On Dialogue and Building Audiences

PALACED #14: Building an audience? Very bad?

Good morning!

My #1 goal outside of school and work right now is to just stay as consistent as possible with this newsletter. My friend Fardeem decided to schedule some “accountability time” on the calendar where we hop on Zoom and get a personal project knocked out for the week — for me it’s this newsletter, for him it’s LeetCode.

The jury is still out on whether it will work in the long-term, but it was definitely one of the most productive hours of my week.

Last week, I mentioned how much I appreciate the conversation that comes out of this newsletter. I also framed that issue as "a bunch of random ideas," but after a week of reflection, I realized they all serve to explain why I started writing this thing again.

So let’s return to some of those questions: When should you publish? When should you be working in public? When should you try to build an audience? And when should you just stay quiet?

This is going to be a two part series, of which this week’s issue is Part 1. When it’s all said and done, I’ll probably publish both parts as a cohesive essay somewhere. For now, enjoy this sub-par string of arguments by yours truly :)

Dialogue as a Rule of Life

The simple answer to the above questions is that you should work in public when you truly want to engage with others. The way that humans engage others is through communication, or dialogue.

I’ll return to the book I mentioned last week, Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

…Dialogue is a way of knowing and should never be viewed as a mere tactic to involve students in a particular task. We have to make this point very clear. I engage in dialogue not necessarily because I like the other person. I engage in dialogue because I recognize the social and not merely the individualistic character of the process of knowing. In this sense, dialogue presents itself as an indispensable component of the process of both learning and knowing

Again, the book is centered around the idea of revolutionary leadership and teaching. But I think the ideas here can be neatly extrapolated: dialogue is not something we do out of kindness, but because it is the most pure form of human engagement. It is what differentiates us from every other living thing.

In its simplest form, dialogue is just “give and take”. You listen, and then you speak based on what was said, and then you listen again. Everyone must contribute in order to keep the conversation going. And you cannot continue a conversation without doing both.

The Argument Against Building an Audience

Now, the argument for building an audience and working in public is that you're more likely to get serendipity. People might to discover you work who, had you not gone public, would have no idea who you are. Essentially, it creates new opportunities for dialogue.

If we agree that engaging with others is the goal and that dialogue is the way that we do that, let’s consider what building an audience does.

In The Small Group, Jame Mulholland argues that:

Communicating in real-life shifts the ratio of creation to consumption far closer to 1:1, thus forcing you to fully develop your ideas.

Essentially, real-life interactions encourage dialogue because social norms force us to listen and response — to have a conversation.

Now consider this idea of building an audience. If you cannot hold true dialogue with your audience — that is, if you cannot give and take with the individuals who are consuming your work — then its fair to question whether that relationship is truly valuable. In fact, it is fair to question whether is it a relationship at all.

This is a reason to not build an "audience." It's a paradigm shift. Rather than viewing ourselves as a node in a network, building an audience encourages us to see ourselves as the center of attention.

Communicative Capitalism

Jodi Dean argues that this is a broader societal problem. Specifically, she argues that it is a symptom and driver of capitalism itself.

She starts with a simple premise: “One of the most basic formulations of the idea of communication is in terms of a message and the response to the message.” In other words, communication is dialogical.

However, Dean argues that in the context of a digital “audience,” we are simply sending messages into a void. Sure, people could respond to our ideas. Dialogue could be sparked. But the messages being sent do not require a response:

Differently put, the exchange value of messages overtakes their use value… Who sent it is irrelevant. Who receives it is irrelevant. That it need be responded to is irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant is circulation, the addition to the pool. Any particular contribution remains secondary to the fact of circulation.

She calls this idea Communicative Capitalism. There are some pretty substantial implications here. Dean uses her point as a means of arguing against “digital activism,” an argument which I am very sympathetic to.

However, I’m more interested in using her ideas to explore our individual contributions to our communities.

Community or void?

Returning to another book I mentioned in last week’s issue, Nadia Eghbal brings up a very relevant question:

Why are we seeing more centralized communities today? Platforms accelerated this transition by making it easier for people to move between communities, which made collective identity more porous.

I’m not going to do this point justice in just a few sentences, but Eghbal is basically claiming that the ease of publishing and participating in digital communities has made the “collective identity” of these communities extremely homogenous.

For example, many people individually refer to the various sub-cultures on Twitter. Sports Twitter has different participants than Muslim Twitter has different participants than One Direction Twitter. However, these aren’t separate websites. Anyone can seamlessly “join” these “communities” simply by tweeting something relevant to those communities.

This removes any sense of group identity. If anyone can publish without having to participate in any other way, sense of community disappears. In other words, the lack of dialogue — of 1-1, back and forth engagement — hurts our ability to contribute to our communities.

If you’ve made it this far, you probably see where I’m going with this. Although building an audience brings more people into our circle, it makes that circle far less fruitful. Thus, we become more focused on ourselves as individuals, and less focused on the communities we claim to be serving — or speaking to.

Next week, I’ll dig deeper into the antidote: how we can ensure that our contributions, public or not, can be beneficial. Basically, we’ll discuss how to bring the mental model of dialogue into our interactions with community (hint: you should talk to people lol).

That’s all for this week :) as always, press the heart at the top of this piece! Share with your friends! And shoot me an email if you wanna chat about any of this!

— Jihad