NUS Master of Social Sciences (Communication) Thought Leadership Series

Calling In, and Out, The Contemporary Audience

Master of Social Sciences in Communication Thought Leadership Series

Dr Rosemary Overell, Senior Lecturer | 6-min read

21 September 2021 — 


My thumbs hover on the screen. 


Green juice gurgles down my throat. I take a selfie to send to my sister on Signal. Too personal to share on the ‘gram or twitter. Am I too old for public selfies? Probably. 


A friend in Denmark shares a photo in the Instagram group chat, a quick and dirty photoshop on the latest viral meme, playing on an in-joke in our friend group.

Double tap <3 

The Olympic Opening Ceremony plays behind me on an improbably large-screen television. The accent is a kind of ‘global British’, but speaking of Singapore.

… Joseph Schooling / medal hopes / (in these uncertain times) … 

As I type addressing an old colleague, predictive text AI generated offers grey prompts in my work email.

What can (I say?)? I hope you (are well?). 

My personal address somehow universalised into bot-responses.

I remember when I found this disconcerting. Now it seems normal. 

Over in the group chat another friend, in Boston, types (that little ellipsis ‘...’ hovers) a reply to the photo: meme-magick.

Ping (a semitone lower this time indicating a message in my personal email).

A substack from transnational, multilingual fashion hype machine ‘Highsnobeity’ has come through. 

Naomi Osaka’s Takashi Murakami Racket Collab is a Big Flex.

1. A Challenge 
We live in a media-saturated world. All manner of screens and sites vie for our attention; offering products, information, declarations and opinions. My opening vignette might seem hyperactive; but I challenge you (if, for a moment, you can place that phone aside and reflect …) to think about the different ways you’ve been called out to by different media in the last half an hour (or, even, the last ten minutes!).

What calls out to us also calls us in. Every four years, the Olympics positions us as overnight patriots, cheering on ‘our’ athletes and keeping track of the ‘per-capita’ medal count. A niche meme makes us chuckle at an in-joke that only fans of this or that obscure band or twitter-lebrity would ‘get’. Work emails address us as part of a corporate family. We are hailed in and respond to adverts before every YouTube; mixed in with our social media feeds; and popping up in our inboxes. Somehow, these little screens know you love sushi (especially maguro); that you are worried about blackheads; and that you might be interested in vinyl records from Jakarta. 

Let’s pause on that ‘Somehow’. How? And how to make sense of this plethora of meaning-making material which incessantly pings, beeps at us and makes us hover, tap, scroll, cap, share?

2. Mass or niche audiences?
It used to be quite simple to make a thing out of ‘us’ as an audience. We were thought of en masse as, say, members of this or that place, class, language group, or age. Though that still happens (the Olympics being an excellent example), audiences, and how the media addresses them has diffused and dispersed. As our lives and, even, our bodies (think of Fitbits; air pods, even COVID-19 tracing apps), become what1 describe as mediatised, meaning-makers, such as advertisers, journalists and creative practitioners have to ensure that their message is communicated clearly and cuts through the noise. Misinterpretations can cost brands their consumer-base, politicians their careers, and influencers their clout. This calls for a diversified accounting for the audience, that makes room for multiple identities, across numerous platforms. 

Consider the COVID-19 crisis, for example. In my home country of Australia, the message about masks is inconsistent from politicians, with some state Premiers making them compulsory in public spaces and others declaring them optional. Radio shock-jocks, columnists and renegade tweeters weigh in on masking up as either a community duty, necessary to stop the spread, while others claim the mask is an infringement on their ‘rights’. Meanings get mixed up and miss the mark; the mask becomes a battleground of divergent interpretations and associated with already present narratives around race and class. In Singapore, a national audience is called in to ‘Mask on, March on!’ (Ministry of Health 2021) as a group with consistent communication across niche media such as Telegram as well as traditional platforms, such as newspapers and announcements from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.  

3. Active engagements 
The flame wars over masks, vaccines and lockdowns demonstrate that the audience is not quite a simple ‘thing’, but a moveable, lively, and active arrangement. In fact, the line between meaning-makers and meaning-receivers (one way we might think of an audience) is increasingly blurred. We may all be the audience for the message to get vaxxed, but once we add a Facebook frame stating we are “FULLY VACCINATED” we work along with official meaning-makers, such as governments and health experts, to reinforce a message. Meanwhile, while some are called in, others are called out. Social media platforms from Weibo to Twitter and, more recently TikTok, have become spaces for ordinary audience-members to click, tap, and swiftly respond to social injustice. Hashtags like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter2 are revived and reworked for local contexts. In China, #MeToowas transliterated into ‘Mi-Tu’3  or ‘rice-bunny’, which quickly became a viral emoji. I have written on how such hashtags work to consolidate a broad category such as ‘women’ globally through an attention to localised experiences and cultures and the ease with which any micro-blog user can place the # in their posts. Most recently, we saw this in the courageous call out of Kris Wu by Du Meizhu. Again, we saw a battleground emerge as global media picked up the story. Audience debate ranged from celebration of Meizhu as part of the #MeToo collective, to despair from EXO-M fans and the positioning of Meizhu as a troublemaker. 

It is vital to account for the audience as active; as responding to all the beeps and pings in sometimes contradictory ways. The flashpoints and everyday examples above demonstrate this.

My phone just pinged.

See you soon!


[1] Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp. (2016). The Mediated Construction of Reality. Cambridge: Polity. 

[2] Rosemary Overell. (2019). ‘More than a hashtag: Excitement, Anguish and the Semblant of #MeToo’, Theory and Event 22 (4): 792-819.

[3] Jing Zeng. (2019). ‘You Say #MeToo, I Say #MiTu: China’s Online Campaigns Against Sexual Abuse’. In Fileborn B., Loney-Howes R. (eds) #MeToo and the Politics of Social Change. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Additional Reading:

  • Simon During. 1997. ‘Popular Culture on a Global Scale: A Challenge for Cultural Studies?’ Critical Inquiry 23. 808-833.
  • Elspeth Probyn. (2021). ‘Doing cultural studies in rough seas: the COVID-19 ocean multiple’, Cultural Studies, 35 (2-3): 557-571.
01 October 2021