Some statistics: according to my blogstats, viewers visited this site 32 times this week—two days it received two visits—and one person viewed my last post.

Which means, of course, no one may be listening right now.

At school, I’m teaching a Personal Writing ISP (Independent Study Project) to two wonderful students, and Friday we discussed Montaigne and the idea of what an audience is in essay writing—how a writer thinks of his or her readers, these people the writer can’t know or watch in real time. We talked about how a writer encourages and tries readers’ trust or affection, how voice communicates the sort of relationship the author seeks with readers. We did not, however, discuss whether the audience is real.

Yet the internet makes voices come out of the wilderness–writers, like me, who speak from need, not for profit or acclaim, and with little realistic hope of being heard by any sort of mass audience.

In an interview in November 2007, Derek Gordon, vice president of Technorati, reported that 99% of blogs receive no hits, and, as this blog dives and flies along the WordPress baseline, it comes close to that standard.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I’m presenting fact, and the facts are strangely liberating. I don’t worry about revealing my pathetic readership because this revelation may be a cybertree falling in a cyberforest—I’m unlikely to attract or drive away readers who don’t exist.

I write because writing is something I can’t not do (if you follow that poor wording) and, besides, I need the practice. I teach composition, and a writing teacher should speak from experience if he of she desires credibility. And, okay, I do aspire to a little wider audience. I appreciate any regular readers and anyone who lands here accidentally, and, if only for those few, I hope Emerson is right, “Condense some daily experience into a glowing symbol and an audience is electrified.”

But, just as I can’t say who’s listening right now, I can’t answer “Why write?” for any other blogger. What do all these cries into the wilderness mean?

David Cronenburg, the director of A History of Violence and other films, said in a 2006 interview on Rocketboom, that the industrial revolution really created the concept of a mass audience, that the patron-driven art of Bach or Beethoven aimed at a particular aristocratic, elite, and definable target. Our “democratic” art, he suggests, relies on the assumption that we can speak to everyone and appeals for the attention of an audience with dramatically “splintered” interests. “You can only spend 220 million on a film” he says, “if you think it has a mass audience.”

Then he adds, “The possibility of doing that”—of spending that sum with the assumption of success, “is going to diminish.”

While I have trouble imagining the disappearance of popular films, he raises an interesting question about audiences splintered down to one or two…or zero—does writing (and art in general) require a mass audience or any audience at all? And that question raises an even bigger one, “Is it doing or acceptance of what we’ve done that matters?”

Thoreau wrote in his journal that we gain greatest insight into friends when they speak in public. The friend, he said, “will be stranger to him as he is more familiar to the audience. The longest intimacy could not foretell how he would behave then.” However, I wonder if the estrangement he attributes to the friend can occur on an individual level, when no one but you is listening. In the imagined presence of others, with just the possibility of being heard, you might see yourself anew.

Do we bloggers really write to hear ourselves speak? Saying so sounds like the rationalization of readerless writers and fulfills the public image of bloggers as self-absorbed and uninteresting to anyone but themselves. Yet, a writer can seldom say, at least while writing, whether there’s a market for his or her words. A writer never knows who’s reading or if a reader understands.  So is the audience what it’s all about?

Some time ago, I had an important presentation of the revised freshman curriculum to make and devoted a couple of hours to what I wanted to say, crafting and recrafting my exact words. When I arrived at school, however, I discovered I was mistaken. I was simply to answer questions, and I sat nearby listening to a colleague do what I’d thought was my task. I hated wasting the labor, and I couldn’t help thinking I might have done a better job, but those were matters of ego.  Another sensation dwarfed them—an odd disorientation, as if the presentation I heard and the presentation I prepared were somehow both real, superimposed from alternate dimensions.

I often feel that way when I blog. No one might be out there right now, or they might have only made it to word 550 before stumbling off to another site or getting up for a sandwich, but this essay seems real.

And I’m glad I wrote it.


Filed under Blogging, Essays, Meditations, Numbers, Teaching, Thoreau, Writing

3 responses to “Obscurnymity

  1. D, There is so much here to explore, and I don’t have the time to probe that deep right now. But the one thing I did want to say is that these are issues that I grapple with all the time, not just in the blogosphere but in the creating and marketing of my artwork.

    I have written about visual art intended for mass audiences, both high brow and low, versus art that is made to be in a personal relationship, the way I am with the work I live with and engage with every day. I have also been compelled by the thinking around the Long Tail (Anderson’s book) and how there are micro-audiences out there, perfectly attuned to what you do, but finding them is the key. The internet isn’t the complete answer–far from it–but it does feed the possibility of reaching those operating in a frequency similar to your own.

    This blog is a river that anyone can dip into anywhere along its shored journey. Suddenly you hit the rapids and the engagement changes. I believe the concept of audience is being reinvented. It isn’t people in seats in an auditorium, or the number of people who purchase a particular book. It is more “ambient” if you will. Malleable. And also at times furtive.

    I love coming here. It is always worth the click.

    An “ambient audience” is a beautiful term—hard to imagine, but accurate. Part of the world of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash are “gargoyles,” people who travel around with cameras, capturing whatever may somehow become worthy of an audience. He predicted the advent of YouTube, but he was also onto something else, that an audience might exist for anything and everything when being an audience is easy. Media floods the world now and finding an audience has never been easier. However, finding that micro-audience seems much, much more challenging. As always, you’ve given me a great deal to think about. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  2. MCG

    I’ve recently begun contributing to a literary-ish blog. And now I measure my self-esteem solely by how many people comment on my posts. Which means, of course, that I often end up feeling shitty.

    It’s worth saying that even when I’m not commenting here, I’m reading. Because your writing is always- always!- illuminating and beautiful. And I appreciate it immensely.

    Please tell me where to look for your work, and I’ll comment.

    It means a great deal to me that you read regularly, and I hope I don’t come off as being ungrateful to the people who have supported me most.

    And “beautiful.” I don’t think anyone has ever called my writing that. Thank you.

  3. This is an incredibly interesting meditation on the relationship between the writer and the audience, one I think about a lot. What really strikes me is this idea about how writing is about the “possibility of being heard” — and how even when we’re not sure if there’s anyone listening, we write for others and, in so doing, discover new things about ourselves. Anyway, this is just to say that I look forward to more essays — you’re a wonderful writer.

    Thank you–compliments mean a lot to me as a rule, but a compliment from a writer as talented as you means even more. Though I’ve learned not to count on being read, it’s good to be heard.

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