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1The socio-technical transformations that shape media use, reception, and participation practices challenge the fundamental categories of research on audiences and publics: the “audience” and the “public”, of course, but also the “community.” These categories have actually been called into question for some time now. From the 1980s, the technologization of communication, the fragmentation of audiences, and the personalization of practices became difficult to analyse using the categories from mass communications studies. In 1989 Jouët pointed out that “classical media sociology analyses can certainly be drawn upon, but they are inadequate for studying the social use of new information technology” (Jouët, 1989: 13). The socio-technical changes linked to the Web 2.0 and social media – e.g. technological convergence, many-to-many communication, involvement in the production and distribution of content, and the increasingly fuzzy boundary between professionals and amateurs (Jenkins, 2006; Lin, 2012; Sundet and Ytreberg, 2009) – have exacerbated this crisis of categories. Some authors are even calling for a new paradigm of research on audiences and publics. For instance, Livingstone has emblematically proposed a new paradigm of “participation”, intended both to extend and to complete the behaviourist paradigm (the study of effects and gratifications), the “incorporation/resistance” paradigm (reception studies), and the “spectacle/performance” paradigm, as identified by Abercrombie and Longhurst (Livingstone, 2013; Abercrombie and Longhurst, 1998) [1].

2“Social television” (Garcia-Aviles, 2012) offers a good example of these socio-technical changes. More and more often, game shows, series, and reality television shows of all sorts are produced for cross-media exploitation. Television viewers are encouraged to interact with other viewers, participants, or even the production team via a screen (smartphone, tablet, computer, or even a television). The features of this “social” television include: instant messaging during a television programme; the display of a list of friends viewing the programme, with whom it is possible to interact; the sharing and recommending of videos, as well as Facebook and Twitter profiles for the programme: and “fan communities” that can access exclusive interviews, win prizes (such as tickets to public recordings), post their ideas and creations online, and access various entertainment applications. In such a context, speaking simply in terms of audiences, publics, or even communities, detracts from the true complexity of practices.

3While this crisis of categories is unanimously recognized, the way to address it is in no way straightforward or consensual. The primary focus of this article is to review the literature on the main conceptual strategies regarding audiences and publics that seek to make sense of the transformations of media practices. In addition to examining how research on audiences and publics negotiates the meaning and the use of these fundamental categories, we also identify the strategies that appear to offer the greatest heuristic or analytical value.

4The second aim of this article is to contribute to the renewal of the conceptual repertoire of research on audiences and publics, by examining the heuristic and analytical potential of the network category as a way to account for the diversity of media practices. In other words, in line with some of the conceptual strategies seen in the first section, we explore how the criteria for defining networks make it possible to specify certain modes of involvement, interaction, and participation that the notions of audience and public do not fully convey. In this case, the concept of network therefore refers not to the online communication tool (in which case we refer to “social networking websites” or “digital social networks”), nor to a particular methodology (“social network analysis”), but rather to a set of media practices likely to be deployed through/by different media.

5In this analysis we also use the category of community, for two reasons. First, this category constitutes a core conceptual basis of research on audiences and publics (see, for example, the concepts of interpretive community and imagined community). Therefore, an analysis of the concepts of audience, public, and network cannot neglect to take into consideration certain debates around the notion of community. Second, in the context of studies that do not directly relate to media audiences and publics, the concept of network can be used to describe some of the socio-technical changes that shape communities – such as in Castells’ work on social ties (Castells, 2002), or Granjon’s work on online activism (Granjon, 2001). It is therefore difficult to discuss networks without investigating how they differ from communities. In fact, certain dimensions of the concept of community help us to better define the concept of network. We therefore use the category of community here to support our analysis, without it being central to this article in the same way that the categories of audience, public, and network are.

The transformation of media practices and conceptual strategies

6Based on a review of the existing literature, we identify five main conceptual strategies surrounding audiences and publics in a media and communications context that is increasingly characterized by technological convergence, many-to-many communication, and participation in the production and distribution of content. These strategies are: substitution, hybridization, variation, articulation, and the dissociation of definitional criteria.


7Some authors have jettisoned the category of audience or public (more or less explicitly, depending on the case), preferring instead another category which, according to them, accounts more adequately for the diversity and (supposed) fluidity of contemporary practices, particularly on the Internet. Thus, the category of user has become extremely common in research on media practices, to the extent that it is gradually replacing the concepts of audience and public.

8We can list at least four reasons for the ubiquitous presence of the category of user. First, it relates to the technologization of communication practices (Jouët, 1989, 2000), for it is used to incorporate into analysis both the relationships between individuals or groups, and the “tools”, “machines”, “instruments”, or “systems” enabling communication. By contrast, the categories of audience and public, inherited from research on traditional mass media, seem unfit to fully take into account the technical layer of “new” media.

9A second reason why the category of audience or public has been replaced with that of user is that the latter is generally neutral in terms of communicational role. The category of user does not define whether the individual is receiving, producing, distributing, or transforming content; it pertains only to the use of a technique that permits communication, irrespective of the meaning given to the latter term. The communicational neutrality of the category of user is particularly suited to a context in which communicational roles are becoming more diverse – as well as more fluid and even blurred, some would say. The relationship with media is no longer limited to the reception (however active it may be) of content – which is generally implied by the category of audience –, but rather can be extended to multiple forms of interactivity for which the category of user seems better suited (McMillan, 2006).

10Third, the growing influence of technical or IT disciplines on communication and media studies is another factor leading to the replacement of the categories of audience and public with that of user (Dahlgren and Olsson, 2011). The categories of audience and public are foreign to these disciplines – which in this analysis include information sciences, computer science, web design, and computer-mediated communication –, whereas the category of user plays an important role within them (McMillan, 2006).

11Fourth and lastly, the omnipresence of the category of user in current research on audiences is all the more acceptable given that the former has already found its place in the latter, particularly through the approach of uses and gratifications research and the study of the social uses of media (Lull, 1980). Moreover, there are numerous theoretical points of convergence between the study of users and that of audiences/publics (Livingstone and Das, 2013; Patriarche, 2008).


12A second way of giving meaning to the transformations of media practices consists in creating a hybrid category. The new concept arose from the merging of two initially distinct categories, to express the hybridization of practices better than either of the two initial categories considered separately.

13It was essentially because the category of audience tends to restrict individuals and groups to the communicational role of receivers that the necessity of a new hybrid category became apparent to some authors. For example, the transformation of television practices led Allard (1997) to ask: “Is there still a television viewer in the living room?” She noted that television programmes are encouraging growing involvement of viewers, not only in the production of content (remote interactivity, participation on television platforms, the production of videos by amateurs) but also in its scheduling (Allard used the term “self-scheduling” (“autoprogrammation”) to describe video-on-demand, for example). These trends, she argued, are contributing to the emergence of a new type of television viewer: the “TV spect-actor” (“téléspect-acteur”). Therefore, in her opinion, it is possible to understand the transformations in television practices in terms of the blurring of the boundaries between communicational roles. According to her, a new hybrid category, that of the “TV spect-actor” can account for the diversity and fluidity of television practices, simultaneously capturing the (traditional) figure of the receiver and the (new) figures of the producer and publisher.

