Make Me Think about Audience

 (image: http://wac.450f.edgecastcdn.net/80450F/973thedawg.com/files/2013/11/OswaldinaJam-264x300.jpg)
Oswald in a Jam. George E. Mahlberg

  • You got my attention. Now what are you going to do with it?
  • Not all our relationships are about dollars.
  • Audiences aren't targets.
  • Writing doesn't address an audience. It creates its audience through the writing. Will you help? Will they cooperate?

A better title for this page and exercise is "Make me think about the reader - writer relationship."

A reader adapts to a writer's text. But the writer provides the means for reader to do so. Tone, register, voice, para texts, etc.

"Oswald in a Jam" wasn't created for an audience any more than Jack Ruby's assassination of Oswald was. Both create the audience, the murder by its unexpectedness on b&w live tv in 1963, the remix by its re-invocation of the event in the context of 20th century art and the invention of Photoshop. Both make us think about audience and the writer - audience relation as something more than targets and attention.

Which is to say that the register of the prose carries the relationship. To argue that we need simple sentences is to argue that the relationship you want to strike with the reader is one that shares the simplistic understanding of the subject - maybe even simple minded. To make the suggestion that simple sentences alone are going to address the situation is itself simplistic. They don't. They won't.

"All rhetorically oriented discourse is composed in light of those who will hear or read that discourse." Sylva Rhetorica.

One approach is to present the content in ways already familiar - habitual - to the reader. This seems easy to do because it is habitual for the writer. We do it without thinking about how we do it, or why, or how else. But approaching an exchange habitually doesn't communicate so much as replicates what a writer and reader already knows.

The discipline of web content writing tends to talk of users rather than readers. The term users evokes usability and its reduction of readers to tool-using biped. The term audience evokes thinking people, in all their messiness. We can question user-friendliness by asking "Who are are we being friendly to? Friendliness is reciprocal. So who is befriending whom?" We can counter user-friendliness with studied irritation.

Here's Craig Stroupe on "The Rhetoric of Irritation."

Starting as it must with the audience ... this rhetoric of irritation shares a point of departure with the most current and dominant explanation of Web design and popular visual rhetoric, the principles of “usability,” promulgated most famously by software engineer Jakob Nielsen in books like Designing Web Usability. Where the science of usability and the rhetoric of irritation diverge, however, is in the distinction between a “user” and an “audience.” Usability takes as its central tenet the “practice of simplicity,” as the subtitle of Nielsen’s book puts it, or, in the Words of another usability guide’s title, “Don’t Make Me Think!” (Krug). The unspoken assumption of much usability instruction is that documents are made of “content” or “information” that should be laid out as unambiguously and conventionally as airports. Users are travelers whose destinations and desires are simple: to understand on the most cognitive level how to get themselves to Dallas and not Dulles.

On the other hand, most of us working in the humanities tradition ... see discourse as more often constitutive, intentionally or not, because the experience of the text—its design, context, rhetoric, and interpretive alternatives—contributes to its meaning. From a humanities' perspective, texts should make you think, all the more so when they attempt to erase all trace of their cultural work under the pretext of simplicity, transparency, or universalism. Years ago, a feminist group pasted stickers on the slick advertising posters in London’s Tube stations which asked, “Who Does This Ad Think You Are?” The provocative question does not raise issues of a cognitive user, but of a socially situated audience and of the media’s role in defining subjectivity. Similarly, the institutional role of the humanities is not to contribute to the transparency of culture, but, like those disruptive and revealing stickers, to call attention to its material surfaces, its underlying mechanisms, its historical antecedents, and its ultimate social effects. Simplicity is a fiction that elides the implication of form and context in content—or, more accurately, in “meaning.”

