Media Without an Audience

Presence in the mediated environment of digital networks is probably one of the most complex phenomena of the new types of social interaction that have emerged in these environments. In the current phase of radical deployment (or penetration) of the Internet, various attempts are being made to come to terms with the social dynamics of networked communication spaces. It seems that traditional media theory is not able to contextualise these social dynamics, as it remains stuck on a meta-level discourse of media and power structures (Virilio), hyperreality (Baudrillard), or on a retrograde analysis of media structures deeply rooted in the functionality and structural characteristics of broadcast media (McLuhan).

Attempts to come to terms with networked communication environments from the field of social theory are generally shallow, ill informed about actual practices, and sometimes simply too biased. Psychology does not contribute in any significant way to an understanding of these social dynamics either. The rather popular idea, for instance, that the screen is a projection screen for personal preoccupations, and that social relations that emerge through the interactions via networked media are mostly imaginary for lack of negative feedback or corrections, is deeply contentious. The idea that absence of corrective feedback stimulates the creation of fictitious relationships is an interesting one, but one that can apply equally well offline as it can online. It illuminates certain patterns of human behaviour, but it does not tell us much of what makes presence in the networks specific.

One of the greatest fallacies of current attempts to understand the social dynamics of networked media is the tendency to see these media as an extension of the broadcast media system. This idea has become more popular as the Internet is extended with audiovisual elements. Interactive audiovisual structures, streaming media, downloadable sound and video, all contribute to the notion that the Internet is the next evolution of broadcast media. But this vision applies only partially, and is driven primarily by vested interests of the media industry. It is often not reflected in how people actually use the Net.

The predication of the conception of media on the broadcast model based on a division of the roles of the active sender <> passive receiver/audience relationship, is the greatest barrier to understanding what goes down in a networked media environment. The networked environment should primarily be seen as a social space, in which active relationships are pursued and deployed. Activities take place that often seem completely useless, irrational, erratic, or even autistic. The active sender and the passive audience/receiver seem to have been replaced by a multitude of unguided transmission that seems to lack a designated receiver. Thus the Net is seen as an irrelevant, chaotic, and useless infosphere, a waste of resources, a transitory phase of development that will soon be replaced by professional standards of quality, entertainment, information, media-professionalism, and above all, respect for the audience.

Let me be clear, I do not believe in this vision, and I am convinced that the Net will not evolve into the ultimate entertainment and information medium. Instead, it seems more likely that the seemingly unstructured mess of random transmissions will prevail.

Into the Soup

The ideal of conceptualising the media environment as a social space has a considerable history. In the late 1920s, Bertold Brecht had already formulated his now famous theory of radio as direct two-way communication, and the media space as a connective network of decentralised nodes.

This notion heralds strong resonances with early cyber-utopian discourses such as Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community. Or alternatively, John Perry Barlow's idea of 'the great conversation', emphasising the kinship of network communication to the traditional meeting places, the street, the square, the agora, the theatre, the café. This early utopian phase of the Net is over, cyberspace is no longer 'independent'. Its sovereign existence is threatened by mega-fusions of the AOL/TimeWarner variety, but there is one aspect in which these early stories are right: pointing beyond the sender <> audience dichotomy of broadcasting.

A Progression of Media Phenomenologies beyond the Broadcast Dichotomy:

Intimate Media

The first step towards a micro-politics of resistance against broadcast hegemony was introduced with the concept of 'intimate media'. I was first introduced myself to this idea at the second 'Next 5 Minutes' conference on tactical media in 1996.

Intimate media have a high degree of audience feedback. In broadcast media, the distance between the sender and the remote audience is typically enormous, if only because of the ratio between active senders and the overload of passive audience. Feedback mechanisms are necessarily complicated and bureaucratic: the letter to the editors, phone-in time available for only a tiniest fraction of the audience. Intimate media are instead micromedia, there is a close relationship between sender and audience. Ideally, the sender and the audience all know each other, while the relationship is still more than a one-on-one conversation (as in a telephone call).

