Tag Archives: unintended audiences

The Problem of the Unintended Audience


The unintended audience is the new norm.  And with it, we have burdened ourselves with the worry of not knowing where our communications might surface.

Nothing represents the challenges of connecting with others better than the ease with which a person can use newer media to eavesdrop on messages not intended for them. The digital revolution has led to popular media platforms favoring content that started as private communications. Some of this visual and textual material is used as digital clickbait, feeding our appetites for the kinds of gossip that used to exist mostly in supermarket tabloids.  Some intrudes more awkwardly, as when a forwarded e-mail goes to more eyes than it was supposed to.

In simpler times it was possible but awkward to listen to someone’s conversations through a wall or a shared party line. Broadly speaking, our secrets were more easily kept. Physical spaces usually created privacy.  And we didn’t have access to tiny recording technologies such as smartphones, or permeable channels of communication such as social media.  Privacy was an attribute an individual could choose.  It made life easier.  It was not something we planned to give up as citizens swept up into the digital world.  After all, if we wanted a peek into the private lives of others, we had theater and then film. Even in Shakespeare’s day audiences could spend hours witnessing the sordid backstories of Europe’s kings and queens.

The absence of the fourth wall is key to drama’s attraction. But what was once mostly limited to the theater is now a feature of everyday life, as cameras and mics invade most spaces. Few television police procedurals or legal narratives would be complete without the exposure of private communications that somehow contradicts claims of innocence. They reflect the fact that real life investigative bureaucracies regularly seek permission to eavesdrop, using off the shelf technologies that now make digital searches relatively easy.

The right to access personal data is at the core of the current legal battle that pits Apple against the federal government. The FBI wants to hack data from the cellphones of criminal suspects, like those who murdered innocent citizens in San Bernardino last year.

In recent decades we have added to the expectation that there is entertainment value in witnessing events not originally intended for public view.  Most reality television shows gain attention by using the camera to capture moments of private humiliation or subterfuge. Think of the hapless business people who open their professional lives to public view in exchange for help and cash from reality “stars” like chef Gordon Ramsey or hotel consultant Anthony Melchiorri.  Add in a range of other factors, including the natural habit of the young to be careless in their monitoring of their digital posts, and it’s easy to see how a multitude of messages can quickly verge out of their lanes. Remember the turning point in the 2012 presidential election?  A private fundraising event hosted by Mitt Romney was secretly recorded by a hotel employee. In his spiel to potential contributors Romney wrote off much of the nation as lazy and unreachable, writing off his electoral chances at the same time.

Privacy was an attribute an individual could choose.  It made life easier.  It was not something we planned to give up as citizens swept up into the digital world.

It is now the rare individual who has managed to hold on to the presumptive right touted  in many European countries to not be observed.

All of this is a reminder that as rhetorical creatures we are less able to select our own audiences. There is no longer a clear connection between who we wish to address and who actually receives our messages.  An assumption that others can eavesdrop into personal and professional communications complicates what used to be a source’s prerogative to clearly target receivers without unwanted blowback from outsiders.

So the unintended audience is the new norm.  And with it we have burdened ourselves with the additional worry of not knowing where our communications might surface.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu








Attempting to Drive From the Backseat

Source: Commons Wikimedia.org
 Commons Wikimedia.org

Using social media can be like trying to drive a car from the backseat. I suppose it can be done. But you may not end up where you intended. 

Commercial television networks usually follow a rule to withhold scheduled airline advertising if there has just been a crash involving a commercial carrier. The proviso is in place at the request of the carriers, who have no interest in having their ads appear next to reports of carnage on the ground.

It makes sense that any presenter of material would want to know as much as possible about the rhetorical neighborhood where their material is about to appear. Most of us share the same concerns of the airlines that a message needs an environment that is supportive and more or less congruent with what we have to say.  For example, no one wants to have what we assume is a private conversation with a person who we know to be on a speaker-phone in a room full of people. To send our thoughts without regard for when and how they will be seen is a recipe for trouble.

This kind of situation-specific behavior is a hallmark of our social intelligence, which includes the ability to adjust to the needs of a given social situation. The failure to do so is also source of a lot of comedy, as when someone says the wrong thing in the wrong place. Think of Amy Schumer or Groucho Marx almost anywhere.

It has always been a cornerstone of effective persuasion to “know the audience and the setting.” The logic that goes with “reading the room” is obvious: if our goal is to be an effective supplicant, our words should blend effortlessly within the situational context. For example, politicians know that disaster looms when a private conversation happens to be captured by a live microphone. This kind of event was Mitt Romney’s Waterloo for his 2012, when a private message to contributors about lazy Americans “entitled” to be on the dole was recorded by a server in the hotel meeting room.

It strikes me that the same kind of challenge is present in social media. We send messages. We comment. We post. But the circumstances for the presentation of our thoughts are mostly beyond our control. Comments viewable by the public or even just “friends” are frequently placed within a thread of other reactions aggregated by an unknowable combination of logarithms and sheer coincidence. And the effect—especially in platforms such as Facebook—may not be what we expected. Facebook “notifications” of someone’s updated “status” deliver us to pages of photos and comments posted by others that can leave us uncertain about what is new or different. To a friend who seems to be successfully on the mend from a serious operation it’s easy to offer “Congratulations!” and miss a newer post about unwanted medical complications. More than once I’ve been misled into offering a comment that could appear to others viewing the site as insensitive or simply foolish. Without a lot more time on the page (which is, after all, what any site hopes for) I could not have known what others have said on the same topic, and what triggered a thread that pulled me miles away from making a rhetorical bulls-eye.  In communication terms, this is known as the problem of a “boomerang.”  Comments intended to have a positive effect do just the reverse.

The problem is reflected in the words of marketing experts who have noted that it’s difficult for an advertiser using Twitter to know exactly who among their over 300-million users they are reaching. This is a long way from the ability of marketers to track the web habits of web-based retailers, who can know exactly what a consumer is looking for and when they are motivated enough to “click through.”

The open-ended nature of social media represents a sea-shift away from ability to identify and target a specific audience. The very fluidity of these platforms is partly what makes them exciting.  But there is little doubt that they impair our abilities to fully adapt to a specific set of human targets, with the consequent effect of posts and responses that off-message and even offend. The result is sometimes a catalog of potential slights: ignoring, offending, bewildering and failing to acknowledge the people with whom we wish to connect. There is irony in the fact with increased ease of making connections we have also made it easier to misunderstand what others are saying.  The best advice, therefore, is to always proceed with caution.

Comment at woodward@tcnj.edu