08 marzo 2011

Audience | Blogging 101 | Geoff Manaugh

In this series so far, we’ve considered the fundamentals of blogging, with a strong focus on questions of content and definition: what constitutes the domain of “architecture” today, what forms of writing are most useful for describing it, and what it takes then to turn these sorts of questions into an architecture blog.
But something we have not spent much time discussing is audience: who wants to read about architecture today, what sorts of expectations and backgrounds they themselves might have, and how a blogger can find those people in the first place.

After all, who is the audience for an architecture blog?

How can you most successfully put your writing or images in front of people who are otherwise total strangers – and how do you accomplish this in a way that makes them curious enough to come back?
The single most important thing to state upfront is that architecture has an absolutely huge audience. Architecture is not a niche industry or an overlooked, marginal discipline. Literally, millions of people want to read about architecture – which doesn’t mean that they want to read about Le Corbusier, parametric design, or Daniel Libeskind. It means that they want to read about exciting spatial ideas.
In previous articles, we’ve looked quite extensively at how to broaden the definition of what constitutes architectural content. We’ve already established, for instance, that writing about architecture can mean writing about film set design, video game levels, haunted house novels, ruined cities in archaeological digs, urban gang warfare, neuro-spatial disorders, public health, and much more.
We won’t repeat that conversation again here. But clearly content and audience go hand in hand – and the former is very often the most direct and effective route to the latter. Architecture blogs should just as much be business blogs, political science blogs, geography blogs, and literature blogs as they should be only about the world of spatial design. An architecture blog could literally never host an image of a building again, and only ever concern itself with things like import tariffs, construction insurance, and the global price of steel; but it would still be an architecture blog.

In any case, what should be rejected right away is the assumption that only other architects, designers, or arts bloggers want to read your content. Discard the notion that you’re writing only for the benefit of practicing architects. A blog post about a new parking garage in Miami might be just as interesting to an economist or a professor of business, a motoring enthusiast or a TV producer. Similarly, a post about the architecture of mid-20th-century planetariums will be just as eagerly read by science buffs as it will be by architectural historians – perhaps even more so. These people, located outside the professional and academic sphere of architecture, are part of architecture’s audience – in fact, I will suggest, they constitute the unrecognized majority of that audience.

After all, these two very basic examples reveal something extraordinary about architectural writing on the Internet: your largest and most enthusiastic audience might actually have no professional connection to the architectural world at all. This is only one reason why architecture blogs have such potentially broad appeal – and why this radically expanded audience should be welcomed, not dismissed out of hand for lacking expertise in architectural theory. Indeed, going even further, this raises the exhilarating and odd possibility that the best architectural writing on the Internet today is being written by people who are wholly disconnected from what we nostalgically remember as architectural criticism, disconnected even from what we consider architectural journalism at all. In any case, it is helpful to remember that everything you write online can be as little as one click away from potential readers who might not previously have suspected they had any interest at all in the built environment. Circumstances of unexpected proximity and cross-audience penetration such as these are much harder to find or achieve through print journalism and books, in particular for people without easy access to libraries, and as bookstores go out of business.

Fruitful overlaps – between architecture writers who didn’t realize they had an audience, and an audience who didn’t realize it liked architecture – should be encouraged, augmented, promoted, and actively sought out.
There are increasingly widespread calls, however, that we now turn our backs on blogging and return conservatively to a day when architecture critics boasted interpretive sovereignty and academically recognized experts could set the conversational agenda for an entire generation. The xenophobic and regressive attitude should be strongly resisted; now it is not the time for a counter-reformation. If the experiment of blogging appears to some to have failed in producing a new, canonically exciting architectural discourse, I would argue that it is because we need to open the doors further – to expand the audience for architectural writing and imagery even more. There is neither reason nor need to lose patience with exploration, to shut new people out from raising their voices, and to retreat to closed-door communities where we write for small and specific groups, often with ties to the academy.

In any case, I’ve tried to make a convincing case that the audience for architectural writing is not only very large, it is also growing. But, so far, we have only considered what this means quantitatively.
A very strong and convincing counter-argument could be made here that sheer audience numbers are actually meaningless; what we need is a better conversation, not just more people conversing. We need quality, not popularity. In fact, this argument can actually find powerful evidence online, where blog comment threads more often than not fade out into distraction or even fall apart utterly into entrenched camps hurling personal insults at one another.

Skimming only a handful of architecture blogs commonly reveals groups of naïve readers with no sense of history, endlessly reinventing the wheel – enthusiastically promoting concepts or ideas that were thought of, argued about, and rejected for good reason decades earlier. Worse, these cycles of amnesia, in which it feels like architectural thought might literally never move forward again, are self-perpetuating.
These latter arguments are very important to keep in mind; the situation they diagnose is not only bad for the intellectual expansion of architecture, it is, frankly, boring.

There is no point in inviting everyone to join an architectural conversation if it simply means the whole thing will come crashing to a halt – no new ideas will be heard, no old questions answered, no emerging problems solved. But I would also say that these are very alarmist arguments. They do not mean that we should give up writing about architecture in a way that expands the general audience; they simply mean we should make sure to do it well.
After all, one can easily find uninteresting repetitions of abandoned ideas – concepts or projects first circulated by Hans Hollein, Buckminster Fuller, Archigram, or even such strange 20th-century figures as Ayn Rand – floating around, unquestioned, on architecture blogs today. But one can also find genuine and striking examples of spatial ideas so radically recontextualized, even if only by ignorance or accident, that something critically new has emerged as a result.

These short-circuits in the archive, so to speak, whereby strange combinations of ideas and approaches bring together previously disconnected audiences, with different backgrounds, different spatial expectations, and different things to teach one another, are expanding the very idea of what it means to be interested in architecture.
It would be a mistake, with generational consequences, if we were to stop now and accept the ever-more-frequent calls to return to traditional architectural criticism, with its trained audience of experts, rather than to push on, to advocate for architecture elsewhere, introducing everything that is thrilling about the spatial imagination to new and emerging publics and, thus, to celebrate and acknowledge the exhilarating fact that the audience for  architectural ideas is enormous – much bigger than the audience for buildings – if only we can remember how to write for them.


* Publication authorized by Abitare
Geoff Manaugh, Blogging 101 - Audience,
Abitare n. 510, March 2011, pp. 150-153