Intimate media are spontaneous media. They emerge at the grassroots level. They cut across all available media, all available technologies. Intimate media can be low-tech, they can also be high-tech. What characterises them is an attitude. Intimate media range from microprint to pirate radio, to hacked TV, webcasting, satellite amateurs, micro-fm or high-bandwidth networks. Intimate media can be organised in a professional way, though usually they are not. Most common is their appearance as amateur media - their reach is generally not viable economically. Intimate media are not a good stock option.

People often do know each other personally in these media networks. A curious incident at the second 'Art + Communication' festival in Riga (Latvia) illustrates this perfectly. All the discussions were sent out live via audio streams over the Net, and a few people were even listening at the other end. During one of the breaks, the stream continued and one of the artists decided to take the mobile microphone used by the presenters into the coffee room. He placed the microphone silently on a coffee table, where a lively conversation (gossip) was going on. As it turned out, the only person listening (in London) at the time was the very topic of conversation, and she protested on a chat channel within minutes. This type of media intimacy is virtually unthinkable in the broadcast model.

Socialised Media

Media used in the context of a specified social group or in a specific regional context are best described as 'community media'. Common forms of community media that belong to a geographically situated locale are radio or television based. The use of the Internet in a situated context is generally referred to as community networking. This mode of networking has become especially popular throughout the USA, but also holds some importance in Europe.

Special interest groups are usually organised around a topic, theme or a shared interest. They are essentially translocal in nature, hooking up collectives or even shattered individuals who can be radically dispersed across different regions and countries.

Networked communications can be highly beneficial for building and strengthening the cohesion of such communities. It is obvious that translocal (special-interest) groups benefit the most from networked communication, since it offers a low-cost and fairly effective means of staying in touch and exchanging ideas. But the high degree of audience feedback and peer-to-peer interaction also makes networked communication technology an invaluable tool for social interaction.

Typical forms of networked communication are the newsgroups that emerged from Usenet, text-based forums where people exchange ideas and opinions about the topic of the newsgroup. MUDs and MOOs, or generically online multi-user environments, where people can interact directly online in a communications environment. MUDs and MOOs started out as text-environments and became popular as role-playing environments, but they have become visually animated and subsequently also integrated live speech and 3D environments that can be navigated in a more visceral way than the 'point and click' navigation of traditional web pages. Multi-user environments enhance the feeling of sharing a communications space with others. The mode of interaction has to be active, otherwise it does not work.

The collaborative networks that have emerged as a result of these low-cost translocal communication tools are another important aspect of socialised media. Email has helped tremendously in this regard. Mailing lists are easy to set up and can help to distribute information evenly and effectively to a very large base of subscribers, while also offering each subscriber the opportunity to react to the sender as well as to the whole list. 'Audience' feedback here is immediate, distributed and non-hierarchical. It is far removed from the letter to the editor that most likely never makes it through the editorial filters. The practices of micromedia in the arts and net.casting have benefited enormously from the availability of mailing lists such as Syndicate, Xchange, nettime, Nice, and others, and have been tools to establish cooperation, a sense of community and a discourse that is more open than what any print magazine would have been able to support.

Create Your Own Solutions!

One of the most successful collaborative networks, still developing, has been the Interfund. The Interfund is 'a cooperative, decentralised, non-located, virtual but real, self-support structure for small and independent initiatives in the field of culture and digital media'. The Interfund proposes to become a shared resource pool, a 'Bureaucracy Protection Shield', a forum for the critique of (the inefficiency of) large institutions, a pool of shared skills.

Beyond the fact that the Interfund stimulates individuals to 'create their own solutions', one of the more ingenious of these self-help solutions was the self-funding scheme! This proposal addresses the nasty fact that cultural funding agencies will generally only support projects that are already supported by other funding bodies. The Interfund, therefore, came up with the idea of a micro-funding scheme where projects from within the Interfund community (which itself is an open structure) would be immediately eligible for official support by the Interfund - in an amount of either 1 or 10 US dollars per project.

With the official letter of acknowledgement, new funding applications to local agencies can be given extra credibility. 'Look, our project is already supported by the Interfund!' - 'What, really?? Well in that case . . .'

