans of the movie, it allows them to involve themselves in the narrative—it's more extension than promotion.
It seems highly complex, doesn't it? Where do they find the time?
Attention is earned and allocated in vast quantities. The more time you spend, the more you get.
But such layered complexity isn't how the advertising industry has been taught to create. The language of advertising has ever been reductive because we've had to squeeze into smaller spaces, around the outside of other media.
Thanks to the Internet, the great disintermediator, that no longer MUST be the case.
This week, Turkish Airline's issue a pitch brief via a simple social media scavenger hunt.
Instead of issuing a traditional RFP, they sent some agencies a social media treasure map: the tag "thybrief", surrounded by various social media logos.
So across platforms like flickr, tumblr and blogger, clues as to the whereabouts of the pitch brief were hidden.
The team at McCann Turkey followed the clues and cracked the fact that there was a password in the HTML source code of the blog, which got them into the gmail account and google docs, where the pitch brief was waiting.
Whether or not you believe the audience is, and wants to be, active, when clients start to insist their agencies are, we had better listen.
Read more of Faris Yakob's blog on Fast Company
Faris is Chief Technology Strategist at McCann-Erickson New York. Before that he was the Digital Ninja at Naked Communications. He writes and speaks about brands, media, communication, and technology. You can find him all over the Internet, but his blog—Talent Imitates, Genius Steals —and twitter @faris are good places to start.