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Last modified April 06, 2005 at 02:36 PM

Rhetorical Shifts in Author/Audience Roles on the World-Wide Web

Sandy Bartell
Audience analysis has figured prominently in Technical Communications curricula for many years because much of technical communication has to do with instructing and persuading people from specific discourse communities to do tasks. In order to get them to do these specialized tasks, we must be intimately familiar with their real and anticipated needs, expectations, and limitations. Many different models of the author/audience relationship have been proposed to aid in this analysis. These models have worked well (depending on what school of thought one subscribed to) when the main delivery system consisted of print media. However, the popularization of second-generation Web browsers in 1993 introduced a delivery medium that did not fit neatly into any previous theoretical framework.


Audience analysis figures prominently in Technical Communications curricula because the focus of technical communication is to take complex technical information and create materials that can help readers use, learn, repair, or build equipment or systems (Alred et al. 2).  In order to help readers perform these specialized tasks, we must be intimately familiar with their real and anticipated needs, expectations, and limitations. Many different models of the author/audience relationship have been proposed to aid in this analysis.  These models have worked well (depending on what school of thought one subscribed to) when the main delivery system consisted of print media.

As might be expected, these models have evolved over time in response to various literary movements and changes in technology.  Despite different schools of thought on audience/author models— humanistic, empirical, audience-invoked, audience addressed, and others—a certain stability has prevailed; one could apply most of these models and feel assured of some modicum of success.

However, the popularization of second-generation Web browsers in 1993 introduced a delivery medium that did not fit neatly into any previous theoretical framework.  What threw the monkey wrench into what up until then had been a fairly smooth-running machine?  In two words:  interactivity and reciprocity.  The interactivity (person-to-machine interaction) and reciprocity (person-to-person interaction), both asynchronous and synchronous, of the Web—as opposed to the static, asynchronous nature of the print medium—cast author/audience roles in a completely new light and engendered a new whole new set of considerations.

Adding to this confusion of “business not as usual,” the Web’s growth since its inception has been exponential.  Although no longer in its nascent phase, the Web is nowhere near maturity.  The Web is like a gangly, awkward teenager who has grown too quickly; showing off his burgeoning muscle and power only to have his voice crack suddenly and remind us that his growing is far from over.

To understand the nature of this chaotic environment and what implications it may have for technical communicators, we need to understand how the Web is changing our economic, political, and social infrastructure.  The historical materialism Friedrich Engels talked of during the 19th century is a means by which we can look at the changes these infrastructures are undergoing.  Engels believed that

The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and next to production, the exchange of things produced is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged.  From this point of view the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange (Engels in Kilcullen paragraph 17).  What else does the history of ideas prove than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? (Engels in Kilcullen paragraph 20, italics mine).

If we apply Engel’s last statement to our own era, we can see that the manufacturing-based economy of the early 20th century has rapidly given way to an information-based economy that has changed not only our ways of doing business but even the ways human beings relate to each other. Unlike material goods, information is volatile, fluid, ephemeral, and unbound by geographic, time, or material constraints.  The result is a socioeconomic environment that is chaotic, ever changing, and unpredictable.  How do we, as technical communicators,  attempt to understand and maneuver in this kind of environment where boundaries are no longer clearly defined, technology drives change, and no one is in charge?

Jonathan Price suggests that applying complexity theory to what is happening with the Web can help us understand, cope, and respond to the dramatic changes occurring in our environment.  This theory has been developed by pioneers in the fields of economics, biology, neurosurgery, anthropology, and artificial life to deal with situations that are too complex to explain by earlier principles (17).  He says that we are now operating in an environment of increasing returns, and explains that

Traditional economics postulates a steady state of equilibrium.  Based on observations of an 1880s economy based primarily on bulk production, the law of diminishing returns argued that any company that won an advantage in the market place would eventually bump into some kind of limitation. so that prices and market shares would settle into equilibrium.  But in a knowledge-based economy, Arthur argues, you have more pockets in which the underlying mechanism follows the laws on increasing returns.  Increasing returns are the tendency for that which is ahead to get farther ahead.  Increasing returns generate not equilibrium but instability (20, italics mine).

