The Spectacle on the Screen

The other day I was captivated by a Facebook video of a tiny miniature donkey who was given four prosthetic feet. The anticipation of seeing whether the little animal would learn to run kept me watching until the end. I then shared the video with my friend John, who is a farrier.

I’m sure others who watched the video shared it with their friends. This is the best of the shared experience that we have online. However, in a few minutes, another video will captivate our attention for another momentary shared experience. Have you noticed that there is something missing here?

This shared experience is what French theorist Guy Debord, a half century ago, called a spectacle*. In his short book called The Society of the Spectacle, Debord wrote that “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” He spotted this phenomenon before the internet ever developed.

Even with all the interactions that we have with people today, it may be hard to understand how an image, like a tiny donkey video, mediates our relationships. For Debord, the image of the video controls how we relate to one another.

The Spectacle’s Threat to Friendship

A tiny donkey video is a pretty benign image. Replace that with a politically partisan image denigrating a politician we supported, then we have the perfect toxic stew for ruined friendships. What happens to a friendship when our friend shares something that offends us? Or, maybe we just think, “That doesn’t make any sense. What was she thinking?” We feel conflicted. On the one hand, she has the freedom to share things that represent her beliefs. On the other hand, what happens when she makes public an opinion that probably should only be privately shared between friends. All of sudden, we see this person in a different light. Our respect for the person is diminished or the experience brings an end to the relationship. This is how social media images have come to mediate our relations with one another.

Social media experience feels like we are sharing our lives together. Unless we are posting pictures from our vacation trip or an opinion about something we actually know, much of – maybe most of – what is shared, we have not directly experienced. Social media experience is the shared experience of the image which elicits emotions that have the potential to either bring us together in joy and empathy or divide us in very toxic ways.

Our social media connections should matter. They should pull us into a more direct interaction with each other. Except the experience of the spectacle is random without rationale, asking us to momentarily suspend our attention to everything else. We end up living in short, disconnected moments of emotion, never advancing beyond the feelings of love, anger or confusion. Each moment is a spectacle calling us to pay attention.

This experience is why there is a Missing Audience. For the kind of audience that we need to take seriously our ideas or product, must be one that is willing to take some time to think about what we have to offer. When one friend advised me to do one-minute videos, I thought … “I can hold them for a minute … maybe … but how shallow do I have to go to do it?” The Missing Audience is right there watching. But the spectacle nature of the online social medium makes it difficult to build that audience.

The Choice Before Us

With this reality, there are only two places to go.

Commodify your ideas and products by emptying them of depth and complexity so they can easily be sold. Dumb down the market for perspectives that don’t require reflection or intention. The Missing Audience is replaced with ten thousand connections that must constantly be fed spectacle-like images to hold their attention. Mass marketing comes to the internet.

The other approach is to build relationships. This is particularly true if your desire is to impact your audience. It is the difference between a point-of-sale transaction and a life transformed.

This is why I believe we are all in transition. Social media creates an emotionally dependent, disorienting feeling. Yet, don’t we long for something more substantial? Isn’t that why we keep going there? We think that we’ll find it if we just stay another minute longer.

How To Build Relationships with The Missing Audience

Here’s what I’ve decided that I am going to do. Four simple steps.

  1. Go to the people. Talk with them directly. I do this every day with friend and stranger alike.

  2. Listen and Engage with them wherever they are. Find out what they really think. What are their concerns? What are their hopes? What do they need that they can’t find anywhere? Become very clear about what their life experience is.

  3. Respond with programs and materials that addresses their real life experience. This is the opposite of cranking out machined content through a mass-market delivery system. These relationship-based programs can be both personal and social in a transformational sense.

  4. Create Local Networks of Relationships for Impact. At the same time, help them build relationships where they live, work, play, raise their families, have their business and contribute to the health and welfare of their local community.

The Missing Audience is out there. We’ve just been looking in the wrong place. They are our neighbors, our coworkers, members of our family and that person on the train the other day with whom I had that amazing conversation. The Missing Audience is all around us. To find them, we have to shift our attention from creating our own social media experience to engaging other people’s real-life experience.

If we are to find our Missing Audience, you and I must change. For the Missing Audience is not looking for another product to buy. They are looking for solutions to the problems that they face every day. Those solutions don’t come in one minute sound bites.

For this reason, there is a step before the four above. We need to gain our own self-understanding first. It is the greatest change we go through. Then, we will be prepared to embrace The Missing Audience with respect and authenticity. And they will embrace us with trust and gratitude.

Next week my Mid-Monthly Newsletter comes out. I’m going to say some things about a new program that I’m preparing to launch in the new year that addresses what I’m hearing from people. Go to my website,, and sign up.

*  Learn more about what I call The Spectacle of the Real.

Dr. Ed Brenegar is a Leader for Leaders working with individuals, their teams, organizations and communities who find themselves at a point of transition. Ed has developed an innovative leadership model called, Circle of Impact, that clarifies what the impact of their life or the work of their organization can be. From this perspective, impact is the change that makes a difference that matters. Ed. for over 30 years, has inspired and equiped people and organizations to practice this fresh understanding of leadership. All leadership begins with personal initiative to create impact that makes a difference that matters. Everyone within an organization or a community can, therefore, practice leadership initiative. In so doing, they turn what were once leadership-starved organizations into leader-rich cultures that make a difference that matters.

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