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Consider the Audience

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 “Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies.”
–Sherry Turkle   1

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 9 On the surface of a social media platform, it is the interface that teaches us how to interact. The “like,” the “retweet” and the private message create the pathways for communication. As Turkle suggests, technological platforms vie for our intimate interactions and often times shape how we engage with one another. For example, the text message may be reserved as the most intimate form of contact. When sending a quick text, we do not imagine the network of transfers and bytes that mediate our message. We turn to texting because we seek a direct connection from one pocket to another, like a slip of paper passed underneath a table.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 6 Perhaps it is this ease of such pathways that allows us to fall into familiar patterns of engagement. By the time most students begin their freshman year, they are immersed in networked media. They have connected with friends and family through sharing experiences on social media like Instagram and streamed their favorite music mixes through cloud services Spotify. Students have also experienced the downsides of such platforms whether it’s sending a text to the wrong recipient or needing to take “a Facebook vacation” while studying for exams. As a result when they enter college, most students have already developed media modi operandi.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 However, as students move into new environments (especially college), they experience audience shift and “context collapse.” 2 For example, a Facebook account once intended for high school friends quickly becomes a forum for college friends. It may also become a  setting for a class assignment or an internship interaction. When these technologies are brought into the classroom and become platforms that facilitate similar environments, we begin to re-examine the boundaries of these intimacies:  Do I use my personal Facebook for a course? Do I friend my professor? How do I brand myself on Twitter?

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 Web writing is about writing on the web — the flexibility as a multimodal piece, the ability to nimbly circulate, and the capacity to create a network of texts. But it is also inherently about writing for the web and situating ourselves as readers and writers within these evolving architectures. A key consideration for web writing in the liberal arts college setting is the development of more opportunities to circulate student work while still foregrounding the navigation of the public/private.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 2 Negotiating a Public
Among the most important contours of web writing is the ability to negotiate publicness. Natalia Cecire, in her piece “How Public Like a Blog: On Academic Blogging” illustrates the tensions of blogging as both filled with possibility and with potential risk for less established writers, “Thinking in public is a difficult habit to get into, though, because public is the place where we’re supposed to not screw up, and thinking on the fly inevitably involves screwing up. Blogging with any regularity in essence means committing oneself to making one’s intellectual fallibility visible to the world and to the unforgiving memory of the Google cache.” 3 When students publish online, they  assume the responsibilities of authorship, which as Cecire notes, has online archival record long after its publication. The consideration of such implications for visibility is crucial for students, especially those who might not have picked a career path.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 3 Too often, the digital fluencies of incoming students are confused with mastery of platforms and skills. Sophistication with media platforms should not be defined only by the ability to successfully complete a task on an interface (e.g. send a “private” message to another user, upload a video into a public channel, or complete forms on a profile page). Instead, we should define digital acumen by an overall awareness of the digital ecosystem. As an incoming freshman, considered a “millennial,” my knowledge of digital tools was fragmented. I could hack Microsoft Word to work like a (very limited) version Photoshop, but I did not know what a server was or why an open-source platform might matter.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 3 The writing of my senior thesis provided an opportunity for me to explore these questions. 4 When I began my work on a senior thesis that piloted a traditional English essay as a website, the most beneficial experience was not jumping into the backend of WordPress (a skill I still use on a daily basis) but learning what kinds of questions I should ask developing an online publication.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 1 Many of these questions were not ones I previously thought through while writing final papers. Questions like: Who was my audience and how could I write in an accessible way? What should I consider when publishing on a website? But also, what were my own rights as an author? How visible would this make my work? As someone who hadn’t yet dabbled in code, what could I  learn to do while still undertaking my primary research? What were the copyright issues of the materials I wanted to use? Could I create web interface that would show my readers where to click?

