Long, rambling post ahead, fueled by summer vacation, campfires, and mosquito repellant…
I’ve been struggling with the sense of audience and connectedness through online tools for years now. This is one of the reasons I’ve had a tendency to delete accounts on various social networks, as I occasionally become uncomfortable with the deals involved in using them, and the artificially inflated sense of connection that they foster.
I follow 438 people on twitter right now, and over 1000 people follow me. Or, “follow,” as the online social media connection is fundamentally superficial and tenuous. I’m probably only really connected to a dozen or two of those people in any meaningful way, with relationships that I value. Some of those connections have developed into deep friendships lasting for over a decade now.
So, what are the other 1000 or so people, to me? I don’t know. Are they flies, sitting vicariously on a wall, listening to snippets of conversations between friends? Are they simply noise? Or is there something else? Some form of quasi-anonymous observer relationship? An audience that occasionally interacts?
I’ve been reading my copy of The Glenn Gould Reader, which is a collection of his writing on music, media, and philosophy in general. It’s some really deep and interesting reading. Gould was a world-renowned concert pianist, traveling the world to perform to throngs of mostly-adoring fans. And he decided one day that the act of performance was making his art less interesting, each performance was an analog repetition of a previous performance, with errors and variations thrown in, and unable to correct them. He decided that recording a piece, getting it perfect, and then moving on to creating new art was much more interesting, and so he walked away from the international stage and began to focus on recorded media. Albums, radio shows, etc… Working to push himself, rather than settling into what he called the conservatism of performance – where performers strive to repeat previous successes, out of fear of disappointing an audience. They become the high school quarterback, reliving the big game, rather than pushing themselves higher.
Instead of lamenting that performance was fostering artistic conservatism, or that live performance was losing its luster, he decided to explore recorded media. More people, he said, will experience Beethoven via a recording than ever have experienced his works in concert. So, focusing on recorded media seems to have the potential to impact more listeners.
But, what about the connection to the audience? There is no applause after a recorded performance. And that’s ok. Maybe it’s better, actually, to perform without the narcissistic ego boost of applause afterward? Performing for the love of the art, rather than the forced rush of approval by others. Interesting stuff.
So, what does that have to do with anything?
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no Glenn Gould. Hell, I’m not even an Elliott Gould. But, this struggle with audience feedback is something I’ve been working through for a few years now.
What is audience feedback, for online publishing? In the simplest form, it’s the server stats and website metadata. How many readers? How many pageviews? How many hits to a website? All meaningless noise. Distracting. I’ve turned off all analytics long ago. Even the basic web server log processor isn’t working properly, so I don’t have access to the most basic of statistics. And that has been surprisingly liberating. I have no idea how many people subscribe to my blog. I have no idea how many people read it. Which means that I have to do it for myself, even if I’m aware that others can follow along.
Or, it’s provided via blog comments. Getting a comment on a post is a heady thing. A quick buzz of endorphins with a genuine non-spam response. And so, you start to write to solicit comments. Ho! More comments! I must be pretty awesome! The audience has spoken! Except that the comments become distracting as well. It becomes as much (or more) about the comments than about posting or sharing in the first place. And comments seems to draw out snark and trollishness. Again, useful if you’re going for the endorphin buzz (more comments! Awesome!) but distracting or even defeating otherwise. Which is why I’ve tried disabling comments, then re-enabling again, then disabling, etc…
Another form of feedback I explored a few years ago was with the blog readers that are sent by search engines. I experimented with running adsense ads on my blog long ago, to see what I’d learn about the organic search audience. I never figured I’d see a penny from google, so didn’t pay much attention. But, all of a sudden, the ads started raking up views and clickthroughs. I’d make a couple bucks a day. Almost enough to buy a coffee. And I noticed that this form of audience feedback was starting to change how I wrote, and what I wrote about. I got a cheque from google hq for over $600, and it hit me. By adjusting what I wrote about, and tailoring it for the search audience, it wouldn’t be hard to turn that into a full time gig. But that just felt dirty. Don’t get me wrong. I cashed the cheque. And used the cash to pay for a good chunk of my wide angle lens.
But, then I deleted the ads from my site. I don’t want to be tempted to write about anything unless I want to. The audience feedback can be pretty strong, and it’s distracting. As Gould described it, it’s conservatising. To pay attention to that audience is to try to repeat previous successes, and to possibly improve on them, rather than to explore new and uncharted territory.
I read a novel decades ago – I forget the title, or even the author – about ensuring creative novelty. Artists were selected, and given the opportunity to live in isolation, alone with their art. Their creations were brought back to the cities, where people enjoyed the various streams of truly unique art. Eventually, one musician’s music became familiar, similar to several others. It turns out that a fan had found his cabin in the woods, and was playing music to entertain and inspire him. The unique branch of creativity was ended, and convergent lines of creativity formed. The audience changed the art.
That sense of convergence is something that is prevalent in online publishing and social networks. Intentionally or not, we emulate that which we aspire to become. That is a powerful thing, but I wonder how many people may have abandoned their own truly unique potential, to be dampened by the hive mind toward some more common, convergent path.