Media Consumption Choices Impact Content Meaning and Experience

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Consumption choices influence story meaning by creating a context that frames the content of any media experience. It should seem obvious. Screen size affects perception. Location affects social influence and distraction. But media content is seldom designed to cope with the range of choices available to consumers today.

Even the most robust and well-developed storyworlds with the most compelling and relatable characters are consumed across a technology that literally and psychologically frames the experience. Technology dictates much of the sensory experience — such as screen size, quality of sound, clarity of image, the intensity of color — that moderate emotional experience and cognitive processing. Social viewing, whether synchronous and in-person or digital and asynchronous provides a secondary context of social influence, attribution, and cognitive biases such as ‘mind-reading,’ that can amplify or skew perceptions, needs and expectations. Just like we share Facebook posts in anticipation of how that reflects back on our ‘social self,’ we also process and connect with stories and characters in the context of our social environment, salient social norms and cultural interpretations. Beyond that, the consumer’s ability to control consumption through on-demand and streaming also means we can visit good stories anytime we want.

It’s All About the Story

All this emphasizes the importance of a good story. In spite of all the contextual noise, it is the story that does the heavy lifting, carrying us off into a narrative, where we can experience the story from within. This sense of presence transforms the viewer from an observer into a participant. No matter what the form of delivery, the part of the brain activated during storytelling is affected by our ability to imagine — to literally visualize — the character’s intentions, motivations, beliefs, emotions and actions that contribute to the sense of “being there”.

Identifying with characters creates a sense of rapport that increases empathy and enables an understanding of the character’s motives and goals. The combination of emotional, cognitive and motivational components creates a bond and enhances the depth of our emotional engagement. Similarity is often believed to be the primary driver of viewer-character identification. It makes intuitive sense since demographics are the most visible and obvious forms of sameness. There is a cognitive bias — often called ‘birds of a feather’ — that says people are most likely to be drawn to ‘people like them.’ Focusing too much on visible similarities, however, can overlook the pull of shared traits, allegiances, and emotional experiences within the story or with characters. These can fuel a meaningful connection even when the overt characteristics don’t match up.

Fandom and other evidence of popularity also increase character appeal and desirability. Whether you call it the ‘bandwagon effect’ or social influence, the reinforcement of peers and admired others and through shared fan experiences, can motivate engagement, meaning, and enjoyment.

Sharing Makes Stories Better

Shared media and entertainment experiences also enable reminiscing and savoring — which strengthen bonds to the story and among the fans and, as a side benefit, increase perceptions of gratitude and other positive emotions. Sharing creates intimacy, a sense of community and belonging around a story that can expand the experience out of the theater or TV and into a fan’s life. This is a key premise of transmedia storytelling. Social connection around media is a powerful way to forge friendships of shared interests and, for some fans whose families think they’re nuts, it normalizes the fan’s passion and increases the fan’s enjoyment. My studies of Twilight fan forums showed exactly that with positive ‘real life’ consequences from new friends to new jobs.

Emotional experiences are amplified when shared. Movies are funnier, chocolate tastes better and groups encourage a greater display of emotion. People are much more likely to laugh in a theater with others than watching the same comedy at home alone. Laughter is contagious and emotional expression creates a collective awareness, building a public space.

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A Journey to Another World

There is something particularly alluring about stories that take place outside of our known world. Historical, fantasy and sci-fi stories take the consumer on a delicate balance of fact and fiction to create something that feels right. The illusion of reality wrapped in fiction triggers comparisons between “then” and now as we project ourselves into the story and psychologically try out different roles. Outlander, for example, is a historical drama with a twist of time-travel. In the narrative, one of the protagonists, Clare, is doing exactly what the audience is doing — going back in time. It is, as my daughter would say, very meta. We may be familiar with a particular history, time or have fantasies about future worlds, but entertainment fills out the social and human motives and the characters’ emotions.

Similarly, sci-fi and fantasy explore a vast array of setting as Petri dishes for human behavior full of alluring images and aesthetics. The similarities allow us to emotionally experience the differences. Realism is seldom as complex or gritty as real-life might be in those worlds, unless, of course, that is the point and the audience opts-in for dystopic narratives when, nevertheless, a hero still wins. Think Mad Max: Fury Road. It all works as long as the focus stays on the characters’ story arcs with settings and costumes that trigger the imagination (the key to narrative transportation), and, offer a romantically archetypal vision of other times.

The Power of Archetypes

Most stories are built on characters cast from clear archetypal — the hero, the partner, the villain, the guide, the caretaker, the wiseman, the lover. The more unknown the world, the clearer the archetypes need to be to provide us with cues as to which characters should be the targets of our emotional investment. Universal themes from Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey — love, betrayal, redemption, innocence, justice, sacrifice, and transformation — all provide cognitive anchors to translate even the most bizarre into something we know and understand.

The trend toward designing for transmedia content — recognizing that we experience stories across media channels and not just within one — has spawned a wave of complex dramas that weave multiple concurrent threads and multiple heroes’ journeys to create a larger universe of experience and multiple access points to provide fodder for sustainable emotional engagement. Shows like Game of Thrones craft a wider narrative zone that allows for surprising plot twists that don’t violate the canon and help keep the audience in the story. This is an advantage because while we may be attracted to a story because of special effects or extraordinary costumes, we stay because of human connection. And it is exactly that humanity makes stories so powerful, impactful and rewarding.

Written by

Pamela Rutledge is a media psychologist, prof, writer, researcher & consultant, looking for the ‘why’ that drives media consumption, meaning & impact.

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