Uses and gratifications theory proposes that people use media and consume audiovisual products to satisfy specific wants and needs.
Unlike other media theories, this theory sees users as active agents who control their media consumption and not just passive receivers of messages and products.
What does the theory of uses and gratifications show?
Uses and Gratifications Theory, abbreviated as TUG, seeks to understand mass communication considering why people use the media. It focuses on the question “what effect do people have on the media?”, not the other way around.
One of the main axes of study of this theory is to identify why people choose to use certain media or consume certain products. It focuses on analyzing users’ deliberate choices to satisfy needs such as getting away, interacting with other people, having fun, or relaxing.
The theory of uses and gratifications then establishes that audiovisual products must satisfy the psychological wants and needs of consumers. Even if a means of communication is not powerful, it becomes important to someone if it fulfills one of these specific functions.
In comparison with other media theories, the uses and gratifications theory considers media consumers as active agents who control their audiovisual consumption, and not as mere passive receivers of what is offered to them. Simply put, uses and gratifications theory focuses on the needs and wants of the consumer rather than the media or messages that are delivered.
Origins of the theory of uses and gratifications
Studies of the effects of media on people began in the 1930s with mass communication. However, sufficient evidence has not been gathered from these surveys to determine the actual effects of mass media on people. Although these are considered to be the origin of uses and gratifications theory.
Prior to the 1940s, people were not considered an active audience capable of selecting their favorite messages and content. Instead, they were seen as a passive mass forming part of a homogeneous whole. The media audience was seen as passive and lifeless.
Consumers were seen as something inert, that is, they did not respond or react to the content. According to this view, people expected the media to provide them with all the information necessary for them to interact effectively in context. In other words, the public was expected to act in the same way as the information they received indicated.
During the 1940s there was a change in mentality, the public began to be seen from a more social, psychological and individual point of view, as it was observed that people were able to select information and content according to their preferences.
Some theses and studies have established two of the basic ideas of uses and gratifications theory: audiences can use the same media for different purposes, even if they see themselves as similar and homogeneous groups, and regardless of size or the power of a medium; it will not affect anyone who does not find the information useful in their psychological and social context.
Principles and objectives of the theory of uses and gratifications
After his debut alongside research in mass communication. Different authors like Elihu Katz, Jay G. Blumler and Michael Gurevitch played an important role in solidifying the theory of uses and gratifications in the 1960s.
Consumers as human beings need to escape, to interact with other people, to have fun, to relax… This leads them to relate to the media to satisfy these psychological and social needs. . Therefore, it can be said that mass media is used as a response to specific individual needs. Based on these notions, the theory of uses and gratifications specifies a set of hypotheses on media consumption:
1. Audiences are active
As we have seen, during the 1960s the idea that the public did not function as a homogeneous mass took hold. He was able to select the messages and content he wanted. The media began to see their consumers in a more individual, social and psychological way.
2. Each consumer decides the relevance of the medium
Stop thinking that the media determines what the viewer sees; rather, it is the viewers who decide for themselves based on their interests, values and needs. Ultimately, the media provides what the audience wants to see, it is the viewers who actively choose to pay attention to the content.
3. People know what they are looking for
The theory of uses and gratifications questions the relationship between stimulus and response. He proposes that it is the receivers themselves who decide on the interpretation of content – not just stimuli – when communication processes begin. In other words, consumers are only affected by stimuli if they want to be affected by them.
4. The media compete with each other
Ultimately, the media competes with other sources, in addition to each other, for the public’s attention. They do this by trying to satisfy the needs of the public. People consider their past experiences with the media when making decisions about how to spend their time. This consideration takes place at a deeper level than just remembering what they did yesterday. This involves assessing your environment and understanding how the content has affected you.
Types of rewards and needs
Part of the investigation of uses and gratifications theory focuses on understanding the ability of media to provide rewards. This has led to the creation of several typologies that categorize media rewards into a small set of classes. These psychological and social needs include:
- Need for emotional release: the media can help us get out of the routine and avoid problems, just to have fun.
- Interpersonal Need: We may use content as a substitute for business or as a source of useful information in future conversations.
- Need for personal identity: the media can reinforce certain beliefs or values, they also make it possible to explore reality.
- Need for vigilance: the media provide useful information about things that can affect us.
Although recent research on uses and gratifications theory suggests that new media provide similar gratification to old media, some authors have cautioned that studies of uses and gratifications of new media should be considered separately: new media also offer unique benefits than older forms of media, these are divided into four categories:
- Mode-Based Rewards: Currently, content can be delivered in a variety of modes, including audio, video, text, or a mix of these. If we think about virtual reality, it contributes to the need for reality.
- Freebies based on content creation: People have also become content creators these days. It can satisfy interpersonal needs with the creation of communities or statuses.
- Rewards based on interactivity: content is no longer static, this means that you can interact with it and have an impact. This can satisfy the need for control.
- Navigability-Based Freebies: Navigability-based experiences in new media address needs such as the added fun of moving through spaces and, if it’s a game, in the levels. This includes overcoming them.
Theory of uses and gratifications and social networks
According to the article by Fátima Martínez, professor of journalism: the theory of uses and gratifications of the media has been extended by the use of social networks. Indeed, social networks allow people to interact with each other and offer other advantages, in addition to relaxation, the stimulation of the imagination and the promotion of social relations, considered according to his analysis as the classic benefits of the media. Social networks also allow
- Social relations
As can be seen, this set of needs was already included in the classical theory. Even if, it is true that social networks have greatly enriched them. Moreover, we must consider that these advantages are not real. Social networks, in many cases, create a false illusion, for example, understanding people with whom we barely interact as friends.
Critique of the theory of uses and gratifications
The uses and gratifications theory has been criticized for several reasons, although it is still widely used in media research.
Many of its conclusions about active audiences are based on self-reported data from consumers themselves. This type of data is not always accurate or reliable.
Also, it’s important to keep in mind that people don’t have access to all the media options currently available. This criticism is even more evident today, as there are more options than ever. However, people are limited to choose based on their access to different options and not based on their needs.
Finally, as we have seen, the theory focuses on the audience and does not study media messages and how they can affect people.
- Martinez, F. (2010). The theory of uses and gratifications applied to social networks. In II International Conference on Communication (Vol. 3).
- Severing W, Tankard J. Communication Theories: Origins, Methods and Uses in Mass Media. 5th ed. United States: Longman; 2001
- Katz, E. (1959). Mass communications research and the study of popular culture: editorial note on a possible future for this journal. Departmental Papers, 2, 1-6. 2013, from the University of Pennsylvania database.