Given that the Web is in this period of increasing returns (with no seeming limit in sight), the almost-warp speed of technological change, the pervasiveness of our information-based economy, and the blurring of lines between different discourse communities—how then are technical writers to define and address target audiences that are constantly shifting and redefining themselves? 

This paper reviews some popular author/audience models that were prevalent before the Web and several new ones that have been proposed recently.  In between these models are several that are in the pre-Web timeframe, but that may have applicability to electronic as well as print-based delivery systems.  These models will be analyzed in the context of Jonathan Price’s description of complexity theory and whether they are relevant in today’s rapidly changing technological world.

Traditional Pre-Web Models of Author/Roles

Walter Ong and Walker Gibson are primarily concerned with the author/reader role in communication.  Ong believes that both the writer and the audience fictionalize their roles and that authors learn how to fictionalize the audience by the examples of previous writers (11).  If the writer is successful he not only projects his audience; he can shape it.

Gibson’s theory, however, is slightly more involved.  Gibson’s author consists of the author who writes the work and the implied author who creates the role for the reader; his reader consists of the actual flesh-and-blood reader with his or her own set of values and experiences, and the mock reader who assumes the role the speaker has offered (Gibson 1-2).  His emphasis is on the speaker and the mock reader between whom the discourse occurs.  Both are roles the author and real reader have assumed.

Both Ong and Gibson share the concept of a fictionalized or “mock reader,” an assumed role the author is speaking to and both primarily deal with the players rather than the process of communication.  Ong further believes that authors fictionalize their readers from past precedents other writers have used to fictionalize their readers, and so on back to the beginning of human communication.

In fairness to Ong and Gibson, their models were introduced decades ago, long before the Web came into being.  At first, it would appear that the transferability of the Ong/Gibson models to the Web would not be too difficult.  After all, Web pages need writers to create them and an audience to read them.

In those cases where web sites are focused on one type of audience the use of Ong’s or Gibson’s models may very well be appropriate.   The concept of remediation proposed by Jay D. Bolter and Richard Grusin suggests a modern kind of ekphrasis where one medium is represented by another medium (45).  The online novels by popular authors such as Stephen King have lent themselves well to this kind of transfer from printed to digital mediums.  The genre and audience translate well and the new medium is relatively transparent to the reader.

However, the Ong/Gibson assumptions are that there is a one-to-one relationship between the author and the reader.  In the world of the Web this relationship is better represented as many-to-many.  Many web sites are now created by teams that may include technical writers, graphic artists, sales and marketing staff, system administrators, and others.  Each of these “real” people come with their own preconceived schemata for the web site, their own expectations, and their own rhetorical agendas.  This is no longer a work created by one author, but a “design by committee.”

The audiences too, are “real” people with specific demographic backgrounds and perhaps widely differing expectations of what they, as implied readers, wish to get out of the web site.  For example, who would be the implied reader in a pharmaceutical web site that is visited by a mother who wants information about the drug she is giving her sick child, the physician who wants the latest updates on a new drug, the high school student who is writing a paper on drug interactions, or the hypochondriac who anxiously wants reassurance that the medication she is taking is not going to make her die?  Each of these users comes with different educational levels and backgrounds, and differing cognitive and affective schemata.  The rhetorical devices one would use for one of these population segments might be entirely different for the other populations.  Can we use the Ong/Gibson models to analyze audiences on the Web?  Each of their models assumes a “reader” (singular), not “readers” with a plurality of needs and interests. It is difficult to identify who the “implied reader” is in the multidimensional audiences of web sites. 

Nontraditional Traditional Pre-Web Models of Author/Roles

Writer Awareness of Audience Complexity

Charlotte Thralls et al subscribe to the older traditional models of Gibson and Ong in their research but examine whether writers are actually aware of the difference between real and implied readers during the process of composition  They cite Ede and Lunsford’s model that “addressed (or real) readers are accommodated in composing choices and that invoked (or implied) readers are invited to participate in textual roles” (Ede and Lunsford in Thralls et al 50).

