Teaching social media 4: audiences

People with social media heads

A critical media education approach: using the concept of audiences to teach about social media.


Are the ‘key concepts’ of media education still relevant in an age of social media? To what extent do they need to be reformulated, or even replaced? In an earlier post, I made the case for a critical media education approach to social media. This is the last of four posts in which I take each of the media education key concepts and think through how they might be applied in teaching this area. (If you’re not familiar with this key concepts approach, you can find a very straightforward summary here, and some approaches to assessment here.)

In this post, I’m looking at the concept of audience; and I’ll be referring primarily to platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. I begin by re-stating a few of the most important emphases here, and considering how far they might apply to social media – or indeed whether we need an alternative concept altogether. I then briefly suggest a few topics or strategies for teaching, primarily at upper secondary (high school) level. This is not intended to be comprehensive or definitive: it’s very much provisional, work in progress. I’m keen to receive feedback, via the old-fashioned medium of e-mail.


The study of audiences has always been a key dimension of media education. However, media education itself has often been informed by simplistic assumptions about audiences. The ‘mass audience’ is often seen as gullible and easily influenced – and this is particularly the case when that audience is children and young people. Such views have a very long history, but they still very much with us, for example in debates about the impact of so-called ‘fake news’. In terms of education, this often makes for a protectionist approach, in which teachers attempt to rescue children from what are presumed to be harmful behavioural, moral or ideological effects.

Cinema audience 3D glasses

Contemporary media educators typically adopt a more rigorous and critical approach. Studying media audiences means looking at how audiences are targeted and measured, and how media are circulated and distributed; at the assumptions media producers make about their audiences, and how they seek to engage them; and at the different ways in which individuals and social groups use, interpret and respond to media. In the process, media educators will be encouraging students to critically evaluate popular claims about media use; and enabling them to analyse and understand their own and others’ uses of media.

The key insight here is that media audiences are socially diverse. People use and engage with media in a whole range of social settings, alongside their other everyday activities. They have diverse purposes and motivations for using media, and diverse habits and patterns of use. They interpret and respond to media in very different ways, and they like and dislike very different things. These differences are partly to do with factors like gender, ethnicity, social class, and age; but as media have proliferated, audiences have also become increasingly fragmented. As such, the consequences or outcomes of media use are bound to be diverse as well. Simplistic ideas about cause-and-effect are unlikely to do justice to the complexity of the process. This applies not only to moralistic concerns about sex and violence, but also to grand claims about the power of advertising, or about the effects of political propaganda.

Social media apps on phone

All these points obviously apply to social media, as well as older media. Yet of all the four key concepts, audience might appear to be the one most in need of rethinking in the light of social media. The early enthusiasts for Web 2.0 proclaimed that the old idea of the passive audience had become hopelessly outdated. A new ‘participatory culture’ was emerging, in which everyone would be busily creating and sharing their own media content. The age of Big Media, they argued, was finished: vertical, top-down communication was giving way to horizontal, networked communication. ‘The people formerly known as the audience’, and one commentator put it, were no longer passive consumers, but active producers, or ‘prosumers’. And this apparent democratisation of the means of media production, they claimed, would lead in turn to a broader revitalisation of democratic politics and civic engagement.

Kim KardashianThis of course presumes that ‘old media’ audiences were merely passive consumers – a view that can’t be sustained if we look (for example) at research on television audiences. However, it also begs many further questions. Very few social media users are active ‘prosumers’, generating substantial amounts of original media content. Few of us are communicating or sharing material with large audiences, beyond people we already know. There is a digital elite of social media celebrities, who are mostly privileged in all sorts of other ways in other areas of their lives (and in many cases, their celebrity derives from their other media activities in the first place). Meanwhile, the platforms we are using are largely owned and shaped by powerful corporations, who are using our data for their own purposes. This apparent flowering of popular creativity is also enhancing the potential for surveillance, invasion of privacy, and control by commercial and governmental agencies.

