Beyond Flow

Curator's Note

For the last 15 years we have been awash in new communication platforms, devices, and capabilities, many of them breathlessly delivered in news articles or in the latest technology reports, gee-whiz reviews and Internet buzz. While I love all that stuff, we are destined to be in a constant state of trying to keep up with the latest and the newest - always a losing enterprise. Nevertheless, some bigger issues that portend shifts in the way we think about viewing, using and creating information and entertainment seem to be taking shape.

First, the multiple modes of interacting with the various devices alter the notion of flow. Perhaps the YouTube spoof best epitomizes the ability to undercut the flow model. The attached video is a stop-motion animation spoof of the intro to popular HBO series Game of Thrones. It epitomizes the knowledgeable, creative take on media that has relocated power to the user – classic YouTube fare, timed to be brief for your mobile viewing pleasure. Raymond Williams’ flow concept broke open our awareness of how programs, ads, bumpers and teasers were integrated in a continuous stream of marketing plus entertainment, elevating non-program elements to be worth our analysis and prompting a reconceptualization of how industrial processes of television structure meaning. Digital media practices do more than complicate flow; they explode it. We certainly cannot jettison the significance of understanding corporate structures’ influences on these practices; however, the shift from one-way content distribution systems to the proliferation of portals, the essential function of many personal communication devices, disrupts control and predictability.

People are more in control of their content environment. Nielsenwire reports over 164 million unique online video viewers in 2011, with YouTube being the top destination, and consequently researchers need to rethink how people interact with different devices and platforms. Our research on digital media profiles an active, on-demand user, whose dilemma of actually figuring out what to watch turns out to be mediated by Facebook, the current millenium’s TV Guide analog. We find situations that dictate which media forms are used, environments in which privacy is more or less present, when more or less attention is available for creating or consuming content, and when technologies and platforms are more or less cumbersome, expensive or annoying.

The realm beyond flow is individualized and social, private and viral, local and international, engaged and detached.  



Sharon, thanks for the Lego Game of Thrones clip and comments. Somewhere there is an executive from the Lego video game franchise that has seen this clip and is trying to figure out a way to create a video game version of the show that is functional despite the need to blurkel half the screen to protect children from the excessive nudity in the series.

I am interested in the idea that you propose that digital media gives people "more control" over their media environment. In my work, I often argue that digital outlets do more revealing of existing audience behavior than enabling. I am sure people made short films with their Legos before non-linear editors and YouTube (personally I used action figures and the family video camera) but now we are more aware of this activity. I would even go so far as to say that the number of people, taking the time to create a Lego version of a favorite franchise is roughly the same as the ones who were making fan videos on VCRs.

The question for me when it comes to connected viewing is how are content owners and television networks encouraging this behavior for the wider audience. How does television viewing change when audiences are asked to prove their fandom by engaging in the activities previously occupied by only the most devoted? For me this is the central question of media convergence, what fan practices (previously practiced in small groups) are being encouraged by media conglomerates and how does that privilege certain audiences over others?

Let's continue with Game of Thrones. Each week when I gear up to watch it on HBO GO, I instantly turn off the "interactive features." It's a simple act but each time I do it, I have this silly internal dialogue about it: Does it make me less of a fan? Am I missing out on some added value? Will the additional flow of information annoy me? Distract me? Increase or decrease my pleasure? Do I even care? Perhaps it says something that this dialogue hasn't prompted me to actually participate in the extra activity. Maybe I'll give the interactive features a spin upon repeate viewing. Or, maybe, it's a small act of resistance. "Screw you, HBO. I just want my no frills viewing experience back ... albeit, on your mobile device."

Certainly, it speaks to the sort of control Sharon references as well as the numerous contradictions these changes have engendered. Or, maybe, it qualifies how we conceive of the imagined audience? In reference to Ethan, who are the conglomerates speaking to via social media? Is it really the mainstreaming of fan practices? Or just those same old fan cultures made more apparent, making me more aware of my choice to participate or not?

Or, just simply, how do we account for those of us who 'opt out' in our own contradictory ways. 

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