More on the Role of Audience in Social Spaces.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a bit here on the Radical begging people to STOP pushing the notion of building an audience as the primary reason for blogging and sharing in social spaces.

My argument was a simple one:  When we push audience as a primary reason for blogging and sharing in social spaces, we forget that MOST participants in social spaces will never build significant audiences — and if they’ve heard people preach about audience as a primary reason for writing and sharing, they are bound to feel like failures.

That’s when Bob Schuetz — a longtime Radical reader and fantastic thinker — stopped by to push back.  

Kyle Glenn

Here’s a part of what Bob wrote:

Audience causes us to raise our game, take pride in what we share.

You speak eloquently because an audience is listening. You post and tweet in the hopes it makes a difference to someone besides yourself.

Normally I dig your riffs, however in this rare case, I can’t agree with your title or premise.

I am part of your audience, and we do matter.

In a lot of ways, Bob (and Kyle Hamstra — who’s thoughts on audience sparked this conversation) is right:  I do write and think and share differently because I know an audience is listening.

I proofread more than I would otherwise because I know an audience is listening.  I am also far more reasoned — “tempered” — in my positions online than I am in person.  I don’t want to put my name on a piece that is riddled with grammatical errors or a piece that fails to consider multiple viewpoints because I know that what I create becomes a permanent representation of who I am that others will be able to find forever on the web.

Those are tangible benefits of knowing that I am writing and sharing for an audience — and tangible examples of how having an audience changes everything for me.

The BEST example of how audiences change everything, however, is Bob’s comment — and this subsequent post — to begin with.

Because I shared publicly and because Bob took the time to push against my thinking, I’m sitting here this morning reflecting on and revising what I believe about the role of audience in the lives of those of us who write and share on the web.

That intellectual give and take between writers and readers is where the REAL potential rests in a “Web 2.0” world.  Before comment sections and social spaces, the thoughts of writers went unchallenged by readers.  Today, challenge CAN be the norm rather than the exception to the rule — and challenge is the “refining fire” that ideas must pass through in order to be fully polished.

But here’s the thing:  That intellectual give and take is painfully absent from today’s comment sections and social spaces.

Need proof?

Find your favorite blog right now.  Click on five posts.  How many comments do you find?  More specifically, how many comments challenge the central argument of the author?  Do the same thing with a few of the people that you follow in Twitter.  Check out their Tweets and Replies.  Chances are that you’ll see a TON of simple sharing and maybe a bunch of affirmation — “Great post!” or “Loved this!” or “Brilliant ideas!” — but challenge and true discourse will be nonexistent.

Need MORE proof?

When was the last time YOU left a comment challenging the thinking of a blogger or content shared by someone you follow in social spaces? 

I’ll bet the answer is the same:  You do a lot of reading in social spaces, but you rarely comment — and when you DO respond to the thinking of the people you are learning alongside, those comments tend to celebrate rather than challenge the authors.

Now, I’m not judging you.  People can use social spaces in any way that they want to.  It’s not for me to decide whether comments that challenge should be a core expectation of the people who are living intellectual lives online.

But we’ve got to stop telling people who are new to social spaces about the “power of audience” because the truth is that most of today’s audiences are muted at best, choosing consumption over participation in nine conversations out of ten.

Now, if you’ve read this far and you are STILL passionate about the power of an audience, here are a few tips for building one:

(1). Bring Your OWN Audience:  When people talk about “the power of audience,” they are generally referring to the hundreds of thousands of teachers all over the globe who are blogging and sharing in social spaces.  We stand in awe every time that we make a connection with someone a thousand miles away.

And don’t get me wrong:  That IS pretty darn cool.

But the most powerful members of your audience are those people that you ALREADY have an intellectual relationship with.  Maybe they are folks in your school that you have lunch with every day.  Maybe they are buddies from other schools in your district that you meet for beers a few times a month.  Maybe they are colleagues that you hang with once per year at teaching conferences around the country.

Those are the people who are the most likely to stop by your blog or respond to your Tweets and challenge your thinking — so instead of trying to build a huge audience of strangers, concentrate on building a small audience of peers.

(2). Be a Participating Member of Someone Else’s Audience:  The funny part of this whole conversation to me is that people in today’s social spaces are hell-bent on building their own audiences, and yet few recognize the importance of being participating members of someone else’s audience.  I see that as incredibly selfish.  We want the benefits that come along with having an audience without willingly passing those same benefits along to others.

What does that mean for you?

Start commenting on the work of others.  Start responding to people’s posts in Twitter.  Let people know that you are listening and learning from them.  Show gratitude for the time that they put into thinking and sharing transparently with others.  Provide challenge to their core ideas — and then push those ideas out through your networks.

Not only will you give someone else the intellectual benefits that you want for yourself, chances are that you’ll gain a new member of your own audience.

Do unto others, right?

(3). Draw attention to the ideas of your audience:  I want you to think about my buddy Bob for a minute.  He took his own time to read my original bit on audience.  Then, he took even more of his own time to craft a reply that challenged my thinking and articulated concepts that I hadn’t considered. Instead of spending that same time on his own growth, he was making an investment in me and in our intellectual relationship.

