‘What shall we call you?’ – naming the ‘audience’ of Immersive Media

In November 2022, Mandy Rose, Professor of Documentary and Digital Cultures at the University of the West of England, and MyWorld Co-Investigator hosted a round table at idfa Doc Lab – the immersive section of the International Documentary Festival, Amsterdam.

The round table convened a conversation around the language of immersion. The session was attended by curators, producers and academics including Professor William Uricchio – MIT Open Documentary Lab; Sarah Ellis – Director of Digital Development at the RSC; Ana Brzezińska – Immersive Curator – Tribeca Festival; Producer Corinne Meiers and Director Soumya Mukhopadhyay.

The starting point of discussion was the lack of a shared term for the person who undertakes an immersive experience. Do we call that person a user, an audience, an immersant, an interactant, a participant, or a player? All terms in use within the sector. What might be at stake in not having an agreed term? Is it an inhibiting factor in devising creative work, communicating with audiences and/or developing exhibition models/strategies? What words are in use at the moment in the English language and beyond? Are these words suitable, or is the lack of a common language an issue that the sector needs to address?

The invitation was framed through a historical reference point. In 1935 the BBC established a Sub-Committee for the Invention of New Words, to deal with the question of what to call users of a television apparatus. The committee called for suggestions and received the following, which they deemed ‘very poor’: Auralooker, glancer, looker, looker-in, optavisor, optavuist, seer, sighter, teleseer,teleserver, televist, teleobservist, televor, viewer-in, visionnaire,  visionsit, visor, vizior, vizzior, witnessed, they settled on the word ‘viewer’, which became the accepted term in the English-speaking world.

There was easy agreement in the round table that terminology was unsettled, but a variety of points of view on what kind of problem that was. For one curator this was a communication challenge – the tension between the audience as plural and as a singular ‘puts curators in a difficult position’, they felt. They referred to how the term ‘user’ has been critiqued over the years and the perspective that the term evokes drug use (and by association negatives of addiction and dependency) – not the type of relationship we want to have when inviting someone to be part of an encounter. Though they mused on how interactive much of the emerging work really is, for them what’s at stake in the name is the social contract being forged in the sector.

While the round table was a very small group it might be said that the makers in the room seemed to find the lack of shared language less problematic than those with audience-facing roles. One producer was used to navigating between terms and noted that there were instances when ambiguity can be productive. At different times her company might talk about the ‘user’ (though she didn’t like that term), ‘interacteur’, ‘participant’. They might also frame a project in different ways – as an interactive documentary or as virtual reality (VR) work, depending on the context and for example which funding body they were applying to.

Soumya Mukhopadhyay questioned whether pushing towards consensus on terminology was necessary or desirable. He felt that there wasn’t one adequate term for A South Asian Queer Pamphlet (2022) the work he was showing at idfa Doc Lab. He talked about it as a project, but also as an interactive documentary, and he was comfortable with this indeterminacy, accepting that we’ll arrive at new words in due course as this media evolves.

William Uricchio offered insights into the process of linguistic development and how they reflect the malleability of language. ‘When it comes to the emergence of new terminology, lots of ideas might come into play.’ William said. Early TV for example had many names, some of these involved the flipping of a term from older technology. The German word for TV –  ‘Fernseher’ – developed out of the word for telescope – ‘Fernrohr’ – a device that could see far becoming the name for a device that could show the far-away. Much earlier, the word ‘audience’ – which in terms of etymology related to listening – made a shift ‘from the acoustical to the written’ when in the late 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Benjamin Franklin appropriated it to apply to the reader of a text, in doing so, rhetorically seeking his reader’s permission to make that shift – ‘if I may do that’. This example encapsulates how consensus expressed in the adoption and use of a term – is at the heart of this type of linguistic change.

Thinking about where new terms might come from, one participant noted how the language of theatre – behind-the-scenes in particular – is infused with the vocabulary of seafaring (think rigging, for example) – as those working in early theatre applied terms that they brought from working lives on board ship. Thinking about how adjacent industries might impact language in the immersive scene today, an immersive curator was interested in film, and in the film festival as a prime site in the life of immersive work. Here, they saw how influence might play out through logistics – the film festival Community Relations Management (CRM) for instance. If the only CRM options are filmmaker or artist then, as an immersive producer, you have to select artist. Another participant thought it important to think about power too – who defines language, in terms of terminology ‘it’s where the power lies’. A hundred years ago the BBC had the power to define language and define the terms, she observed, whereas today in the immersive space that power is decentralised, and with the audience – there’s been a power shift.

William stressed that it’s in the nature of language that it’s up in the air, and then once settled it feels as if it couldn’t have been any other way. Like the list of words that the BBC rejected as terms for the TV viewer back in the 1930s, all the other possibilities look crazy to us now. The curious thing about language is; what sticks? That’s essentially a social process. The pertinent question about this current moment in the immersive scene then becomes: how might consensus building take place?

Though the discussion was brief and the group small, the round table was suggestive of avenues for follow-up and for research. The lexical gap seemed in our discussion to be most problematic in relation to marketing and audience communication. A simple survey might test that proposition. A working group of those curating festivals and other exhibition spaces might be productive, as a shared linguistic approach in these public-facing spaces could constitute a contribution to a ‘consensus building’ activity. We’ll be considering the next steps in this exploration and are interested in hearing from potential collaborators in further research on this theme, contact mandy.rose@uwe.ac.uk.

By Mandy Rose, Professor of Documentary and Digital Cultures