14This same conceptual strategy has been used by other authors studying the Web 2.0 and, more specifically, the various forms of user-generated content (UGC). Drawing on the notion of prosumer, formulated by Toffler in the early 1970s, Bruns (2006, 2007) has proposed the category of produser to reflect the growth of practices that depart from the industrial model of media production and distribution. In fact Bruns, who sees the terms “audience” and “user” as synonyms, follows the same line of argument as Allard (though focusing on the Web 2.0. and not on television): he considers that the development of UGC requires us to break away from a linear and dichotomous understanding of the relationships between media and audiences, by creating new categories better suited to describing the participatory and collaborative dimension of the production and circulation of ideas and knowledge: “the very idea of content production may need to be challenged: the description of a new hybrid form of simultaneous production and use, or produsage, may provide a more workable model” (Bruns, 2007: 1). An emblematic example of produsage is the development of Wikipedia.

15Examples of conceptual hybridization abound. More recently, Zanker (2011) used the hybrid term “viewser” (a contraction of “viewer” and “user”) to describe the practices surrounding interactive platforms accompanying certain television series. Meanwhile, Villi (drawing on the arguments of David P. Marshall) distinguishes mass audiences from “audience communities”; in other words, smaller groups (like a group of Facebook “friends”) in which media consumption takes place. Villi also speaks of “networked audience communities,” stressing the role of the social consumption of media and of the multiple communication tools in maintaining social relationships (Villi, 2012).

16The main value of these hybrid categories consists in outlining new research objects. However, in terms of conceptualization and developing research questions, they entail at least two difficulties. First, these categories are primarily focused on the material dimension of media activities; that is, the role of individuals in the production (as well as publishing and distribution) of content (Carpentier, 2011b). As a result, there is a high risk of underestimating the still major role of media in the discursive and symbolic construction of our reality – an issue at the heart of research on reception, which understands the activity of an audience in terms of production of meaning. Second, it is essential not to confuse the theoretical value of a concept with its empirical value. These hybrid categories seem to suggest that all individuals are simultaneously receivers and producers, as well as consumers and contributors. However, we know that most of the time the majority of Internet users receive (read, look up, search, etc.) more than they produce (materially speaking). For these users, the transition from one role to another is in no way fluid or natural, particularly because it requires skills that are unequally distributed across the population. Between what these hybrid concepts suggest and what reality reveals, it is therefore necessary to leave room for empirical research, in particular to study the conditions of the transition from one role to another.


17Other authors have defined the conceptual core of “the audience” and identified various variations in the form of a typology. They understand the concept of audience as a practice in itself, though heterogeneous, informed in various ways by communication situations and transformations of the socio-technical environment.

18The establishment of the categories of simple, mass, and diffused audiences as proposed by Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998) is emblematic of this approach. These authors start by delimiting their theoretical framework by completing the behaviourist and incorporation/resistance paradigms – which according to them are no longer fully able to convey the diversity of contemporary audiences’ practices – with a new paradigm allowing for “a redefinition of what an audience is and what it does” (Abercrombie and Longhurst, 1998: 39, emphasis by the authors): the show/performance paradigm. This concept of performance has an extremely wide range of applications here, from physical events (plays, political meetings, etc.) to daily activities and media and communication technology. Beyond – or rather, despite – their differences, each of these communication situations involves a similar “audience experience”, which Abercrombie and Longhurst define as follows: “Audiences are groups of people before whom a performance of one kind or another takes place. Performance, in turn, is a kind of activity in which the person performing accentuates his or her behaviour under the scrutiny of others. That accentuation is deliberate, even if unconscious” (Abercrombie and Longhurst, 1998: 40).

19The rules of interaction between the audience and the performance nevertheless vary from one situation to another. Abercrombie and Longhurst therefore distinguish between three “types of audience experience” – simple audience, mass audience, and diffused audience – which can be characterized on several levels. The emergence of a diffused audience does not cause the disappearance of a mass audience just as the mass audience has not replaced the simple audience. Rather, the diffused audience experience has become the ordinary context in which the other two audience experiences take place. It differs from simple and mass audiences due to its permanent nature, and the fact that it is a “constituent of everyday life”, as Abercrombie and Longhurst put it. Moreover, the diffused type of audience experience is characterized by fuzzy boundaries between the public and private space, and greater physical and social closeness between the audience and the performer: “People simultaneously feel members of an audience and that they are performers; they are simultaneously watchers and being watched. […] A crucial feature is that the distance between performers and audiences so important to performances in front of both simple and mass audiences has been more or less eliminated” (Abercrombie and Longhurst, 1998: 75).

20The question raised by the variation strategy concerns the extent to which it is possible to allow for variations in the category of audience without risking it losing its analytical value. This question is particularly relevant for the concept of diffused audience: does this concept not risk limiting our ability to analyse contemporary media practices by blurring the boundaries between the local and the global, the private and the public, and reception and production? Ultimately, does this variation in categories not raise the same issue as the hybridization of categories? Couldry (2005) is rather critical of this concept of diffused audience, arguing that it mistakenly posits the equalization of power relations between producers and receivers. “‘The diffused audience’ concept represents for Abercrombie and Longhurst more than a technological convergence of the forms through which we access media; it is a convergence of social relations as well in which the once clearly demarcated social role of ‘audience’ (as receiver of media contents) becomes less obviously distinguished in everyday life from the role of the media industry (as producer of media contents)” (Couldry, 2005: 193, emphasis by the author).

21Couldry advocates instead the concept of extended audience, so as to take into consideration the diversification of audience sites – he cites public spaces and television studios –, without however overlooking the fact that the interaction between media and audiences is still marked by a power dynamics that is biased towards the former (see also Carpentier 2011a). What Couldry seems to be saying is that this unequal balance of power is inherent and peculiar to the type of audience experience, and that change in this relationship – for instance when the audience becomes the performer, to use the words of Abercrombie and Longhurst – must be studied using other categories. That is precisely the method of the articulation strategy.


22The articulation strategy consists in bringing together the category of audience around a conceptual core and articulating it with other categories to distinctly capture the diversity of practices at play. The articulation strategy does not suggest that there are several types of audiences (like variation does), but rather that there are different types of practices – (still) including the audience – potentially connected to one another.

23The articulation strategy can be said to have been implemented, albeit timidly and implicitly, in a media convergence model proposed by Jensen (2010), which identifies six “communicational practices” through digital media. These practices are defined along to two axes: a temporal axis distinguishing between synchronous and asynchronous practices, and an axis distinguishing between practices based on the number of participants and the nature of their interactions: one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many. It seems significant to us that Jensen refers to audiences only when discussing synchronous one-to-many and asynchronous one-to-many practices, and uses the term sub-publics when discussing asynchronous many-to-many practices.

