The Power of the Audience

  1. As I write this, the Twittersphere is going through its annual love/hate paroxysms about TED. Every year, the conference seems even more an event perfectly calibrated to inflame the bloggerati: Inarguably great presentations combined with unrepentantly exclusionary structure. A humanitarian aesthetic that shrouds a blatantly classist participation model. But what most vexes outsiders (including myself; I’ve never attended, though I’ve been invited to pay 2/3 the cost to attend one of their remote TV viewings of the event) is the sense of collective delusion that seems to overcome attendees, who fawn over even the least of the talks. It’s sort of like Steve Jobs’ famous Reality Distortion Field, but on more of a peer-to-peer basis. I like the idea of TED, and the people who run it, and the presentations it generates — but what’s up with the groupthink?

  2. The New York Times reveals the teenage founder of random video chat phenomenonChatroulette. Though the site’s still new (and controversial) enough that Wikipedia’s editors have thus-far decided it’s not worthy of note, it’s inarguably struck a chord, with a noticeably larger impact in media-fixated NYC than tech-focused San Francisco. Though the site can definitely be seen as creepy, people also seem mesmerized and intoxicated by the idea of connecting with strangers in such a visceral, immediate way.

  3. One of my favorite startups (naturally, part of our burgeoning NYC tech scene) is Chartbeat, which recently explained the crucial distinction that realtime analytics are not just faster analytics, they’re a difference in kind from traditional static stats.

So what do these data points have in common? They’re actually essentially about audience and shared experience. In the realtime web, we’ve focused a great deal on the latest noise. But as I said when I first wrote about the pushbutton web, what may matter most about realtime capaibilties is the user experience that’s enabled. And the best use for realtime communications on the web is not to simply bring in the most recent information on a topic, but rather to make clear that others are experiencing or interacting with the same content at the same time.

There’s Others Here With Us

Audiences matter. Being in an audience isn’t simply about being at the same place at the same time. We act differently when we’re in the presence of an audience. As audience members, we’re more susceptible to being connected emotionally, expressing ourselves in uncharacteristically free ways, and forming lasting connections with the presenter, performer or content that we’re experiencing.

Shy people start to sing along at concerts. Tea Party meetups start with group prayers that encourage participation from people who might otherwise be uncomfortable talking politics with strangers. Ostensibly unbiased journalists applaud at Apple keynote presentations. We are transformed when we’re part of a shared experience.

Just as importantly, performers are elevated by the presence of the audience. I do a fair bit of public speaking, and I have obsessively watched a lot of the best performers of the pop culture world for my entire life. In studying their work, especially for artists who are significantly different between the studio work they do on a recording versus the live performances they do on stage, you can see a remarkable elevation of expressiveness and personality when they’re facing an audience.

I’ve even seen it with bloggers and writers; Though blogging was often described (not inaccurately) as “theater for introverts” in its early days, a lot of bloggers and writers have matured into formidable public speakers as well. The first time I saw Malcolm Gladwell speak, almost seven years ago, he was an awkward and quiet presence, the very picture of an introverted writer. By just two years later, when he keynoted SXSW in support of the publication of Blink, he was effortlessly charming and spellbinding. Sure, he’d had a lot of practice. But it was clearly the interaction and attention of the audience that were drawing him out and raising his game.

Hello, Cleveland

When I create on the web today, I’m still completely isolated from the sense of having an audience. I have a couple of different (largely inaccurate or worthless) metrics about subscriber numbers, follower counts, or page views that I can look at to estimate the impact of something I’ve created. For a decade, though, I created posts on this blog with only a vague sense of people actually having a shared experience of reading these words. If I’m really lucky, a few friends might send me an instant message after publishing, and I’ll know there was really someone on the other end of the line. Even long comment threads have the feel of the occasional straggler walking into a mostly-empty coffee shop for a few minutes: Cumulatively significant, but sparse and unpopulated at any particular moment.

That’s a huge disconnect, and a huge opportunity. When I wrote my Facebook usernames post several months back, I had one of those rare moments where something I write resonates outside of the core tech community, and I could watch links to or mentions of the post roll in from Twitter and Facebook, in realtime. That sense that (what would eventually become) hundreds of people were all on my site at the same time was gratifying and rewarding in a way that felt, for the first time, just like the satisfaction I get when I know I’ve killed it onstage with a good presentation.

And we’ve misunderstood that motivation online for a long time. We deride searches for mentions of one’s own work as “ego searches”, implying there should be some sort of shame in looking for responses to our creativity. Services from YouTube to Twitter make it effortless to see what you’ve favorited from other people, but nearly impossible to measure or monitor who’s marked your work as one of their favorites. Even if you can see that data, it’s in an asynchronous, disconnected manner, instead of making clear which of those people were responding at the same time. Chartbeat mitigates this somewhat for me as a creator, but that doesn’t help you as a reader. MyBlogLog, as ungainly and awkward as it’s always been in its short life, would show some avatars for site visitors when they were on the same page. People embed live chat windows on their site so that visitors can talk to each other. But the essential experience of being in an audience isn’t actually of audience members talking to one another. And while I’ve certainly been at movies where an excited and responsive audience improved the experience, I’ve absolutely never wondered if I could see a list of everyone in the audience with me, sorted by the order in which they found their seats.

Standing Room

Today’s rough approximations of the right experience still fundamentally deny us the opportunity to be part of an audience together when we see something we love. Sure, we’ve all sent a YouTube link to a friend over instant messenger so that it could be enjoyed simultaneously, perhaps even to someone in the same room. But we’re never allowed to just “look around” and see who else is there at the same time. It’s part of the reason that very, very few web experiences can grab us and truly move us the way that media like movies and songs and television do.

There’s a big opportunity here. I’m a better writer, blogger and thinker when I know there’s an audience. (If I could see your eyes glazing over, maybe I would have edited this into a shorter post!) It could be transformative to our experience as creators if we could actually have the feeling of a real audience when we’re sharing our thoughts to the world, instead of the arbitrary counts that the people selling advertising on the web have been referring to as an “audience” all of these years.

Most importantly, those of us who’ve had our lives transformed by the web, or who have had emotional and meaningful experiences of common connection through the Internet could have a way of sharing those experiences with a far broader audience that’s familiar with the traditional behavior of audiences. I can’t wait to see what becomes the equivalent of a standing ovation.

Thanks to Martin Fisch for the image.