Resisting Audience Capture: How to Maintain Integrity & Sanity Online
Overcoming the dangerous dynamics of audiences, algorithms and metrics
The interaction between creator and an audience is one as old as time:
“Did the painting provoke?”
“Did the sonnet move?”
“Did the speech change the public’s thinking?”
A creator always does something to the masses: entertain, persuade, manipulate, etc.
But an overwhelming amount of discourse puts the artist, content creator, or public-facing cultural contributor first.
The agent. The one in control.
What’s less discussed is the other direction of this relationship:
What can an audience do to a creator?
What’s possible when we consider that the recipient is in control?
This inverse dynamic is just as established and increasingly deserving of our attention as its prevalence is growing, and its gravitational pull now dramatic.
The term used to describe this phenomenon is called “Audience Capture” — an audience has hypnotized or captured a creator.
There’s never been a moment in history where more people have been putting themselves on display in public for judgment by creating works of art (or “content”): podcasts, newsletters, original music, novels, and videos, both long and short — including our everyday Instagram Stories.
The more we publish, the more opportunities there are to contemplate what an audience thinks about our performances.
This is happening at every. single. waking. moment.
Both consciously and subconsciously, we’re constantly examining ourselves through the lens of others and then re-posturing.
On stage, an audience directs us or, more ominously, puppeteers our sense of self, worth, and future.
Audience Capture is not a phenomenon reserved for artists or household name influencers, but for anyone who participates online.
And Audience Capture isn’t escapable by which platform we use. From Instagram to BeReal, no matter how “genuine” or “spontaneous” a post is meant to be, authenticity is moot.
Performance is chronic.
We’re each susceptible to an audience’s hypnosis — to a Pavlovian ping, ding and hit of notification dopamine, or realization that others are available to give us attention, “caring” about us.
Our existence is affirmed.
We’re evolutionarily hardwired for acceptance: each “heart” or “view” is a carrot, governing our actions.
On the bright side of Audience Capture, we can experience resonance, securing “market fit” — knowing we’re doing something right. There’s traction. Keep it up.
But there’s a fine line between holding oneself to a high standard for audience satisfaction, and allowing an audience to alter our intent. The difference is the strength of grip around artistic integrity.
The result of our moment of hyper-publication and online living is another of hyper-vulnerability and influence from those from whom we seek validation.
On an increasingly global stage, Audience Capture is the most important challenge for any modern creator to overcome.
We’ve finally obtained the audience and attention we’ve been after all this time...
But we’re at risk of losing something in return: ourselves.
How do we ignore the positive signals of performance — the very things we’re all after — and healthily exist between the tension of two radical approaches: touching grass and saying “screw it” vs. listening to their every word and letting them manipulate us?
The Social Theories
Layers of philosophical explanations are at play in and unpacking three core theories will help us better understand why Audience Capture is everywhere and so utterly overwhelming today.
01. COOLEY’S LOOKING-GLASS SELF
The “Looking-Glass Self,” coined by sociologist Charles Cooley, symbolizes our tendency to understand ourselves through the perceptions of others.
The self is not constructed privately nor independently, but rather in social settings. We alter our behaviors based upon what we feel others may think about them (even if our perceptions of their perceptions are completely off).
We imagine their imagining, and pivot accordingly.
Now introduce social media, and instead of a single mirror, we’re victim to a funhouse hall of mirrors.
02. GOFFMAN’S PRESENTATION OF SELF
Sociologist Erving Goffman compared everyday social interactions to actors on a stage. We each star in various roles. And on this “stage” we’re able to see our audiences’ reactions.
We may not be able to control how others perceive us, but at least we can do everything in our power to control an appearance with the hopes of others perceiving us exactly how we wish.
On Goffman’s “front stage,” we’re in a process called impression management: altering appearance and perceptions according to our goals. Only “backstage” can we finally release this role or identity.
But when modern online living is taken into account, we’re “on stage” even if we’re away from the keyboard. Profiles are live, and stories and writing are on display 24/7.
There is no longer backstage.
The stage lights never dim.
Our performances are immortal.
