Recently, I have been noticing that a lot of my social anxiety around sharing work publicly is connected with (1) who I imagine as the audience, and (2) how I imagine their attitudes towards what I am sharing. This is especially true for work shared on social media or the internet (including this site!), where the nature of the audience & their reaction is fundamentally uncertain (i.e. I don’t know exactly who will be reading this post, and mostly won’t see how they respond to it).
To clarify the idea, we can think about sharing a piece of “intellectual” writing on this site. Even supposing that it is on a topic that I know a lot about, there will always be some set of people who know far more about the topic than I do. For those people, my work might seem simplistic, or incomplete, or limited, or whatever. Maybe I am missing something “obvious” that would be clear if I knew even more about the area. Or maybe I am making a point that has been made a million times before, and I just don’t realize it.
At the same time, there will also be some (perhaps much larger) group of people who do not know much of anything about the topic I am writing on. For those people, the writing might seem surprising or novel or interesting, and could expose them to a new perspective or way of thinking about something. Maybe they have never thought about the area before at all.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find that my anxiety around sharing intellectual work is linked with which of these groups I “imagine” as the audience of the work. It obviously feels much more uncomfortable to imagine someone who knows far more than I do reading something I’ve written from a far more simplistic perspective. I think one challenge coming from an academic background is that I am regularly around people who definitely do know way more than I do, and so it can be easy to feel like that is most people, even if it is not.
There is also another key piece of the puzzle around imagined audiences and anxiety: how do I imagine the attitudes of the audience toward whatever I am sharing? This is related to but also separate from who I am imagining as the audience.
For example, when thinking about expert audiences: on the one hand, I can imagine that these audiences will be critical – seeking holes in whatever arguments I am sharing, or formulating critiques and reasons to dismiss my claims. However, on the other hand, I can imagine these audiences more constructively. For example, even if they perceive limitations in my work, it might be from the perspective of strengthening the work rather than tearing it down. Such audiences could be a valuable source of feedback and development. Likewise, even if my work is simple or incomplete in some ways, it might also be novel or generative in other ways, prompting even knowledgeable audiences to think about something new or in a different way – perhaps even in ways that I do not fully know or intend1.
More generally, I can imagine the audience as a curious set of potential collaborators or discussion partners or sources of feedback and improvement, rather than as a set of critics or antagonists.
Where does this all leave me? Of course, eventually the audience of any piece of work is not imaginary – there is some fact of the matter: they will be experts or not, critics or not and so on. However, in many cases, I will never really know for sure; and I will especially not know ahead of time, before the work is shared. So I think a lot of this comes down to imagination.
In general, I think that there are a lot other reasons why sharing work is valuable2; hence, from a pragmatist sort of perspective, it seems more useful (emotionally and functionally) for me to imagine my audience in constructive, positive terms – even if sometimes that might not be true in the end.
So, dear reader, I look forward to our future collaborations3.
For example, consuming someone’s intellectual work can sometimes be generative on topics that are only loosely related to the work being consumed, and/or in ways that are not intended by the original author. ↩
Both internally (for my own process) and externally (for the world); maybe I will write more about this soon. ↩
You can reach me on email at fossj117 AT gmail DOT com ↩