24The articulation strategy is also used, this time explicitly and systematically, in a text by Ridell (2012). Her starting point is the category of produser (Bruns, 2006, 2007), which she accuses of obfuscating the analysis of the diversity and singularity of media practices. Ridell proposes an approach to oppose it, which fully acknowledges the diversification – and not hybridization – of practices. Refusing to speak of a transformation of audiences, she focuses on the growing diversification of the activities (both physical and mental) that “people” engage in online (Ridell uses Wikipedia and YouTube as examples), thus identifying the “mode of action” as audience, as one possible mode of action among others. In the theoretical framework developed by Ridell, based on interpretative sociology (Schultz), a form of action comprises a structural dimension – the socioeconomic organization of the media industry, the legal framework, reception contexts, etc. – and an actantial dimension pertaining to “[a] manner of behaving and the internalized rules that structure it” (Ridell, 2012: 20). Ridell, who here emphasizes the actantial dimension of forms of action, distinguishes four forms: (1) the audience, whereby “people […] assume the position in which they receive and interpret a cultural performance or media representation” (Ridell, 2012: 20); (2) the producer, when people “generate content”; (3) the community, when interaction between several individuals is steered toward consensus; and (4) the public, “when they intervene publicly in an issue that they consider, on the basis of their interests and values, to be a grievance, and when they call other people’s attention to it” (Ridell, 2012: 25) (here Ridell draws on the work of Park, Blumer and Mills).

25Ridell thus refuses to combine audience and producer forms of action within a single category. She prefers to speak of the “articulation” between different forms of action. Once again drawing on interpretive sociology, she separates the “project” from the “activities” that allow for its execution. In other words, the execution of a project involves carrying out multiple “subordinate” activities. Audiences, producers, communities, and publics act as forms of action when they give shape to these activities, and as projects when they provide the social meaning of this structured set of articulated activities. For example, the project of an audience that faithfully watches a television series may lead to an activity as a public, consisting in mobilizing and calling upon the producers to continue a series that they have decided to cancel, or to reinstate an actor/character that they have just dismissed.

26The articulation strategy preserves the consistency of the category of audience by defining it as a practice in itself, to be distinguished from other practices to which it may possibly be articulated. The value of this approach is twofold. First, it does not suggest that audiences no longer exist, or that there is necessarily a confusion of roles and a blurring of boundaries. On the contrary, it posits that audiences remain an empirical reality in current communication activities. Even though media practices are diversifying, the fact remains that being an audience is a frequent and widespread practice, which may take precedence over certain interactive or even productive roles that the industry and technology tend to promote today (at least up to a point).

27Second, the articulation strategy directly challenges not only the conditions of existence of each practice, but also the mechanisms of transition from one practice to another; for example, from audience to producer or from community to public. Livingstone’s study on the relationships between audiences and publics illustrates this point: she moves away from hybrid categories (such as the “television viewer-citizen”), which tend to present the relationships between audience and public as fluid, and instead supports an “analytical separation” between these two categories, though carefully avoiding “any reductive polarization” (Livingstone, 2005: 19). This makes it possible, for example, to envisage how the critical interpretation of television and family discussion can provide a breeding ground for public debate and even collective action.

The dissociation of definitional criteria

28Another way of making use of the categories of audience and public in a changing media landscape is by dissociating its definitional criteria. This consists in adopting less stringent categories, the value of which lies in the fact that they involve a range of conceptual dimensions which, taken separately, can be useful and relevant. Livingstone advocates this approach in her analysis of the relationships between audiences and publics, in which she argues that the distinction between these two categories “works better in the abstract than when applied to any particular situation” (Livingstone, 2005: 25). In particular, Livingstone points out the negative consequences of adopting a strict and maximalist definition of the public: “First, too stringent a definition includes little and excludes most of human activity, resulting in the pessimistic conclusion that public life is dead. Second, it has generally proved that those activities which meet these high standards are characteristic of elites, excluding from view the heterogeneous if conflicting activities of the majority. Third, […] it is precisely these broader, diverse forms of social activity – which are ‘public’ but not yet ‘the public’ – that demand a rethinking of the relation between public and private, state and civil society” (ibid.: 26).

29To avoid these pitfalls, Livingstone suggests using the word “public” as an adjective, and to “activate only one of the multiple criteria for ‘the public’ identified in more idealistic definitions” (ibid.: 25). Here, she is referring to the publicization process: a public speaks or acts publicly, and participates in the public (media) space.

30Dayan’s (2000) work on the “almost-public” (“presque-public”) can be associated with this approach. This author defines publics (of television) by an internal sociability, an aptitude for debate, visibility in the public space, attachment to certain values, the capacity to mobilize, and a reflexive existence. He argues that a public is necessarily a community, in that it implies a shared identity and a sociability of its own. Thus, in his search for publics, Dayan was forced to recognize that he only came across audiences or, at best, almost-publics; that is, imperfect publics demonstrating only some of the characteristics of a public as idealized by theorists of the public space. This conclusion seems to call for a selective use of the definitional dimensions of the categories of audience and public, so as to preserve their relevance for the analysis of media practices in transformation.

31Likewise, the definitional criteria of the category of audience can also be dissociated for analytical purposes. In a way, several implementations of the strategies mentioned earlier also rely on the dissociation of the definitional criteria of the category of audience that they mobilize. For example, Ridell (see above) holds onto only one criterion to define an audience – the communicational role as a receiver – and overlooks the question of the collective experience (Ridell, 2012).

32By disentangling the criteria for defining an audience or public, we can avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. While a strict definition of audience or public may imply limitations or even lead to dead ends, that is not to say that the definitional criteria, taken separately or at least with a degree of flexibility, are not analytically productive. For example, Burgess and Green (2009) show that YouTube creates a space for publicization when users, through their video channels, generalize the problems of their daily life – so from being private and personal, they become matters of social identity, cultural politics, etc. – and open them to online discussion. [2] The multiple criteria for defining audience and public therefore all call for further research. They may yield contrasting results and, taken as a whole, they produce a nuanced analysis of public and cultural life today.

The concept of network as a category for research on audiences and publics [3]

33We will hold onto three main ideas from this overview of the main conceptual strategies surrounding the notions of audience and public. First, these categories are more useful when used with flexibility, employing some of their definitional criteria in an ideal-typical way rather than trying to establish “pure” and totalizing empirical correspondence at all cost. Second, no category is neutral, not even that of the user, which tends to situate the individual (and not the collective) in relation to technological objects (and not to mediatized texts) (Livingstone and Das, 2013). Researchers therefore have no choice but to multiply these categories, each of which specifies a form of involvement, interaction, or participation with/through the media and communication technology. Third and lastly, the hybridization and variation strategies tend to cloud analysis by positing the fluidity or mixed nature of practices. Yet it actually seems desirable to maintain a conceptual distinction, while making these different categories “work” together to better analyse the diversity of media practices and the conditions of their existence and articulation.

