Networked Publics and the Imagined Audience

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

20 Pages, Grade: 2,0



I. Introduction

II. Properties of networked publics
II.1. Networked publics and site architecture
II.2. Characteristics of bit-based networked architecture

III. Networked publics: from blogs to social networks
III.1. Content and structure of blogs
III.2. Content and structure of social networks

IV. The imagined audience
IV.1. Blog audiences
IV.2. Social network audiences
IV.3 Language related to imagined audiences on different networked publics

V. Conclusion


I. Introduction

Online platforms like social networks and blogs provide a space for people to share their thoughts and socialize with other people online. We can access content others created and on the other hand present our own content to others. However, the struc- ture of these online environments is not always the same and neither is the audience that can access the content we created. The term “networked publics” is used by danah boyd in her essay Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dy- namics and Implications (2010) to describe these online environments with all of their characteristics. boyd argues that the term ‘public’ itself is a very vague term describing different things in different contexts. The most important aspects of a ‘networked pub- lic’ are on the one hand the space and on the other hand the collective of people that are present on these online networks. However, it is an indisputable fact that online publics or networked publics respectively strongly deviate from what we know as ‘pub- lic’ from our traditional environment.

An important difference is the invisibility of our audience online. When we share our thoughts with a certain audience in a conventional (offline) environment we are normally more or less aware of whom we are talking to or writing to. In online net- works on the contrary, the audience remains rather opaque, in most cases we cannot know who will be reading the content that we provide to a public or semi-public envi- ronment online. We can only think of what our audience might be like. This is what frequently is referred to as the ‘imagined audience’, because we can only imagine the audience that we are talking to. Thus, we can consider the imagined audience as an integral element of networked publics. The fact that we do not really know our audi- ence sometimes poses problems, because we normally adapt content and style of what we want to share with the potential audience. When we do not know our audi- ence, we sometimes do not know how to behave in an online public e.g. we do not know what language to use. One kind of language might be appropriate to one audi- ence but inappropriate to another one. That is why I also want to point out possible effects of networked publics and imagined audiences on language use, e.g. how does language use differ depending on different imagined audiences? Firstly, I will try to explain the term ‘networked publics’ in more detail. As for the basic characteristics of this term, I will in many cases refer to danah boyd’s works like the essay Social Network Sites as Networked Publics (2010) which was already men- tioned before. Blogs and Social networks are a topic that I will then deal with more closely also with focus on the term ‘imagined audience’ on these platforms. For social networks there are numerous essays dealing with site architecture and content e.g.

Papacharissi (2009). The virtual geographies of social networks: A comparative analysis of Facebook, LinkedIn and ASmallWorld. The term ‘imagined audience’ is also further examined regarding other platforms like twitter e.g. in Marwick/Boyd (2010). I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audi- ence. However, I will examine another online platform separately namely blogs or weblogs. Blogs are popular since quite a longer time than social networks and have a rather traditional architecture compared to social networks. However, blogs also de- veloped during the last years so one has to take new features of blogs into account. Still, they are in many ways different compared to social networks e.g. regarding site architecture and thus they provide a different public space and imagined audiences. For blogs there are also various works dealing with the imagined audience, site archi- tecture and content such as Brake (2007). Personal webloggers and their audiences: Who do they think they are talking to? or Scheidt (2005). Adolescent Diary Weblogs and the Unseen Audience.

II. Properties of networked publics

II.1. Networked publics and site architecture

The term ‘public’ is not always understood in the same way. There are various defini- tions of the term used in different fields of research but in general most definitions refer on the one hand to a certain collective of people. That might be e.g. all people who live in one country but also much smaller communities like someone’s peers͘ Yet, some scholars argue that publics are in fact only “imagined communities” ( nderson as in boyd 2010: p.40), which are not clearly limited and of which in most cases we do not know all of the members. On the other hand, ‘public’ also refers to a certain kind of space. In most cases, these collectives have access to a certain shared space and/or information which is also described as ‘public’. With regards to media studies, the term public is closely connected to the term ‘audience’ as media products (e.g. in form of texts: newspaper etc.) are normally shared in a certain public which is at the same time an audience. A more extensive definition would include not only a passive audience as public but indeed a very active one which is not only consuming cultural or media products but also creating, changing and redistributing content to others. With the rising popularity of online social networks there is a basis for the emergence of new publics which are highly dependent of the underlying technological structure of these networks (cf. boyd 2010: p.41). This underlying structure is what makes networked publics distinctive to other forms of publics. How people can influence the flow of in- formation, which options there are to interact with other people and reorganize the audience that can see the information - these are technical features of networked pub- lics which highly differ depending on the actual site and its underlying architecture. Later, I will try to describe distinctive elements of networked publics on both social networks and blogs and how they can vary depending on site architecture.