If by chance the Interfund office is far away, or there is no time for a surface mail exchange, the entire collection of relevant documents can be downloaded in the form of PDF files and other design elements. Thus allowing each individual member to establish their own Interfund.

All of these types of media practices still have an attachment to the functional. There is an idea that something has to be communicated - a fallacy, of course. What mostly distinguishes intimate and socialised media from the broadcast model is that the media infrastructures here primarily act as support structures for certain intricate social figurations to emerge. There is a highly specific subset of these media phenomenologies, however, that seems to have emancipated itself from even those basic functional demands of use and has entered into a kind of 'phatic' state; the sovereign media.

Sovereign Media or 'The Joy of Emptiness'

Sovereign media are first of all media that simply exist for the sake of nothing else. Sovereign media produce signals with an origin/sender/author, but without a designated receiver. The term 'Sovereign Media' alludes to the notion of the sovereign as developed by Georges Bataille in The Accursed Share.

As a media phenomenology, it was first identified by Bilwet (a.k.a. Adilkno - Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge). For Bilwet, the sovereign media are a bewildering new UTO - Unidentified Theoretical Object, which they studied with great curiosity and leisurely pleasure. Let me first share some of the early Bilwet/Adilkno observations about this UTO:

"The sovereign media are the cream of the missionary work performed in the media galaxy. They have cut all surviving imaginary ties with truth, reality and representation. They no longer concentrate on the wishes of a specific target group, as the 'inside' media still do. They have emancipated themselves from any potential audience, and thus they do not approach their audience as a mouldable market segment, but offer it the 'sovereign space' it deserves. Their goal and legitimacy lie not outside the media, but in practising (practicable) 'total decontrol'. Their apparently narcissistic behaviour bears witness to their self-confidence, which is not broadcast. The signal is there; you only have to pick it up. Sovereign media invite us to hop right onto the media bus.
Sovereign media insulate themselves against the hyperculture. They seek no connection; they disconnect. This is their point of departure. They leave the media surface and orbit the multimedia network as satellites. These do-it-yourselfers shut themselves up inside a self-built monad, an 'invisible unit' of introverted technologies, which, like a room without doors or windows, wishes to deny the existence of the world. This act is a denial of the maxim 'I am connected therefore I am.' It conceals no longing for a return to nature. They do not criticise baroque data environments, or experience them as threats, but consider them material, to use as they please. They operate beyond clean and dirty, in the garbage system ruled by chaos pur sang.

Their carefree rummaging in the universal media archive is not a management strategy for jogging jammed creativity. These negative media refuse to be positively defined and are good for nothing. They demand no attention and constitute no enrichment for the existing media landscape. Once detached from every meaningful context, they switch over in fits and starts from one audio-video collection to the next. The autonomously multiplying connections generate a sensory space which is relaxing as well as nerve-racking.' [1]

Presence Beyond Utility

In The Accursed Share, Bataille defines the sovereign in opposition to the servile, in opposition to all activities subordinate to the demands of usefulness. The demands of usefulness, the basis of any kind of economic or productive activity, rule out the experience of sovereignty. By deriving its meaning and purpose from what it is useful for, the activity itself becomes intrinsically meaningless. The sovereign experience, on the contrary, is meaningful independently of its consequence. It always refers to the moment of its consumption, and never beyond.

'Life beyond utility is the domain of sovereignty,' Bataille writes. Only when experience is no longer subordinate to the demands of use is it possible to connect to what is 'supremely' (souverainement) important to us. Sovereign media should then be understood as media beyond use. They should not be understood as 'useless' but rather as 'without use'. The sovereign media are media that have emancipated themselves from the demands of functionality or usefulness to exist in their own right.

Quality Is Irrelevant!

Freed from the demands of usefulness, quality becomes an irrelevant criterion for these media signals. The signals exist - how they are interpreted, what the framework and the demands are that are projected upon them, is not a consideration in the process of their production. The signals can be beautiful and brilliantly clear, or amateurish and oblique. The traditional criteria of media professionalism have long been left behind in the universe of the sovereign media.

