Hegemonic Shifts and New Media Events

This essay was submitted as an assignment to the University of Warwick on 18 Dec, 2017.

Televised “conquests, contests and coronations” that “hang a halo over the television set and transform the viewing experience” (Dayan and Katz, 1992: 1) is how Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz defined media events back in 1992, referring to examples such as the Olympic Games, the first moon landing and the funeral of John F. Kennedy which were broadcasted globally, suspending the daily television routines and obliging global audiences to focus their attention towards these events ideologically underscored as unmissable. Media events, according to Dayan and Katz, were those which were interruptions to the daily telecasts (and hence to daily personal routines), monopolised all broadcast channels, demanded the undivided attention of the broadcasters and the audience, and which were organised not by the media itself but by hegemonic institutions such as political parties, governments, international committees and religious bodies. These events therefore, lay “outside the media” (Dayan and Katz, 1992: 5). Of particular relevance to us, and the focal areas of this essay, are these last two qualifications of media events proposed by Dayan and Katz – that they are initiated by hegemonic establishments which are typically public bodies, and that the media and broadcasters play only an interpretive role in the process and not an organisational role. Perhaps this was the case two decades ago. However, the “mediascape” as Arjun Appadurai (1996: 35) calls it, has altered considerably since, especially with the advent of the Digital Age, and some of the theories posited by Dayan and Katz no longer find relevance in the contemporary age. Dayan and Katz were correct in noting that media events were organised by institutions well within “the establishment” (Dayan and Katz, 1992: 6). But institutions which form “the establishment” and exercise hegemonic control have changed since they published their work. In the Information Age, the media producers form the ruling class through the ownership of information (Flew, 2007; McChesney, 2003) and exert hegemonic control.  And in the Experience Age towards which we are now advancing (Houle, 2012), media users are at the brink of dismantling the oligopoly of the media empire and asserting the emergent ideology of ‘prosumerism’. While we, at present, straddle the fence between the Information Age and the Experience Age, both the media itself and the prosumers actively organise media events. Today, media producers and prosumers are integral components of the establishment.

In this essay, I will discuss how in the present age, media events may be organised by not only public bodies but also primarily by the media itself and the global ‘prosumers’ who, with the rise of information technology, produce and consume media simultaneously. Media events therefore can exist both within and outside the media. To make my case, I will explicate the concept of hegemony, critiquing the notion that it is only the public bodies which exercise hegemonic control, and arguing that the media too, along with the prosumers of the Digital Age, play a role in the creation and perpetuation of hegemony and counter-hegemony. I will also explore how convergence culture in the Digital Age confers upon the global audiences the power to actively contribute to the mediascape and provides them with the tools to exercise hegemony and therefore the ability to arrange and organise media events. I will illustrate media-organised media events through the example of Netflix, and the prosumer-organised media events through the case of Snapchat.

Hegemonic Control in the Digital Age

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in The German Ideologyhad stated – “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society is, at the same time, its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control, at the same time, over the means of mental production” (Marx and Engels, 2000: 21). Antonio Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks(1999), later developed the concept of hegemony following from what Marx and Engels had previously theorised, describing it as the ruling class’s ideas coming to accepted by the subordinate classes as the common, acceptable worldview. The hegemonic class’s set of ideas, or the ruling ideology as Louis Althusser (1971) would later call it, was accepted by all as ‘common sense’. Towards the end of the twentieth century, Marxist scholars claimed that at any given point in time, there existed three strands of ideologies –dominant, emergent and residual. (Williams, 1977).

In the Industrial Age (and until the mid-twentieth century perhaps), the ruling class was that which owned the means of material production – the State, the public bodies, wealthy private businessmen mass-manufacturing material goods (for instance, Henry Ford) – and was hence able to exercise hegemonic control. However, in the Information Age which according to Frank Webster (2006) began with the development of computer technologies for sharing information, the ruling class is that which owns information and information technology – the media giants such as Google, Facebook, Apple and News Corp. In the Experience Age, it may be argued that those who own the experience – the prosumers and social media users who generate content by sharing their daily lives and experiences with the rest of the world – are the ones who exercise hegemonic control.  It wouldn’t be wrong to suggest then that in the present moment, the ideas of the media producers form the dominant ideology, those of prosumers form the emergent ideology, and the owners of the means of material production form the residual.

