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Evaluating & Complicating Audience on the Web

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Empty seats to indicate the vast possibilities of potential audiences online
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Brief Assignment Overview: 

This lesson plan is designed to get students thinking about the real and intended audiences of web texts by analyzing publication venues and comment replies. It also highlights that a text's audiences are not (always) simply people who agree with the author(s) or people who disagree and need persuading.

Pedagogical Goals - Writing: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Required Materials: 

I used this lesson in a computer classroom where each group of students had access to a computer, but that's not necessary.  In a non-networked classroom, you could print out articles with comments attached for students to analyze.  Or you could project one article at a time using an overhead or a digital projector as a full group exercise.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

When presented with texts published on the web, students often have difficulty identifying an audience more specific than "everyone with an internet connection."  Not all texts are viewed by everyone everywhere, and access to texts is decided not just on the basis of physical access to the material.  This lesson plan is to get them thinking about the real and intended audiences of web texts by analyzing publication venues and comment replies.  This lesson is additionally meant to point out that a text's real and even intended audiences are not (always) simply people who agree with the author(s) or people who disagree and need persuading.  Web audiences, in other words, are (often) neither hopelessly heterogenous nor simplistically homogenous, and when we construct audiences through rhetorical interpreation, we ought to be as clear as possible about our logic.  Students work in groups to analyze webtexts with different audiences and then come together as a group to compare their findings.  

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

Before this lesson, we had already covered the basics of rhetorical ethos and had some discussion of audience as it affects and is affected by authors' ethos.  I had also quickly shown them a couple of ways to find demographic data for websites, through advertiser information or through in-site analytics such as YouTube's statistics.

First, I distributed the set of analysis prompts/questions to every student.  (See below under Student Instructions.)

We first analyzed a sample text together using the questions.  I used a projector, but you could also print it out for everyone.  

I then broke students into groups of 4-5 and assigned each group a web text to analyze using the analysis questions I had given them.  Although the questions ask students to use comments to reflect on their initial discussion of the audience, I do not assume that comment posts provide clear indications of an audience's makeup.  Instead, the my intention is to ask students to triangulate their data, to allow the comments and the publication venue and the content of the article to complicate each other when it comes to constructing an audience.  (You can find the web articles that I assigned under Resources.)

After 30-40 minutes, we came together to share our findings and compare the audiences of the different texts.  We were able to discuss the ways in which audiences are difficult to determine, or rather, construct, and the importance of interpretation when it comes to arguing that a particular audience is indeed what we say it is.

I did this in one 75 minute class period, but I could easily see this exercise spread over two such class periods, perhaps with a take-home writing exercise between them to have them further reflect on their interpretation of the data.

Instructions For Students: 

Looking at the Original Post: the article, video, blog post, etc.

  1. First, what kind of website is this?  If you don't know much about them, search in Wikipedia for some basic information.  Do they put out certain kinds of content?  What are they known for?  What kinds of things do people say about them?
  2. What is their purpose in publishing this particular article or blog post or text, do you think?
  3. Can you tell who wrote it?  What can you find out about them?  If no author is listed, why do you think that is?  How does that affect our interpretation of the audience?
  4. Skim or view the article/video/post.  Based on a very quick read-through, who is their intended audience?
  5. Is there any particular information to tell anything about who reads this article (like YouTube statistics) or this website (like advertiser demographics)?
  6. Now that you've written all this stuff down, ask, "Who is their audience?"  (Both real and intended).  Who do they expect their audience to be?  What kind of people do they expect when they write these articles?  What kind of people read these articles?  Be clear about how you're coming to these conclusions.  Draw arrows or write down which piece of evidence you're using for each of these generalizations.


Looking at the comment posts.

  1. Read the first 5-10 comment made on the article/blog/video.  How do these comments confirm or complicate your initial thoughts about the audience?  Give three specific  examples of how these comments do so.
  2. Pick one comment.  What kinds of things can you guess about the person who wrote it?  Explain your reasoning next to each thing you guess.  How does this person's ethos compare to your initial thoughts about the article's audience?  What does the purpose of this comment seem to be?
  3. Sum up your group's thoughts about the article's audience.  What can be said about the audience at this point, how sure are you about those things, and what evidence do you have to back them up?  What kinds of statements are the most of the audience likely to agree on, if anything?  What kinds of things CAN'T you determine at this point, and what pieces of evidence or lack of evidence makes it too complicated to do so?    
Evaluation Suggestions: 

This lesson was not evaluated, the first time I did it, but I believe I will do so in the future.  Students are doing a substantial bit of prompted writing in this exercise, and I will probably count it as a credit/no-credit minor writing assignment next semester.

Course Description: 

This lesson was created for my class RHE 309K: The Rhetoric of Flame Wars, in which we take a rhetorical approach to understanding the public discussions, arguments, and yes, flame wars, that happen in online spaces.  Here's the course description:

Rhetoric classes are fundamentally about argument—how to make an argument—and this one is no different.  The pervasiveness of electronic communication, particularly on the internet, means that we encounter new (and old) challenges in making arguments and having dialogues.  Some have suggested that all arguments on the internet are fated to end up flame wars: vicious bouts of namecalling and mudslinging.  I don’t think that’s the case, and I’m not even sure that flame wars don’t serve some purpose in our culture.  But it is the case that lots of people are worried about how we talk to each other and how we argue with each other online.  Issues like privacy settings and moderation and screen names and anonymity and character limits all affect how we debate.  This class examines those issues and more.  Ultimately, we ask, how might it be possible to have or design or produce a deliberative, democratic debate in a public internet space?

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