For much of October I have been mentally wringing my hands over exactly how I want to contribute to Digital Writing Month, especially as a featured contributor. I gladly accepted the invitation to be a part and was flattered to be included among a fascinating cross section of participating contributors. And I kept asking myself — what do I have to share? What’s my angle? What’s important to me? What matters? And going a level deeper — what’s at stake?
Let me start here. I write regularly in public online spaces. I blog, I tweet, I comment. In fact, if I google my name, I get four pages’ worth of results which refer almost exclusively to one of those acts. So foremost in the digital warehouse of frequently accessed data points related to my name, writing pops up as if it were all that I do. So if Google’s main clues suggest “Sherri Spelic writes,” then that must make it so, right? Hmmm…
I realized only very recently that I want to talk about audience here. Because when I write, even when I say I don’t think much about who is going to read whatever I put out there, of course that’s a lie. I often consider for whom my words are intended. I care about reaching certain individuals and groups with my message. This thinking shapes, too, where I choose to publish — on my own blog or on a public platform like Medium.
Digital writing — in my understanding, the act of creating texts or other products through digital tools which are designed to be shared with readers via digital means — diverges significantly from the private hand-written journaling I did for years. From my laptop and occasionally from my tablet I draft texts which I primarily publish immediately. And when I say publish it means that I post it on my blog which triggers a least two separate tweets and sends out about 100 e-mails to subscribers of my blog. If I choose to publish on Medium I can either submit it for review to the editors of a specific publication (like Synapse) or I can post it independently. In both cases, these texts are out there for anyone and everyone with reasonably free internet access to see, read, and also ignore.
But here’s the thing: that “out there” business can be misleading. Just because anyone could find my beautifully crafted reflection on ‘the joy of whatever’ does not mean that many, or necessarily anyone will. We kind of assume that because the user base of the internet is so vast, diverse and active, that we who brave the waters of such relentlessly fast-paced media will be showered with attention from all angles, positive and negative. When we write our provocatively snarky think-piece on ‘the rise and fall of you-know-what-I’m-talking-about’, we can be so convinced that the masses will jump up, click and re-click their immediate approval and even the trolls will come marching into our comment stream to illustrate the vital nerve that we have touched. That, however, is so rarely how this digital writing thing actually unfolds, at least in my corner of the internet.
Here’s where I think we can fall into a trap. We want audience. We want readers. We’d like to win over subscribers. We want to feel useful and appreciated and worthy and maybe even important. And audience seems like a way to get there. How many subscribers to your blog before you can call your writing endeavor a success? What’s the critical mass of Twitter followers required to be considered a “thought leader”? How do you get to be listed as a LinkedIn Influencer when you post an article?
Because in digital media we like to let numbers and metrics tell the story — the story of reach, of clicks, of views, visits and referrals. These metrics are then readily folded into narratives about popularity, trends, importance, because in the economy of attention, these things matter. These metrics tell us many things but they fail to tell us as writers and as people enough of what we really need to know: Whom did I reach? What was it that resonated? Where was I misconstrued? Then, going a little deeper: What is in this piece for me? What lessons do I want to keep for myself? What would I do well to let go of right now?
The information that we most often crave about audience reaches us typically through other avenues, if at all: through comments, tweets and retweets, shares across different platforms. And so much of all that will remain unknown. And in digital writing as in other forms expression we need to be okay with that.
So how do we find audience, after all?
If we want audience, then we must first and foremost be audience. We need to read widely and astutely. We need to pause as we read the work of others — and become permeable. Being an audience means letting others into our worlds, leaving space for the sparring and dancing of ideas. Being an audience means listening — dropping defenses, setting aside our emotional reactivity for a moment. When we do these things, we become an audience of value and increase the likelihood of helpful and constructive interaction. We acknowledge a response within and perhaps also ‘out there’, privately or publicly.
For me, this slow and steady acculturation of being audience while growing audience has afforded me the opportunity to mature into this writing practice at my own pace. In fact when I examine the bulk of my digital work, I quite simply would characterize it as “writing back.” So much of what I write emerges as necessary and somehow urgent responses — to something I read, saw, experienced, heard. I write back to authors. I write back to my students. I write back to my professional/personal learning network (PLN). I also write back to myself.
When I’m not writing I do many other things: I teach, I coach, I parent, I facilitate, I move, I read, I lead, I follow. And by now these aspects flow freely into my writing. The immediacy of the digital — the risk and opportunity of exposure coupled with the potential speed of engagement and response — for me, this underscores the imperative of being the audience I want to have. Remaining focused on the distinctly human dimensions of our lightning fast communication channels stands at the core of what, why and how I choose to create.
It may seem that we are all born under the sign of algorithms’ ascendency and that the astrology of our common future may be reduced to a handful of branded provider platforms. Yet it is and will continue to be our choice to uphold and broaden the reach, impact and benefit of the irreplaceably human in each of us whether we are reading, writing, listening, speaking. We need to think about our offer as both/and instead of either/or. Writer and listener. Reader and speaker. Being the audience that makes positive waves requires more from us as writers, educators, activists, and contributors and also serves to regularly remind us of what we are in fact here for.
What matters to me in contributing to digital writing month? Supporting audience in all its forms and iterations; making audience a 30-day verb.