Researchers have identified a variety of motivations that audience members seek to gratify through mass media materials (e.g., Rubin, 1981, 2002). According to the uses and gratifications research perspective, some of these motivations are ritualized and medium-oriented (Rubin, 2002). A television viewer, for example, may watch several hours of programming every evening out of habit or to pass the time. The type of programming that he or she views is relatively unimportant in that the ritual of viewing can fulfill the motivation. Other motivations are instrumental and content-oriented (Rubin, 2002). They are more likely to be gratified by particular types of material than by others. A viewer who is watching television in order to have something to talk about the next day at work, for example, will probably need to seek out the new hit drama to gratify his or her goal rather than watch a rerun of a decades-old sitcom.
The work of cultural theorists suggests that media use may provide an additional gratification that is not addressed by the traditional typologies of media use motivations. Using mass media can function as a means of expression for the user. Particular types of media are thought to convey something about the status and social identity of the individuals who use them in the same way that particular types of shoes or brands of car can convey something about those who purchase them (e.g., Bourdieu, 1984/1979; Gottdiener, 1985; Hebdige, 1991). In other words, media have what semiotics and cultural theorists have called sign value (Gottdiener). This suggests that affiliating oneself with particular media materials by being seen to use and enjoy them can convey to others that one is allied with a particular lifestyle or attitude. One motivation for engaging with specific types of media content, therefore, can be to convey a particular image of the self to others or to reinforce this particular sense of identity to one's self.
Although it has not been addressed extensively in quantitative investigations of media audiences, including those carried out within the uses and gratifications tradition, the sign value of particular types of media texts has implications for both the methodology and theory of this type of audience research. If one of the reasons that individuals choose to engage with particular types of media content is that it allows them to convey a particular self-image, then the specific images that different types of content are believed to convey will shape whether and how individuals use that content. Media that are seen to enhance one's social reputation are likely to be used to different degrees and in different ways than those that are felt to make one look out-of-touch or unsophisticated. These associations may also shape how audience members report their use of certain types of media to researchers.
The current study investigated the sign value or social implications of a variety of different music, film, and television programming genres among the highly sought-after audience segment of young adults via a close-ended survey. In doing so, it sought to help refine practices of measuring media use as well as to lay necessary groundwork for additional research into the role of social factors in individuals' use of mass media content.
Sign Values of Media Texts and Their Implications
The meaning that media genres can carry within a social context is illustrated by Mittell's (2004) examination of television genres. He argues that genres are best understood as shared conceptualizations of categories that have been formed through the discourse of a variety of social actors including critics and audiences. Since genres emerge within a social context, genre categories are never merely descriptive. They come, he argues, "fully loaded" (p. 27) with political and social implications. Implicit in genre categories are assumptions about the audience and about the relative worth of the genre. …