Media companies today mass-manufacture information and are able to exercise hegemonic control through that. Major economic activity occurs within the information sector, and the top ten companies with the highest market capitalisation according to a recent publication by PricewaterhouseCoopers (2017) included the information technology and media companies Apple, Alphabet, Tencent, Microsoft and Facebook. The publication also showed that the information technology industry had the highest market capitalisation overall (USD 3,582 billion). These statistics go on to prove what has been previously asserted by media scholars – that “information and communications technologies represent the establishment of a new epoch” (Webster, 2006: 10) and that “computer technology is to the Information Age what mechanization was to the Industrial Revolution” (Naisbitt, 1984: 28). The owners of this information technology form the ruling class which now lies within “the establishment” that Dayan and Katz referred to. This new establishment is the one that now sanctions and organises media events (as will be illustrated through the example of Netflix later on in this essay).

Also worth noting is the fact that prosumers around the world, with access to information technology, are also able to exercise hegemonic control by contributing to the mediascape through simple acts such as uploading a photo on Instagram, ‘Tweeting’ or uploading a video to YouTube or Facebook. This power to create or modify media content is what is now arguably tipping the scales in favour of prosumers and is ushering in the Experience Age. A media event is organised every time a user shares an eye-grabbing visual on social media which generates conversation online and attracts the attention of global audiences (as will be illustrated through the example of Snapchat). A counter argument to this may be that all content on social media platforms is still managed (and therefore owned) by media companies themselves. However, the fact is that social media users also have the ability to manage posts online and can use social media content in the manner in which they like (for instance, ‘screenshotting’ uploaded photos and saving them on their phones so that they may view/share/reproduce it even if it is removed from the media platform later). Users are therefore equally active as media producers themselves. Paddy Printnell, around the same time as Dayan and Katz published their research, had claimed – “We are supposed to see ‘the society of the spectacle’ as yet another way in which the ideological veil is drawn over public life. In Habermas’s view the only active agents in a ‘feudalized’ public life are the actors themselves who define and control the occasion. ‘The people’ function merely as a backdrop, as passive spectators who witness the event and learn their place” (Printnell, 1996: 76). This idea no longer applies in the Digital Age. Individuals are no longer passive viewers but rather are active contributors and creators of information and experience.

Convergence Culture and Prosumerism

In his discussion of convergence culture, Henry Jenkins had noted that the world was moving towards “a more participatory model of culture, one which sees the public not as simply consumers of preconstructed messages but as people who are shaping, sharing, reframing, and remixing media content in ways which might not have been previously imagined” (Jenkins, 2013: 2). Audiences have become broadcasters themselves, and perfectionism in terms of creating media content no longer matters the way it did when Dayan and Katz published their work. In other words,you don’t need to be a professional working in a media company to create media content. You can create content by yourself at home through smart devices and still have it attract a multitude of audiences and become popular online. A new participatory mode of consuming media, popularly known as ‘prosumerism’, has been arrived at, and pure, passive media spectatorship has become a thing of the past. Charles Leadbeater calls prosumers the “makers” of culture, and commenting on the self-initiation and self-reliance of these makers, and using the wine industry as a metaphor, he notes, “All over the world, without seeking anyone’s permission or knowing what they were doing, people have started to plant their own vines and harvest their own grapes to make their own wine […] This mass of home-made wine is of highly variable quality. Often it is undrinkable. But some of it is very good indeed and it comes in varieties unimagined by the mainstream industry. Moreover, it comes with a special pleasure for consumers who like to drink wine that is made locally, by people they know” (Leadbeater, 2013: 225). With the use of computers, software and smart devices, more media content is being generated than ever before.

This prosumerism, as discussed earlier, has given individuals both within and outside the media industry the ability to create and manage media events. For instance, in recording and sharing a ‘story’ on Snapchat or a live video on Facebook or Instagram, a person creates a new media event and behaves as the organiser and the interpreter or the broadcaster simultaneously. Live videos shared by people relatively more popular than others on social media may attract a global audience and may even potentially disrupt daily routine (as viewers would suspend other activity in order to watch and engage with the live video stream). In this sense, media events are similar to those in the late twentieth century. What has changed is the organisers. Media events in the twentieth century relied on spectacular visuals for attracting audiences. Printnell observes that the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the first televised media event in history, was presented as a “theatrical performance” (Printnell, 1996: 81) by BBC, the broadcaster. This need for using attractive visuals to gather audiences for media events hasn’t changed either in the Digital Age. So, just as the BBC created a spectacle of the coronation, prosumers make a spectacle of their daily lives on social media, enhancing its visual appeal through face filters, editing, voice modulators, hashtags, stickers and emoticons, thereby creating media events which become “unmissable” for the online community which is keen to observe and absorb all popular media content online.