In their studies, they used Ede and Lunsford’s differentiation between accommodation and invitation to point out their subjects’ identification of readers as either real or implied (italics mine).  A writer’s accommodation to exophoric (or external) elements to the text, suggested he or she was envisioning a real reader (50).  A focus on the endophoric (or internal aspects of text, i.e., the text itself) suggested he or she was envisioning an implied reader.  Citing Roth’s discovery that writers’ concepts of audience evolve during composing (Roth in Thralls et. al 53), Thralls et al. hypothesized that writers may not only engage in a sequential representation of audience, alternating between real and implied roles, but they may even hold these images of audience simultaneously (55).  The essence of their findings is that the interplay of real versus implied audiences in the composing process is more complex than previously thought. 

The complexity of this interplay is especially important when we consider the enormous breadth of audiences on the Web and the variety of ways these audiences use the information that is presented to them.  The ability to discern whether a site should address real or implied readers, or both, is a skill that technical writers involved with the Web should consider acquiring and refining.

The Authorless-Function

Although Michel Foucault is a well-known author, his concept of the author role seems to be in a space of its own, concentrating exclusively on defining authors rather than the author/reader role or the interaction between these roles.  Foucault believes in an “author-function,” rather than the author as an individual.  He claims it is “just as wrong to equate the author with the real writer as it is to equate him with the fictitious speaker. The author-function is carried out and operates in the distance in between these two roles (Foucault 7).  This author-function is complex, existing in some instances and not existing at all in others.  He cites as an example the private letter that has a signer but no author, and the contract that has a guarantor but no author.

There is some similarity between Foucault’s alter ego and Gibson’s speaker as a person quite separate from the real author.  However, Foucault is not concerned with these roles so much as he is with what happens in the space between these roles; he builds on Gibson’s implied author in his concept of the author-function (Foucault 7).  More precisely, his author-function focuses on the action or delivery mechanism between authors and readers rather than the roles each assume.  He argues that the author as an individual does not even exist in those cases where one is trying to attribute authorship to “works” that extend beyond the easily defined boundaries of books to encompass concepts, ideas, and even whole disciplines.

Foucault’s author-function is illustrative of the phenomena that sometimes the most abstract concepts with no seeming relation to anything in the real world merge serendipitously with unexpected technological change to suddenly become highly relevant.  It is clear that authors’ roles are not as narrowly defined on the Web as they are in the print medium.  As an example, the roles of author and reader have become blurred in MOOs (Multiple User Domains Object-Oriented).  Who is the author in this kind of environment?  Is it the system designer who creates the environment and sets up the rules by which the players interact?  Or is it the players (readers) who create their own virtual world and determine the roles they will play?  It appears the author-function is assumed sometimes by designers and sometimes by users.  Current technology has already brought us to the point Foucault saw long before the Web came into popular vogue.  Whether he had the prescience to know his model would someday be so relevant is hard to say, but it is clear that the Web has changed not only the roles of the actors and how they interact with each other, but the act of communication itself.

This fluid exchange of author/audience roles can be also be seen on Web portals where the emphasis is on “customization,” allowing the user to assume a “role” of his or her own choosing.  In some cases, it does not end there with the assumption of a role.  Much of the interaction between a reader (user) is dynamic and happens on the fly; in other words, the user enters a Web environment, makes some choices, perhaps enters some information, and gets a “system generated” response.  The dialog appears to be between machine and man or code and user. Who is the author in this situation?  Is it the programmer who designed the code for the system or is it the “system” that generates responses based on user input?  Could it be that the programmer is the author and the “system” is an author-intermediary?

And what of those sites that have multiple contributors where we cannot attribute their authorship to any one person?  Web sites like CNN or those of major corporations offer a good example of this type of author-function in which the synergistic efforts of many contribute to the creation of the site.

Foucault says “What difference does it make who is speaking?” (Foucault 12).  In the environment described above, it probably does not matter at all.  As Web technology becomes more sophisticated and dynamic interactivity more common, Foucault’s author-function role could, depending on the situation, be assigned to users, system designers, or even the system itself.

Given that so much of the Web now seems geared toward the Foucaultian rhetoric of function and processes, is there a place for the type of author/reader analysis Thralls et. al advocate?  That question will be answered in the next section.

