Wait, there are people who don’t understand that social media has an invisible audience?

Social Media Invisible Audience

I read blogs and articles from Wharton (UPenn) professors all the time, because it seems like a really reputable business school that’s given the world some really solid business thinkers (including a friend or two of mine). Most of the stuff they post, like interviews about the future and benefits of Big Data, are pretty spot-on and awesome. Periodically, there’s a less-than-stellar effort in there (we all have rough days). An example of such a post? This really long jam on “the invisible audience” of social media.

If you don’t know what “the invisible audience” is, it basically refers to two concepts:

  • Maybe you’re not that logical of a person.
  • You don’t completely understand your privacy settings.

Here’s how it can unfold:

  • You share something on a social channel (with the possible exception of Snapchat).
  • Someone else shares your update to their followers, or they take your link and e-mail it (off social) to a bunch of their friends.
  • As a result, you thought the audience was “my friends and/or followers” and in reality, the audience is now wider than that.
  • The gap between what you thought and who actually saw it is “the invisible audience.”

This has a lot of tangible implications, notably for “friending people at work.” A lot of people won’t do that, but then won’t enforce it consistently and let a Twitter follower or Instagram follower or something sneak through. You tweet one thing with a story about work, and that could be in the hands of 10 people you consciously tried to block/limit within hours (minutes, even).

My bigger point here isn’t that the UPenn article is bad; it’s good and well-written and includes a podcast. Nice.

My point is: how could anyone logically not understand this idea of the “invisible audience?”

That’s literally what social media is based on; that’s what “going viral” is. It’s taking an idea initially designed to be seen by a small cadre of followers and having that idea/image explode to thousands (millions?) more people. Social media is about that, and, uh, talking about yourself all the fucking time.

Here’s two stories of relevance to this discussion:

  • I wrote this post a couple of days ago about a personal question my wife asked me and I couldn’t answer. I knew this post would do relatively well, because it references “my wife” in the headline, and people always love to read things they think will be personal. In the post, I took a kid I went to HS with and threw him under a bus. I’m a very nice person most of the time, I swear! But sure enough, 1-2 days after sharing that, what happens? I get a random Twitter follow from someone from HS (who I don’t follow and vice versa on any social network), and I get a random Facebook message from a girl I went to HS with (ditto). Those two people are “the invisible audience.” I had absolutely no idea they would see that post. Ultimately, they did. And believe me, my privacy settings are generally top-notch.
  • I got an e-mail on New Year’s Eve from a lady in Laos. Laos! I’ve never been to Laos, I probably couldn’t even afford to go to Laos, etc. I honestly barely know where Laos is. (Near India, right?) She e-mailed me because her friend sent her a post of mine … and a post I had shared on Google+, where I get scant traffic from anyway. She’s “invisible audience” too. I had absolutely no idea this human being even existed on the face of our planet; I was sharing whatever post she got sent to be seen by my friends, or my curated audience. Some lady in Laos got sent it. That’s really cool about social/digital — how an idea or a post can move around the world like that — but it’s also the whole idea of this “invisible audience.”

Bottom line is, anything you write or share or take a photo of could end up a 12-hour flight away in about 16 seconds. So be careful with the shit you’re a little worried about, to be sure. There is an “invisible audience” out there; you literally have no idea who could be reading this.

In fact, if you are reading this, send me a note and tell me where you live. I bet I get at least 2-3 countries on here.

Ted Bauer

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