That matters, y’all — and I need to respect that investment in some way.  So I decided to sit down this morning and respond to his thinking here in a new post on my blog.  Not only will that give Bob’s thinking some of the attention that it deserves, it shows him that I’m listening — and that the time he spent challenging me really did have value because it led to a longer conversation.

The result:  Bob is more likely to comment on another post at some point in the future.

Does any of this make sense?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that building a big audience feels pretty pointless to me.  Given the option to have thousands of followers who I rarely interact with or ten readers who regularly challenge my thinking, I’d take the active audience any day because my goal in spaces like this is to learn — not to be recognized.



Related Radical Reads:

Audience Doesn’t Matter

Comment More.  Like Less.

The Digital Equivalent of Strip Malls.


14 thoughts on “More on the Role of Audience in Social Spaces.

  1. Bobbie Lynch

    My take away from that is pretty much in tune to how I taught communication class: be aware of your audience, not just those you’re directly communicating with, and recognize that their response, or lack thereof, is as important in the cycle as what you’ve said/written.

    Personally, the idea that people may be reading makes me more conscientious of how I put my thoughts out there. Knowing that even one person is looking forward to my next post keeps me more accountable. Written reflection and sharing in a general forum isn’t natural for me, so the idea of audience helps…sometimes not enough to keep me consistent but enough to get me started again.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking and controversial post, Bill. And thanks to Kyle for sharing y’all two’s convo in twitterverse, so my thoughts could be provoked as well.

  2. Pingback: #AudienceMatters Part III: More Than Hashtags – #HamstraHighlights

  3. Kyle Hamstra

    Interesting points again, Bill! This conversation is fascinating–and I really enjoy seeing different vantage points on seemingly the same topic. Here are a few thoughts I had on each point:

    1) In our tech world today, it blows my mind how an educator could connect with and learn from someone a thousand miles away so closely and meaningfully, and yet the fellow educator in the classroom next door rarely ever engages or communicates. Why is that?

    2) I really like this: “We want the benefits that come along with having an audience without willingly passing those same benefits along to others.” –That’s the huge piece right there. And on the flip-side, when one educator continually comments an another educator’s blog, and the favor isn’t returned–it can be very disappointing and discouraging.

    3) I have three blog ideas burning on my mind tonight: hands-on learning, celebrity status, and twitter chats, but when reading point number three about investing time, attention, and interaction to fellow educators instead of always posting all my own stuff–That’s very convicting. And inspiring.

    Well-said, Bill.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Kyle wrote:

      And on the flip-side, when one educator continually comments an another educator’s blog, and the favor isn’t returned–it can be very disappointing and discouraging.

      Hey Kyle,

      This is because we all have different perspectives about the role of social tools. Some people who are blogging literally blog because they ARE sharing content with audiences. Their blog IS a broadcast channel. So responding to comments was never a primary goal in their mind because they really were trying to build an audience, not a network.

      There’s nothing inherently wrong with that — but when the commenter sees social spaces as interconnected and the author sees social spaces as one-way broadcast channels, there’s a disconnect in expectations that leads to the discouraged feeling that you describe.

      Does that make any sense?

      Honestly, that disconnect in purpose between author and “audience” is the hardest part of social spaces right now. It used to be that two way communication was the norm in our spaces. Now — primarily because becoming an #edustar is really a thing — the norm has changed. I place no real value on the change — it is what it is. But it HAS changed the way spaces feel.

      Rock on,

  4. Pingback: #AudienceMatters Part II: Viewers, Followers, Friends – #HamstraHighlights

  5. kheywood34

    Oh my gosh, you are so right. I agree with everything you said. You are such a brilliant blogger.

    Ok, I couldn’t resist. 🙂

    But I do agree with you. One of the most frustrating aspects of my online masters classes was the discussion posts we had to write and reply to. Every single person agreed with every other single person and it felt like a big giant waste of time (and money). And I’ll be honest, I think this is one of the reasons I have such a hard time with Twitter. It sometimes feels like a bunch of people standing on their metaphorical stages speaking pithy soundbites to an anonymous audience in the hopes theirs gets a ton of retweets. #unpopularopinion But perhaps that’s because I am very guilty of #2 (both professionally and personally) and if I start engaging more, I’ll find more engaging discussions.

    I saw a tweet from Mark Samberg yesterday where he was talking about creating versus consuming online and how we need to do more of the latter and less of the former equating it to listening to understand instead of listening to respond. So perhaps we can apply some similar reasoning to your points. Maybe people can challenge themselves to more listening (reading) to understand, as he says, but if they are going to respond, go beyond just listening (reading) to respond/agree and extend the discussion or push the thinking? I hope that makes sense.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Katie,

      I totally agree with everything that YOU said, too!

      (Seriously. I do.)

      Twitter has changed dramatically since I started using it just over a decade ago. It really WAS a place where people came for the kinds of thoughtful conversations that you describe. There really was give and take and intellectual challenge in that space. But now, that rarely happens.