Contemporary Author/Reader Models for the Web

Designing Online Personas

As Mary B. Coney said (1987), the definitions and boundaries of audience have shifted considerably since the classical period.  She further states that the central question for modern rhetoricians, given the diversity of today’s attitudes and conditions is, “how can we think about readers as we write to them, or, to put it another way, how can we define our multiple readers to make modern discourse possible?” (Coney 319).  Those views were expressed before the Web came into being.  However, like Foucault, they were predictive of the seismic shifts the Web would cause in our long-held traditional views of the author/reader relationship.

In 2000 Coney and Michael Steehouder argued that Web authors and users communicate through personas and that the success of the site depends on how well these personas fulfill each other’s needs (paragraph 15).  By then the nomenclature for “reader” had shifted to that of “user,” reflecting the shift in role from recipient to active participant in the rhetorical process.  Coney and Steehouder agree with Alan Cooper who in The Inmates are Running the Asylum (1991), argues that “designers should focus their energies on one single, well-realized person—a persona—and forego the useless task of trying to please an aggregate of actual users” (Cooper in Coney and Steehouder paragraph 4).  Their definition of user persona includes all roles assumed by users and includes both real users and those from implied users site participants create for themselves (paragraph 14, italics mine).  This definition applies equally to authors who can become whatever role the site requires.

The traditional concepts of real vs. implied readers and authors is adapted and extended for the Web by Coney and Steehouder to include the following:

  • real visitor  who visits the Web site.
  • The target visitor from whom the Web site is designed for.
  • The user persona, the role that is “created” in the Web site.
  • The Web site owner who owns and pays for the site.
  • The designer (the person, team, or company) who makes the decisions about the design and content of the site.
  • The author persona, the person or voice that speaks to the user persona (paragraph 16, italics mine).

The user persona can be identifiable or anonymous.  For example, a personal home page may have the author’s name listed, whereas with a corporate home page it is understood that there is no “real author.”  The author persona for the corporation is anonymous and suggestive of Foucault’s author-function.

Coney and Steehouder emphasize that Web designers “should become as rhetorically sophisticated as they are technically adept, to understand the power and potential of role playing as a major component of good design (paragraph 23).  Although they present an outline of some guidelines in designing author and user personas and their relationships, they do not suggest how technical communicators should acquire this “rhetorical sophistication.”  Thralls et al. recognized in 1988 years ago that author/reader roles could not fully explain the “disparity some writers experience between attitudes they know their readers to hold and the persona they wish to construct and equate with the attitudes of their readers” (63).  As discussed earlier in this article, their studies suggested that many writers are not aware of all the complexities in the distinction between real and implied readers; further empirical research is needed to augment our understanding in this area.  This understanding is especially critical in the Web environment where the roles of users and authors have taken on added dimensions and functions that Walker and Gibson could not have foreseen.

Ethos, Audiences, and Community on the Web

Kevin Hunt believes that “the usefulness and increasing popularity of the Web is based on how well individuals and organizations use the technology as a means of establishing on online presence—an ethos—that conveys the sorts of values they hold in common with the Web navigators they wish to attract to the site” (paragraph 3).  By ethos, he means the characteristic attitudes, habits, and beliefs of an individual or group.  With print-based documents, technical writers are already familiar with establishing a professional ethos that imparts a sense of unity, coherence, and credibility (paragraph 3).  The Web provides not only information to users, but a means of finding and creating connections (paragraph 15).  This sense of building community, especially within special interest groups, is central to Hunt’s thesis.  Hunt suggests that Web designers should “consider using the Web to set up a directory of clients that use the organization’s products or services as a means of facilitating communication between the community of clients” (paragraph 25).  This information may not be directly related to the product or service provided by the organization, but it encourages connections among audiences who share common interests.