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 I surveyed the platforms supported by Bryn Mawr College and talked with IT about what it meant to be open-source. I narrowed the scope of the primary materials that I was using in Special Collections both as way to ground my own work and to limit my materials to those in the public domain. Some of the letters that I originally intended to use were bound up in copyright, and while I learned the process for requesting permission, I knew being granted permission was unlikely to fit within my timetable. This experience provided me with a set of guidelines that I use with every new media project. These guidelines allow me to skeptically approach platforms and assess the complexities of audience in ways that allow me to begin to build the kinds of interactions I hope for, and thus, allow me to become an architect of my new media environment.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 4 Performing Authorship
Audience is perhaps the most difficult negotiation of web writing, especially for students who manage the circulation through various social platforms, code-switch for several interested parties, and who will have an incredibly long archive of publication. Audience is also the most exciting.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 5 When surveyed about why they chose to work in the digital humanities at Re:Humanities, an undergraduate symposium on digital media, students have unanimously responded that they want their work to circulate beyond the classroom.  Stephanie Cawley, a recent Re:Humanities presenter, highlights the heightened sense of scholarly responsibility when writing online, “When you’re producing something that’s going to be online… you have a greater responsibility to engage more deeply, to understand everything you need to understand, because you have a greater responsibility to educate and reach out to a larger audience.” 5 The more responsibility to the audience and the increased investment that students have, the less that the work becomes about grades and more it becomes about shaping their scholarship.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Video clip from Re:Humanities ’12, sponsored by Bryn Mawr, Haverford, & Swarthmore Colleges. 6

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Writing for an online public helps to solidify a broader dialogue among scholars and texts. In the case of most platforms, readers and writers can literally converse on the work itself. In her presidential address at the MLA 2011, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Director of Scholarly Communications at the MLA, likened the platform of a blog to that of an arena. She extended the boundaries of the blog so that it is not a “kind” of writing but a location where both dynamic reading and writing occur:

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 “…the blog instead provides an arena in which scholars can work through ideas in an ongoing process of engagement with their peers. That spatial metaphor – the arena – is much to the point here: really grasping how something like a blog might serve scholarly communication requires understanding that a blog is not a form, but a platform – not a shape through which are extruded certain fixed kinds of material, but a stage on which material of many different varieties – different lengths, different time signatures, different modes of mediation – might be performed.” 7

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Fitzpatrick reminds us that through our writing we engage in performance. I would posit that a liberal arts degree can be thought of as training in the art of audience. We are constantly being asked to articulate the role of rhetoric, the position of speaker, and the effect on the audience. Studying the mastery of poets like Donne and Shakespeare who tightly pack religion, politics, lust and popular culture into the coils of iambic pentameter and iambic tetrameter seem a perfect study for a witty 140-character commentary. The essays of Montaigne can be seen as the predecessors of the 5-minute Medium meditation.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 3 Take for example, Robinson Mayer, who Alex Madrigal profiles in his article, “How to Actually Get a Job on Twitter.” 8 Madrigral emphasizes that it was not Mayer’s “Klout score” which earned him the position of associate editor at The Atlantic as a freshly graduated Northwesterner. Rather, it was his ability to synthesize information, read quickly and deeply, and also to engage in discussions with candor and humility.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 1 These are skills that we learn in the seminar style courses of the liberal arts colleges: reading across disciplines, developing expertise, and delving into discussions. We learn to challenge each other, and more importantly, ourselves. But first, we have to be able to recognize that we are on stage and then we have to allow ourselves to write for it.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 4 When students write for web, they should be prompted to become skeptical users who delineate the context, content, and circulation for each platform. Instead of merely advocating for one format or type of work, web writing assignments can provide space in a classroom setting to decide whether to converse on Tweet or Facebook, whether to write on Medium or WordPress, and how students might develop a rubric for platform adoption.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 When Tri-College Digital Humanities (Tri-Co DH) students from Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore begin their summer fellowships and internships, we ask that they blog about their summer work. With each blog post, our feedback poses a series of questions that a reflect layered audience. Think about how someone from your internship might read this? How might that differ from your professor? Will you be sending this to family and friends? A potential employer? A scholar whose work you cite?  Such questions foreground the various audiences and invite students to respond by developing a persona cognizant of who is reading.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Hema Surendranathan, a recent Tri-Co DH intern, points to the challenges of such performance in her blog “How to be Cool or Thinking about Audience.” Her post narrates her internship experience of being charged with sending emails to possible interested parties about the site’s new fiction. Knowing that those she wrote would have a deluge of emails that came before and after hers, she realized that she had to develop her pitch in the email subject header– and that to prompt a read, it had to be “cool.” Surendranathan further reflects in her blog post “Scholarship trains you how to communicate with depth, but maybe it’s marketing that orients you to think about communication in landscape: “who could be interested?” and “how can I get them to listen?” 9

