One of the latest developments in audience research deals with the analysis of the views and opinions that individuals express in the social media web, where audiences share videos, comments, and grassroots productions about media contents. The wealth of information available on the web, the power of world of mouth, the relevance of phenomena such as blogs, microblogs, and social network sites, combined with the urgent need to monitor, control, and predict audience behavior has led empirical research – both academic and market-driven – to exhibit a renewed interest in quantitative research, with the aim of transforming the depth of content and the interpretative frames produced by audiences in standardized search categories. The aim of this chapter is, therefore, to reflect on sentiment analysis and its applications to the social web, reflecting on the opportunity to apply the instrument to media audiences, considering the context of the research, the critical issues relating to this approach, and the perspectives which relate to quantitative study.
Web 2.0 (O’Reilly, 2005) has significantly reshaped different aspects of media audiences’ contexts and practices.
The first change which has been brought about by Web 2.0 is related to the recent spread of convergent technologies, through which audiences can feel as if they are inhabiting a wider media space (Jenkins, 2006). This refers to a media space which they can not only cross as space-time interpolators – as Thompson (1995) wrote about the television and its function as a window out into the world – but one they can navigate, therefore seamlessly becoming a diffused audience (Abercrombie, & Longhurst 1998) because of the pervasiveness of online and offline media.
As the most recent theories on networked individualism have stated (e.g. Wellman, 2001; Castells, 1996; Rheingold, 2003; Marinelli, 2004; Comunello 2006; 2010) – thereby underlining the central role of the individual in the seamless coordination of online and offline networks – media audiences have coherent experiences in the online world and in the physical one; they can easily manage their social activities with other subjects, in environments where they can connect with others with whom they can exchange symbolic materials. The authenticity and ease of online relationships, together with their continuity with the offline world, has led us to study 'audiences on-line' – audiences that use the Internet as a space for a larger life experience, which is highly integrated with the features and performances they already experience offline – and not so-called “online audiences”, described as “online communities, online identities, online sociolinguistic patterns, cybercuture(s) relationships that emerge through CMC, and various other online social interactive human elements” (Kozinets, 2010, p. 64). The lives and cultures of online audiences are directly related to the online world, and the Internet itself becomes both a field and an object of research.
The second important change which has been introduced by Web 2.0 is that audiences have started to connect with each other once again, thanks to online sharing platforms, and they use these connections to perceive themselves as part of an audience (Livingstone, 2005). They are becoming more visible and noisy (Livingstone, 2004), and closer to the audiences that used to attend Shakespearean drama – expressing comments in real time, directly praising or criticizing texts – rather than being the passive couch potatoes described by large part of the existing scientific literature on television.
Audiences are aware that they are living in a world inhabited by other audiences, and they interpret their audiencehood knowing that other players will act as readers of their enunciative and textual products (Fiske, 1992). In the online context, the audience can be seen as a mediated product or as a performance in itself, as the barriers between the audience and the performance are being meticulously – and continuously – reconfigured.
Therefore, “this self-representation and self-performance of the audience-as-text therefore creates a second order or implied commodification insofar as the online fan audience consumes a textual construction of itself alongside the originating commodity-text, with the valued novelties of the latter crossing over into the equally novel and similarly valued speculations, rewritings and framings of the former” (Hills, 2002, p. 177).