Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Is there such thing as an interest-free audience?

In my last blog I wrote about how difficult it is to interest science journalists working in traditional media outlets in public dialgoue.

At Think-Lab, we've started to wonder if we are barking up the wrong tree. The commercial world is increasingly turning towards online media - not just websites, but blogs and places like facebook where you can start a direct conversation with your 'customers'. So could this work for science communicators - especially when we're trying to involve citizens in public engagement activities? Surely directly engaging citizens without the media filter is the solution?

Unfortunately the one feature of the online world that so appeals to people in the commercial sector appears to be something of a drawback for science communicators. Online media outlets are extremely fragmented. This means that it's extremely easy to reach niche audiences (the famous 'long tail') - ideal if you're a model soldier company looking to sell to model soldier enthusiasts, but less helpful when you're trying to involve citizens in discussions about stem cells. You really aren't looking for stem cell enthusiasts, but a posting on the local 'stitch'nbitch' forum might be out of place.

I know we've had lots of debates about public/publics for many years, but the fragmented online world has made me wonder whether we ever did move beyond the concept of a 'disinterested public' when it comes to public dialogue and engagement. For many projects, the mass media is seen as a bridge from the world of policy to the world of these disinterested creatures. But it's not a realistic perception - newspapers reach particular groups of people, and an even more particular sub-set of those read a given article. Even if you get the occasional person with no interest in stem cells accidentally reading an article about your stem cell consultation (maybe it's next to an article about knitting?) surely they're not going to volunteer to take part in the debate unless they have some personal connection to the issue? Apart from those instances when projects have chosen participants off the electoral register and paid them to give their views, have we ever really involved citizens who aren't interested? Is it time to move away from the 'interrruption' model of communication and come to terms with the fact that our audiences are interested, so that we can start defining the niches to target more clearly?

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