      It’s still a useful place for finding resources. For many people, it has replaced a feed reader.

      And it’s still a useful place for sharing ideas and accomplishments with broader audiences.

      But I don’t see a lot of co-learning happening there. Many people really are just sharing content to drive views in their direction — and the reward doesn’t come from having a cool conversation with someone. The reward comes from retweets and likes and page views. That, to me, feels really, really unhealthy. It’s not conducive to creating a community of learners.

      How do we fix that?

      We do exactly what you said: We spend time extending conversations and challenging thinking.

      The problem is no one wants to do that because it takes time and doesn’t feel as immediately gratifying as collecting likes and retweets.

      Any of this make sense?

      PS: Check out the “Digital Strip Malls” bit in the Related Radical Reads. That’s what I think we’ve become. It’s sad.

  6. Robert Schuetz

    The value is in the exchange of ideas. The value is in relationships. The value is in listening, reflecting, and sharing. Audience is likely a substandard word. This post resonates with me because it speaks to the value of belonging and contribution, the backbone of our PLNs.
    I’ve learned so much from you and your “radicals”. Thank you for including me in this think tank.
    Talk soon,

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Bob,

      You made another brilliant point here: “Audience is likely a substandard word.”

      That’s the differentiator for me: Is someone trying to “build an audience” or is someone trying to find thinkers to learn alongside?

      Those aren’t the same thing. And while neither is inherently evil — building an audience is a fine course of action for people who are full time consultants who depend on paying audiences to support their families — “audience building” is not symbiotic in nature. Audience building implies authority — and that’s not always “let’s learn together.”

      Does any of this make sense?

      1. Robert Schuetz

        Totally agree with your “let’s learn together” approach. I especially appreciate that you have responded to everyone’s comments here. You’re walking the walk and perpetuating the conversation and the learning. You da man, Bill!

  7. Melanie

    As a devoted audience member of yours, I “dig your bits” on everything you write. You continue to challenge my thinking with your strong opinions.For you to write not only 1, but 2 blog post on the idea of “if audience matters”, really has me thinking. TBH I’ve never really thought about it. I’m thinking now. My example- I love to present about ideas and knowledge I know and love. Things that keep me up at night like “How a Green Screen can change the outcome of knowledge rentention for students” or the “Power of a PLN in social spaces”. When I present to my staff, for the school district, or at a conference it really doesn’t matter if 1 person attends or 100 people attend. Would I rather a standing room only where learning can happen exponentially? Sure. But that is not my goal or the reason I spend hours preparing and advertising. I have colleagues who judge their conference presentations on how many people show up. I have to talk them off the ledge and remind them that audience does matter, they have that right, but that it’s quality Over quantity. To me it’s not about the numbers. It’s about the people sitting in the chairs that matter. It really boils down to quality of the audience over the quantity of the audience. All we want is to share what we know and help make the world #becomebetter. Right?

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      You got it, Melanie.

      I think what’s changed everything is that social spaces really have made some teachers “edufamous.” There are people with 100K followers — so what does that mean for a guy or gal with 1,000 followers? There are people with huge audiences that will answer their calls for help in seconds — so what does that mean for a guy or gal with 30 followers who tweets for help and gets no replies? There are people who get 10,000 views on every single post — so what does that mean for a guy or gal who has written for years and doesn’t have more than 10,000 views in total?

      Our notion of audience is skewed — and that makes people question the value of their thinking and their ideas in really unhealthy ways.

      That’s why I’m so passionate about avoiding the idea of audience when pitching participation to people. It’s not that audiences are a bad thing. It’s that “audience” has come to mean “thousands and thousands of followers and lots of retweets so that guy must be brilliant and my ideas must suck” to people. That’s harmful.

      Any of this make sense?

      1. Ali Collins

        I agree. We want to have impact and maybe we feel like the way to measure it is with followers and likes. It is reinforcing (in kinda the chicken pecking a button and getting a pellet sort of way) to get mentions and likes. Yet, as I spend more time in social spaces, I’m coming to learn is it’s the quality of the interaction that’s more important. I care more about curating a small community of folks who challenge and support me in growing as an educator, parent and person. Over the years I go to Twitter and Facebook for ideas and support, and I know I may only get just over a handful of folks responding. But those responses have meant THE WORLD to me. We don’t need EVERY like or even get what we’re saying. We just need a few. 🙂

        1. Bill Ferriter Post author

          Hey Ali,

          I love the “chicken pecking” metaphor because I think it’s true. People — particularly teachers — crave recognition. Likes and retweets and numbers of followers are a tangible bit of recognition — so we seek those things out.

          But that’s changed our spaces from places where people came to learn to places where people come to be recognized.

          That’s not inherently bad — people can use spaces in any way that they see fit.

          But it has certainly changed how I feel about social spaces.

          The only real solution is to forget about the overall health of social spaces and start cultivating/creating the spaces that we need and want for ourselves.

          Anyway…gotta run.

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