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Broadcasting through Cloudy Glass: The Imagined Audiences of Social Media Networks

This post was written for UW's HCDE 505, Computer Mediated Communication.

In Knock, knock. Who's there? The imagined audience, Eden Litt describes the concept of the "imagined audience" Ė the prospective audience that one has in mind when socially performing in some capacity, whether it matches their actual audience or not. It has long been established that people perform differently depending on their audience (James 1890), and it has since been shown that even an individual's imagined audience can have powerful effects on their behavior and attitudes (Fridlund 1991). When the imagined audience and actual audience are well-aligned, behavior adjustments can be made to appropriately communicate the intended message. In the past, this has typically been much easier in the sense that, in face-to-face communication, individuals can see exactly to whom they are speaking. Though some minor difficulties arise in mediated communication like letter-writing and telephone calls, these forms of communication are directed enough that each participant can still accurately imagine their audience, albeit without the complete set of social cues one would get in face-to-face communication (Walther 1996). Additionally, advertising and broadcast media have long faced the challenge of trying to target an imagined audience. However, the rise and prevalence of social networking sites (SNSs) has increased the conceptual distance between the audience and self for the layman, leading to a new level of misalignment of imagined and actual audiences.

The difficulties of predicting one's actual audience, Litt rightly contends, are compounded by the fact that SNSs tend to combine social contexts together; traditionally-discrete professional, family, and friend relationships are collapsed into a single audience, making the task of tailoring one's behavior and message all the more complicated. Beyond the associated cognitive overload, miscalculations of one's audience in an environment of collapsed contexts can lead to serious life consequences like job loss or health insurance denial. Indeed, subsequent research has identified substantial regrets, many of which are caused by misestimation of audience (Wang et al. 2011), while other research has found lack of certainty or confidence about audience makeup to correlate with low engagement (Staddon et al. 2012). In each case, clear audience imagination would lead to safer and more fulfilling socialization.

Litt spends much of the article describing the various factors that shape one's imagined audience, breaking them into two interlinked categories. The first, referred to as structural, environmental, or macro-level, comprises the factors external to the individual, such as the social context and associated affordances. The second category of influences, referred to as agential, individual, or micro-level, comprises internal factors, such as personalities, motivations, and capabilities. The influences Litt describes are listed in the table below, each with examples.

Litt's factors that affect the imagined audience, with accompanying examples.

Litt concludes by offering direction for further research, such as finding ways to better measure the differences between one's imagined and actual audiences. She also makes recommendations for closing the gap between the two, including broad suggestions for how a designer might enable users to better access their imagined audiences via dynamic and intelligent privacy controls.

Though the detached and distorted nature of SNSs may inherently impose certain restrictions upon one's ability to imagine their actual audience, there are undoubtedly improvements that can be made by taking other computer-mediated communication research into account. Litt writes that the strength of each influence is currently unknown, but it's reasonable to assume that she would argue that features of sites/services is at least one of the most malleable influences. Her discussion of these features' effects on imagined audiences is reminiscent of Erickson's and Kellogg's concept of social translucence Ė the visibility of current social conditions and its ability to compel accountable behavior (Erickson and Kellogg 2000). These authors describe BABBLE, an attempt to incorporate concepts of social translucence into an online chat interface, where a "social proxy" uses distance from the center of a circle to indicate users' presence and activity level in a conversation. Just as a windowed door informs the user if someone is on the other side, or as BABBLE informs users about who is more likely to immediately see their message, SNS features that more accurately disclose the actual audience (such as via persistent avatars) could help users better imagine their peers on the receiving end so that their message is constructed appropriately.

Social translucence is just one of many potential ways to alleviate the problem. Though there's much research to be done to develop more fixes, Litt's framework provides a solid foundation for researchers to identify the weak links and reduce the distance between imagined and actual audiences.

Discussion Points

  1. Litt describes how features of social media sites can influence the imagined audience. Why might social networks want to make the actual audience more apparent? Why might they want to keep the actual audience more hidden?
  2. Littís list of factors that influence oneís imagined audience is certainly not exhaustive. What other factors might be missing from this list? For example, oneís emotional state can impact their decision to post something (Wang et al. 2011), such as an angry employee complaining about their boss on Facebook, forgetting that their boss is in the actual audience.
  3. This article focuses on the userís inability to mentally account for the mere presence of all audience constituents. In small enough groups, itís possible to know exactly who the audience is, but users still face the challenge of knowing how their audience will actually perceive their messages. How might designers attempt to alleviate this problem, if itís even possible?
  4. Are there situations when a mis-imagined audience is desirable? For example, an individual may find it easier to speak publicly if they imagine only speaking to their close friends.

Works Cited

Erickson, Thomas. "Social Translucence: An Approach to Designing Systems That Support Social Processes." ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction - Special Issue on Human-computer Interaction in the New Millennium, Part 1 7.1 (2000): 59-83. ACM Digital Library. Web.

Fridlund, A.J. "Sociality of Solitary Smiling: Potentiation by an Implicit Audience." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1991): 229-40. Web.

James, W. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt, 1890.

Litt, Eden. "Knock, Knock. Who's There? The Imagined Audience." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56.3 (2012): 330-45. Web.

Staddon, Jessica, David Huffaker, Larkin Brown, and Aaron Sedley. "Are Privacy Concerns a Turn-off?: Engagement and Privacy in Social Networks." Proceedings of the Eighth Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security (2012): n. pag. ACM Digital Library. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

Walther, J. B. "Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal, Interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal Interaction." Communication Research 23.1 (1996): 3-43. Print.

Wang, Yang, Gregory Norcie, Saranga Komanduri, Alessandro Acquisti, Pedro Giovanni Leon, and Lorrie Faith Cranor. ""I Regretted the Minute I Pressed Share": A Qualitative Study of Regrets on Facebook." Proceedings of the Seventh Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security (2011): n. pag. ACM Digital Library. Web. 1 Nov. 2013.

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