Questions of Audience

Thanks to the generous coverage by Will Richardson, I now have 20 subscribers to this blog. It’s a funny thing, the question of readership, of audience, and how I feel about it for myself and this space, and how I feel about it for my students and their blogging. It ties in with what I was talking about in Friday’s posting about the New Localism and scaleability. It ties in with what a lot of us were discussing during Blogwalk 3 in Vienna. And it ties in with a central issue in my upcoming Writing Across the Arts course: relationships between writers and readers.

It brings to mind the question I get at conferences and in my own college halls about why I want my students to post their work to the world. Who indeed am I writing for? Who are my students writing for? Why is it that people abandon their blogs–is it because no one is responding? Is it because the responsibility for saying something meaningful gets to be too much? What does it mean to have readers who do not respond or do not link but merely read our writing in a medium that is all about the linking, the commenting? How does public blogging affect our whole notion of classroom community, of what constitutes a viable mode of academic discourse?

First off, I think that Will, in a remarkable discussion on his blog way back in March over the course of a couple of days, articulated an important distinction between blogging and writing:

Writing stops, blogging continues. Writing is inside, blogging is outside. Writing is monologue, blogging is conversation. Writing is thesis, blogging is synthesis…none of which minimizes the importance of writing. But it’s becoming more clear just what the importance of blogging might be.

If blogging is indeed conversation , then what we are we doing when we seem to be blogging into the wind, with little response from the outside world? I’ve thought about this a bit, and truth be told, after I’ve written something that pleases me here, that I think says something useful and the next day I find that no one has found it or had something to say in return, I feel a little let down. But not really. Not for long.

This blog is, after all, still fledgling–I’ve been using blogs in my classrooms for three years, yes, but I’ve only been going about my own personal/professional blogging for three months. And even though the fact that I am writing within a public forum that is unbelievably accessible makes it tempting to get sidetracked into a daydream about the many people reading this blog–ha– I do know that the primary conversation I am having here is with myself as a reader and a writer and a teacher. It is what my old fiction writing teacher David Huddle used to say about a writer’s necessary relationship with the writing: you write for the good of the piece first, then for the good of yourself, and third for the good of your intended reader. Blogging is a little looser than that, for I, at least, don’t attend to the writing in quite the same way as I do for a more static, non-conversational medium (i.e. print). The blog is a place for me to ruminate on what I read and what I’m thinking about trying out in my classes. As E.M. Forster put it, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” It’s a chance to synthesize what I read in the blogging world and push myself to learn and to grow as a teacher through this experience. And if I write for a sometimes phantom audience outside myself, well, the potential of having a readership beyond myself forces me to write to my best, to commit to what it is I’m putting down here, even in this informal, draft-like meditation. Above all, for me, it all comes back to my teaching–it’s about modeling and experimenting and experiencing–if I ask my students to blog and moblog and voblog and mess around big time with media, then, well I had better be doing it myself to feel the fulll effects of what I’m asking of them.

And the issue of audience is a major part of what we’re after in our teaching:
Ken Smith, as part of that discussion on Will’s blog, makes many important points about the intersections between blogging and audience, among them, this one:

And maybe that means that links are vital for new bloggers for a completely non-constructive reason. Instead of assigning students to go write, we should assign them to go read and then link to what interests them and write about why it does and what it means, not in order to make a connection or build social capital but because it is through quality linking (not the flaccid A-list stuff I spoofed above) that one first comes in contact with the essential acts of blogging: close reading and interpretation. Blogging, at base, is writing down what you think when you read others. If you keep at it, others will eventually write down what they think when they read you, and you’ll enter a new realm of blogging, a new realm of human connection.

Yes. That’s it. That’s why I insist that my students write publically. Colleagues frequently ask me why my course blogs are open to the public– some think it’s unseemly to post raw drafts to the world, even irresponsible for student work to be out there at all. I counter by saying that I am, after all, trying to teach my students to see writing as a process, and as an act of communication, a kind of call-and-response with what we read and hear and know. Within our class community, the foundations of which are laid from the first time we meet on the blog and in the classroom, we see the value of blogging as connective tissue, as a way to create Lévy’s knowledge space, his sense of collective intelligence–collaborative blogging does that beautifully.

But why extend our reach into the world beyond the classroom? How are we not adding to the noise on the Web? Well, we most certainly do add clutter to the Web because not everything we write is particaulrly interesting to anyone, even ourselves. But as Ken Smith points out, we can, even in 12 weeks, perhaps earn an audience. If someone out there beyond the borders of our class happens upon a student essay on Ireland, say, and comments on it, pointing out discrepancies with the facts, or another perspective on the events examined–wow–how fabulous! The students have to go back and rethink their arguments or their structure or their style. Feedback. Efficacy-in-action. Here’s an example of just that happening to my students last fall. Their writing about events and places of Ireland had an impact on someone who grew up in the village we examined.

One student, in her reflection a the end of last fall’s Contemporary Ireland course, said a good many insightful things about the value of the blog, among them:

“This class taught me how to say something meaningful, and how to say it well. Perhaps the moment the extensive nature of this class really hit me was when I was doing a google search for another project in this class. One of the first links that came up said “Barrie’s review of The Field.” I couldn’t believe it. I was on google. Something I wrote could be read by millions of people around the world. Then I got nervous. I hope that if anyone ever reads it they find it useful.”

So for my students blogging is about our small community, yes, but it also about the potential to have an impact on a larger audience as well.