‘Audiences’ might not be the right word any more. ‘Users’ might seem more appropriate, but it seems to imply that we are somehow in control, and just availing ourselves of a service. We might be users of social media, but in some ways we are also used by social media. And to some extent, we are still ‘consumers’, and even ‘customers’…


Daily Mail harmOne way of starting to teach about social media audiences is to ask students to interrogate the debates themselves. The optimistic story I have outlined has been joined in recent years by a growing chorus of claims about the negative effects of social media use, again particularly in relation to children and young people. Social media are now routinely accused, not just of promoting pornography and paedophilia, but of a whole range of other social ills, especially to do with mental health: narcissism, poor self-esteem, sexualisation, addiction, depression, suicide… and the list goes on.

Such arguments can be found in social media themselves, but of course they are particularly promoted in the older media (newspapers, television) that are competing with them. Students can usefully examine these debates by gathering examples of both positive and negative arguments, and applying some critical questions. Who is making these claims, and what authority or expertise do they have? What evidence are they using, and how valid or relevant is it? What kinds of language are they using to attract attention to their claims? What assumptions are they making about the media themselves, and about particular types of users? Students might be asked to annotate a news story in this way, also drawing attention to the use of language and imagery.

Following from this, a very familiar classroom activity is to encourage students to document and then analyse their own media practices. Written ‘media diaries’ can be a nightmare, and they are often less than accurate; but with devices like smartphones and via internet search histories, it should be much easier for students to log what they are actually doing on a minute-by-minute basis. Such information can be analysed using some fairly basic questions (when, where, what, who…). However, the framework of social media practices I outlined in this earlier post might offer an initial way of differentiating between different types of social media activity (messaging, playing, curating, networking, and so on). Students might also want to classify these different practices in terms of who is actually involved: how public are private are the various ‘audiences’ here, and how do they know this?

little-boy-and-girl-playing-with-mobile-phones-640If they compare results among their group – and perhaps add to this some findings from other social groups (younger siblings, parents or grandparents) – students should begin to understand the diversity of social media use. This activity could also provide a means of thinking through some of the popular claims that are made, for example about social media ‘addiction’, or about the effects of using smartphones on mental health. Students might also want to consider how people are claiming these problems can be treated, for example through a variety of rather dubious ‘digital detox’ products and proposals. The point here is not to prescribe a particular kind of ‘healthy’ use of social media, but rather to raise the question of how such healthy uses are defined, by whom and on what basis.

A further step would then be for students to research particular groups of social media users – in other words, specific online networks or communities. I’m thinking here not so much of informal groups of friends (or indeed ‘friends’), but of more organized groups, defined by a particular interest. They might begin by looking at a group of which they are a member, and then contrasting this with one that is very different. Across a school class, it should be possible to organize a diverse selection of such groups, including those based on lifestyle preferences, politics, social or religious identities, fan communities, health support groups, and so on. Analysis could then focus on how such groups are organized, and how they work. For example, how is participation invited, encouraged and moderated? What kinds of people seem to be the most active? Are there leaders, and how do they become leaders? How are intruders or rule-breakers dealt with? How does the community create itself as a community, and how does it try to engage with non-members or outsiders?

In this area, students might look specifically at how social media are being used for political purposes. They could begin by considering public debates about such issues, which might range from stories about Russian intervention in US and European elections, through to controversies around surveillance, security and privacy. Equally, students might look at how offline political activities relate to those online; and at the growth of what has been called ‘clicktivism’, especially in the form of online petitions. And of course, no study of social media could be complete without an analysis of the prodigious tweeting practices of Donald Trump – which are arguably rather more calculated than some have assumed.

ClicktivismHowever, high school students might well be more interested in understanding how social media are being used, both by established political parties and by activist movements (of all persuasions), specifically to target younger participants. They might consider what kinds of political information (broadly defined) they themselves receive via social media: to what extent are they confined to their own ‘echo chamber’ or ‘filter bubble’, and how far can they learn about contrary views? If there has indeed been a ‘youthquake’ in mainstream politics (and there’s some debate about this), to what extent can this be put down to social media? Meanwhile, how are activists – ranging from feminists to religious fundamentalists – using social media to try to engage this age group in particular? How do students themselves evaluate the effectiveness of these strategies? (Here again, there’s an opportunity to place alarmist concerns – for example about ‘online radicalisation’ – in a wider critical context.)

Ultimately, the concept of audience may only provide a limited basis for understanding what is going on in the world of social media. Nevertheless, the conceptual approach makes it possible to transfer questions and insights that apply to older media, and to address some of the emerging concerns about social media within a more comprehensive and coherent critical framework.