Sites of Study

A Brief History of Audience

The One and the Many

Audience Addressed and Audience Invoked

On Lurkers

Works Cited

By Rebecca Lucy Busker


In their comparatively brief existence, internet technologies have drawn a great deal of scholarly attention in numerous fields, including rhetoric and composition.  Various terms and acronyms have been coined to refer to both the technologies and the study of their use. The broad term “Computers and Writing” (now both a conference and a journal title) can encompass everything from word processing to synchronous relay chat, while the slightly more narrow “Computer Mediated Communication (CMC),” which tends to refer to those technologies like email and chat that are specifically geared towards immediate transmittal of messages.

This study focuses specifically on those technologies that may be termed “asynchronous on-line discussion” (or AOD).  The three most salient features of these technologies are encompassed in the three words of the term.  “Asynchronous” indicates that the technology is designed for communication that does not take place in “real time;” that is, a message sent on Monday at 9AM may be replied to on Friday at 3PM.  “On-line” refers to the use of Internet connections for the transmittal of messages.  “Discussion” indicates that the technologies are geared for overtly dialogic communication.  The most prominent current manifestations of AOD include mailing lists, Usenet newsgroups, and web forums.

Within the broader topic of asynchronous on-line discussion, many potential areas of examination exist.  In this study, I use the concept of discursive space to discuss ways in which the medium affects issues of audience.  How does having a common (yet virtual) discursive space impact the ways in which participants construct their audience?  How are the existing theories of audience complicated by that space?

Any discussion of audience in Asynchronous On-Line Discussion (AOD) spaces faces an immediate complication: difficulty in  isolating the discrete components of the discursive act.  Louise Wetherbee Phelps points out that postmodern theories “give a renewed salience to audience in rhetorical studies at the same time as they paradoxically break down the barriers that allowed us to distinguish audience from writer, text, and context - and in general to define discrete and interacting elements of discourse” (153).  CMC technologies have broken down these barriers even more, for how are we to define and examine audience in a medium where “each participant moves quickly between roles of reader and writer” (Bolter 6)?   However recursive and co-constructive the process of “meaning” is theorized as being, the possibility of immediate reversal of roles, of immediate written response to a text - that is, of truly dialogic interaction -is only beginning to manifest in theory.  While Bahktin asserts a dialogic model for text in which all utterances are inherently responsive and  predictive of response, the theory remains based on a print model in which “response” is often delayed by months or even years, in which the general “audience” is given limited venue for response, and in which the relative roles of author and audience remain ostensibly fixed.

Many of our theoretical assumptions about audience are predicated on this model, and on the (in practical, physical terms) unidirectional flow of text from author to audience. I am aware, of course, that the model is not strictly linear or unidirectional, and is in fact far more complicated than the simple flow of ideas from writer to reader through text.  I speak here not of the construction of meaning, which can be conceived of in far richer and more complex ways, but rather of the physical transmission of text. The gradual movement of rhetorical theory from oral to written has brought with it a complication of the classical notion of audience.  As Walter Ong asserts, writers generally do not have an audience; they have readers, a concept that lacks the collectivity of the classical, oral audience (11).  The complication is at least in part a result of the distancing effect of writing: unlike orators, writers are seldom in the same physical space as those who will experience their text.  This distance has led Ong and others to argue that a writer’s “audience” is a fictional construct imagined by the writer and imbued in the text, creating roles that actual readers are then called upon to play.  Others like Barbara Tomlinson have reasserted the presence of “real” readers in the form of reviewers and gatekeepers, while still others (Reiff, Ede and Lunsford) have worked to complicate the binary of audience “addressed” (an assumed real audience that is analyzed for effective strategies) and audience “invoked” (Ong’s notion of the fictional audience).

Many of these assumptions rest on the distancing effect of writing, and are complicated vastly when rhetor and audience are not only brought into the same discursive space, but interchange roles within minutes.  While Douglas Park points out that real readers of print text may or may  not choose to adopt the roles inscribed in the text, their resistance does not often manifest in immediate production of another text which makes that refusal perfectly clear.  The reassertion of the physical audience in AOD spaces complicates attempts to fictionalize and inscribe them.  However, the “collectivity” which Ong ascribes to the oral audience cannot truly be said to apply to the AOD audience, either: the fluidity of participation, and such phenomena as crossposting make defining a collective audience impossible.