34In this article we wish to contribute to the articulation strategy by examining the heuristic and analytical potential of the category of network. It seems that the conceptual repertoire of research on audiences and publics – a repertoire that also includes the notions of community and producer, as we saw earlier – could benefit from the category of network, which in this case refers to a (collective) form of action with/through the media, to draw on Ridell’s perspective. Our analysis explores how the definitional criteria of the network make it possible to specify certain forms of involvement, interaction, or participation that the concepts of audience and public, as well as that of community, do not fully capture. In this sense, we can say that our approach is also based on the dissociation of the definitional criteria of the network. We examine six dimensions of networks as a form of action with/through media: (1) the construction of relationships, (2) the co-creation of content or technology, (3) sharing, circulation, (4) the dedifferentiation of spaces, (5) the individualization of time, and (6) the bypassing of intermediaries.

35The analysis provided in this section is not the first of its kind: in a context where semantic blurriness is often widespread, Castells (2002) has studied communities and networks, Livingstone (2004) has focused on the relationships between audience and public, and Gensollen (2006) has proposed a definition of network, (mass) audience, and (online) community in terms of their respective “structures of social interaction.” Our contribution both draws on this research and takes it further, by examining a greater variety of definitional criteria of the network and situating these in relation to the core categories in research on media uses, reception, and participation.

Building Relationships

36The categories of audience and public organize research on media and communication around two distinct though interlinked “spheres of activity”. The former relates to the sphere of experiences and meanings. In reception studies, reception is not seen as an individual mental process; experiences and meaning are built through interaction with texts, genres, technologies, and/or organizations. In other words, there is a collective negotiation of meaning in specific communication situations.

37The category of public calls for an analysis in terms of public sphere; in other words, “a space where, in principle, problems about shared resources are or should be resolved, a space linked, at least indirectly, to some common frame of collective action about common resources” (Couldry, Livingstone and Markham, 2007: 7). Therefore, to focus on publics is to study the conditions and mechanisms of involvement, interaction, and participation in the public sphere.

38Compared to the concepts of audience and public, the value of the category of network lies in the fact that it focuses the analysis on the activities of individuals and groups in what could be called the relational sphere. It can be said that acting as a network is above all producing and maintaining social relationships. “These relationships are more than just interactions, as they repeat themselves, last, acquire a history, and are situated in time; they become unique in that the actors participating in them are no longer substitutable” (Bidart, 2008: 34-35).

39We suggest that what research on audiences has studied when focusing on the social and identity uses of media within families, households, and groups of peers, is in fact networks – without denoting them as such. For example, in his pioneering research on the “relational uses” of television, Lull (1980) looked not so much at audiences as at networks. This research sought to shed light on the role of television and its peripheral technologies as relational resources within the family circle. Here, we are interested not so much in understanding the interpretive work of audiences, as in addressing the way in which individuals use television to shape their family relationships: creating a common ground for conversation, growing closer to someone or, on the contrary, taking some distance, asserting a position of superiority or challenging power dynamics, etc.

40More recently, Dover’s ethnographic research (2012) provided an in-depth analysis of the relational uses of media and communication technology by young people at a school in London – in terms of self-presentation, affirmation of status, defining power dynamics, negotiating relations with teachers, etc. It seems significant that Dover promotes what she calls an “ethnography of media consumption”, which endeavours to describe the use of media beyond moments of reception; that is, by taking the daily life of a particular group as a starting point and not that group’s encounter with a specific text (as is the case in ethnographies of reception). For Dover, it is necessary to “move beyond audiences” – and this beyond belongs to the sphere of activity of a network.

41For research on audiences and publics, the value of the category of network lies in the fact that it allows for distinct identification of a form of action with/through media, consisting in mobilizing these media as a resource for the construction and definition of social relationships. While social networking websites and other Web 2.0 technology have undoubtedly popularized this address-book frame of mind (Mercier, 2008), it is also found in many other areas of social and political life. We find it in the rhizome function of so-called “community” media (Carpentier, 2011a) and the “connectionist” approach of neo-activism on the Internet (Granjon, 2001), and as we saw above, in the daily life of groups of teenagers. By directly focusing on relational activities, the network approach allows for challenging the role of media and communication technology in the construction and maintaining of social relationships. It therefore enables us to open the black box of research on audiences and publics a bit more: where do audiences and publics come from? In her study of fans of the high school TV series Hélène et les garçons, Pasquier (1999) notes that people do not become fans on their own, but rather through relationships. This is precisely the context in which the value of the category of network lies.

42It is worth situating the concept of network in relation to that of community, inasmuch as this affords a better understanding of the specificity of the former. To speak of a “community” means focusing primarily on the construction of belonging and collective identities. Whether “offline” or “online,” a community forms through the feeling of belonging to a collective, the identity of which is rooted in shared values, practices, and/or interests. As such, according to Proulx, we can speak of a (virtual) community when there is a “tie of belonging that is established between the members of a given group of users of an instant messaging space, a mailing list, or a discussion forum, in which these participants share common tastes, values, interests, or objectives, and in the best of cases, an authentic collective project” (Proulx, 2006: 17, author’s emphasis).

43Proulx specifies that the existence of a common interest is not enough to create a community; a feeling of belonging also needs to exist, in addition to the sole framework of the “reciprocal, sustained, and lasting interactions” (ibid.: 19) observed online, to become a part of a broader “imagined community” (Anderson). The integration of this identity sphere is well-documented by studies on the reception and use of media and communication technology: audiences and publics behave like communities whenever practices involve belonging to collectives based on gender, age, social class, or other characteristics (Pasquier, 1999).

44Returning to the category of network, its heuristic and analytical value lies in the fact that the relational systems approach allows for conceptualizing the communicational processes that bypass community identities and feelings of belonging, thus affording an analysis in terms of their “transversality in relation to other structures and groups” (Bidart, 2008: 36). As such, the concept of network draws researchers’ attention to linking phenomena that are “strategic” (Castells, 2002), “affinitive” (Mercier, 2008), and even “operational and conjunctural” (Granjon, 2001), as in Granjon’s analysis of neo-activism: “Formally, the creation of any volunteer group defines a division and establishes a dissociation between the internal and the external, the Us and the Them. With project-based activism, these differentiation processes are nonetheless blurred, and emphasize the weakening of the identity function as it was valued until then” (Granjon, 2001: 55).

45This does not mean that a network cannot evolve into a community [4]; rather, it means that conceptually, social relationships and ties of belonging must be distinguished. In this sense, the concept of network can be said to carry a useful critique of the essentialization of collective forms of belonging and identities that the concept of community may entail (Dhoest, 2012).