Media Events Organised by the Media: Binge Racing Netflix’s Stranger Things

We have established already that the Information Age is one wherein the media producers form the dominant, ruling class through the ownership and mass production of information. They now constitute what is known as the ‘Base’ in Marxist philosophy – the forces and relations of production. The online video-on-demand and streaming software company Netflix forms one component of this Base or “the establishment”. With incipient beginnings as an online DVD-rental service, Netflix evolved into an online streaming platform in 2007, ultimately venturing into full-scale film, documentary and show production in 2013, and currently holds a dominant position in the market with a presence in over a hundred and ninety countries and with over a hundred and nine million subscribers worldwide (Forbes, 2017). Netflix’s revenue currently stands in billions of US Dollars, giving it a highly influential role not only in the market economy but also in terms of popular culture and daily life. Netflix has become a common household purchase and it is easy to see how a media company this powerful could hold sway over people’s lives in the Digital Age. Clearly, Netflix, being among the very few entertainment service providers of its kind, holds a monopoly in the information market and therefore, by extension, participates in the creation and perpetuation of the hegemony of the Digital Age. Exercising hegemony and forming a part of the Base means that Netflix regularly organises media events, as per what Dayan and Katz claimed regarding the organisers of media events – that they are well within “the establishment” (Dayan and Katz 1992: 6). One example of such a media event is the binge race that followed the launch of the second season of Netflix’s original production Stranger Thingson 27 October 2017.

Binge racing as a popular activity developed approximately three years ago, specifically for Netflix-produced shows. Fans would suspend all activity from their daily routines to sit through hours at a stretch and binge watch entire seasons of Netflix shows within the span of twenty-four hours after the seasons’ release. Binge racing meant that they would compete amongst themselves to see who could finish viewing the whole season first. Going by what Dayan and Katz claimed regarding media events – that “audiences recognize them as an invitation – even a command – to stop their daily routines” (Dayan and Katz 1992: 1) and they are “interruptionsof routine” (Dayan and Katz 1992: 5) – binge racing qualifies as a media event. After the success of the first season of nostalgia-ridden, nineteen-eighties-themed Stranger Things, fans pre-planned binge racing sessions for the premier of Stranger Things 2with encouragement, of course, from Netflix’s promotional content on social media. This is once again in line with what Dayan and Katz had stated – that media events are “preplanned, announced and advertised in advance” (Dayan and Katz 1992: 7). A day or two before the premier of Stranger Things 2, the show’s fans began submitting requests for leave at university and at offices and work places, calling in sick and cancelling weekend plans in anticipation of the event. Social media overflowed with updates on how fast the fans were consuming the show’s episodes as soon as it went live. The extent of preparation and anticipation of the media event was also visible in the numerous blog posts detailing advice on how to binge race successfully by planning ahead, preparing timetables, organising micro breaks and squeezing meals within those micro breaks. According to the viewership data released by Netflix, there were only about two hundred thousand binge racing members back in 2013 while at present, there exist over eight million binge racers worldwide (Netflix, 2017). This behaviour illustrates how media events organised by the media also “hang a halo over the television set” (Dayan and Katz, 1992: 1) (or over other smart devices such as laptops, phones and tablets) just as they did back in the nineties when media events were organised by public bodies.

Not only was the Stranger Things 2 binge race event hotly anticipated and pre-planned, it was also ceremonial and celebratory. There was an unquestionably ceremonial element to watching the show kick-off from where it last left its audiences, wondering what lay ahead for their favourite characters – Eleven, Mike, Will, Dustin and Lucas – and whether the ‘Upside Down’ was coming back to haunt them once again. The viewing ceremony culminated on a celebratory note with the viewers being appeased with the visual of the characters attending the Hawkins Middle School ‘Snow Ball’ after battling with ‘Demogorgons’ and the Shadow Monster. “These ceremonials electrify very large audiences– a nation, several nations, or the world. They are gripping, enthralling. They are characterized by a norm of viewing in which people tell each other that it is mandatory to view, that they must put all else aside,” (Dayan and Katz, 1992: 9) Dayan and Katz had said. And Stranger Things 2 did exactly that for a global audience. Nearly four hundred thousand Netflix subscribers in the United States had watched all nine episodes of the show within the first twenty-four hours of its release (Business Insider, 2017). The global statistics would probably reveal a much larger audience of binge racers worldwide.

The case of binge racingStranger Things 2therefore reveals how media producers, the ruling class of the Information Age now organise media events. A number of shows including Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, House of Cards,Orange is the New Black andSanta Clarita Diet have had their own binge racing events organised in all countries where Netflix enjoys a presence.Binge racing Netflix shows is thus an event which prompts global audiences to interrupt their daily routines. It obliges them to glue their eyes to their smart devices in order to focus their attention towards a form of media consumption which in the Digital Age is an ideologically important social activity.

