Finding Your Audience

When I first began to read into the practices of “Digital Public History,” I focused on works, like Carl Smith’s, asking whether “serious” public history on the web was possible. But this is the wrong question because it is directed AT audiences rather than emanating from them. It’s from an authoritative place of the expert. “We’re from the University and we’re here to help” was a quote I loved from Steven Lubar’s Seven Rules for Public Humanists (quoted by Sheila Brennan and others) and accurately describes this attitude. Web audiences enjoy being told what to do even less than physical audiences.

Better is the approach of CHNM in  creating the Histories of the National Mall project. They thought deeply about their audience and tested extensively with who might approximate this target audience. Lo and behold, when the project was the audience was there (though I haven’t seen actual traffic data, the project has received critical acclaim)! This is not all that different from what museum spaces need to do in advance of an exhibition opening. Frequent interaction between audience and museum helps both realize more out of a relationship. Museums receive more engagement and audiences receive better experiences.

In the digital realm, it is even more crucial. Mark Tebeau’s project on Cleveland History through oral interviews is a great example of audience directed design. Like the Mall History, Tebeau allowed his audience to tell the stories that they felt were most important about individual neighborhoods or events. Through the sophisticated mapping mechanism, the project’s users can enjoy the stories located geographically in space. This is such a robust and powerful community history project that it almost makes me want to go to Cleveland!

Finally, many commentators, including Melissa Terras, Sheila Brennan, and Tim Sherratt, have described the unintended audiences that the web brings. It’s important to design and test based on your user stories, but the third important part of design for web audiences is to iterate.  Your project will inevitably have either unexpected uses or unforeseen problems. The most successful projects take this feedback and use it to engage with users more successfully. This is nothing new, it’s what public historians have been doing for decades and it’s even more important when the history is digital.


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