Richard Serra and Carlotta Fay Schoolman produced the video, “Television Delivers People” in 1973. It manifests a critique of television mass media that was subsequently defined by communications scholar, Dallas Smythe as the “audience commodity” but the outline of which had already been presented by him in 1951 in the Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television:
The troublesome fact is that under our uneasy institutional compromise by which the stations are publicly licensed and commercially operated, the effective, if not the legal, responsibility is divided. And the voice which speaks most often to the consumer is that of the advertiser. Is it any wonder that the consumer is confused and inarticulate in trying to express his judgment as to how these media should conduct themselves? Is it any wonder that our traditional view of our cultural values, including freedom of speech and freedom of the press, may be reshaped increasingly into the likeness of the cultural values of the advertisers?
Smythe’s point was not that advertisements occupied the majority of the air time but the it was the advertiser who dictated what kind of programming was most conducive to attracting an audience that would respond positively to its commercial message. Advertisers would not settle for just any audience, but sought an audience of consumers — consumers of its products. The exchange value of an audience would thus be determined by its propensity to consume the products advertised.
I’m not really interested in subsequent criticisms and defenses of Smythe’s formulation because they are mostly concerned with minutiae over whether or not Smythe carried his analogy between audiences and workers too far (which he did, in my opinion, but that doesn’t discredit the larger picture). In a 1977 paper, Smythe asked, rhetorically, “Am I correct in assuming that all non-sleeping time under capitalism is work time?” My answer to that would be no, but because it was a rhetorical question, there really would be no point in answering.
I briefly mentioned Smythe’s audience commodity in talks I gave in the summer of 2021. I would like to go further now to articulate what the 21st century version of that audience commodity looks like. While there is still a traditional mass media component, a new element of media has emerged since the mid-1960s that has a “do-it-yourself” flavor of “pseudo-activity” — to use Adorno’s terms. The most recent iteration of this activity is so-called social media.
The sourcing of content is the most obvious feature of social media. Millions of amateurs crank out content for twitter, tik-tok, instagram, etc. daily in the hope of going viral and potentially monetizing their social media presence. The prospects of success in this effort are mediated by algorithms that are oblivious to the artistic or intellectual quality of the content that is promoted.
Although social media emerged in the period following the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 26, 2004, its features evolved over the previous four decades and are discernable in, for example, motivational training, multi-level marketing, and academic publishing and conferencing. In all of these enterprises, participants perform work and/or produce content for no compensation other than the prospect of self promotion. Often they pay fees or costs to participate.
Like television broadcasters, social media platforms sell an audience to advertisers. Unlike television broadcasters, they do not produce content to attract that audience but instead provide an outlet for some portion of that audience to produce its own content, the bulk of which disappears into the virtual void. Alongside and augmenting the audience commodity is what I call an “audition commodity” of content producers throwing content against the wall in the hopes that something sticks.
In contrast to Smythe’s audience commodity, the audition commodity does perform work albeit largely of the socially unnecessary kind. A small percentage of Twitter accounts are responsible for a large proportion of tweets and consequently of media views and advertising revenues. In 2019, Pew Research reported that 10% of tweeters are responsible for 80% of tweets. Nevertheless, it is the banter — retweeting, quote tweeting, and commenting — that lends an interactive patina to the medium.
Eighty-four percent of Google Scholar articles since 2021 mentioning audience commodity also mentioned social media, although those mentioning audience commodity constitute less than a quarter of a percent of articles that mention social media. Over three times that many articles pair social media and town square and over six times as many pair social media with marketplace of ideas and 50 times as many pair it with public space, albeit sometimes ironically or critically.
To recycle a paragraph from that year-old post about the marketplace of ideas:
Social media has created the illusion that anybody can become a celebrity in a viral heartbeat, as if the circuits of social media amplification were not as dominated by advertising, propaganda, and entertainment as any television network. What the competition of the market tests, though, is not the “truth” of ideas but their marketability. That is to say, their superfluity relative to truth.