03. FOUCAULT’S VILLAGE
Philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” infamously illustrated a surveillance tower watching prisoners who each can’t see inside the tower. Out of fear they’re being watched, prisoners must be on their best behavior.
These prisoners are imagining how they’re being perceived from the tower and tweak their actions accordingly... even if no one is actually up in the tower.
Building upon this panopticon premise, philosopher Michel Foucault argued that its influence can be applied beyond prison systems, to everyday life and social control.
In today’s social dilemma, our actions are “seen by all”... yet we never actually see an observer observing. An audience is always out there. Often, we receive a sweet morsel of feedback proving its existence — it conditions us. But always, we’re acting as if we’re watched.
We behave to fall in line much like Bentham’s prisoners.
In this eternal state of very real surveillance, we’re prisoners of an endless high-pressure performance.
Constantly envisioning others watching us, an imagined gaze sways our behavior in order to meet expectations.
A New Context
As Austin Robey and Severin Matusek put it in their report, “After the Creator Economy”:
“We want work to be financially valued without compromising our integrity. We want to make meaningful work that we're proud of, not please an algorithm. We want to share work in ways that feel right to us, not compete for attention on a feed. We want to feel seen without our creativity and identities being exploited.”
While these themes have existed for as long as there’s been artists and the internet, why are these dilemmas so much more daunting today?
There's a new cultural context.
Social media’s combination of global reach, performance metrics, platform design, content format, and algorithmic interference have changed how creators make for others, and how others perceive and interact with creators' work.
The results are an eternal presence, persistent feedback, an unrealistic expectation of virality, harmful social comparison, creator burnout, multiple “managed” identities, and catering to the black box of an algorithm.
What’s more, it’s nearly impossible to afford to be an artist today. Research reveals that the number of working-class actors, musicians, and writers has shrunk by half since the 1970s. With ever-increasing costs of living, the starving artist has died.
Creators can no longer buck a status quo nor rebel as they once had, and still make ends meet. The financial opportunity to live in a city and “make it” as an artist is slim — a death wish.
The competitive playing field is overcrowded. Content is infinite, and the fight for attention is war. The outcome is a new type of artistic performance, one with greater hopes (and needs) of economic financing and traction.
The ability to zag and financially succeed was once sufficient. Today it’s impossible.
This new social, technological, and economic backdrop affects all creators.
Earlier this year, an OnlyFans creator made headlines by “allowing followers to control every decision of her life.”
"I'm just trying to create a small community of people willing to share their lives with me. And talk with me. I understand that some people can't understand that. And I don't want to try to convince them. What really matters to me is that the subscribers on my account are happy."
This helped her reach the top 0.4% of creators on the platform.
While we may not all conduct an open poll nor have monetization plans in place, as creators, we’re on a slippery slope when it comes to the feedback we receive.
Each piece of content we publish is a poll.
Avatar-less outsiders control us as much as a faceless algorithm.
We’re relinquishing autonomy and power. Why are we allowing this?
We’re groomed, but not doomed.
Step one in overcoming Audience Capture is just recognizing the process itself.
10 Strategies to Resist Audience Capture
01. Attention, views, and fame will never satisfy.
They’re faux values.
Nicholas Perry was once a vlogging, vegan violinist who couldn’t find an audience. But once Perry began uploading mukbang videos (eating for the camera and others), an audience gathered. Over time, the audience he fought for pushed him to eat more and more. He did. The views grew. But ultimately, while Perry found his millions of subscribers by binge-eating, he also became morbidly obese. Perry found his attention, but at what cost? Without a check, Audience Capture consumed Perry.
If we were to ask if he’s any happier today than before his viewership “success,” the honest answer would be “no.” Let his success be a lesson.
What we think we want is not actually what we want.
02. Accepting and rejecting audience feedback is not a binary.
All feedback need not be considered and integrated, nor should it be ignored and ridiculed.
Deciding how to interpret feedback is a choose-your-own-adventure.
Recognize who you’re being shaped by, and further, that some individual voices don’t represent your entire audience. Do you even know or trust this voice?
Approach feedback with skepticism.
