Faculty members give thoughtful attention to audiences and the male gender

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December 18, 2014

The Marketplace of AttentionTwo School of Communication scholars have new books out that take a look at public attention—and the kind of men who act badly in its spotlight.

The Marketplace of Attention: How Audiences Take Shape in the Digital Age (The MIT Press) by James G. Webster, professor of communication studies, gets at the problem of today’s thinly spread public attention. Audience is all important for building social capital, and without an audience, media is rendered meaningless. Webster takes a look at contemporary audiences, what we believe about them, and what we’re getting wrong.

“If you follow all the things that are written about the impact of digital media—and there’s a lot out there—you realize there’s no consensus about what’s likely to happen,” Webster said. “Many writers think we’re at the dawn of a new participatory culture. About an equal number think digital media with tear society apart. So a big motivation for writing the book was to look at hard data about what's actually going on and figure out what the future holds. As with so many things in life, it's neither as wonderful nor awful as others would have you believe. But in many ways the truth is more interesting.”

James WebsterIn The Marketplace of Attention, Webster shows that public attention is at once diverse and concentrated—that users move across a variety of outlets, producing high levels of audience overlap. “So although audiences are fragmented in ways that would astonish midcentury broadcasting executives,” Webster said, “this doesn’t signal polarization.” Our preferences are not immune from media influence, he said. “We typically encounter ideas that cut across our predispositions. In the process, we will remake the marketplace of ideas and reshape the twenty-first century public sphere.”

In a review of the book for Times Higher Education, Sharon Wheeler wrote, “The Marketplace of Attention is a worthy addition to cross-disciplinary shelves. It’s lucid, accessible and thoughtful—and in our fast-moving media market, who can ask for more than that?”

Men: Notes from an Ongoing InvestigationMen: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation (Metropolitan Books) by Laura Kipnis, professor of radio/television/film, is a collection of essays about badly behaved men, a fascination for Kipnis “on and off the page.” In Men, Kipnis takes a look at some of the spectacular public displays of male excess we’ve been privy to, including disgraced politicians, erotically desperate professors, fallen sports icons. She also revisits some of the “archetypes of wayward masculinity” from her own life.

“This book is full of disreputable characters,” Kipnis said. “I think something in me secretly identifies with badly behaved men and yearns to be more badly behaved than I feel capable of being in real life. There’s just this extra layer of social constraint placed on women, and most of us born female consciously or unconsciously comply with them.”

Kipnis takes on Larry Flynt, Tiger Woods, and Anthony Weiner, among others, admitting that she envies men, even those she would “like to thrash and dismember.”

Laura Kipnis“It’s hard to deny that men have had more freedom in the world than women have—throughout history and also right up to the present, and who wouldn’t envy that?” Kipnis said. “But men aren’t exactly without their neuroses and anxieties either, including about women’s opinions of them—in fact I think these are particularly anxious times for men, which is what made them such a fun subject to write about.”

In a review of the book for the Washington Post, author Lisa Zeidner wrote, “With her fourth book, Men, an acerbic, wildly entertaining collection of essays, Kipnis does what she does best: She takes a sledgehammer to stereotypes and sentimentality… Her combination of breeziness and erudition makes her unusual among contemporary essayists, and unusually valuable.”