Fortunately, Hunt says that his rhetorical approach is not definitive and that it can be integrated with other methodologies.  It is certainly true that the Web has made possible an almost unlimited wealth of communication possibilities with millions of interconnected communities—what Hunt calls “electronic tribes.”  However, many users don’t care about being part of a special-interest community.  They visit web sites for information, or entertainment, or even just to “surf.”  Hunt’s ideas of addressing the community ethos of special interest groups has much value, though, for those groups whose basis for existence depends on those communal relationships.  Paradoxically, the Web has created a kind of global community while encouraging the formation of localized, special-interest groups.  Hunt’s theory is useful framework for technical communicators to consider when they address those audience communities with the need for a rhetorical “gathering place” with specific values and characteristics (paragraph 10).

Computers as Author-Agents

In describing future human-computer interactions, Muriel Zimmerman talks about “affective computing” where computers with emotional intelligence will be able to figure out what users need and want (paragraph 14, and “remembrance agents” where applications will be able to monitor a user’s actions and make suggestions relevant to the user’s current situation (paragraph 19).  She says that

Computers will be easier to use and do more for us.  Smart software agents residing in computers will write their own documentation, telling a highly customized story based on knowledge of user moods, learning styles, and past practices―perhaps gathering some of this information through new interfaces such as an “emoticon mouse” that detects a user’s state of mind (paragraph 1).

Her predictions mesh well with Foucault’s author-function where the computer and its interfaces now take over the role of an author.  There is still an agent doing the communicating; it just is not human.  Some of these agents have already been incorporated into widely used products such as Microsoft Office where the animated “Clippie” (or some other agent the user chooses) “looks” over the user’s shoulder, anticipates what they need, and makes suggestions (paragraph 17).  This type of interface will eventually become so intuitive that the user interface will be invisible to the user (Bell and Gray in Zimmerman paragraph 6).  This seamless integration of the medium with the user’s experience distinctly echoes what Bolter and Grusin say about the evolving transparency of digital media:  that “a transparent interface would be one that erases itself, so that the user is no longer aware of confronting a medium, but instead stands in an immediate relationship to the contents of that medium. (23-24)

Zimmerman believes technical writers will function in new roles; we may still be called technical communicators but what we do five years hence will not resemble what we do now.  Technical writers will probably be more involved in interaction design—a process that begins with a thorough analysis of users and what they want to accomplish (Cooper in Zimmerman paragraph 21).

Is There a “Right” Author/Audience Model for the Web?

In today’s world we are no longer dealing simply with a passive reader; as technical communicators we are confronted with users who are “empowered,” users who determine the rhetorical mechanisms they prefer, and users who can create and customize their own meaning in a cyber landscape whose roadmaps are constantly fluctuating.

No one can predict what directions or forms the Web will take even five years from now; however, considering its importance in our lives, we need to ask and then respond to several questions.  Are we experiencing a Kuhnian paradigm shift in the way we communicate with our audiences?  Are we at a point in technical communication where we should simply discard the traditional author/audience concepts or can we adapt or redefine them for new technologies and new media?

The first order of business should be to assess the environment we find ourselves in now.  Returning to Jonathan Price’s suggested application of complexity theory to the current state of technical communication, we can begin with the understanding that we must increasingly cope with “situations that are too complex to explain by earlier principles” (17).  In his description of the Web as a complex, adaptive system he says:

  • The growth of the Web, and any one information site, seems to have a life of its own, as the Web seems to be organizing itself, veering now in one direction, now another, without following discernible principles, more like a crowd in motion than a rational law-abiding individual.
  • The Web cannot be said to be run by anyone; individual agents interact, and the Web is the result.
  • The system changes by reorganizing and revising its building blocks in response to inputs from millions of agents (18).

Once we have the understanding of this environment which is, as Price puts, “near the edge of chaos (25),” we must consider how we are going to address the author/audience issue.  Coney and Steehouder state that in “contemporary rhetoric, situation is all, and universal solutions are always suspect” (paragraph 24).  So far, no one has invented a unilateral “right way” to approach audience analysis—especially with the Web.  Rob Houser, in his comparison of rhetorical theories and their treatment of audience, states that

All of these rhetorical theories are significant because they inform the way technical communicators approach audience—whether we see audience as real or imagined, whether we see the writer as communicating a message or the audience and writer creating a message together, whether we start to create a text with considerations of style or investigations of audience.  Technical communicators have synthesized these various approaches to writing and borrowed from other fields to build a new body of theories and practices (157).

