Why do we watch what we watch and how does it helps us in the digital age

Have you ever wondered why we watch what we watch? What makes us choose a specific TV show, movie, or news program? Or why we read what we read? Why we scroll more on certain social media platforms rather than others? Why one day we want to watch a comedy and the next day a documentary?

Believe it or not, there is an explanation and a theory behind it and it’s called Uses and Gratifications Theory.

Uses and Gratifications Theory

In the early days, theorists thought that people do not have other option but to be influenced by the media, in the way media wanted to influence them. For example, Mass Society Theory states that “people simply are not smart or strong enough to protect themselves against unwanted media effects” while the Limited Effect Theory states “people have relatively little personal choice in interpreting the meaning of the messages they consume and in determining the level of the impact those messages will have on them.”

However, in 1974, theorists Elihu Katz, Jay G. Blumler, and Michael Gurevitch presented a systematic and comprehensive articulation of audience members’ role in the mass communication process. This is the Uses and Gratifications Theory. The theory states that people actively seek out specific media and specific content to generate specific gratifications (or results) while also trying to answer the following question: What do consumers do with the media? This audience-centered media theory underscores an active media consumer and points out that it is an extension of the needs and motivation theory (Maslow), which pictures humans as active seekers, out to satisfy specific needs.

There are various typologies on why people engage with the media. Herta Hertzog (1944) was the first one to come up with some of these typologies after analyzing why people were listening to soap operas on the radio. She reached the conclusion that people do it for emotional release, to engage in wishful thinking and learning. Then Alan Rubin (1981) came up with these categories: to pass time, for companionship, excitement, escape, enjoyment, social interaction, relaxation, information, and to learn about specific content. We also have McQuail, Blumler, & Brown, (1972) with four basic divisions: diversion, personal relationships, personal identity, and surveillance. And last but not least we have Katz et al. (1973) with connection with others and separation from others.

There are various assumptions that apply to this theory and they are the following:

  • The audience is active and its media use is goal-oriented.
  • The initiative in linking need gratification to a specific medium choice rests with the audience member.
  • The media compete with other sources for need satisfaction.
  • People have enough self-awareness of their media use, interests, and motives to be able to provide researchers with an accurate picture of that use.
  • Value judgments of media content can only be assessed by the audience.

Besides these, the theory also points out several needs gratified by the media when UGT is applied:

Hand in hand with the Uses and Gratifications Theory we have the Active Audience which suggests that “media use is motivated by needs and goals that are defined by audience members themselves, and that active participation in the communication process may facilitate, limit, or otherwise influence the gratifications and effects associated with exposure (Mark Levy and Sven Windahl, 1985). Blumler even came up with categories for the type of activity people might engage in:

The question for Uses and Gratifications researchers is whether the motivations people brought to their use of “old” media apply to new media. In my opinion, the theory applies, even more, today, in the age of social media than it did before. People have more opportunities to actually choose what they want to read or watch now than they did back in the day when they had to buy a whole newspaper or watch the whole news bulletin to get to news they wanted to read or watch.

Nowadays, for example, it is easier than ever to get your news from sources that are diversified and trustworthy. Especially now, in 2020, with everything that is going on, it is important not only to stay up-to-date but also to avoid sensationalist or fake media in order to stay at least relatively sane.

When the Coronavirus struck it was an overwhelming amount of information on the topic: on TV, on the radio, in newspapers, but even more so on social media, where everyone had something to say about it, whether they were qualified to do so or not. So what did most of us do? We selected the news that thought was relevant to us, utility and selectivity coming in handy in this case.

Or, more recently, in regards to the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement in America, you could easily see not only the differences in reporting from different media channels but also the lack of accuracy and information they were sharing. So what did the people do? They went to Twitter and Instagram, to get their information from the people that were actually protesting and were dealing with that situation, essentially transforming protesters in ‘on the ground’ news reporters. In this case, intentionality and imperviousness to influence are used.

If you want a more fun approach to the situation we can take the streaming platforms as an example. Decades ago we could only watch what was on TV, whether we liked it or not. Today, we have so many streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, Disney + that have so many movie and TV show genres, all at our finger-tips. We can watch whatever we want, whenever we want and without any ads. Selectivity plays an important role in this.

As for advertising, this theory applies itself quite well to today’s world. Even ads are tailored to our needs, significantly more so online. On social media most if not all the ads that pop up on are related to your needs or your desires. Not a day goes by without seeing an ad of something you need or searched for. Hell, sometimes it can even surprise you with how much it knows about you. This only shows how advertisers use this theory to their advantage, and maybe to ours as well.

Let’s say that you want to buy a pair of shoes. What would you prefer: that following your search on Google about the shoes you get ads with better offers on the same shoes or ads for gardening items when you live in an apartment? As much as it might pain us the Uses and Gratifications Theory works to our advantage even when it comes to advertising.

What does this mean to the future of ‘the world as we know it’? It means that we can take advantage of it and make it work to our favor, to people’s favor. You see a constant change in the approach of the government, the media, and even the celebrities when it comes to using their power. We can use social media platforms to hold them accountable for their mistakes and pursue them to make changes that benefit the general public. Yes, there is a long way ahead of us, but a small change can make a big difference.

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Alexandra Denisa Neagoe

Alexandra Denisa Neagoe

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Content Specialist. |Social Media, Advertising & Marketing.| Passionate about everything digital, traveling, books, and movies.