Co-creating content or technology

46One of the criteria for defining an audience is the specialization of roles: an audience attends a performance or receives messages; it does not produce (Gensollen, 2006; Ridell, 2012). However, this differentiation of roles inherent to mass communication is increasingly being challenged by new media interaction (and participation) opportunities. As we saw earlier, Allard (1997) and Bruns (2006, 2007) support the theory of the reconfiguration of the relationships between individuals/groups and producers/designers, arguing that the former are becoming more involved in the production of content or technology. The hybrid concepts of “television spect-actor” and “produser,” as introduced by Allard and Bruns respectively, aim to describe this trend. We have also seen that this conceptual strategy is criticized by Ridell (2012), who sees it as a source of confusion. Instead, she proposes the category of producer to encompass these “generative” activities, while also preserving the singularity of the category of audience, which is relevant for reception activities.

47We suggest that the category of network may be a useful conceptual tool for describing certain production practices, for at least two reasons. First, it would be over-simplistic to conceive of production only as an individual phenomenon: it also has a social purpose that situates it within more or less defined networks. In this respect, Burgess and Green propose that the activities of YouTubers be seen not solely as a matter of the personal promotion or expression implied by the slogan “Broadcast yourself”. In fact, the creation of YouTube videos is more akin to a relational practice with a significant recreational dimension. The category of network therefore allows for resituating the production practices of “ordinary people” within the relational systems that give them meaning: “in YouTube, content creation is probably far less significant than the uses of that content within various social network settings” (Burgess and Green, 2009: 58).

48Another argument to support the category of network is that the word “producer” corresponds to an industrial rationale of production and distribution, which hardly reflects horizontal creation and sharing practices. In this sense, it may be preferable to speak of creation, and even co-creation, rather than (co-)production. In fact, networked co-creation intertwines the practices of amateurs and professionals, not to mention the numerous nuances between these two extremes, as well as practices with a status that is difficult to identify. Journalism blogs thus foster a closer, more symmetrical bond between bloggers and readers, with the latter aspiring to “erase statutory differences to establish a relationship of proximity with journalists” (Le Saulnier, 2013: 76). Burgess and Green point out this same particularity in relation to co-creation on/of YouTube: “The site’s value – what YouTube has turned out to be ‘for’ so far – is co-created by YouTube Inc., now owned by Google, the users who upload content to the website, and the audience who engages around that content. The contributors are a diverse group of participants – from large media producers and rights-owners such as television channels, sports companies, and major advertisers, to small-to-medium enterprises looking for cheap distribution or alternatives to mainstream broadcasting systems, cultural institutions, artists, activists, media literate fans, non-professional and amateur media producers. Each of these participants approaches YouTube with their own purposes and aims and collectively shapes YouTube as a dynamic cultural system: YouTube is a site of participatory culture” (Burgess and Green, 2009, p. vii, our emphasis. See also p. 57).

49The case of YouTube does not imply that the co-creative dimension of the network form of action is specific to social media. This dimension is also present in radio and other so-called “community” media, as highlighted by Carpentier (2011b). Two other examples are citizen journalism, as in the case of Agoravox which is supplied by contributions from non-professional writers, and which ensures moderation in the evaluation of articles by the contributors themselves; and citizens’ groups focused on the critique of information and the media, such as Investig-Action, the members of which co-create all sorts of content and activities in support of their media critique objective.

50Generally speaking, therefore, the category of network is in our opinion relevant for research on audiences and publics, as it intrinsically conveys the idea of dedifferentiation (Van Campenhoudt, 2010). This idea allows us to conceive of co-creation by/of the media as a collective phenomenon that blurs cultural hierarchies by involving contributions and contributors with various statuses in the same dynamic. This network form of action is however practised only by a minority of users, as Burgess and Green highlight in the case of co-creation on YouTube. It is precisely in this context that the category of audience remains relevant: when combined with the latter, the category of network opens up a heuristic and analytical space to investigate and study media practices (and their conditions of existence and articulation) between the differentiation (audience) and dedifferentiation (network) of roles and statuses.

Sharing and circulating

51As we saw above, the challenging of the category of audience largely revolves around individuals and groups’ productive role: access to production (of content, technology) is no longer limited to a professional elite; it is now accessible to “ordinary people”, an idea popularized by the concept of user-generated content. We have also seen that the concept of network conveys this productive role of individuals and groups, by calling into question the dedifferentiation of communicational roles and cultural hierarchies. However, the value of the concept of network also lies elsewhere: its “circulatory” dimension (Parrochia, 2005) indicates that media practices cannot be reduced to the reception-production pair, as they also pertain to a large extent to the redistribution of content (user-distributed content) (Villi, 2012).

52Networks follow a word-of-mouth approach (Gensollen, 2006). A network shares things and circulates them, as Mounier observed in the case of Samizdat: this network of activist groups and alternative media is primarily characterized by “the intense circulation of information across mixed networks comprised of both mailing lists and websites” (Mounier, 2006: 288). Information is not the only thing that circulates through Samizdat (and networks in general); technology, uses, skills, and “contacts” do too (see also Granjon, 2001). Moreover, circulating something across a network does not just involve relaying it, passing it on, but also appropriating it, transforming it, and associating pre-exiting ideas and materials with it. Jenkins has shown this with regard to the practices of fans, which are performed both online and offline, at gatherings where they exchange their productions (Jenkins, 2002). In a network, each node (an individual or group) appropriates and transforms objects while also contributing to their social circulation by redistributing them to “contacts” or “connections”, as in the example of YouTube videos, which are often merely short, remixed excerpts of existing content. While the category of producer (Ridell, 2012) implies the existence of a generative activity carried out by individuals, the concept of network focuses researchers’ attention on circulatory activity within a collective [5].

53This circulatory practice is not restricted to groups of fans or activists. Media in general encourage this practice in order to maximize the size of their audiences (“social marketing”). According to Villi (2012), media is even more inclined to encourage the sharing of content than its co-creation. Thus, objects with very different statuses and content circulate, from rumours to newspaper articles, links, comments, images, videos, etc., all of which are likely to be commented on in turn: “the benefit of the sharing function is that you can add a personal message and that way include a comment, and that’s what’s interesting about it,” explained one of the people interviewed by Jouët and Le Caroff (2013). Of the 20 online newspaper readers with whom Le Saulnier (2013: 70) met (and who came from privileged social backgrounds), 14 relayed information to their family or friend contacts, most of the time by email. Sending via mailing lists and social networking websites is therefore infrequent. Devillard, Dolez and Rieffel (2013: 95) nevertheless argue that families share news in person more than online. This indicates that, depending on the context, the network form of action is likely to manifest offline, even though the Internet provides an ideal environment for networks, due to its socio-technical affordances.