Authorities in usability and interface design might respond that pages like Ulmer’s "Metaphoric Rocks” are anomalies on the Web, which is increasingly corporate and civic in use and must speak to the lowest common denominator to successfully provide as many users as possible with the content. They might point out that Mahlberg’s image is more notable as a novelty than a true example of visual culture as seen across media. “Oswald in a Jam” is thus a rarified highjacking of the iconic language that, like images of the burning Twin Towers, more often serves in popular discourses to represent already understood ideas. Since meaning in Ulmer and Mahlberg is deferred, reflective and implicit—rather than direct, immediate and explicit—the chronically impatient user posited by usability studies might take anything from these texts, or nothing. Who’s to say?

But we want audiences. We want to be listened to. We need to be listened to or the Wheels of Commerce slow. Or, we might say, "If my audience has to think about it, they will go elsewhere." Maybe. Like where? Someplace where they can be spoonfed? Someplace they can score? Are you waiting for the man? [video]. The flip response, "Who's to say?" can be flipped right back to invoke a thinking audience: a socially situated audience, aware of the media’s role in defining subjectivity and aware of its material surfaces, its underlying mechanisms, its historical antecedents, and its ultimate social effects.

Yes, who's to say? That is the question. These differences raised here between users versus audiences, these assertions of what the Web or visual culture is or isn’t, remind us that describing, theorizing, and instructing are ways of talking—abstract and figurative, whether arrived at empirically or intuitively—and never the thing itself. A Web page or an image might really be simple until someone, literally or figuratively, pastes a sticker on its surface asking an irritating question that reminds us that culture happens—always. A class in New Media Writing or other digital production is a class largely concerned with how to talk about reading and creating digital texts. In English or composition, such a class uses words that emerge from their critical traditions, words that have, in Bakhtin terms, lived their "socially charged lives” in the disciplines and are “populated by [their] intentions” (293). This chapter has been an exercise in one such way of talking, of applying the adjective, “literate,” and the noun, “rhetoric,” to the business of reading and composing digital or visual texts.

... Who’s to say? The visual is always rhetorical when rhetoricians are doing the looking, and especially when they are talking about the visual with the taste of rhetoric in their mouths.

And as in the visual, so with writing web content. "All rhetorically oriented discourse is composed in light of those who will hear or read that discourse." Sylva Rhetorica.

Which is to say: the experience of the text—its design, context, rhetoric, and interpretive alternatives—contributes to its meaning. Which is to say that we are not users but a socially situated audience, aware of the media’s role in defining subjectivity and aware of its material surfaces, its underlying mechanisms, its historical antecedents, and its ultimate social effects. Do I repeat myself? Very well: I repeat myself.


To adapt a way of presenting is to adapt with it the message itself and the way of looking at the world informing the message. Including the relationship of writer to reader. So this also requires that the writer adapt, establish a new relationship towards subject, reader, and way of understanding the subject.

To suggest that writers use simple sentences to make a work accessible is to argue that the relationship the writer wants to strike with the reader is one that shares the simplistic understanding of the subject - maybe even simple minded. But to make the suggestion that simple sentences alone are going to address the situation is itself simplistic. They don't. They won't.

The Exercise

[under revision]
Three registers. Three sets of relationships. Three different experiences of the text. Repurpose by changing register of a common story/fable.

or this:
Who are you being asked to be to read this as it seems to be offered?

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How else can it be written to create an alternative subjectivity?


Rhetorical Affordances

the experience of the text—its design, context, rhetoric, and interpretive alternatives—contributes to its meaning. That design includes

Terms

Go to Sylva Rhetorica, then click on Style in the left-hand column. The rhetorical figures are listed on the right-hand column.

Text

The Web Style Guide, chap 9: Editorial Style presents the day to day conventions of writing text for The Web.

Who does this page think you are?

Or, What relationship is the page establishing with the reader, how, using what?




See also MakeMeThinkAboutTailoringMyTextExercise - retired. Writing for the web should challenge the writer's practices. Might also see early chap in Designing the Medium, Murray, on different design procedures.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/magazine/who-do-online-advertisers-think-you-are.html?_r=0



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