The Death of the Blog Author

Feb 6, 2019

The Blog Author is Dead; Long Live the Blog Reader

Everyone knows blog posts are great ways to tell your audience exactly what you think, right?

It’s definitely something I used to believe was true. Now? Not so much.

Before jumping straight to the comments section to yell at me and tell me I’m wrong, let me explain (if you still think I’m wrong by then end of the post, then, of course, feel free to yell).

The Background: The Death of the Author

I like literary criticism. It’s a hangover from doing an English Lit degree, which I can’t/won’t shake. Recently I re-read Roland Barthes essay “The Death of the Author”.  In it, Barthes argues the author doesn’t give meaning to a text. Instead, a text provides meaning to a reader.

What does this mean? Barthes states in his essay: “The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author 'confiding' in us.”

In other words, as people reading a text, we look to the writer as the source of the meaning. After all, they’re the ones who wrote it, so they must know what it means?

According to Barthes, they do not.

The author does not speak directly to the reader, instead ‘it is language which speaks, not the author’. Translation: when we read a text, we use all of our individual understanding of what words means and all the different associations to create our own unique interpretation of the text.

The author cannot control how we interpret or create this meaning. The author does not have any control over what we think different words mean, so cannot control our final opinion on the piece.

This is true for literary fiction. It’s true for newspaper articles. It’s also true for blog posts.

What does this mean for writing and reading blog posts?

writingIn short, it means we have to pick our words very carefully because reader will all have their unique interpretation on what we write. 

The blog author/blogger is a construct. It is just like any other author. It has been created in the minds of the reader as a way of giving meaning to what they’re reading.

To be clear, I’m not saying an individual doesn’t sit at his desk and toil (sometimes for hours) to write a blog post. This is all true and without doubt. Content marketers, brand journalists, blog writers (whatever the job title) are still the people who go through the process of deploying text onto a screen. This is not in question.

What I am challenging is the construct of the “Blog Author” or “Blogger” as the controller of how someone interprets the blog article. This is not the case - they are not the single source of truth.

Instead they are the producer of a text (in this case a blog post). Then, each reader comes to the blog posts and takes from it their own version of the truth. Or, in other words, ten people can read the same article and have ten different interpretations of the article. 

These different interpretations can be similar (and often are), but they are never exactly the same.

Not convinced?

Let’s consider types of text without an obvious ‘author’ or byline.

There are plenty of examples on the Internet of text devoid of an author. Think of Wikipedia, where readers (consumers of the text) can temporarily become the producer (contributors towards to text) before resuming their primary role. These producers are not the single source of truth for a text. (It’s well known Wikipedia entries can be factually wrong.)

There is no byline. There is no author. But the text exists. The Wikipedia page exists.

You wouldn’t think of each Wikipedia contributor as an ‘author’ -  the single source of truth - even though it’s possible a Wikipedia page has only been written by one person who is an expert in the subject.

We need to separate the construct of the ‘blogger’ from people who blog. These are not the same thing. The person typically sits with their laptop or similar and performs the physical process of typing to form text on a screen. The blogger is artifice because the reader, the audience, give  meaning to the blog post.

And what does this mean for marketers? Particularly content marketers?

First we have to accept that not everyone will get the same end of the stick.

It's impossible for a single interpretation of a blog post to exist and there will always be differences in what people think. This is why we work with personas and try to engage particular audiences, rather than trying to communicate with people that will interpret our content as irrelevant or uninteresting to them. 

Second, we need to forget the illusion of ourselves as a ‘blog author’ or a ‘blogger’, presiding above our audience with a message to tell them. The message can only come from meaning, which can only come from the reader’s individual interpretation of the text.

As people putting text on a page, we cannot tell our audience what to think. We can only use our choice of words to try and share, persuade and guide.

They will think whatever they want to, depending on their experiences, context and biases. All we can do is tell our stories and hope the way we do this resonates with our readers so they can create the meaning we want them to have.

Originally published 22 August 2016. Updated 6 February 2019.

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