Technical communicators, he says, often move back and forth between these various approaches to audience.

If we accept Hunt’s view, what questions should technical communicators be asking in choosing the most appropriate author/audience approach given this “smorgasbord” of theories—some traditional, some newly devised for the Web?  How are we to cope in an environment where expectations and technology can change overnight?  How also should we best leverage our existing skills and at the same time accommodate new demands that require skill sets we don’t yet have?  And finally, how do we ensure that our audiences get what they need from us?

We should continually ask these questions as we refine and expand the theoretical frameworks of existing author/audience models and formulate new ones in response to changing demands.  Technical Communications curricula should perhaps begin incorporating some of the more recent models proposed by authors such Coney and Steehouder, Zimmerman, and Hunt while not neglecting the older, traditional models that may still have some relevance to current discourse.

It may appear from authors such as Foucault and Zimmerman that technical communicators will one day be entirely supplanted by computers who assume the role of author-agents, but this is not likely.  As Zimmerman says

Technical communicators will have responsibility for how users will experience all information about a product from pre-sales deliverables, to integrated user assistance such as online tutorials, to hardcopy support.  They will take the largest view, identifying where user assistance is needed and how best to deliver it, ensuring cohesive presentation.  As designers of the user experience, technical communicators will be creating intellectual property rather than just documenting it.” (paragraph 22). 

Far from relegating our profession into obsolescence, the Web will provide us with new opportunities, not only as creators, but as integrators and facilitators of digital media delivery systems.  We may not wear the old traditional hat of “author” in our new digital expeditions, but we will wear a new hybridized form that takes the old, blends it with the new, and becomes something entirely different that can adapt quickly and effectively to our constantly changing technological climate.  The shape of this hat is not clear now, but it promises to be an interesting and engaging one.

Works Cited

Alred, Gerald J., Walter E. Oliu, and Charles T. Brusaw.  The Professional Writer:  A Guide for advanced Technical Writing.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin.  Remediation:  Understanding New Media.  Cambridge:  MIT Press, 1999.

Coney, Mary B.  “Contemporary Views of Audience:  A Rhetorical Perspective.”  Technical Writing Teacher XIV (1987):  319-336.

Coney, Mary B. and Michael Steehouder.  “Role Playing on the Web:  Guidelines for Designing and Evaluating Personas Online.”  Technical Communication 47.3 (August 2000) <http:…mRJdu06Hr%2fgipNf%2fgXJ1DwwU8nDCFxdMel2z>.

Foucault, Michel.  “What is an Author?”  Textual Strategies:  Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism.  Ed. Josué V. Harari.  New York:  Cornell University Press, 1979.

Gibson, Walker.  “Authors, Speakers, Readers, and Mock Readers.”  Reader-Response Criticism from Formalism to Post-Structuralism.  Ed. Jane P. Tompkins.  Baltimore and London:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1950.

Houser, Rob.  What is the Value of Audience to Technical Communicators?:  A Survey of Audience Research.  International Professional Communication Conference ’97 Proceedings:  Crossroads in Communication, 1997.

Hunt, Kevin.  “Establishing a Presence on the World Wide Web:  A Rhetorical Approach.”  Technical Communication 47.4 (November 1996) <…mRJdu06H%2fgipNf%2fgXJ1DwwU8snVnujkfBFB>

Kilcullen, R.J.  “Historical Materialism.”  1996. POL264 Modern Political Theory, Macquarie University <>.

Ong, Walter J.  “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction.”  Modern Language Association.  90 (1975):  9-21.

Price, Jonathan.  Using Complexity Theory to Understand What’s Happening to Technical Communication.  International Professional Communication Conference ’97 Proceedings:  Crossroads in Communication, 1997.

Thralls, Charlotte, Nancy Roundy Blyler, and Helen Rothschild Ewald.  “Real Readers, Implied Readers, and Professional Writers:  Suggested Research.”  The Journal of Business Communication.  25.2 (Spring 1988):  47-65.

Zimmerman, Muriel.  “Technical Communication in an Altered Technology Landscape:  What Might Be.”  Technical Communication 48.2 (May 2001):  200-205.

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