The Imagined Audience on Social Network Sites

Authors: Eden Litt and Eszter Hargittai

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Citation: Litt, E., & Hargittai, E. (2016). The Imagined Audience on Social Network Sites. Social Media + Society. 2(1).


When people construct and share posts on social network sites like Facebook and Twitter, whom do they imagine as their audience? How do users describe this imagined audience? Do they have a sub-audience in mind (e.g., “friends who like reality television”)? Do they share more broadly and abstractly (e.g., “the public”)? Do such imaginings fluctuate each time a person posts? Using a mixed-methods approach involving a 2-month-long diary study of 119 diverse American adults and their 1,200 social network site posts, supplemented with follow-up interviews (N = 30), this study explores the imagined audience on social network sites. The findings reveal that even though users often interacted with large diverse audiences as they posted, they coped by envisioning either very broad abstract imagined audiences or more targeted specific imagined audiences composed of personal ties, professional ties, communal ties, and/or phantasmal ties. When people had target imagined audiences in mind, they were most often homogeneous and composed of people’s friends and family. Users’ imaginings typically fluctuated among these audience types as they posted even though the potential audience as per their posts’ privacy settings often did not change. The findings provide a list of audience types, as well as detailed descriptions, examples, and frequencies on which future research can build. With people’s online presence playing an important role for their reputations, these findings provide more insight into for whom people are managing their privacy and whom they have in mind as they share.


  • Introduction
  • Methods and Data
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion


We are grateful to Darren Gergle and Jeremy Birnholtz who provided integral feedback on previous versions of this project as members of the first author’s dissertation committee. We are very thankful for the research support provided by Karina Sirota. Many people offered support and resources for this project including Brooke Foucault Welles, David Dworin, Deen Freelon, Ericka Menchen-Trevino, Jeffrey Boase, Jens-Erik Mai, James G. Webster, Kelly Garrett, Luke Hutton, Miriam Metzger, Rachel Magee, and Sonja Utz. The first author is grateful for the time and resources made possible thanks to the Facebook Graduate Fellowship; the second author acknowledges Facebook’s support through a research gift. We also give a big thank you to the reviewers, Zizi Papacharissi, Stacy Blasiola, and the publications staff for their support, time, and thoughtful feedback.

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