One of the most beautiful examples of a supremely sovereign media practice is the, a global micro jam in, regularly hosted by the xchange network. For a, a call is typically put out on the mailing list, inviting net.casters to join on irc and listen to a live stream originating from location one. Other locations listen and pick up the stream till someone announces on the irc channel that the live stream will move from its original location to theirs. The next stream is a remix of the original, with some things added, others taken away. The process starts anew and the stream moves to the next location and the next remix. This process can go on for hours, and very soon the origin of any specific sound is lost. What the imprints on the participants is a strong feeling of being in the network, where the relationship between origin and destination has been dissolved. The traditional audience can tune in and listen, but is of no consideration in the structure of the event.

A distinctive characteristic of sovereign media is their hybridity. Any medium can be combined with any medium. Sovereign media have a cross-media-platform strategy, but this time not to reach a new audience, but simply to extend the media space. Examples are the Virtual Media Lab, an intersection of all available media in Amsterdam, combining cable television with web casting, with radio, and even at times with satellite transmissions. [2]

Another interesting cross breed are automated media such as the Frequency Clock of r a d i o q u a l i a, or Remote TV of TwenFM, allowing automatic scheduling of live streams from the Internet on local radio and cable TV infrastructures. Or the project Agent Radio of the Institute of Artificial Art in Amsterdam that automatically and randomly selects sound sources from the Internet and schedules them in the ether.

All these media operate beyond the body count of viewer statistics.

Private Media

In the Digital City Amsterdam, the personal home pages of its 'citizens' are called 'houses'. For some years already the personal home pages on the World Wide Web in general, and the success of initiatives such as GeoCities, prevail in the face of adversity, while big-budget entertainment networks such as DEN (Digital Entertainment Network) collapse even before anyone really got to know about them. The highly respectable weekly economy magazine The Economist recently put a sad smiley face on its cover, testifying to 'what the Internet cannot do'. Inside the issue a careful analysis is made of why the Internet has such a hard time taking off as an entertainment medium, and is not living up to its promises at all.

Private media formations such as GeoCities, the Digital City in Amsterdam, and others, mostly do not deal with the communication of a specific message at all. They have no target audience, and are not part of the attention economy, but still they are highly successful as private media. More than the failed attempts to establish the ultimate entertainment medium, the Net has flourished as the ultimate personalisation of media space. The endless stacks of private home pages are the icons of these truly privatised media. Their private messages, beyond anything else, simply state 'I am here', but this simple message should not be discarded as a banal statement.

Phatic Media

In their final phase of evolution media become phatic. The term derives from linguistics. In linguistics phatic language relates to speech used for social or emotive purposes rather than for communicating information. The typical, though admittedly somewhat stereotypical example, is the speech of housewives meeting every single day in the garden while hanging wash or taking care of domestic tasks. The exchanges of apparently meaningless phrases such as 'How are you?', 'How are your children doing in school?', and so forth, communicate something beyond the semantics of the individual words.

An amazing image: a test channel of a satellite TV transmitter, operated by satellite TV amateurs - an international network. One central image surrounded by smaller screens. They show what looks to most of us like 'nothing' - a small room, an attic, a technical workshop, equipment, somebody sitting around, no apparent communication. The image just is, it does not speak. One of our civilisation's most highly developed high-tech infrastructures, utilised to celebrate the joy of emptiness .

This type of media appears to be completely useless within the traditional (broadcast) media scheme. It is a mistake to take this view for granted, however. There is indeed nothing banal about this media behaviour. The media sphere is treated here as a new type of environment, 'in' which people create presences, but without a desire or aim to communicate a specific message.

In fact I understand this as a fundamental anthropological principle - a way of inhabiting a new environment, and one that is, after all, primarily a hostile environment for most of us.

Posted on the <nettime> mailing list, October 19, 2000.


1 - From Bilwet's Media Archive -

2 - Virtual Media Lab Amsterdam:


This essay is an expanded version of a talk given at the Banff Centre for the Arts Interactive Screen 0.0 workshop (August 2000), and the introduction to the <target.audience=0> panel at net.congestion - International Festival of Streaming Media, in Amsterdam, October 2000