Assumed Audiences

“The Internet” is far too broad an audience for, well, basically any post I write.

October 18, 2018 (updated October 19, 2018)Filed under blog#reading#writingMarkdown source

Assumed audience: everyone on the internet.

I am working on a post about something I think is interesting in programming, and shared it with a friend last night to get some feedback on what I had written so far. His response made me realize that the post left me open to wild and massive misinterpretation of my intent. (The specific details aren’t really that interesting for my broader point here.)

I was thinking about how to clarify that, and it took me back to a Winning Slowly episode we recorded back in 2015, with the wonderful title Basketballs ≠ Pumpkins:

In which we talk about… the general phenomenon of things you say on the internet going viral (often when you least expect them to). How do you deal with the reality that your audience is never limited but may universalize at any moment? What is the audience’s responsibility, and what are creators’ responsibilities? How do we deal charitably with authors writing “in-house” on controversial topics?

The basic problem here is that a blog post is open to everyone on the internet to read… but everyone on the internet is far too broad an audience for, well, basically any post I write. (Or indeed any post anyone writes.)

What’s more, for any given post I write, there is an implicit audience. You as reader just have no way of knowing who I have in mind. Maybe I am thinking of “the whole internet,” but that certainly isn’t the case for most posts. So what if I just made my intended audience explicit?

My current best solution for handling this phenomenon is an “assumed audience” heading on the top of a post. It won’t head off all the nonsense, of course. But it at least gives people a frame of reference. A few examples that leap to mind:

  • Assumed audience: other theologically conservative Christians in the PCA
  • Assumed audience: people curious about functional programming
  • Assumed audience: experienced Rust developers
  • Assumed audience: people outright hostile to religious belief

Each of those are people I might actually address on this blog—and there are plenty of others, of course. What’s potentially useful about this kind of thing is that good-faith readers know how to approach the content. Bad-faith readers will of course do with any text what they will. I cannot stop someone from hate-reading me. All I can do is put up sign-posts for people who are interested in good faith readings.

For example, if you’re a die-hard devotee of dynamic programming languages, a note that the assumed audience is people interested in advanced static types tells you that my point isn’t persuading you, but persuading someone else entirely. You can adjust your read accordingly.

Likewise, if I’m writing on Christian ethics with an assumed audience of secular progressives, and you’re a fundamentalist Christian, you can read with the understanding that I will frame things differently for someone who disagrees with me about everything (down to and including the nature of reality itself!) than if we were having an “in-house” conversation! You can adjust your read accordingly.

I’m increasingly convinced something like this is important. Very important, even.

It’s worthwhile to blog and write publicly—some of the best feedback I get on things I write is from total strangers!—but it’s also very difficult to write effectively when everything must be couched in forty-eight layers of nuance and qualification just in case someone from a different tribe happens along.

Maybe I’ll just be this weird guy over here marking my posts this way, or maybe it’ll catch on with other weird people and a few corners of the internet will be a little less open to misunderstanding. Maybe people will completely ignore them and engage in full on flame wars on Twitter and Hacker News. (That seems more likely than not.) I think it’s worth a shot anyway. Let’s try it and find out!

Edit, October 19, 2018: Thanks to Stephen Carradini for reminding me to include a shout-out to Sarah Constantin’s blog Otium, which introduces posts with a similar heading, “Epistemic status,” to indicate how confident the author is or isn’t about the contents of the given post. I meant to include a shout-out to Otium in the original writeup and just spaced it!