The Imagined Audience

I briefly mentioned the notion of an ‘imagined audience’ in my recent post on PhD blogging for The Thesis Whisperer. In his thesis, David Brake (2009) uses a symbolic interactionist approach to examine imagined audiences in relation to personal blogging in the UK. He suggests blogging practices incorporate a range of ‘envisaged audience relationships’ where a blogger’s “construction of the meaning of their practice can be based as much on an imagined and desired social context as it is on an informed and reflexive understanding of the communicative situation” (p.3). Drawing on Andrew Feenberg’s critical theory of technology, Brake explains how the marginal role of blog audiences is partly encoded in the socio-technical characteristics of the blogging platforms themselves.

Interestingly, the notion of ‘audience’ assumes a broadcast metaphor. How does this compare with the idea of a blogging community, and the participative web generally? How do we perceive audiences in the social media we use? How are these perceptions formed? And how do they differ across different platforms? Do we transfer audience identities from one platform to another?

Viewing indicators (visitor statistics etc.) are limited in what they tell us, whilst acts of participation and reciprocity (comments, retweets etc.) are often fewer in number than we’d like. Even when a network is largely identifiable – such as followers on Twitter – we have little or no idea of their actual viewing behaviours. I purposely keep the number of people I follow on Twitter to a manageable figure (I’d like to follow more) to be able to most efficiently view my twitter feed on a regular basis. I assume users who follow several thousands of people don’t do this, but rather engage in more inconsistent viewing habits, do more skimming, or employ some sort of filtering.

A number of participants in my PhD study have expressed concerns over the ambiguity of social media audiences, particularly around blogging. As I have discussed previously, doctoral practices can require negotiating a number of different contexts, which, even within my small cohort of participants, can include conflicting academic, entrepreneurial and activist activities. By choosing to use social media, they are committed to engaging in more public, distributed and persistent dialogues. The way they blog, tweet and create other digital artefacts across interrelated platforms and audiences incurs potential inconsistencies and tensions. When those audiences are ambiguous, practice and identity agendas are further compromised.


Brake, D. R. (2009). As if nobody’s reading’?: the imagined audience and socio-technical biases in personal blogging practice in the UK. PhD thesis, London School of Economics.

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3 Responses to “The Imagined Audience”

  1. virginia Yonkers Says:

    This is very interesting. I have actually blogged about the difference between public and private audiences, questioning about who exactly was reading my blog. I have the same questions as I write my dissertation, but I can discuss them with my adviser and get concrete feedback (i.e. the school administrators, publishers, dissertation committee). I can then go to representatives of those groups to get feedback.

    I can ask those following my blog for feedback or just in general “readers”, but I am always wondering about WHO my readers are. This is even more complicated with facebook. I try to manage the “audience” by having a school account and a personal account. However, I still don’t ever know who is reading my posts unless they comment (which many do not, but I find out later they are following my conversations).

    I wonder, though, if the “imaginary audience” is dependent on whether a person is a nacient or mature user of social media (those new being more concerned with who is reading what they put up there) and/or the generation. I know my kids don’t seem to care who is reading what they put up there as they don’t think of blogs, YouTube, or facebook as public spaces. I am always reminding them, “Would you say or do this in front of me? No, then why would you do it on line?”

    I think your post is a very interesting/important insight!

  2. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Thanks for sharing your own thoughts on this Virginia.

    Using activity theory as my primary analytical framework, it is necessary I address the socio-cultural aspects of mediated activity. Each of the multiple and interrelated activity systems that I construct around my participants’ social media experiences include a ‘community’ component, with it’s own rules, cultures and roles. Participants’ perceptions of these ‘communities’ may be, to varying degrees, known or imagined.

    As the activity systems are defined by their object (which roughly equates to learning objective), communities tend to be shared across different activity systems in complex ways.

    It is clear some of my participants do seem to transfer known identities from one platform (such as Twitter) to another where identities are less easily determined (such as a blog), and in doing so, there is a shift in the subjective view of the relational aspect from that of an interactive community or network to a more passive audience.

  3. Twitter Timelines and the Art of Skim | PhD Blog (dot) Net Says:

    […] indicating the complex, inconsistent and selective viewing behaviours and strategies that underpin how we actually engage with […]

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