Geographies of Audience

Audience and Purpose

The construction of an audience is central to blogging about place but in complicated ways. When we think place-based, we might assume that writing about a place and for the people in that place might necessarily go together. However, it appears that many place bloggers write as much for a “global” audience as for a local one.

In his book Writing Partnerships, Thomas Dean creates a three-part schema for defining different approaches to service learning: writing for the community, writing about the community, and writing with community. With slight revisions, this schema can serve to distinguish between different approaches to place blogging:

  • blogging in a place: What is the blogger's physical relationship to a place?
  • blogging about a place: Does the content of the blogging correspond to a particular place or places?
  • blogging for a place: To what extent is the audience for the blogging situated in the same place as the blog?

Based on these categories, it is possible to group place bloggers into several rough categories:

  • Conceptual/Literary
    For example, Ecotone bloggers tend to write about place but not necessarily for that place (the audience tends to be geographically dispersed). The emphasis here is on creating and maintaining relationship with people who are geographically distanced, a trans-geographic online community of interest whose goal is not to transcend geography. The presence of an audience creates rhetorical exigency—the blogger's job is to explain what this place is like to people who are not there. Place blogging defamiliarizes ordinary places and motivates a writer to pay closer to attention to a particular locale.
  • Local/Political
    By contrast, Simon from Living in Dryden writes both about a place and for an audience in that place. In this case, blogging is form of civic participation and local political activism. The local blog's purpose is to create and communicate local knowledge that enables members of a local audience to become more engaged in their place as responsible citizens.

Two other varieties are worth noting, thought they will not be included in the subject of this study:

  • Social networking blog rings
    For example, locally-based blog rings such Boston Bloggers or Bostonites Unite! tend to write in a place but not necessarily about local places. The function is often to create relationships both on and offline with bloggers in who live in geographic proximity. This creates a community of interest that is far more locally-based, but the interest may be blogging itself as much as the topic of place. (See also Appendix: Place-based Blog Rings).
  • Blogging Past Places
    Blogging about a place without being in that place. Some bloggers maintain connections with places where they previous lived by cataloguing information about their past places. This acknowledges the complicated sense of place caused by the experience of mobility. Since this depends more fully on secondary forms of knowledge about a place, it's a less central form of place blogging practice.

For the purposes of this study, I will focus primarily on place blogging that takes place as its subject matter in a more deliberate way and is written by someone who is a resident of that place.

"Keene doesn't know I exist"

Lorianne from Hoarded Ordinaries writes entries that are deliberately and attentively grounded in the town of Keene and the surrounding areas. But she's not from Keene and she admits to being an outsider there. When asked if she knows anyone in Keene who reads her blog, she responds, "Keene doesn't know I exist" (DiSabato). She knows someone a few towns over who reads her blog, and her landlord is at least aware that she's keeping a one, but her audience by and large is made up of non-local readers. To say Keene doesn't know she exists is not mean as a judgment on the reading habits of Keene residents or the depth of place-connection that Lorianne has created there. Rather, it suggests something important about the relationship between audience and geography in place blogging.

In blogging, there is a change in audience made possible by the move from print to an online environment. This has always been one of the attractions of blogging and this is what allows Ecotone to construct an audience of interested readers, often reading from a geographical distance:

Ecotone: (noun) term from ecology. A place where landscapes meet-- like field with forest, or grassland with desert. The ecotone is an area of increased richness and diversity where the two communities commingle. Here too are creatures unique to the ecotone... the so-called 'edge effect'. Here in the online Ecotone for Writers about Place, we hope to create an edge effect, bringing distinct and different places and communities together to enrich our world. Enjoy your visit.

Because the communities represented by place bloggers are generally not geographically proximate, this "edge effect" creates a community of interest like many other communities on the web. The place blog makes use of the ability of the blog to transcend the limits of proximity to create a community of interest, but doesn't make this an end in itself. The importance of reading other peoples blogs is not as an escape from the limits of one's geographic situatedness, but as means of engaging more fully with one's own place. One might increase one's knowledge of geography—as a tourist might—but what one gains from reading other place blogs in not just knowledge of another place, but insight into other ways to engage a place—heuristics and ways of thinking that one can bring back to blogging about one's own place.

