In 2006 Jay Rosen penned an article in which the shift of power relations between the audience and the media is addressed as a ground breaking change that would lead to an emancipated status for the people formerly known as the audience. Rosen’s article would spark a long-standing debate on audience participation, favoring an understanding of audiences as active and empowered, rather than passive and subjected.
Ten years later, the media landscape offers a much less optimistic panorama, calling for revisiting Rosen’s argument. In an age of information hyper-saturation, dichotomous terms like audiences and publics, producers and consumers, professionals and amateurs have been blurred into indistinguishable roles that often coexist. Terms like prosumer, produser, and pro-am flood the media debates as scholars try to make sense of the tensions between the new roles of traditional actors: consumers and producers. The celebratory rhetoric of participation has been met with reluctance from scholars who denounce issues of surveillance, free labor, and exploitation of user generated data.
This paper revisits and analyzes the current state of the participation literature drawing from the terminology that several authors in the fields of media, information systems, and interaction design, use to name the people who ultimately consume and produce media. Departing from the polarized continuum of technological approach this paper analyzes the relations within the new media landscape where several overlapping audience-oriented fields have started to adopt the term user as a predominant alternative for the people formerly known as the audience. The agency provided by affordances of technological convergence allows for widespread participatory action. However the so-called democratization of the new digital masses, as well as the enslavement of media literate citizens, are extremes that hardly depict reality. This paper argues that the only reality on the new media landscape is that the interaction between humans and algorithmic entities bases its roots on the interaction of both actor-types. Whether exploited or liberated, active or passive, users and interfaces are the main topic of discussion within the literature. The issues of living with technologies that enable every user to participate in both local and global debates as an everyday life activity leads to a crisis of traditional models of public engagement.
With the aim to map the current expansion and diffusion of academic terminology, this paper concludes that new media, by acknowledging the public as a user, provide alternative models of public engagement by continuously re-patterning interaction design between the systems and the users, thus redefining and reshaping the public sphere into new digital social environments.