The Audience Claps… and Creates

“The fact that so many of us are writing — sharing our ideas, good and bad, for the world to see — has changed the way we think. Just as we now live in public, so do we think in public…[…]…Having an audience can clarify thinking. It’s easy to win an argument inside your head. But when you face a real audience, you have to be truly convincing.” — Clive Thompson, How Successful Networks Nurture Good Ideas

Last week Thursday I gave a presentation to about 25 subject specialist librarians at my library. I’m working on a serials collection assessment project that is going to involve considerable input from each of them (won’t go into details here but suffice it to say it is a multi-month project with lots of potentially-headache-inducing logistics involved…) A few of the librarians who I knew would be attending the meeting typically get very engaged and ask lots of specific and pointed questions — questions not necessarily without merit, of course, but ones that sometimes tend to put you on the spot a bit. I was so worried about getting lots of tough questions from these folks that I worked and re-worked on my presentation to the point where I thought I had anticipated any potential curve balls they might throw at me. Turns out that on the day of the presentation none of those few specific librarians I had been so wary of even asked questions. Which then kinda freaked me out just as much… ?

The point I’m trying to make: the audience for my presentation completely shaped my presentation. To be more precise, my perception of my target audience influenced the way I thought about my argument, the way I crafted and constructed the presentation, the content I ultimately decided to include or omit, and the questions I had prepared for in advance.

However, this is different than an audience influencing creation from a more collaborative or interactive standpoint, where the audience itself may play a direct role in the formulation of the content. I’m reminded of some examples in the first few chapters of the Thomas and Brown text: the nine-year-old boy who created online games with/for his peers while “accidentally” learning programming skills, all the while really loving the other kids’ feedback; the college course about MMOGs where the students ended up learning more from each other and essentially re-creating and re-directing the content of the entire class.

We collaborate for creation (but actually for the comments, right?). We get feedback and persuasion in the form of “Perfectly said! But…” The Internet never closes for business. Now — often in real time — we think in public, we write in public, we make mistakes in public, we create in public, we are counted in both an audience of millions and of one. Now we can be — and we are — both the spectator and the spectacle.

This loop between audience and creator influencing creation can get kind of meta sometimes. I shared in last week’s discussion that I’m working on a piece of writing that’s been getting really supportive feedback; however, one reader made it clear she wants something specific to happen next in the plot. I’ve been hyper-aware lately of the fact that just knowing my audience might expect the story to go in a particular way may somehow influence my writing, whether this is happening consciously or not. To what degree are the readers really “writing” the story based on a) my assumptions of what kind of story I think they would be interested in and b) the information (and omitted information) they provide for me in terms of feedback?

How does the fact that my writing is published online for anyone to read impact the decisions I make about what to write to be published online for anyone to read?

It seems there are various versions of the idea that as we use technology (and particularly social media) to connect in this way with others, we construct an identity that we sort of “perform” publicly online for all to see. We are the constant curators of our digital lives, for better or for worse. Our perception of our audience for this performance greatly influences what we create and how we create it.

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