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 1 One way to engage these questions is to invite serious discussions about social platforms in the classroom. Engineering opportunities of low-stakes media adoption that allow students to reflect thoughtfully and openly about their impact can invite flexibility between vernaculars.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 1 For example, in Katherine Rowe’s  course “Global Shakespeares,” 10 we began the course by laying out a social media policy and our expectations for each other as a class. We discussed the benefits of adding Twitter to the classroom, but also its limitations. After a robust discussion of what Twitter is and why we might use it, we decided to revisit the possibility of incorporating Twitter later in the semester.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 1 Midway through the course, during two students’ presentation on audience interaction, they asked their classmates to “paper-tweet” during a 20-second movie clip. After a quick introduction to the “rules of Twitter,” notecards for tweets were passed out and the clip was played. Paper tweets were written and read aloud. What ensued was a variety of tweets—some the epitome of Shakespearean wit, others condensed, elegant meta-commentaries, and still others inside jokes that referenced class conversations.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Two main considerations arose from this experiment. The first concerned the length of audience participation. For the first time everyone in class talked, and for the same length of time. We began to consider the economy of a medium that allowed for a variety of voices and how such a constraint could helpful influence engagement. The flow of replying and attributing became conscious, and the act of thinking aloud stimulated the collaborative shaping of an idea. The second question emerged from the creative tenor of the tweets : why we sometimes feel uncomfortable talking in ways in the classroom that engage wit and humor?

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 The following class when the next round of students gave their presentation, they decided to run the paper-tweet experiment again. This time we were asked to switch cards with a partner so that no one read their original post. The additional layer created authorial distance that mimicked the sometimes-removed self of online interaction. Our post paper-tweet reflections grappled with the questions of authorship and persona, topics that drew on theoretical texts we had read in class.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 1 Following these paper tweets, we revised the class policy to allow tweeting in class for those who were interested.We confirmed the spaces and moments in which recorded interactions hindered rather than advanced our conversation and created cues for tweeting so that a space for thinking through ideas unrecorded existed. The original concern of students who wanted to maintain the classroom space as one of thought experiment was upheld but others began to forge out into the Twitterstream with developed twitter voices. Ultimately, we were able to recognize the costs and benefits of Twitter as a platform in a low-stakes environment as well as within a thoughtful scholarly community.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Looking Forward
There will never be a perfect schema for writing for the web. Interfaces are reconfigured regularly. Platforms wax and wane. From one day to the next, the conventions of how we interact online from reading and writing to connecting with friends, family, and employers rapidly shift. Fortunately, as liberal arts students and graduates who historicize technological shifts and, as a result, who are encouraged to recognize our experiences as part of a larger and longer framework of media change, we are well-positioned to push the boundaries of our own scholarship and to become sophisticated readers and writers of the web.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 About the author: Jen Rajchel (@peasandpoetry) is a 2011 graduate of Bryn Mawr College. She now serves a dual role as the Assistant Director of Tri-Co DH and Digital Scholarship Curator at Haverford College. 

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Notes:

  1. 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0
  2.  Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, (New York : Basic Books, 2011), 1.
  3. Michael Wesch, “Context Collapse.” Mediated Cultures: Digital Explorations of Our Mediated World (blog), July 31, 2008,http://mediatedcultures.net/projects/youtube/context-collapse/
  4. Natalia Cecire, “How Public Like a Blog: On Academic Blogging,” Arcade (blog), April 20, 2011, http://arcade.stanford.edu/editors/how-public-frog.
  5. Jen Rajchel, “Mooring Gaps: Marianne Moore’s Bryn Mawr Poetry” (Senior Thesis, Department of English, Bryn Mawr College, 2010), http://mooreandpoetry.blogs.brynmawr.edu/2010/06/21/introduction/.
  6. Stephanie Cawley, “Re:Humanities ’12,” Interview at Re:Humanities ’12, Web, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59D2AAQHyYg. The Re:Humanities undergraduate digital media symposium began in 2010 and is sponsored by Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore Colleges, http://blogs.haverford.edu/rehumanities/.
  7. “Re:Humanities ’12,” YouTube video, http://youtu.be/59D2AAQHyYg.
  8. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Networking the Field,” Planned Obsolescence (blog), January 10, 2012, http://www.plannedobsolescence.net/blog/networking-the-field/.
  9. Alex Madrigal. “How to Actually Get a Job on Twitter.” The Atlantic , July 31, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/07/how-to-actually-get-a-job-on-twitter/278246/
  10. Hema Surendranathan, “How to be Cool or Thinking about Audience ,” Tri-Co Digital Humanities (blog), July 12, 2012, http://tdh.brynmawr.edu/2012/07/12/how-to-be-cool-or-thinking-about-audience/.
  11. Katherine Rowe, “Global Shakespeares” (class discussion, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA, Fall 2012). 
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Source: http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/engagement/rajchel-2013/