The place blogger writes from the position of both travel writer and tour guide, and thus blogs enable the geographically-distant audience to play the role of out-of-town visitor: when we have someone else looking at places that are familiar to us, we often are able to see with fresh eyes. In this sense, place blogging remediates the genre of travel writing, but it does so in the manner of Thoreau's habit of “traveling a good deal in Concord.” The place blogger can construct herself as a travel writer without leaving town because she has an audience of people who live elsewhere.

The role of the distanced audience in place blogging may be to remind us that the local and the global are intimately related in a globalized economy. Chris from Bowen Island Journal describes the function of his blog: to capture "my experiences for myself, for my family who are scattered across North America and for friends in Israel, South Africa, America and the UK" and to "introduce my readers to these places in a more concrete and connected way ( "June 15, 2003"). Writing for this geographically distanced audience means writing about his place situates it in a broader global context:

The act of blogging place, it seems to me, is an act of both placing one in intimate proximity with one's surroundings and placing the whole kit and kaboodle in the context of a world culture. Anyone in the world anywhere in the world can theoretically read [Bowen Island Journal]. Edward Hall or Marshall McLuhan might argue that this means that Bowen Island (at least as I see it) is extended to the world. It encompasses the world.

In this sense, place blogging highlights the connections between the local and the global, and the fact that we cannot fully understand our local environments unless we understand how they are connected to global forces always acting on it, often without us knowing. This suggests that if the Internet as technology has driven globalization in many ways, it might also be a medium that enables individuals to better understand the affects of global forces on any local situation.

Good Neighbors

Fred from Fragments from Floyd demonstrates that one's audience can evolve as one's blogging practice evolves, in his case from an audience of just himself, to a broad, geographically-dispersed audience and now gradually to a more locally-situated group of readers:

The weblog began as a personal journal, but from the beginning, there was the ultimate hope of connecting to others--to gain some sense of community, even living as isolated as we do in rural Virginia. Over the months, readers have visited Fragments from Floyd from all over the world, but just a few of them have come from my home state, fewer still from my neighborhood. This week I was invited to contribute a twice-a-month column for the local paper, the Floyd Press. So now, I will meet my readers in the library, pass them on the street, sit at the next table at Oddfellas. Who would have thought words from a remote and quiet place could find their way to so many homes and connect mine to so many other lives?

Your kindness and encouragement in the last two years, dear Fragments readers, gives me a certain peace in this new medium of local print. The rapport and community that has grown from our daily conversation in the weblog encourages me to trust my own best advice now: tell your story in your authentic voice; do the best job you can to make the reader hear and feel what you do; have a thick skin; and grow with the opportunity.

"Good Neighbors" (Dec. 12, 2004)

The value of a diverse, geographically distanced audience played a vital role in Fred's growing confidence as writer, and now his dedication to writing about Floyd county is beginning to spill over into the local community. Though Floyd County is "technologically sophisticated as rural counties go," the geographic statistics for Fred's site have "consistently shown many more bloggers visiting Fragments from London that from all of Virginia combined," and he's surprised by how many local residents still seem to be unfamiliar with blogging as a genre:

The dozen or so radio essays at the Roanoke NPR station over the past two years have attracted a few new Virginia readers, but none I know of from Floyd County. While I have not blogged as a way of trolling for work, influence or friends, I have hoped ultimately for a local purpose and local flesh-and-blood connections and involvement. The doors I want to open via contacts made through the radio, blog or newspaper are not about profit, but more about expanding our neighborhood beyond this isolated but beautiful place we live. I also am seeking new challenges and passions in this transition from what I used to do to what I will do in the future--something, I hope, that will involve writing, photography, education (outside the classroom) and community building.