Media Events Organised by Prosumers: Snapchat’s ‘Stories’

Remarking on the prosumerism of the Digital Age, Leadbeaterhad said, “People become makers, distributors, raters, and rankers and for them culture is something they do with other people: they pass it on rather than sit and watch” (Leadbeater, 2013: 225). Not only are people makers of culture as Leadbeater has rightly pointed out, they are also the owners of experience – which is what sells in the Experience Age. In producing and owning experience, global prosumers are able to influence culture and society and therefore create, modify and perpetuate a certain hegemony. And as discussed in this essay previously, holding a hegemonic position means being able to organise global media events. The social media platform Snapchat exemplifies how prosumers are able to create media events which attract audiences worldwide who are interested in viewing, replaying and essentially re-creating and re-living the lives of those they see in the visuals on Snapchat. One may argue that at present, prosumers still require the aid of a media platform in order to successfully broadcast themselves. However, it may be possible that at a later stage in the Experience Age, prosumers may be able to sell their experiences on their own, without using an external media platform. Already, experience has begun to sell at high prices around the world. According to a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal(2016), the media behemoth Facebook has signed deals with celebrities and media companies, paying them over USD 50 million to produce live videos on the platform so as to gather a larger audience.

Snapchat as a photo and video-sharing platform allows individuals to click and record their experiences and daily lives (called ‘snaps’) and share them with their followers either on an individual basis or in the form of a broadcast (called ‘story’). Snapchat’s ‘Our Story’ feature curates a series of snaps posted by people around the world, categorised according to location, social and cultural events like film premiers, concerts, award shows, festivals and other such topics. These snaps can be viewed by users for twenty-four hours after they’ve been uploaded. This essentially means that Snapchat as a media platform curates experience. The appeal of these stories lies in their unprofessional and sloppy phone-camera-recorded visuals which hold storytelling potential and which give the viewers a small window to look through and observe the lives of others. In 2015, Snapchat had curated a ‘passport series’ featuring different locations around the world on different days, allowing viewers from around the world to see what locals in the featured region were up to. Snapchatters broadcasted their cities’ streets, the local food and drink, monuments, people, conversations, customs and daily lives. Each of these ‘storied’ moments, considered individually, were media events for which viewers suspended all other activity and paused for a few minutes every day to take note of and discuss what was happening in other parts of the world. Printnell, in discussing the live television broadcasts of the twentieth century, had claimed, “The livenessof broadcast coverage is the key to its impact, since it offers the real sense of access to an event in its moment-by-moment unfolding. This presencing, this re-presenting of a present occasion to an absent audience, can powerfully produce the effect of being-there, of being involved (caught up) in the here-and-now of the occasion. This being in the moment, especially in its ‘unfolding’, creates the mood of expectancy: what’s happening? what’s next?” (Printnell, 1996: 84). The same may be applicable for the stories on Snapchat – they are media events broadcasted live which offer viewers the opportunity to experience moments through a digital medium, without being physically present at the location where the event is filmed. These media events brought to global audiences through an app on smart devices give one the sensation of a compression of time and space and of ‘being in two places at once’, as radio and television did back in the twentieth century. Snapchat’s stories draw in millions of viewers every day, and as aforementioned, part of the charm is the messiness of the amateur-shot videos. David Gauntlett had made a similar observation about videos uploaded by the YouTube community – “The video was not at all professional in its execution: the hand- held camera was shaky, the autofocus wasn’t always right, and in particular the audio was very rough […] the important point is that, as a viewer, I did not mind. It was fine. I liked the unshowy, rough-and-ready nature of the whole thing. It was liberating” (Gauntlett, 2011: 85). So too does the Snapchat online community find catharsis in the clumsy, crude bits of visuals strung together for their viewing. Tiny details from daily life are eventised on the app – the food one eats, the people one converses with, the restaurant, cafes and nightclubs one visits, the books one reads, the clothes one chooses to wear. These are presented as spectacular visuals with the help of face filters, Bitmojis, colourful text and stickers.

Snapchat stories have also begun to be preplanned, as were the media events which Dayan and Katz talked about. On a number of occasions, active social media users visit locations, order certain food in restaurants and cafes or wear clothes and accessories which they think would appear attractive on their Snapchat stories. Other social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp have also recently enabled ‘story’ features following Snapchat. This reveals how prosumers are able to eventise and present snippets of their lives as a “theatrical performance” (Printnell, 1996: 81) in order to create and manage media events.

 

The constitution of media events, since Dayan and Katz wrote about them in 1992, has therefore changed in terms of their organisers and the mediums through which they are distributed to global audiences. Public bodies, previously the main components of the establishment or the Base, are no longer the primary organisers of media events. Media producers, the owners of information and information technology, now form the ruling class and therefore sanction global media events. Global prosumers, with the use of information technology and monetisable experience also are able to create media events in the Digital Age. The implication of this new paradigm is the shift in global power from the owners of the means of material production to the owners of the means of information and experience-production.

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