54Le Saulnier further notes that information sharing is driven by three types of motivation: “affective” motivation (demonstrating one’s attention, making someone smile), “conative” motivation (strengthening values or shared interests), and “promotional” motivation (promoting oneself or an event). The relational function is therefore central to the practice of sharing: networks are created at least partially around common interests about which people circulate information that constitutes “opportunities for interactions with members of their network” (Jouët and Le Caroff, 2013: 151). Therefore, the practice of sharing constitutes one of the main resources of the network form of action – without excluding other motivations such as engaging in the public space and the construction of the self (Jouët and Le Caroff, 2013).

55Until now, the network form of action has been analysed from the perspective of the people doing the sharing. It is clearly necessary to complete this picture with the other point of view: people act as a network whenever they receive information shared by others. Le Saulnier points out that networks are becoming a preferred means of accessing the news. His respondents reported that they no longer chose news based solely on the criteria of accessibility and credibility, but also on what Le Saulnier calls the “addressing” (“addressage”) principle. This refers to “online information received through a third-party intermediary, whether for personal purposes or as a part of a group”, which indicates that “close or elective ties have a prescriptive power, and steer the selection of news media and content” (Le Saulnier, 2013: 61). He adds that in extreme cases this form of action can lead to the “delegation of selection” when an individual “informs him- or herself to a large extent through the filter of his or her electronic sociabilities, which function as a gatekeeper in the place of journalists” (Le Saulnier, 2013: 62).

56The practice of sharing or circulating information (in the most general sense), which is characteristic of the network form of action, is different from the discussion in which audiences and publics engage. Audiences engage in discussion when they collectively create meaning around media productions; publics engage in discussion when they are collectively negotiating a public opinion, with the media then acting as “catalysts” (Dahlgren, 1993) or “transitional resources” (Boullier, 2004) to move from individual experiences to a general opinion. In both cases the discussion not only implies “a space in which the roles of sender and receiver are constantly intertwined and interchanging” but also “the mutual influencing of the sender and the receiver” (Santaella-Braga, 2006: 153). However, while acting as a network implies a change of communicational role – whereby the recipient becomes the sender, like with word-of-mouth – this does not imply a reciprocal influence between sender and receiver, in the co-construction of an inter-subjective space. In other words, in a network, communication can only consist of (re)transmission.

Dedifferentiating space

57In research on audiences and publics, the spatiality of actors is generally understood in terms of the distinction between private and public space. By “public,” we here mean “visible” and “accessible to others”. Therefore, that which pertains to private space is invisible and inaccessible to others (Couldry, Livingstone and Markham, 2007). Audiences’ practices take place in private space, mainly in the domestic space. Lussault uses the term “sites” to describe spaces which, as opposed to places, “lie outside of the ‘public’ sphere – that is, outside of the field of that which each person is willing to share and to expose to others in the social experience of space” (Lussault, 2007: 106). Conversely, the actions of a public are visible in the public space, which should not only be seen as a geographic space, but also as a communicational space.

58The question of spatiality is raised in different terms when using the categories of community and network: from this perspective, it revolves around the concepts of territory and flows, respectively. From the outset, urban sociology associated the concept of community with that of a spatial anchorage, in other words, with a territory (ibid.: 113). The concept of territory may be applied on different levels – from the local to the global, including the national – and implies the appropriation and negotiation of a space by actors. Networks can be considered to operate according to a different spatial rationale, namely that of flows (Castells, 1998). Flows imply not only geographical distancing, but also the dedifferentiation of spaces and a change in the scale of action. In this respect, Lussault argues that networks, unlike territories, “escape the simple inclusion and exclusion rationale” (Lussault, 2007: 133). The analysis of social networks has even formulated the idea that networks have no limits (Merckle, 2011). As Van Campenhoudt notes, one of the benefits of the concept of network is precisely its ability to capture the despatialization phenomena whereby “the new spaces of experience correspond less and less to territories tied to nation states, to clearly-delimited ‘places’; increasingly, they consist of dynamic areas in which multiple actors independent from the national control of borders constantly circulate and interact” (Van Campenhoudt, 2010: 13, our emphasis).

59This spatial dedifferentiation phenomenon is observable in neo-activist practices on the Internet: “Sociabilities based on belonging to a territory are in fact reshaped by despatialized affinities that develop remotely through technological support” (Granjon, 2001: 80). This despatialization dynamics can also be witnessed in certain media practices, such as (illegal) downloading. Based on interviews with downloading tool users, Evans (2011) shows that one of their motivations is to free themselves from the spatial restrictions imposed by national intermediaries: some programmes are not broadcast in a given country, for example, due to political or religious censorship, yet illegal downloading gives people access to them. Downloading (and other similar practices such as pirated DVD sales and purchasing channels) allows for “a kind of transnational reception, where downloading is used to watch a programme when it is only available in another country” (ibid.: 169).

60Research on audiences and publics has developed around the premise of a national (community) framework (Dhoest, 2012). The concept of network, on the contrary, leads to a conception of media practices as transnational flows. Thus Evans, drawing on the distinction between community and network as formulated by Castells in La Galaxie Internet (see Castells, 2002), considers that a broadcasting audience is a community dependent on media institutions within a national territory, whereas the downloading audience is a transnational network that forms on the basis of individual actors’ interests (the strategic dimension of networks is once again central here): “Such networks may cross national boundaries and be distinct from others in the same household, family unit or face-to-face friendship group. It is defined by their choice; the parameters of a network are determined by who chooses to watch a particular series at a particular time, not by who happens to be given access to it. This choice is offered to them by the potential of downloading to break down the temporal and national boundaries of broadcasting” (Evans, 2011: 170, author’s emphasis).

61The people interviewed by Evans, furthermore, expressed the existence of tension between the individualization of practices and the search for (new) social ties. On the one hand, downloading weakens this feeling of belonging to a national community; on the other, it is perceived as a potential relational resource: when a person misses an episode of a series everybody is talking about, that person is able to obtain it by downloading it, or the very fact of downloading and commenting online can become the vector of new transnational virtual relationships.

62For the reasons stated above, we choose to maintain an analytical distinction between the concepts of audience, community, and network. The way in which Evans mobilizes the latter two categories is nevertheless still relevant to our argument: the concept of network, when opposed to that of community, can be useful for grasping the despatialization dynamics at play in certain media practices. Conversely, that same opposition ensures that the respatialization dynamics also observable elsewhere are not overlooked. In this respect, Burgess and Green (2009) show that, despite the global media image that YouTube is attempting to give to itself, the platform is populated primarily by content in English or even from the United States. Moreover, the website – which actually applies various advertising rationales and filtering policies from one country to another – exists in different versions depending on the location of the device connecting to it and the language chosen by the user.

