Do Bloggers Really Care About Their Readers?: A Speculation on the Nature of Relationships

food pyramid
Much of our social life is spent establishing and navigating the undocumented boundaries of relationships. In our astonishingly complex modern world, we are constantly entering into (and breaking off) relationships, and watching them evolve, sometimes in unexpected ways. Each relationship has a ‘contract’, a set of rules that govern what is and what is not acceptable behaviour for the participants in that relationship. Mostly, these contracts are implicit, and the rules follow learned social behaviour: It’s OK to kiss grandma (in fact, it’s expected) but not OK to kiss the person who you just met. Some contracts of relationship are explicit, such as employment contracts and marriage contracts, though in many cases these merely clarify implicit contracts and are designed for lawyers to use when the contract breaks down, rather than for use by the parties directly.

There are, it seems to me, five general types of relationships:

  • supplier-customer
  • co-worker
  • family
  • neighbour
  • friend

Each of these types can be either symmetric (where each party to the relationship gives and receives the same benefits) or asymmetric (where each party gives something different, of approximately equivalent value to the other parties):

Nature of Relationship: What We Offer What We Expect in Return
~ employee to employer
~ supplier to customer
~ child to parent,
employee to employer:
labour, knowledge, respect, obedience
supplier to customer:
products, services, useful information, entertainment, respect
child to parent:
personal fulfillment, respect, obedience
money, appreciation, attention
~ co-worker peers
~ project collaborators
~ family peers
~ friends
~ neighbours
experience, expertise, help,
useful information, collegiality
experience, expertise, help,
useful information, collegiality

Symmetric relationships are generally implicit and sustained by mutual agreement — if one party feels they are not getting what they want or expect from the relationship, they simply terminate it by withdrawing from it unilaterally, and it is ended. Asymmetric relationships are more difficult to terminate: because of the unequal relationship and the fact that there is often an explicit contract with consequences for breach, negotiation is usually needed to terminate (or amend and salvage) the relationship.

It is for this reason, I think, that most of us prefer symmetric relationships where the contract is implicit — they are easier to amend and extricate ourselves from.

The problem comes when a relationship sours and when, because it is asymmetric or the contract is explicit, we are stuck with it involuntarily. All kinds of very human things can cause a relationship to sour:

  • lack of respect
  • feeling of obligation of one party that outweighs the perceived benefits (“it’s more trouble than it’s worth”)
  • an imposed or implicit hierarchy that one party thinks is inappropriate (“how dare you tell me what to do”)
  • a lack of trust or betrayal of trust
  • an atmosphere of competitiveness
  • personality conflicts (one party feels the other is unreasonable, or behaving immorally, or lacking in appropriate aesthetics, or there is just poor chemistry between the parties)
  • a lack of reciprocity (an unrequited or unsatisfied love, want or need)

When this happens, even what would normally be a symmetric relationship suddenly becomes unpleasantly and uncomfortably asymmetric, often to the point of being unbearable. The problem is, the party that wants out of the relationship may be or feel compelled, by explicit contract, by financial needs, by lack of alternative opportunity, or by sense of personal obligation, to stay in the relationship. This is an unnatural and potentially nasty situation, one that anyone stuck in a dead-end or soul-destroying job, or an abusive or suffocating relationship, can attest to.

My reason for laying out this ‘theory of relationships’ is to try to describe the love/hate relationship between bloggers and blog readers (and, in a broader sense, between the media and their audience). This relationship is inherently an involuntarily asymmetric one — the blogger and the blog reader have different ‘skin in the game’, and the commitment of the blogger to the relationship is different (and usually more intense) than that of the reader. This is different even from the relationship of other information and entertainment media ‘producers’ to their ‘customers’: published writers, publishers and broadcasters receive financial compensation from their audience (directly through subscription fees or indirectly through advertising) and, for a lot of producers, that’s all they expect from their audience — so attention and appreciation, when they get it, is just a bonus.

The blogger, on the other hand, generally receives little more from the relationship than attention and appreciation, and that is often fickle because, with no financial investment involved, the relationship, for the reader, is very tenuous and easy to terminate (and there are a lot of other bloggers begging and grateful for their attention). Of course, we say we are grateful for comments and criticisms, and indeed we are, but the truth is that, in the absence of the comfort that people value our work enough to pay real money for it, we live for attention and appreciation — we want to be ‘popular’.

And that’s the problem. This is a pretty thin basis on which to build a relationship. Such relationships are almost innately uncomfortably asymmetric, and all seven of the relationship-souring qualities of fragile relationships bulleted above are painfully familiar to bloggers, at least occasionally. Even a Skype or telephone conversation, or a single face-to-face meeting seems to create a much sturdier foundation for a relationship than the anonymity that pervades the relationship between writer and reader. I know columnists and published authors feel this too — they may get paid for a particular book or set of articles, but as soon as the audience strays they are left feeling betrayed and dismayed to have been abandoned by a readership they devoted hours of energy and passion to cultivating, but discovered they really didn’t really know at all.

Of course all writers will tell you that they have to write, and that they don’t really need lots of fawning readers to be fulfilled. Yeah, right. They’ll also tellyou that they don’t need that stuff in the food pyramid cartoon above.

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4 Responses to Do Bloggers Really Care About Their Readers?: A Speculation on the Nature of Relationships

  1. kara says:

    Interesting post Dave.You conclude that bloggers

  2. Shannon F. says:

    Well, just checking in to say that I do really appreciate your blog. It is a unique voice that covers a wide range of connected topics, which suits my interests just fine. It also by now comprises a pretty large amount of thoughtful writing. (Just don’t beat yourself up for not having the book(s) done yet.)The asymmetric quality of the blogger/bloggee is sort of parental isn’t it? You put out the posts and we take it and process it and it eventually forms part of our thinking and actions, but you may never see it take shape.Do you know the Sweet Honey in the Rock recording of the poem by Khalil Gibran? “Your children are not your children/ They are the sons and the daughters of life’s longing for itself./ They come through you, but they are not from you,/ And though they are with you, they belong not to you.”Blogger’s version: “Your postings are not your postings,/ They are the words and the pictures of thought’s longing for itself…”Keep it up, Dave. Thanks.

  3. Theresa says:

    I also come here to read the comments in the comment box and to see how other people interpret and contribute to an idea taking shape. “Thoughts longing for themselves” is a good way of describing some of the ideas whose time has come but just need somebody to give it shape. Thanks for supplying this.Theresa

  4. Thanks for sharing.

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