Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Of Identity, Invisible Audiences, Influence, & Investment

Bradley, a student in Alec Couros's eci831 class, discussed the idea of "invisible audiences" in a recent blog post. His comments sparked a torrent of reflections which certainly won't fit in a single Tweet or even in the comments section of a blog, so I am posting them here instead.

IdentityWho are you? A potentially complicated question often best answered in relation to some person, context, role, responsibility, issue, belief, or perspective. (So, for me, the easy way out of the question would be answers along the lines of: former high school Spanish teacher, professional developer, Assistant Professor of Spanish, supervisor of student teachers, etc.) A quick Google search and perusal of my digital footprints would reveal much more about my personal and professional beliefs and actions over the course of the last 15 to 20 years.

Who am I? In face-to-face relationships, people often rely on age, sex, occupation, title, and other such things to help them know how to behave--selecting comfortable patterns of interaction that fulfill expectations, provide protection, and help them decide how to respond to unanticipated complications in a conversation. Many of those cues are absent online—making it difficult for participants in a conversation to answer the question, “Who am I in relation to you, your expectations for this interaction, and the current topic of conversation?” Consequently, the interaction seems much more fraught with risk and its outcome much less predictable.

Invisible Audiences - Who am I in relation to you? Invisible audiences present even greater challenges in that regard. (I am reminded of Peter Elbow’s reflections on both the positive and negative effects that an awareness can have on the impact of an author’s writing, as well as on the author’s ability to write.) Nonetheless, writing for a relatively invisible audience can also be incredibly liberating—especially for authors who have felt constrained by others’ expectations and/or who are experimenting with their own personal and professional identities. I think a lack of regular feedback may make some authors wonder if participating online is worth the investment.

Influence - Who reads what I write anyway?  I also think that many bloggers significantly underestimate the scope of their own influence.  Many times while in search of something else, I stumble across insightful blog posts written by people I do not know.   Although I frequently read, ponder, and incorporate them into my life, most of the time, I do not comment on them.  Nonetheless, my life has been greatly enriched by reading such blogs.  I don’t think I am unique in that regard.  With that in mind, I choose to “pay it forward,” sharing my own writing (i.e., thinking in process) publicly from time to time as well. 

However, I think writing is a gift of self—one that provides privileged access to the mind, heart, and/or soul of another person.  And, as is true of all gifts of the self, to give such a gift requires a certain measure of vulnerability.  That vulnerability is part of what makes the gift so valuable.  And THAT is a scary prospect when one considers the many issues you raised in your post.

I try to read generously, recognizing that most writing is thinking in process and therefore, probably incomplete.

I try to write with an awareness that my posts are likely to be read by a variety of unintended audiences. This gives me the chance to consider my opinions from multiple perspectives which, although they may not explicitly appear in my writing, certainly strengthen its quality.

I try to respond with an eye toward the person behind the words—remembering that it is likely that most of my online conversations are being “viewed” or “overheard” by invisible third parties who are interpreting not only the words, but also the relationship between me and the other person with whom I am conversing.

Investment - What role do I play and how much am I willing to invest in doing so?  In other words, ultimately, I think conversing online is an act of faith in the sense that it requires people to believe that what they have to offer will, ultimately, matter in some way.  It also demands that writers trust their audience(s) not to misinterpret, manipulate, or misuse what they may share.  Unfortunately, as is true in most face-to-face relationships, sometimes that trust is abused.  I think this is one of the reasons that issues of audience, purpose, context, and community seem to play such important roles in online writing.  A strong community, in particular, can help us mitigate the risk of sharing our best selves with the world (by creating conditions that support that kind of sharing, by protecting those who do share, and by publicly censuring those who abuse the trust of individuals or the community as a whole).  Paradoxically, the strength of such communities seems to come from the committed engagement, investment, and participation of each of its individual members.

Thanks, Bradley, for giving me so much to think about (and Alec Courosa for pointing me to Bradley's post via your link on Twitter)!

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