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Cross-post: Applause, Please

by Sean Michael Morris

| How can I hear my own voice unless it bounces off of yours?

This is the question with which Anna Smith begins her Digital Writing Month blog post, “Your Voice in Mine.” And it is the driving question behind audience in the digital world. Unlike print publishing, when an audience is not always assumed, digital composition relies on audience at the level of its very conception. When we write online, we never write to ourselves. Rather, we write as part of a massive flow of information and culture (information that is also culture, indistinguishable from it). We write — whether we do so for an active audience, a passive one, or an unknown one — as part of something larger that’s being written all the time all around us. Finding our place in it is often a matter of discovering who’s listening to us, whose voices our own voices bounce off.

Audience has always been the boon and bane of the writer’s life. We want to be heard and read, we want people to pay attention to what we have to say. At the same time, writing for any specific audience can influence our subject matter, style, and pace of our writing in uncomfortable ways. We do not want to write just what someone else wants to hear. We want to be true to our voices, to write what is authentically borne from our minds and hearts and souls. And yet, what if no one listens to those thoughts, stories, and questions that are most important to us? Print / analog writers have always had to balance the condition of their audience with the portent of their own work. And many authors have bemoaned this sometimes parasitic, sometimes symbiotic relationship.

Your purpose is to make your audience see what you saw, hear what you heard, feel what you felt. Relevant detail, couched in concrete, colorful language, is the best way to recreate the incident as it happened and to picture it for the audience.  – Dale Carnegie

I don’t feel like I need to preach to the world or nothing like that. I just feel like I share what I say, and if listeners get it, they get it. And I never underestimate the audience’s ability to feel me. – Erykah Badu

If you give an audience a chance they will do half your acting for you. – William Hazlitt

Digital composition relies on audience in different ways from other public writing or artistic work. Digital composition finds its completion in the act of audience; and this is true for a number of reasons.

First, the notion that our words are fully rendered before they have met with the voices of others isn’t true in the digital world. Print publication assumes that texts are complete before they reach an audience’s eyes. Not so with digital composition. In the digital, our words are fluid, and can be modified, added to, subtracted from, even multiplied and divided in a plethora of ways. For example, the comments made to a blog post or article often bring into greater focus one or another point of the article, and draw future readers’ attentions to that point. It is the audience that determines what about an article is most valuable, and they do this through conversation with themselves, the author, and the article itself. An author may find that the point she meant to make goes entirely or almost entirely overlooked, while a subtler point that she overlooked gets exaggerated, amplified, and discussed. This is authorship, and it happens when the audience gets a hold of the text. Our digital writing becomes more fully rendered when it is read.

Second, our writing interacts with the digital world. This post here is interacting through hyperlinks, through a post on Twitter, through all of you who will read and comment on it. Perhaps someone will write an article and link to this blog post, and that changes this blog post by creating a new context for its discovery and reading. A book is different if you find it in a library, a bookstore, or left on a bus stop. The words don’t change, but the context of the reading does. On the Internet, the context of the reading of our work is not happenstance, it is essential. Few will find our work in the same way each time, and so when we write we anticipate (and cannot at all anticipate) various contexts for what we write. Only the reader will understand the context under which they read our work, the branching hyperlinks that led them here; and in this way, authorship of that context is also authorship of the work itself.

Finally, our words are rarely left alone on the Internet. We may be excerpted, plagiarized, edited, modified, recontextualized, and more simply because of the fact that what we write can be cut-and-pasted, removed entirely from the intention of our original context, and replaced.

All of these things are functions of audience. All of these are the sound and motion of our voice bouncing off another’s voice.

While audience online can never be fully understood, never fully pinned down, it’s good when we write to consider who will be hearing what we have to say.

Sean Michael Morris is a faculty member of the English and digital humanities program at Marylhurst University. He’s a digital revolutionary and has written prolifically on digital humanities, digital writing, risk-tasking, creative chaos and collaboration.

Originally published at Digital English on February 11, 2013.

Photo: Moriza via Flickr Creative Commons.