What is an area of interest?

It is the first week of classes and this week in my Online News unit I’ll be doing the regular introductory spiel, which includes introducing some of the main concepts to be developed with students. The central concept for this week is an ‘area of interest’, which is what an entrepreneurial journalist looks for when devising a strategy to service a community of interest and develop a media enterprise. To introduce the concept of an ‘area of interest’ to students I am using an example provided by a post to Boing Boing last week titled Sunset of a Blog, which provides a narrative of the rise and decline of a special interest site.

The site is Wi-Fi Networking News and it was created and run by tech journalist Glenn Fleishman. It is a useful example for my Online News students to begin thinking about an area of interest. A chronology of the site begins in 2001 when Glenn identified a niche regarding ‘wifi hotspots’ derived from a story he had written for The New York Times. The peak of the site occured in 2006/2007 when Glenn was writing about issues relating to ‘municipal wifi’ and the debate around technology standards.

The forms of content posted to the site fits with what my students will be engaging with this semester (here is some writing of mine that captures some earlier thinking on the subject):
1. News, described as “Mixed straight technology reportage”, i.e. the 5Ws & 1H.
2. Opinion
3. Curatorial, which Glenn describes as “Normal link-to-others blogging”
4. Evergreen, which is not actually isolated as a specific form of content in Glenn’s account, but it is evident from his comment that the “most popular page of all time is how to set a password on a Linksys model that hasn’t been sold for a few years”.

The site was successful enough for Glenn to be able to develop revenue streams of ‘up to tens of $1k per year’ from sponsorship and then later advertising. Ultimately however, the amount of work he was investing into the site was unsustainable. Glenn describes this from the point of view of other similar niche market sites as requiring “at least some moderate recurring income”.

At its peak the site had a market/audience of up to 250k views per month, and this has dropped off to 25k per month. Glenn suggests the decline was due to other media enterprises learning the ‘lessons’ of blogging practice; they “took mojo away from sites that couldn’t market to existing large readerships”. Hence the site lost market/audience share to general tech blogs/sites (Ars Technica, Engadget, Gizmodo, Boing Boing) and “hundreds upon hundreds of similar but inferior sites.

The above is a very basic ‘barebones’ description of an online media enterprise. Over the course of the semester, my students will be developing a case study of an ‘opportunity’ similar to what Glenn Fleishman identified and then acted upon back in 2001. In terms of defining the concept of an area of interest, there is plenty more conceptual detail.

Here are a few ways of understanding an ‘area of interest’ drawing on a couple of different academic areas:

Affective: Interest is one of the primary affects described by clinical psychologist Silvan Tompkins. ‘Interest’ is that moment which the body orientates itself to be attentive to a particular environmental signal. It is a pre-consciousess action of the body. It exists as a functional component of various ‘activation contours’. An ‘activation contour’ describes the process by which affect accelerates in your body turning interest into ‘excitement’, or ‘shame’ concurrently with interest. Content has to be ‘of interest’.

Enthusiasm: Another way to think about ‘interest’ that builds on this basic affective dimension is in terms of ‘enthusiasm’. Enthusiasm is a complex affection (‘affection’ being the experience of the body experiencing itself producing affects). We ‘suffer’ affections, but not necessarily in a bad way. Enthusiasm is interesing (pun intended) because it mobilises enthusiast bodies into action to engage with challenges. Content is characterised, in a general sense, by identifying and describing such challenges. Evergreen content is a prime example of translating ‘know-how’ for engaging with challenges into discourse.

Social: Depending on the context this could be described as ‘socio-technical’. An area of interest is ‘social’ in the sense of enabling the audience/users to participate in a community (imagined/symbolic and/or practical). News-based content serves as a gatekeeping ‘test’ for belonging and, for more extensive engagement, participation. The audience/users participate in economies of competence that may be expressed as allegience (‘fanbois’, political/social stratifications) and authority (‘respect’, authenticity). In Bourdieu’s terminology, an area of interest is a ‘field’, but with some important qualifications, namely it may not necessarily be professional, plus there is a strong ‘horizontal’ set of distinctions that appear to be ‘vertical/hierachical’ from within a field.

Dispositif: For those who read Jay Rosen’s blog, you may have realised that I am assuming that news-based content, above all else, must be useful. Utility of content is contingent on the specific ways that news-based content (re)valorises the interest itself. This is a far more complex point relating to the media operating as a ‘technology of visibility’ (to use Foucaultian terminology) and the way visibility produces valorisation of the news ‘object’ within specific communities of interest.

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