Discussing Crime Fiction Online: Getting Personal

August 1, 2015
self portrait with books

photo courtesy of glulladuepuntozero.

I have been fascinated by the critical, interpersonal, and social dynamics of discussing reading experiences online for as long as I have participated in online reading groups. Though it’s a relatively new topic of serious study, I’ve found books and articles by scholars in multiple disciplines who have analyzed reading communities, online and off, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. I’ve collected these references in a public Zotero group. I’m going to say a few words about how some scholars have approached this topic and then delve into my personal experience as a member of a variety of reading communities.

I suspect that literary critic and historian Janice Radway laid the foundation for inquiries into popular reading practices by exploring gender, the economics of book publishing, and collective reading experiences in her influential book, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984). In a sense, she gave us permission to turn critical attention away from texts to focus on readers and to their everyday reading experiences. Sociologist Elizabeth Long’s study, Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life (2003) comes at it from another discipline. She examined book clubs as an increasingly popular if gendered social phenomenon. It’s telling that her fellow sociologists found her subject matter too bourgeois and feminine (i.e. trivial) to be of scholarly interest.

Since then a variety of scholars in multiple disciplines, including Ted Striphas, who considers how Oprah’s Book Club functions in The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control. I’ve dipped a toe into the voluminous research on fan culture online and the ways that digital interaction is changing culture and our legal framework for understanding cultural materials as intellectual property. Henry Jenkins’s book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006) does a good job of unpacking these ideas and includes an interesting chapter on how young fans have appropriated and interacted with the Harry Potter series. DeNel Rehberg Sedo has studied both in-person and online reading groups, including Twitter as a book club discussion platform. With Danielle Fuller she has written the book on mass reading events in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Lisa Nakamura sees in Goodreads a new way of exploring books; she argues that the digital traces of shared reading experiences is a more fruitful site for scholarship than the more common focus on contrasting digital and print textual formats. Nancy M. Foasberg has examined reading challenges posed by bloggers as a feature of contemporary reader engagement that can tell us something about how and why we read collectively.

Finally, two essay collections are particularly valuable: From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century (2012) edited by Anouk Lang and Reading Communities from Salons to Cyberspace (2011) edited by DeNel Rehberg Sedo. They are brimming with fascinating insights.

Back in 2005, I added my two cents’ worth with a mixed-methods study of an online reading community that I participate in, arguing that these digital gathering places are valuable to librarians for their contributions to reader’s advisory, for the insights such groups provide into the reading practices of avid readers, and as a demonstration of the social nature of reading. It was fun to mix my personal passions with my scholarly life.

As I write this, I am exploring autoethnography with a group of far-flung colleagues to see how and if this methodology might be a useful tool for practicing librarians. Though I am still in the beginning stages of learning what autoethnography is and how to do it, it has inspired me to think about online reading communities in the first person, by analyzing my own experience in a variety of communities that have formed around discussions of crime fiction.

Self-representation

I was first motivated to seek out these communities not because I am an avid crime fiction reader (though I am) but because I had a contract for my first novel and got the impression (I cannot recall from whom – an editor? My agent? Something I had read?) that I should start building an audience by connecting with readers online. The only place I knew of to do this was Dorothy-L, the legendary Listserv-based email list founded in 1991. I joined (according to its archives, available to members) in the fall of 2001. It was surprising to revisit my posts from that time. I clearly wasn’t ready to out myself as an aspiring writer. My self-presentation was as a crime fiction fan and a librarian. My posts were mostly comments on books that I was reading and recommending or on my response to a book someone else had mentioned. I also commented with some frequency on what someone else had posted related to book culture (publishing, marketing, bookselling, whether reading was on the decline or not, and the like). At times, I tossed a question or challenge out to the group – what mysteries would you put on the reading list for a course on the geography of mystery? What overlooked writers deserve to be on the bestseller list? Sometimes an online community can seem a series of posts related only by a common interest, but the back-and-forth conversations collectively sharing knowledge of and fondness for the genre was the list’s greatest attraction for me.

Looking back, my posts seem both long-winded and a little goofy (intentionally). When I was responding to a topic that wasn’t about reading mysteries, I generally ended with an explicit attempt to redirect the discussion to be “on topic” – to sharing experiences of reading mysteries. I was apparently not only unready to present myself as an author, I tried to influence the community’s attention, directing it away from writing and publishing toward books and reading.  I’m not sure, at this distance, whether I was responding to group cues or if that focus was my personal preference – or both. There seemed a tension on the list about its purpose. While authors were encouraged to let members know about new books, I sensed some uneasiness that the list was becoming dominated by authors talking to one another while competing for readers’ attention.