Individualizing time

63The conceptual repertoire of researchers on audiences and publics would benefit from adding the category of network in order to grasp transformations in the relationship to time. Audiences obey the temporality of industrial capitalism, as defined by Castells: “linear, irreversible, and predictable” (Castells, 1998: 485). This conception of time implies the existence of a mediating body to sequentially organize the distribution of content. It is linear in the sense that audiences have no control over the forms of access to content, which “stream” inexorably (no fast-forwarding, rewinding, or pausing). The temporality of audiences is also irreversible, in the sense that communication is transient: in the broadcasting model, content is intended for immediate consumption; in the written press, depending on the frequency of publication of the media, what was published on the one day will no longer be news on the following day, week, or month – the media piece may not even be accessible at all, except in libraries or in doctors’ waiting rooms. The frequency of publication also establishes a certain predictability: we expect to find our newspaper at our usual newsstand every morning, and to find a variety programme or a popular entertainment programme every Saturday evening. In radio-television, a schedule of highly-structured programmes organizes this “linear, irreversible, and predictable” communication typical of what Casetti and Odin (1990) call “paleo-television”. According to Evans (2011), it is precisely in this state of immediacy of television that the feeling of belonging characteristic of communities is created. Therefore, for Evans, the broadcasting audience can be described as a community whose existence unfolds at the crossroads between “real” and “imagined” communities (the reference to Anderson is explicit).

64There is a temporal dimension to the evolution of production and reception practices over the last few years, which has not escaped media and communications researchers. In the field of online journalism, for example, Pélissier, Ruellan et al. (2002: 43) observe a “liberation from time constraints” which manifests in several ways on news media websites: the authors speak of the “blurring of temporality”, “temporal elasticity”, “mixed temporalities”, and “temporal reversibility”. Online journalism consecrates “permanent information” (Ringoot’s expression) by manoeuvring “between information constantly updated in real time and set information from documentary archives” (ibid., 2002: 51). Are these the practices of an audience? Along with Castells, we tend to think of them as those of a network. This is because, as Castells notes, the space of flows goes hand in hand with the undifferentiated time that is characteristic of networked societies: “the mixing of timeframes in the media, within the same mode of communication and at the choice of the spectator/interactor, creates an assemblage of temporalities in which not only genres are mixed up, but their rhythm also becomes synchronous over a flat horizon, with no beginning, ending, or continuation. […] We do not live in a culture of circularity, but in a world of cultural expressions immersed in an undifferentiated temporality” (Castells, 1998: 516).

65The temporality of “neo-television” (Casetti and Odin, 1990) also exhibits non-differentiation, as demonstrated by “time-shifting”, pay-per-view, and video-on-demand. The practice of downloading offers another (more radical) example that we examine, drawing on Evans’s study (2011). The author explains that downloading radicalizes the recording rationale. In the case of recording, while it is indeed possible to view content at a convenient time (time-shifting), it is necessary to anticipate its recording. Recording a television programme therefore involves negotiating with the schedule proposed by the television channel. In the case of downloading, there is simply no negotiation, as there is no pre-determined broadcasting time: there is only content constantly available to whoever wishes to acquire it.

66Based on interviews with people who practise downloading, Evans identified several rationalities that can coexist. In addition to bypassing national restrictions, as mentioned earlier, this practice may be motivated by a lack of compatibility between the rigid schedule of the programmes and the multiple and changing temporalities of daily life. Broadcasting is based on the interdependency between the (stable) schedule of programmes and the routines of daily life: it is not only tailored to the rhythm of society, but also reinforces it (also see Lull, 1980). Downloading offers an alternative to this model when the temporalities of daily life are more individualized and improvised (in other words, less routine). Some people also point to the abundance of the television offer: it is impossible to follow everything at the same time, and schedule incompatibilities force people to choose, something that those who download online refuse to accept.

67Through the concept of network, it is possible to conceive of a form of action with/through media based on an individualized temporality (or undifferentiated temporality, when referring to the permanent accessibility of media content), which goes hand in hand with elective relationships built around common interests rather than those determined by pre-existing social or cultural feelings of belonging. The fact remains that, according to Evans, communities can recreate themselves around downloading: sometimes, the primary motivation for downloading is not to avoid the constraints of television programming but rather to be able to participate in a (virtual) community of fans that has developed through downloading and commenting online, and who together follow the evolution of a series. The study of the temporal transformation of media practices may therefore usefully be established, based on the category of network or, more specifically, on the tension between those of audience/community and network, since practices never “exclusively” obey one form of action and may transition from one to another.

Bypassing intermediaries

68Implicit in the dimensions of the concept of network explored up to now, is the core idea that networks bypass established intermediaries by means of multi-polar structures of interaction (and participation) (Mercier, 2008). In his analysis of neo-activism online, Granjon demonstrated that the dynamics of a network reconfigures the relationship between the individual and the hierarchy, and between the bottom and the top, promoting a “reticular erratic” model characterized by “a relationship of defiance towards the classical representative model based on the lasting delegation of authority to elected representatives” (Granjon, 2001: 38). Likewise, regarding the construction of identity among the Muslim diaspora, Mandaville (2001) showed that the Internet facilitates the expression of minority voices (particularly among young people) who, through personal websites and online forums, compete with the official discourse of the official representatives of the community. Ultimately, a network is at work in the fact that individuals or groups seek to mitigate the “random nature of the circulation of information” (Granjon, 2001) when it is managed by traditional intermediaries. “Asserting meaning in the place of established intermediaries, providing one’s own frameworks of interpretation, and becoming an opinion leader means entering into competition with the traditional vertical structures of information emission, to encourage, instead, an alternative scene of public appearance, built on a more horizontal network of information exchange” (Granjon, 2001: 117).

69The Arab Spring protests illustrate the network form of action, seen here as a way of bypassing official media intermediaries. In a context of exacerbated censorship, protesters produced and shared information through alternative channels that relied primarily on social media. Regarding Tunisia, Ben Henda (2011: 159) emphasized the “relay role played by virtual communities transmitting information in real time, braving the State censorship apparatus”. In this case, we are more inclined to speak of networks than communities.

70The practice of downloading is likewise that of a network when, as Evans (2011) revealed, it expresses distrust of media institutions, especially regarding American series: media institutions may delay their broadcast, change their showing time without prior notice, or even abruptly decide to stop broadcasting them. Downloading allows users to fight this uncertainty and arbitrariness through strategic, horizontal, and multipolar relationships. In fact, the sharing central to the network form of action is generally closely linked to the bypassing of media intermediaries. In a study on the social circulation of news information, Jouët and Le Caroff (2013: 153-154) observed “the growing autonomy of the circulation and reception of news from digital media spaces filtering into private networks”. We can also cite the crowd-funding system, the principle of which is likewise based on the ability to bypass established decision-making and financing organizations such as record labels and banks. By acting as a network, the people interested in a project can thus contribute to its creation and dissemination.


71The analysis provided in this article first consisted in examining the different conceptual strategies surrounding “the audience”, in the context of a media and communications environment increasingly marked by technological convergence, many-to-many communication, and participation in the production and distribution of content. In line with Ridell (2012), we suggest that a strategy based on the opposition and articulation of different categories, each with its own form of action with/through media, is heuristically and analytically more fruitful than a strategy built on the substitution, hybridization, or variation of categories.

