One of the assertions made by Gunther Kress at his C’s lecture was that website authors have no concept of what their audience’s needs are. He compared this to book authorship, where a writer has a fairly clear idea of what their audience is looking for. The availability of multiple pathways to navigate information is what, in Kress’s view, what makes the Internet different—a concession (or feature) targeted at maximal communication.
Jocalo contested that in a recent entry, and I (conditionally) agree. For now, at least, a web site author has a limited idea of a regular audience (as revealed by referrer logs), of a target audience (a fiction the author maintains in their own head of who the would like to read their site), and a wildcard audience made up of search engine referrals. In some respects, the audience constructed through attention to referrer logs is the most useful— that is, if the writer is concerned with maintaining that audience. It was a big shock to me to figure out a few years ago that some really smart people occasionally read my blog. It made me temper both my language and my silliness a little (but not that much).
I think that newsfeeds, for all their advantages for information gatherers, have shifted that landscape substantially. Now, many people visit through bloglines and other such services, denying me the pleasure of seeing what sites they actually come from. Most of my blogroll was built by paying attention to referrers, and that source of information is rapidly disappearing. Eventually, Kress’s observation might be proved correct—though the “fictional” audience will never completely disappear. Part of the construction of this fictional audience is an anticipation of their reading habits. Why bother to link to something if you don’t think that a portion of your audience will visit it? What does this do to the traditional (now old fashioned) view of blogs as link sites? Lamenting the fact that people do not often read deeply on the web (as I sometimes do, for example with my recent link to Hermann Krone— which I suspect that almost no one visited), Jocalo asked some pointed questions:
Does that mean that most readers quickly scan what they can see in their screen, and if the topic doesn’t grab their interest, they move on to the next site? Or is hypertext reading a process that many of us still don’t do routinely?
I suspect that the former rhetorical question is probably more deeply implicated. I wrote a post about pornography, which has great mass appeal, and referenced it to an obscure 19th century photographer. The degree of audience interest in pornography is greater, and as a result the link to the essay on pornography is more likely to be visited, and to spread. It’s the nature of the crowd, I suspect, not really a matter of hypertext literacy. The point of hypertext is that an audience always has a choice. Reading a hypertext beyond the core screen is always an option, not a given. The reader and writer have a greater freedom, at the expense of a loss of control and knowledge of their audience.
The dark side of this relates to a bit of dialogue which stood out watching Goldmember this morning. Austin Powers says: “Ah yes, the Internet has revolutionized the way we receive information.” To demonstrate this, he plays an online video of a monkey sticking a finger up its butt, sniffing it, and falling out of a tree. I suspect that when all we have to go on are tools like Technorati to provide a citation index, the richness of the referral landscape will be diminished.