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.
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.
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.