72At the same time, we developed the idea that the category of network, through its multiple definitional criteria [6], allows us to specify some of the collective mechanisms of media interaction or participation that the concepts of audience, public, or community cannot describe as well: the construction of relationships, the co-creation of content and technology, sharing or circulation, spatial dedifferentiation, temporal individualization, and the bypassing of established or official intermediaries. Research on audiences and publics would therefore benefit from a more systematic use of this concept so as to better account for these phenomena, but without substituting the categories of audience, public, and community, which remain productive in the analysis of the complexity of media practices.

73Mobilizing a varied conceptual repertoire makes it possible to circumvent an epistemological problem raised by the category of network: as this category relates to practice, there is the risk of researchers simply reproducing established categories of thought (Van Campenhoudt, 2010). Research on “social networking” websites falls into this trap whenever it considers these online platforms solely as networks. The study of “community” media runs into the same problem when it does not provide itself with the means to see anything other than communities. These examples illustrate the extent to which it is relevant to mobilize a conceptual repertoire that allows us to take the diversity (and articulation) of collective media practices into account. Such a repertoire offers a framework of reflection and analysis which may help to move away from the hegemonic categories established by practice – to demonstrate, for example, that there are also communities that form through social networking websites, networks that watch television, and audiences that browse the Internet (Ridell, 2012; Roscoe, 1999).

74In fact, it is in the contrasting of these categories and their dimensions, which thus operate as ideal types, that their heuristic and analytical value lies. This is especially true since the full range of activities of the network form of action is accessible only to a certain segment of the population, as Burgess and Green (2009) noted when discussing the forms of contribution to YouTube: “access to all the layers of possible participation is limited to a particular segment of the population – those with the motivations, technological competencies, and site-specific cultural capital sufficient to participate at all levels of engagement the network affords” (ibid.: 81). The same observation can be made about the consumption of news online: being “an actor in one’s own information”, means being a “well-connected” Internet user who forages freely on the Internet, also keeping an eye on pure players. On the other hand, a “conventional” Internet user is limited to a few news websites and an offering put together by professional journalists (Devillard, Dolez and Rieffel, 2013: 91). Moreover, these “well-connected” practices, which are associated in this case with the network form of action, are socially biased: they tend to concentrate in the environments with higher cultural, economic, and social capital.

75From a normative point of view, Burgess and Green (2009: 82-83) nonetheless consider that this observation should not lend excessive value to the network form of action as a new horizon for media education, at the expense of other forms of action. They defend the idea that audience and public forms of action are equally important for public space and cultural citizenship. In terms of media education, the goal is therefore not for everybody to master advanced network skills, but rather for people to be able to mobilize a variety of forms of action suited to different projects, situations and imperatives.

76In line with the approach suggested by Ridell, this article has placed a lot of importance on the actantial dimension of the network form of action. Its structural dimension would therefore need to be further explored; that is, the way in which socio-technical frameworks and enunciative structures [7] “format the mechanisms of contribution” (Jouët and Le Caroff, 2013: 137; also see Lin, 2012), without underestimating users’ ability to negotiate structures [8]. Moreover, the socio-technical imaginary conveyed by supporting discourses of all kinds also provides a “framework of interpretation and action” for users (Flichy, 2000). Take, for example, the figure of the “spect-actor”, “at the heart of the speeches and slogans of eulogists of the media to come”, as Allard (1997: 10) predicted.

77This article did not either address the crucial question of power. While some authors celebrate co-creation, sharing, and bypassing as the advent of a new “active” and even “participatory” audience, others are more critical, stressing that “networking” is still controlled by professional media producers most of the time. Lin, for example, commented as follows on BBC Backstage: “although the audience is portrayed as a group of people with agency, they appear to be treated as unprofessional, amateur outsiders of the broadcast world and additional resources that can be utilized and exploited by media corporations” (Lin, 2012: 600). The question of power has been inherent to research on media audiences and publics for as long as the field has existed; it has yielded a vast body of literature, multiple approaches, and debates that are still on-going and sometimes very heated. We believe that, before delving further into this issue in relation to the category of network, it is important to ground it more in research on media audiences and publics, by outlining the activities characteristic thereof. It is a task for future research to further examine the role of power in these different activities – given that networks, just like audiences and publics, are “sites” shaped by power relations and stakes.

78Two lines of research deserve further investigation. First, the theoretical matrix of the power of the network and within the network, as proposed by Van Campenhoudt, aims to (once again) place the question of power (of domination, conflict, etc.) at the heart of the analysis of networks. As the author notes, the concept of network “belongs to a conceptual family that is currently fashionable, and in which a consensual view of society explicitly prevails” (Van Campenhoudt, 2010: 14). Second, Carpentier’s work surrounding participation with/through media likewise endeavours to (once again) place power at the heart of participation theories. According to Carpentier (2011a, 2011b), the semantic reductionism of this concept likens it to the minimalist forms of participation that are access and interaction, rendering maximalist forms of participation based on power sharing impossible to conceive of. Reading Van Campenhoudt and Carpentier, it appears that theories on networks and those on participation are faced with similar theoretical, epistemological and ideological challenges. Greater integration between these two fields of research in the framework of a new “paradigm of participation” (Livingstone, 2013) of research on audiences and publics would certainly yield fruitful results.


  • [1]
    See below.
  • [2]
    See also Ridell (2012) on publicization on YouTube, and Jouët and Le Caroff (2013) on the subject of publicization via comments and social networking websites in relation to news information.
  • [3]
    This section is a revised and extended version of a paper published in the proceedings of the conference “Accords, désaccords et malentendus : le sociologue comme médiateur dans l’espace public” (18 and 19 October, 2012), published by Publications de l’Université Saint-Louis – Brussels, edited by Jean-Pierre Delchambre (2014).
  • [4]
    See, for example, the case of Samizdat, and the difference between “network of communities” and “community-network” (Mounier, 2006).
  • [5]
    In this sense, it can be said that studying networks, according to social network analysis, consists in producing “an image of channels and flows, as well as barriers and divisions across the whole group, thus highlighting the relevant factors that produce these links and fractures” (Bidart, 2008: 36).
  • [6]
    These are not exhaustive; other dimensions of networks deserve to be explored in depth (for example, their relationship with the State and the market).
  • [7]
    For example, calls to “participate” in an advertising buzz (network) rather than to take part in a debate (public), or to buy our videos and music (audience) rather than to download “pirated” files (network), etc.
  • [8]
    Burges and Green (2009) note that YouTube was initially designed not for networking, but rather for the publication and downloading of videos (see the slogan “Broadcast yourself”). The users themselves collectively developed the sociotechnical conditions of social networking on YouTube.

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Geoffroy Patriarche
Marie Dufrasne
Translation by
Elizabeth Libbrecht
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Uploaded on on 29/12/2016
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