Audience as Network: A Web 2.0 Circulating Discourse
This paper presents a short history of the term “audience” to offer “network” as a possible alternative to audience in the context of Web 2.0. Using actor-network theory, it argues that network is especially helpful for understanding the agency that non-writers have in the circulation of discourse in Web 2.0. Network captures the non-linear and unrelated making and remaking of readers’ expectations, which in turns highlights the shifting nature of generic conventions and expectations. The outcome of this interpretation is that new genres can occur that challenge corporte and hegemonic discourse.
Please consider my essay, “Audience as Network: A Web 2.0 Circulating Discourse,” for the 2015 Computers and Writing Conference. It poses the term “network” as a possible alternative for conceiving of audience in Web 2.0 contexts. While it does not aim to do away with the term “audience” entirely, it posits that the term “network” is a useful term when investigating the ways audiences respond to and comment on social media texts. It concludes by arguing that the term “network” highlights the ways that generic conventions emerge and get revised, thus allowing us to view purpose as an emergent phenomenon.
My paper begins with a brief summary of the different ways the field of composition and rhetoric conceives of the term “audience” beginning with the 1980’s revival of the term (Asher, Berkenkotter, Daiute, Kroll, Ede, Ede and Lunsford, Walzer, Park, Roth, Schwartz, Gillam, Miller, Anson, Clark, Lunsford and Ede). After this revival, I argue the field turned to discourse community as a possible alternative in the early 1990s (Free and Broadhead, Schriner and Rice, Bernhardt, Kent, Schiappa, Kent, Clark). Then in the later 1990s and 2000s, the field turned to public (Harris, Wells, Mortensen, Eberly). I posit that in the past thirty-five years, “audience” has come to be represented mainly by three terms: audience, discourse community, and public. These terms have their particular strengths and weaknesses: audience stresses the agency and control that writers have during the composing process, discourse community stresses that the means from which a writer composes is structured by an ideological community, and public captures the concatenation of social worlds within which writers must contend while composing.
Using actor-network theory (Hawk; Latour) and post-process theory (Dobrin; Kent), I argue, in light of the field’s public turn, our field has moved away from subject-oriented conceptions of audience and towards a networked, node-oriented understanding of the concept. I argue that “network” is especially helpful for understanding the agency that non-writers have in the circulation of discourse in Web 2.0. “Network” illustrates the agency that templates (Arola), digital ambience (Rickert), and commenters have in an interconnected environment. This agency produces a social space that imbues Web 2.0 texts with a non-writerly agency in regards to their expectations and conventions that print texts and static webpages. Thus, in regards to Web 2.0, expectations for readers are created by an ever-shifting network of possible readers, programmers, programs, and ambient semiotic activity.
Network, as a term then, repositions Web 2.0 genres as circulating discourse rather than of sequences of texts or recurring. Network captures the non-linear and unrelated making and remaking of readers’ expectations, which in turns highlights the shifting nature of generic conventions and expectations. In regards to networks, then, we can read Web 2.0 genres as momentary instantiations of unrelated rhetorical work taken up, e.g. uptake (Emmons; Freadman; Schryer) by human and non-human actors. The outcome of this view is that new dispositions and genres are possible, even in a world circumscribed by corporate and hegemonic discourse.