But how large an audience do we want, do we need?

At <a href=”http://www.blogtalk.net”target=”_blank&#8221; Blogtalk Mena Trott told a story about her own blog and how she had set out to be an A-list blogger:

“I decided that I wanted a readership of tens of thousands. I had a goal.

So, I started my weblog, and wrote the sort of posts that made me a popular read. I wrote about my life, but not about any sort of details that I wouldn’t want my parents to read. I wrote with the clear understanding that Google and the WayBack Machine would hold me accountable for everything I said. I wrote responsibly and frequently and in little less than a year I had grown a readership of about 10,000-15,000 unique readers a day. “

Then she makes a discovery:

Well, it took a couple years to realize that I didn’t in fact want to write and reach tens of thousands. I wanted to reach 10 or 20 people, my close friends and family and a handful of webloggers I communicated with in real life (also known as friends)…
I wanted to reach a smaller audience, an intimate audience. Clay Shirky gave a talk at the first Emerging Tech conference in California and explained that on LiveJournal, a diary/weblogging service that has a fairly young user base, the average number of friends a livejournaler has is about 6 to 12. This amazed us since we assumed, that their behaviour and linking patterns would be similar to webloggers. Blogrolls tend to be long and visitor traffic is coveted. Communication in groups of 6 or 12 is easy to maintain. These magic numbers work online and offline.”

And this, in effect, is what I’m seeking–for myself and for my students, and here I finally get back to my previous posting about the New Localism: I love to read other blogs that make up discrete yet fluid communities–I don’t participate but I learn and then come back to my own blog and reflect on what I learn from them. Then if I keep finding myself drawn back to their blogs, their conversation, I start to trackback, or even leave a comment. But I don’t do so on the run. I don’t comment very often except on the bogs that form part of my working community such as Héctor’s blog because he’s a part of my blog/work/social community.

It’s a fascinating balance between the local and global promise of blogging: writing for the small group (and the self) while welcoming new members of that group and hoping for fresh insight from the larger audience. In my fall arts writing class we will be looking at audience from all kinds of perspectives, and we’ll be blogging about it for ourselves and for a largely unknown, invisible audience. And I am certain that this collaborative endeavor will help me think more clearly about my relationship as a blogger with the reader/writer self and the reader/writer other. Can’t wait!

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5 Responses

  1. Ok, you’ve promted me to de-lurk! I am one of your RSS subscribers, a technologist from Colby College and an attendee of the Williams DS sympoium. I’m an admirer of your teaching method — pretty edgy. I’d love to have your willingness to experiment and embrace new media rub off here at my institution.

    As for the voice-in-the-void phenomenon, I’m not sure that it’s really so isolated as that, it may be that we need to adjust to the new communication landscape. RSS allows us to piece together a conversation that doesn’t exist outside of the aggregator: a chorus of soliloquies. It may seem like a one-sided deal to you, the blogger, but your writings form part the bloglines gestalt for me the subscriber.

  2. Thanks, Zach, for wading into the conversation. I think you’re right about needing to adjust to the new communication landscape” which does, in some measure resemble “a chorus of soliloquies.” It’s an exciting yet uneasy space right now–for the blogger who can feel either alone or too puffed up with illusions of self-importance, and for the silent reader (I’m having trouble adopting the term ‘lurker’)who wants to absorb as much as possible in the limited time available for reading but feels guilty and thus a lurker.

    The challenge for us as teachers, I think, is to help our students dare be both writer and reader, apprentice and expert, something that is very difficult given the demands of a twelve-week semester and an academic system of compartmentalization–we’re so divided into semesters, class hours, departments, disciplines. We have to be willing to model experimentation and reflection and integrated approaches to our own work. Not so easy–

    Barbara

  3. Hi Barbara,

    I’ve read your blog a number of times and have been enjoying it very much: there’s so much here that is applicable to the things that i’m thinking and wondering about too, and I enjoy the way that you mix reflections about teaching, blogging, writing, personal adventures, and responses to what others are saying. I found this particular entry very interesting, since I myself tend to be more of a “lurker” than a blog participant, even though I do love to participate once I get going! So I’m pushing myself to respond a little more online to what I read. And the questions/points about numbers in terms of audience…those are very interesting considerations. How big an audience is desirable for a particular type of blog, or type of work? And how does “audience” and “community” intersect and/or not?

    Anyway, taking this chance to compliment you on your blog. It’s very nice (italics). I like the colors, the lay-out, and the way that it’s really a “blog.”

    Catharine

  4. hi barbara…i recently learned about blogs and i am returning to the classroom after a sabbatical from teaching…i would like to subscribe to your blog but i can’t find a sunscribe link…email me or visit my personal, blogger-reflective site…i am developing a new blog for my classes and am trying to learn the best medium and tools to implement…any advice or feedback would be appreciated…light

  5. Light,

    I’m glad you’re interested in subscribing–I’m not all that sure myself how it’s done (another indication that though I’m a blogger, I’m not a techie), but I do know that http://www.bloglines.com allows you to subscribe. If you follow their directions, you should be able to find me. Several people have subscribed via what looks like Will Richardson’s subscription:http://www.bloglines.com/blog/wrichard?subid=2365248.

    Hope that works!

    Other people use an RSS feeder such as Net News Wire or Feedster.

    You’ve prompted me to figure out the subscription services & feeds!

    Thanks for your interest,
    Barbara

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