03. Numbers lie and are a hedonistic treadmill.
Most available metrics don’t signify what we truly value.
What would you rather have: 1,000 readers who won’t share your piece, or 10 readers who sing your praises from the top of a mountain? Or how about just one reader who’s willing to hire you? We only care about what we can measure, and only measure what’s available.
Consider what numbers you’re holding yourself to.
Do they signify what you find most important?
We can hit 10, but imagining 11 is inevitable. As soon as we finally work towards, surpass, and celebrate 1,000,000, 1,000,001 awaits us. We often forget numbers are infinite.
If we worship digits, we’ll forever be disappointed. There’s always one figure larger. Fight the tyranny of metrics. They lead us nowhere good.
04. Watch out for the money trap.
When money is involved, a new dynamic emerges. A “purchase” creates a customer — there’s a formal exchange.
Getting paid for one’s work is an incredible feat, for as long as the creator remains mindful of any expectations that emerge. Feedback and influence is harder to ignore when the audience is paying you.
05. Build for niche.
When you market to all, you market to nobody.
Universal scale is only achieved when there’s traction from a core tight-knit community of fans. This can only be achieved by consistently showing up and being remarkable at just one thing. Lil Nas X and Lizzo aren’t known by all because they tried to be for all.
The opposite is likely true.
Being for everyone means being for no one.
06. Embrace (some) silence and friction.
Look around. Can you find anyone else doing what you do? No? Good. You’re doing something right. It’s new. You’ve found the white space.
If you’ve found detractors or skeptics, you’re onto something too. From Monet to Jobs, our greatest artists and disruptors have all faced the same “no way” from detractors. When there’s friction, there’s change. Keep at it. That’s fuel.
I once cringed when I received "unsubscription" notifications. Today I embrace them. I'm making something not for everyone — there's distinction.
Defiance to the pulls of expectation is attractive in itself, and having competition means a lack of originality.
07. Reflect on who you are, what you stand for, and which audience you’re after.
Envision your reader, listener, viewer, or fan. This may change over time, but without determining who you are creating for, you’re at risk of making for whichever audience shows up.
As Gurwinder writes,
“Having the wrong audience would be worse than having no audience, because they'd constrain me with their expectations, forcing me to focus on one tiny niche of my worldview at the expense of everything else, until I became a parody of myself.”
There is such a thing as bad company. Avoid it.
While it may sound paradoxical to the prior point on embracing silence and friction, we’re not dealing in binaries. We can both strive to make something new, and still have an idea of who it’s for.
08. Remember: Content is sentient.
For Tom Krell, PhD, a philosopher and musical artist, content has its own agenda.
We don’t know what that is, but it’s evident that “content” has some agency. We’ve come to serve content. Like oil wanting to be extracted from our soil and put to use, content has sway over us. We continue to make more and more content, but why? Where’s this energy coming from?
Learning to resist or at least be mindful of content’s spirit and dictation is healthy. Recognize not just the pull of the audience, but the compounding pull of more and more content wanting to be produced.
09. Audiences pose the same risk to us as they did for Ford.
“What do you want?”
“A faster horse.”
Audiences never know what they want. As creators, if we comply with what audiences think they want, we’ll miss out on what’s possible. Substitute “audience” with “algorithm” and the advice still holds. The only way to beat the algorithm is to stop playing its game.
For Rick Rubin,
“The audience comes last.”
“The audience doesn’t know what they want.”
10. Care more about others and less about yourself.
Ego is the demise of any creator.
Helping others and giving back is the only surefire solution to getting outside of yourself. Minimize self-centeredness to free yourself. Audience Capture is an ever-present trap. And while others are required to feed the self, selflessness breaks the cycle. Remember: your existence and creations are not everything. And that’s okay. Fighting against Audience Capture and being selfish are two different things.
You can possess a strong artistic integrity without being self-centered. Doing for others quietly and selflessly is the only way to break this whole spell.
More on Audience Capture via an interview w/ Digital Void:
Thanks to Gurwinder, Tom Krell, PhD, and Adam Arola, PhD, Shen, Kate Lee, Yash Bagal and Sari Azout