When we hear the word architecture we think in the first place of physical struc- tures of buildings, roads, town squares etc.. boyd argues that “The product of architec- ture can be seen as part engineering, part art, and part socially configuring, as struc- tures are often designed to be variably functional, aesthetically pleasing, and influen- tial in shaping how people interact with one another” (boyd 2010, p͘41)͘ This notion can in fact be applied not only to physical works of architecture but also to architec- ture of networked publics, where site architecture also strongly influences the way people interact with each other. Thus, architecture can also serve in a way as indicator for practical differences in the use of networked publics. However, characteristics of networked architecture are not the same as those of physical architecture as the latter is based on a collection of atoms whereas the former relies on a bit-based structure (cf. boyd 2010, p.41). In the following, I will describe important aspects of this bit- based architecture in contrast to atom-based architecture.

II.2. Characteristics of bit-based networked architecture

Physical architecture is in many ways rather inert compared to the architecture of networked publics which is mostly very flexible. This is due to characteristics of bits that are more easily duplicated, compressed and transmitted than atoms and because of that, media that is built out of bits is able to spread more widely and quickly than media that is based on atoms (cf. Negroponte as in boyd 2010: p.42). In that way, bitbased networked structures did not only change the way in which information is transmitted but they also changed the way we are linked with each other in a networked structure. Networked publics are so to say the result of the properties and the potential of the bit based technology. Thus, “the properties of bits regulate the structure of networked publics, which, in turn introduces new possible practices and shapes the interactions that take place͘”(boyd 2010, p͘42).

According to the properties of bits, networked technologies offer the possibilities of recording, amplifying recording and spreading information and social acts. boyd points out that there are four affordances which are closely connected to the properties of bits and that are fundamental for the configuration of networked publics: persistence, replicability, scalability and searchability (cf. boyd 2010, p. 45).

a) Persistence

Persistence describes the fact that information on networked publics is automatically recorded and archived. The development to make spoken acts or visual acts more persistent has been around for a long time. With the help of writing, people could record spoken language; photography and film helped to capture what we can see. However, one has to keep in mind that it is not the experienced act itself that is captured but only a reproduction of it that is provided without the original context and thus does also transform the real act in some way.

In any case, these new technologies did not only provide the possibility of recording information when they were invented but they also directly changed the way people communicated with each other. This is what is also relevant for networked technologies. The way people communicate with each other on networked publics is determined by the underlying technology. Given that our “normal” way of communicating is the act of speaking, networked technology turned this standard around and made writing the normal way of communicating. Through this, the information that is exchanged is always recorded and thus more persistent.

b) Replicability

It is an inherent characteristic of bits that they are more easily replicated than at- oms. A similar development to higher replicability was introduced for example by the invention of the printing press which allowed to more quickly reproduce copies of writ- ten information and helped to spread the content more widely than before. With net- worked publics this replicability is even higher because the underlying structure is based on bits. With the help of various tools, media content like text, images, video and others can easily be duplicated and are in a constant process of spreading through the share function of public networks. In addition to that, the duplicated material can be copied without any difference regarding the original. This is why in networked technology we cannot differentiate the copy from the original and therefore we mostly do not know where the information is coming from. As a consequence, alterations of the actual source are hard to retrace which is why in many cases users do not even realize when something has been changed.

c) Scalability

Technology has the power to scale specific content by distributing this content more widely. E.g. broadcast media like TV and radio can present the same content along great distances and in this way scale the potential visibility of these acts. The internet made it possible for everyone to reach great visibility. However, the scale of content visibility is not determined by the intention of the producer. That is to say, networked publics do not guarantee an audience but they only provide the possibility of great visibility. If a specific content gets mass attention or only attention within a small local circle is only influenced by the collective and what it chooses to amplify. This chosen content might not be the best as it is in most cases “the funny, the crude, the embarrassing, the mean and the bizarre” (boyd 2010, p. 48). However, everyone has the theoretic chance of great visibility of his or her provided content.


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Networked Publics and the Imagined Audience
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Social Media, Networked Publics
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Micha Luther (Author), 2014, Networked Publics and the Imagined Audience, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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