I think there will be a different accountability, immediacy and tone, perhaps, when I get into stride with the local column. I am hoping to write myself into the column rather than have it academic, remote or as writing for its own sake. I'd like to foster exchange (via links to my email and weblog) and perhaps encourage more folks my age to read more, write more, and consider weblogs for their stories, ideas, memories and concerns about our county. (First)

This evolution in audience and exigencies demonstrates once again the fluidity of the self and the complexities of place, and reflects how place blogging has emerged as a response to these conditions. For place bloggers, exploring the relationship between one's audience and one's geographic location is a necessary part of writing in the genre, a constant dialogue that will continue as long as one keeps blogging.

The Lure of the Local

For Simon from Living in Dryden, political disappointment was his primary rhetorical exigency for starting a place blog:

When I put up my first posting here six months ago, I didn't really have any idea what I was getting into. I wasn't sure there would be enough news for stories every day, and didn't know if people would actually be interested in it.

At this point it's clear that there's more than enough going on in Dryden for stories every day. There is an incredible amount happening here, and only a fraction of it can make the paper. Some of it is routine, but even in the routine there's a depth I wouldn't have guessed before.

It's also clear that at least some people are interested in reading it. Traffic has increased slowly but consistently since I put the site up, and a good proportion of it seems to be local, not just driven by search engines or their spiders looking for new content.

"Six Months" (May 6, 2004)

Simon's blog documents the details of community and political life in the Dryden area: updates on local meetings, legal notices, tax maps, and online resources relating to the area. Simon also systematically documents his neighborhood by taking photographs house-by-house and posting them on his blog. Because these houses belong to his neighbors, this situates him as an insider and constructs his audience as primarily local:

If you live in one of these houses and don't like the picture, let me know. I'll be happy to take a different picture or, if you feel your privacy has been invaded, take it down. If you have questions, please contact me.

I hope people find this interesting, and I'm hoping to carry on with it for a while. Historical societies and similar groups spend a lot of time trying to find pictures of buildings, especially labeled pictures of buildings. Maybe this will someday make their lives easier, at least for around here.

"Photos" (Nov 12, 2003)

This writing not only attempts to construct a sense of place for himself but also to create local knowledge that might be contributed to the ongoing historical identity of the places. Simon offers a definition of his blogging practice:

My criteria are fairly simple. The weblog should focus primarily on local politics, where local is something smaller, preferably much smaller, than a county, state, or province. I don't mind pointing to subcategories of weblogs with broader perspectives, so long as what I'm pointing to is mostly local. Local weblogs can be from any country, not just the US, though that's what I've listed so far. They don't have to be in English, and they don't have to focus on politics, either.

It's great to publish material that can reach a wide audiences. Sometimes it's also great to publish for a smaller audience.

The suggestion that one's goal might be to cultivate a smaller audience runs counter to common assumptions what makes a blog successful—namely, how many readers one has. By contrast, the success for a local blog is measured by its ability to foster deeper local involvement over time:

Developing those kinds of committed audiences may involve geographic location, something I'm trying myself, and something which certainly makes it easier to meet people locally, or it could be through focus on a single issue, uniting people who are especially interested in one aspect of the conversation. Issues and places seem to drive long-term interests better than candidates; even when the elections are over, the issues and places remain.”

Politics happens every day, Simon seems to suggest, not just during election seasons. For this to happen, citizens of a local community need timely, relevant information. Simon's approach to audience is not meant as a blanket statement about what place blogging should be but rather as a focused response to a particular rhetorical exigency.

While the contrast between Ecotone bloggers and Simon from Living in Dryden might seem clear, the role of audience in place blogging is actually more fluid and blurred. This contrast represents differences in degree rather than in kind: the more conceptual and literary style of blogging will often attract local readers as well as those at a geographic distance while Simon's locally-focused writing actually has found a broader web audience that reaches beyond the Dryden area.

© Copyright Tim Lindgren