A Mass of Unknowable Readers

Of the many features that blogs and social media share, one that continues to pull me in is the identity of readers. When writing comments, readers can choose anonymity or, if conveying a desire for authorial influence, they might use their full names. One of my pilot studies showed a prevalence of full names recognizable as men. However, most readers used single names, pseudonyms, and initials, revealing a mass of unknowable readers that are now part of design history.

My thoughts on this are complicated but often come back to two questions: why did so many readers choose anonymity, and what does this tell us about design culture? I may never be able to answer the first, but the second question is full of possibilities — and this is my project focus.

Blogs and social media give the appearance of democratic platforms, yet authors attracting higher numbers of readers (or engagement) tend to have more social capital. However, these authors and forums themselves can be challenging to read closely. As Chappell Ellison notes in her Design Observer essay, conversations online risk becoming siloes, limiting the sense of a closer community. And to further complicate things, the lack of comments on a blog post may not mean a lack of reader interest; this might mean no one disagrees with the original author. On social media, this might be due to algorithmic influences. 

These tendencies (and my assumptions) are that design conversations — particularly on design blogs of the past — were facilitated by a minority (fully named readers) and may have influenced the perceptions of the majority (mass of unknowable readers). Examining these dynamics can provide insight into how writing informed power dynamics within graphic design communities.

Parts of this post are adapted from my 2021 article “Inquiries on the Everyday Online Conversations of Design: Typologies, Comments, and Threads” (2021) in the The Design Journal. Published version available here; accepted manuscript version available here