Audience

published

I’m reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. It’s a surprisingly thought-provoking book, and I recommend it if you’re interested in learning more about the “why” behind the ways Internet communications are changing not just how we communicate, but how we think about communicating.

The book explains in comfortable detail the major shift from scarcity to ubiquity across several historical industries. The art of the scribe was all but destroyed by the advent of the printing press. The art of the news reporter has similarly been disrupted by the ease and speed with which independent agents can publish information. A subtle but important corollary to this shift is the change in relationship between producers and consumers. We’re all pretty used to being consumers, but many of us are just now figuring out how to be producers.

Shirky points out that the process of publishing information in the age of mass amateurization has changed from “filter, then publish”, whereby information is specifically identified as noteworthy and worth sharing, to “publish, then filter”, whereby the ease and convenience of sharing information combine with the relative low cost of such actions to make it easier for everyone, everywhere to share whatever is on their mind. The audience then selects which things deserve their attention.

This explains perfectly why so much “user generated content” is perceived as fatuous, or at least just plain boring.

It’s simple. They’re not talking to you. We misread these seemingly inane posts because we’re so unused to seeing written material in public that isn’t intended for us. The people posting messages to one another in small groups are doing a different kind of communicating than people posting messages for hundreds or thousands of people to read. More is different, but less is different, too. An audience isn’t just a big community; it can be more anonymous, with many fewer ties among users. A community isn’t just a small audience either; it has a social density that audience lacks. The bloggers and social network users operating in small groups are part of a community, and they’re enjoying something analogous to the privacy of the mall.
Shirky goes on to detail how you might overhear some portion of a conversation at the mall food court, but you’d be considered rude if you actively turned your attention to that conversation. You’re not part of the audience, or the community.

This was one of those “Of course!” moments where the blindingly obvious suddenly makes sense to me. All the people posting stuff to Twitter aren’t necessarily writing for you or me, specifically. If we lack the context of the community that cares about the information, we most likely lack the interest to place any value on that information. It’s easy for us to deride the boring, trivial posts because we don’t care about the content or its creator. This is not a failing of the social tools, but rather our own failure to adequately filter.

I don’t care much for Westerns, so I’m unlikely to watch a Western movie that might be on television. I’m not going to spend any time in the Westerns section of any bookstore. I’m certainly not going to read a Louis L’Armor novel and then complain about the fact that it’s a Western. I filter out Western input from the media I select. It’s easy to do with television, movies, and books; but not always so easy to do with some of the social media sources I use.

If I overhear a conversation at the mall food court, I’m not likely to tell my friends about it unless something particularly noteworthy catches my interest. I’m not simply going to call all my friends and deride the boring, petty conversation I just overheard; nor am I going to make a blog post out of it. It takes too much effort to do that, and there’s basically no benefit. But with the ease of perfect digital copies, it’s trivial for us to excoriate some banal blog post, or some trite Twitter update.

I’m more than halfway through “Here Comes Everybody” and am really enjoying it. It’s sparked a number of interesting lines of thought that I’m really looking forward to exploring. I highly recommend this book.


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