Monday, November 16, 2009

A Community is Not an Audience

I once wrote an article about the one word I wanted banished from the lexicon of communications – the word “audience.” The article enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame at the time, but was later “rediscovered” by a consultant in St. Louis, who continues to cite it and even has it archived as a pdf file on his web site.

The theme of the article was this: most organizations think of and communicate to employees as an audience. In fact, that’s how most organizations define all of the people they need to communicate with – as audiences. This is what communicators are trained to do as well – identify and communicate to their audiences. I also see this in other disciplines as well – consider how writers today are told to establish their “platforms” so that they have a built-in “audience” for their books.

I don’t believe in audiences. The concept is a modernist relic of a one-way communication process. It assumes that people are empty-headed vessels, just waiting for you to fill their heads with your “messages” (also known as “educating the public”). Message is another word I dislike; trying finding any communicator today who doesn’t tell his clients about the need for key messages or message-points. (A message-point, as near as I can tell, is a message in a bullet-point format.)

No, I don’t like the word “audience.” I prefer the word “community.” I prefer to think of people I want to talk with and engage in conversation as a community, not an audience. Calling them an audience means the conversation is really all about me.

It’s why I like social media as much as I do. Blogs, Twitter and Facebook are all about community (except when someone is building a “platform” and abuses the concept, or thinks of them as just another channel to broadcast their messages). Social media require, perhaps demand, interaction and listening. They work best when there is true engagement, engagement of the best kind – people coming together with a common understanding and bound in a common purpose, wanting to engage fellow members of the community.

If someone had told me a year ago that I would be blogging and tweeting about poetry, and helping edit an online poetry journal, I would have thought they had been broadcasting one-too-many message-points to one-too-many audiences. But that’s what’s happened.

The people who are this community of poets and poetry-lovers are from all over the United States: New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Memphis, Atlanta, St. Louis, Oregon, Minneapolis, Texas and a few other places I’m not sure about. We read each other’s blogs and poems and comment about them; we tweet and write about them; we send emails on occasion; we celebrate when something good happens; we encourage and sympathize when something not-good happens. I’ve only talked directly on the phone with one member of this community, and that was only one time. And the other online communities we’re part of are often drawn into what we’re up to. Such is the power of social media.

We are a community of poetry and poetry-lovers. But we’re also something else – a community of faith.

We don’t talk about faith much, because we know. But it is faith that infuses this community. And it is faith from a variety of Christian religious traditions and denominations. Politically, we’re all over the map, as near as I can tell, but the politics doesn’t matter, because there’s something larger and more important at work here. From a faith perspective, we are generally in the same place. And it is faith that underscores the common understanding and the common purpose we have.

No, we are not an audience. We are a community of people, a people of faith.

(If you’d like to read more about the idea of community, visit the blog carnival being hosted by Bridget Chumbley and Peter Pollock. This carnival on community is over at Bridget’s blog.)

12 comments:

Maureen said...

I enjoyed this, Glynn, and I am honored to be a member of our community of poets who reside in a community of faith.

Anne Lang Bundy said...

Wow. What a message. I doubt I'll ever again be able to use the word 'audience,' because of how important community is to me.

I'm just heading to the other room to write my post on community.

You've set the bar pretty high, Glynn. Umm ... thanks ...

Peter P said...

Ok. Strike the word audience out of my dictionary.

...And the word 'message'.

:-)

Great post, Glynn. Wonderful way to start off the carnival!

Janet Oberholtzer said...

Love your thoughts here ... good stuff about the difference between an audience and a community.

katdish said...

Fantastic. This should be required reading for authors building platforms. Most get it. Others? Not so much. Yes, tweet your posts, but if that's all you do, people begin to feel like you have no interest in engaging. It's not called social media for nothing.

You, BTW are a fantastic example of the type of encouragement one can find within an effective community. Thank you.

S. Etole said...

Your perspective on things is always worth the reading and pondering ...

Bernadette Pabon said...

Can I borrow that word audience, just like there are no audiences in worshiipping there should be no audience in community, we should all participate.

loved it.

Bridget Chumbley said...

What a great 'message'... j/k

This is a terrific post, Glynn. It hits the nail on the head regarding what it means to truly be part of a community, and how to properly engage in the social media world.

Thank you!

jasonS said...

Makes sense to me!

Kevin said...

Awesome post Glynn!

"Calling them an audience means the conversation is really all about me." Great point! I will remember that!

Helen said...

I never thought about it before, but you are absolutely correct. That makes it all about the performer. And is that who we want to be on twitter, facebook, or blogs? Performers? Not I...
Thank you. Excellent post.

Monica Sharman said...

I really appreciated this, Glynn.