You love an audience. If you were born since 1985, you’ve always had one. For years now you and your circle of friends have become each other’s micro-paparazzi, watching each other dance in videos, sing solos with ukuleles, write fan fiction, and pose for photo shoots. Andy Warhol, who famously quipped that everyone in the future would be famous for fifteen minutes, was not some cultural prophet like some have suggested. All he needed to do was read about the Greek figure Narcissus who after staring at himself in a pool of water was dying to upload that pose. Since 900 BC, I guess, we’ve been needing an audience.
Now that technology has caught up with our narcissism, I offer some principles that might help guide our pursuit of an audience.
Principle One: The size of your audience should be proportional to the quality of your product.
When I was in the fourth grade, I made an ugly sculpture of a bear in ceramics class and presented it to my mother. She showcased this treasure in her curio cabinet. If I do the math, maybe fifty people visited my house that year and admired our family gallery. The people who found my bear most important—Grandma, Aunt Emily, my piano teacher—were my core audience, and it was very small. That seems about right for my sincere-but-hideous art.
Principle Two: Some pursuits are designed for experience only. Not every draft leads to a final copy.
YouTube has become a landfill of first tries. The tolerance we have for uncooked, poorly executed rough drafts is astonishing. We might beg our teenagers to put off posting that dance video until their ballet training is well underway, or expect that a blogger writes fifty practice essays before he ever exposes one on Tumblr. Novelists know that they might toss twenty pages of process sentences before they get to the one paragraph that means something. The experience they gained along the way—the understanding of nuance, punctuation, or failed symbols—is what matters. The experience itself is an abstraction, not necessarily a product.
Principle Three: Broad commercial success is becoming less likely.
Commercial success is elusive. For example, more than half-a-million new book titles were published last year. The overwhelming majority (try 90%) sold less than 99 copies. If you’re a writer, that whooshing sound you hear is your literary dreams being sucked out of your soul. No reader is in want of another title; he has time to read only what his community has already deemed significant (and it might not be your story about a child raised by wolves in Communist China—the story with the orphan archetype and Savior metaphors). For every conference speaker with a financial kickback from his national following, thousands of local pastors are searching for quarters in the sofa after working just as hard, if not harder.
How does a community choose what is buzz-worthy? I have no idea. Marketers try very hard to plants seeds here and there, but where the profit blooms is a complete mystery. Sometimes enormous talent stays in fallow ground.
Principle Four: Small audiences—or even none—can be God-honoring.
Finally, for a believer in Jesus Christ, whose pursuits are often shaped by paradoxical truths, gaining a large audience might be the worst possible outcome. Servant leadership and anonymity might be called for, and these are simply not compatible with Me-World thinking. I know two immensely gifted teachers and writers at my local church, women who might very well pursue commercial success with their talents. One shapes God’s message for children in profound ways, and the other is a top-shelf expository teacher. Both would be forgiven for peddling their products to the masses. Yet for now their audience remains beautifully contained, a decision that has required both humility and financial sacrifice.
I also find it interesting that in recent years, a handful of high-profile Christian leaders and communicators have asked their audiences to stop listening, a shocking reversal of American capitalism. They have stepped out their pulpits and turned off the spotlights, shrinking their audiences rather than expanding them. This is comforting to me. I grew up when the embarrassing legacy of 80s TV evangelism was straining our country’s tolerance of a show-biz Jesus. It’s no wonder I am drawn to local shepherds on quiet hillsides.
It seems compatible with the words in John’s gospel: I'm not interested in crowd approval. And do you know why? Because I know you and your crowds. I know that love, especially God's love, is not on your working agenda. (5:41, The Message).
Audiences are overrated. Love of beauty, love for the brethren, love for your Creator—these are the motives that create lasting works of art.