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Awareness of Audience

For me, the awareness of audience is one of the most exciting aspects of an authorship society. The jumbled nature of this awareness however, can be a hindrance to large-scale group collaboration.

First let me explain what I mean by “awareness of audience”.

During the creative process, the process of making a thing, I find that there are a few different states that I occupy. Of course my experience varies quite a bit from project to project, but these have proven to be reliable generalizations.

The first state is an introduction. This is where an idea presents itself in my mind. These early ideas are soft and fuzzy and can’t be fully grasped. So I turn them around, and tug at them and try to look at them from a number of different angles. I might imagine what it will be like to execute the idea, to walk myself through the experience of doing what needs to be done. I might imagine what the finished product will look like. I might also imagine how someone else will perceive the finished product, or how someone might react when they hear about it. I look at it as an early vetting process. Does it excite me? Will it be tedious to make? Will other people like it? All of this happens in my mind. And because the idea is just an idea, and the audience I am imagining is imagined, there is plenty of wiggle room. Potential criticism is met with potential alterations, potential praise is met with potential false modesty. This is the first place where an awareness of audience comes into play, but the awareness is often broad and non-specific.

The second state is a trance. This is where I am absorbed in the process of making. I focus on details and techniques that have little to do with the way I thought about the initial idea. Deciding between a 2” or 3” drainage pipe has little to do with the idea of a dream house, for example. The project, which is at this point just a collection of disjointed parts, is kept alive by the whole imagined at the outset.

The third state is an awakening. At some point, usually in the last third of the project (although I have referred to “80% complete” in the past,) I experience what I am working on as a whole in its own right - as something external. This usually occurs suddenly, much in the same way that I first experience autumn. Some small trigger, a leaf or a brisk wind, causes me to realize that autumn has crept up all around me while I still dreamt of summer. How could I have missed it? It can be harsh and it can be wonderful, but either way it tends toward sadness.

From this point forward the project can become quite a bit more difficult. There is a tension between that amorphous original idea and the very real thing that you have in front of you. Some of the dreams that kept you motivated might vanish. Parts of the project you thought would sparkle just don’t, while other unintended parts do. And that imagined audience that you could negotiate with when your idea was just an idea, now has something concrete to judge, to laugh at, or to love.

I think for a lot of people (including me more often than not) this is an unconscious process, and manifests itself in waves of frustration and self-doubt. Sometimes it is possible to push all these feelings aside and allow that original idea to fill in all the defects and hard edges of the thing created - until you convince yourself that the two are identical. We have all experienced someone that seems unable to look at their work with a critical eye.

This term, “critical eye”, might be what I am trying to get at with “awareness of audience”. If you apply a critical eye to your own work there is, of course, no physical unblinking eye. You conjure up some internal perspective through which to view your work. What shapes this perspective?  Sometimes you might imagine interacting with someone from your past – a loved one, a bully, a mentor. You might try to imagine a group – like “urban males age 18-25” based on what you have read, seen on TV or extrapolated from all the urban males age 18-25 you have encountered. Or the perspective might be an emotional state, like “cynical and ready to fight”, or “adoring but with high expectations”. In all of these cases you are creating a representation of a possible audience, you are imagining an outside world and its relation to you and the thing you are making. This is what I call “awareness of audience”.

For example, when you write a comment, or a facebook status update, or anything that goes out to a group of people – pay attention to how you imagine it being perceived. Are you imagining each person individually? Have you created some in proxy individual for the group? Are you aware of an unknown audience? What are they like? Is there a mood associated with them? How did it all come to be?

I mentioned at the outset that I find all of this to be very exciting. For me, as a result of the proliferation of authorship tools and the creation of a universe of potential audiences, this “awareness of audience” represents a sea change in the way that people perceive themselves in relation to the world around them.

I also mentioned that awareness of audience can be vexing to a collaborative project, and I am embarrassed that all this writing leads up to such a simple point, namely: If there isn’t a shared sense of who the audience is, between you and the contributors, or between the contributors themselves, the final project may appear disjointed.

One example might be if you wanted to create a project that would ultimately be viewed by a large and diverse audience, but your contributors were under the impression that it was for a small insular community. The result might be contributions that play off local, contextual knowledge (inside jokes and obscure references) and are difficult for a larger audience to appreciate.

In the extreme, contributors might think that the intended audience consists only of other contributors. A line-by-line collaborative short story can quickly shift to a line-by-line non sequitur competition, which is very fun for those who participate and utter gibberish to everyone else.

Comment sections often contain excellent content (for example if you ask a question in a post), but require the reader to jump from comments directed to an audience-at-large, to comments directed to the blogger himself, to comments directed at other commenters.

I’m not sure that this jumble of intended audiences can be completely avoided in anything but the smallest group projects. And in some cases, this jumble is what makes a project wonderfully interesting, weird and unexpected. However, there are a few ways to bring the project into sharper focus.

First you can directly state what you consider to be the intended audience: “write as if speaking to a child”, or “give advice to new buyers”. Second, you can reference a specific style (which takes the place of an audience): “like a soap opera”, “in the style of an encyclopedia”. And third, you can add a “final presentation” to the project: “Fifty entries will be displayed at this location when the project is done” or “images will be included in a book”. This at least creates a shared context for how all the contributions will be viewed, and can point to a broader audience (this ad will be shown during the superbowl), or to a very specific audience (this will be displayed at the children’s hospital).

If you are interested, I previously asked a number of people (including Ben Stiller, Imogen Heap, Clay Shirkey, Jane McGonical and 20 other artists, designers, musicians and writers) how they thought about audience during the creative process. You can read the responses here


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Comments (4)

As I read these posts, I'm wondering when you wrote them. I can see them being either past notes that you wrote to yourself as you were creating The Show, or I can see them as being written more in the present as you look back across what you've created in the past.

(From Ze: I am writing them on the day they are posted)


Though informative writing requires some of the greatest awareness of audience, it often is done so well that like art, it seems easy. But unlike art which can skate on ambiguity for centuries, informative writing has a more stringent standard of clarity.

That there rambling has a question tied to it. Do you feel a trance when writing these entries similar to when you are doing other kinds of projects?

(From Ze : I use the word trance only to mean that there is part of process where you become unaware of how the thing is perceived as whole. In that sense - yes, absolutely - when i am writing anything - even an email - there is a time when i am focused on the words and the keyboard, followed by a reading and awareness. Of course the three states I listed often overlap or iterate.)

Quite an exercise you're going through here -- almost like trying to deconstruct yourself and your work in public. And at the same time, providing a service to those who would choose to in some fashion emulate some aspect of what you do.
Guidance, advice all wrapped in self-exploration.

Generous of you.

I spend a lot of time thinking about audience and collaboration, and it's always come down to two things for me - one, the audience I usually make products for is...people just like me. Now, that can be a lot of different kinds of people - people who see themselves as "digital revolutionaries" (Wired), people fascinated with Internet business (The Standard), people fascinated with Search (Searchblog), people who love story and journalism (The Big Story or The Pacific). But the second is more universal still - I think about audiences as "people I want to have a conversation with." The best time on stage, or in front of a camera, is always when the audience seems engaged and willing or eager to talk. The worst is when they aren't. I imagine any media I make as a frozen artifact of that conversation.
That's why I instantly dug your subtitle. And the idea of trance - when I'm in a conversation, a really good one, it's a shared trance. Even if it's an interview onstage, it's a three way trance.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 13, 2009 12:34 AM.

The previous post in this blog was Installment #2 of “Simple questions to ask when planning a contribution-based project”.

The next post in this blog is Additional Notes on Awareness of Audience.

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