One of the shortest messages I posted in 2002 was an invitation to a bookstore signing for my first book. Clearly, I was not at all comfortable with the identity “writer” and hesitated to call attention to that part of my life, even though I had joined ostensibly to make that identity known. Other members who were writers were not shy about reminding members of their status. In fact, the subject of how writers should present themselves was often under discussion. Members criticized “drive-by” authors who only posted when they had a new book to promote and praised those who participated as genuine people who were generous with their attention. Straddling the line between promotion and more authentic self-representation was often on my mind as I saw how members responded to negatively to promotional messages while warmly welcoming messages from favorite writer-members.

I posted fairly often throughout 2003 and into 2004. All this time, I was struggling to produce a second book in a three-book contract for an editor who didn’t like anything I wrote. (My original editor had left the house long before the first was published and my relationship with the editor who inherited my orphaned books was unhappy.) A message from March 2004, responding to a post about an article in Salon describing an anonymous midlist author’s misery, reveals something of my ambivalence.

I thought the article did one thing tellingly–reveal how personally everything about publishing can be taken if you’re not careful. I thought [the author’s] sense of frustration or jealousy that made it hard for her to enjoy reading or watching television because her own sense of failure was so in her face was something I’ve heard, though not so up front, from a lot of unhappy people.

I think an industry that involves people’s hearts and souls–and I think that goes for many editors and booksellers and readers, not just writers–is bound to get personal. You have to do it for the love of it and hope you can pay your bills. (Hey, if not, read some of those caper books and see if it gives you ideas!)

Meanwhile–why I’m posting from my desk at work–I’m reading this fascinating article in Behavioral and Brain Science–really!–about an experiment in which some researchers stripped names off published research and resubmitted them; a huge number were rejected. In the multiple responses to this article is one from a guy who did the same in trade publishing–submitted a Jerszy Kosinski novel that won an NBA to agents and publishers who said it was unpublishable trash. Which just goes to show you…. something. Maybe that we’re all human and we’d better not take the process too seriously. Or too personally. Or that one man’s trash is another man’s award winner.

Here I am acknowledging my identification with the painful aspects of being a writer who is struggling in a difficult business without explicitly confessing my own emotional state. Instead, I throw in a list-appropriate joke and turn to my academic librarian identity, drawing on a scholarly article to both bolster my point and deflect it from my own experience.

In the following month, I suspended my subscription to the list. It had actually become a source of pain for me. My writing career was not going well and the list seemed to me to have be taken over by irritating self-promoters with a grim desperation for attention. Dorothy-L had started as a forum for discussing mysteries, but from the start had allowed BSP – blatant self-promotion – because many members enjoyed forming relationships with writers in this informal space. When I first joined, I was pleased to see occasional posts by Ian Rankin, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, and Charlaine Harris before they were routinely on the New York Times bestseller list. In this sense, it was not unlike a fan convention, where fans and the objects of their enthusiasm mingle. But it also had become a place where authors sought attention and squabbled with each other over publishing issues. I didn’t want to be exposed to so much anxiety and yearning for publishing success when I was experiencing too much of that emotional turmoil myself.

Moderation

Besides, by then I had found a different community that was a more comfortable fit. I somehow got chatting with a Dorothy-L member offlist who recommended that I join 4_Mystery_Addicts (colloquially known as 4MA), a Yahoo group founded in 1999 that held regular formal group book discussions and sternly warned authors applying for membership that they were to be present only as readers, not as writers. BSP was strictly banned, as were links to self-promoting blog posts or surreptitious log-rolling among authors promoting each other. If somehow a promotional message slipped past the moderators, group members were quick to call it out. Contentious issues – politics and religion specifically – were also unwelcome unless they were intrinsic to a book under discussion. For me, this was a safe space where I could talk about mysteries without getting depressed about the process of publishing them. It was a place free of the frantic self-promotion that seemed to be making all the writers I knew miserable. Members had meaty, in-depth discussions of actual books, which was fun for me as a reader and informative as a writer.

I joined in June of 2003, and in the first two or three days felt lost. It was an incredibly busy group at that time; in that month alone, 3,713 messages were posted by some 600 members. There were inside jokes and abbreviations I didn’t understand. I was nonplussed when a dozen or more members personally welcomed me. I wasn’t sure what the protocol for responding was, and had an momentary sense of panic: how can I fit in here? How will I manage this avalanche of messages? Why are we talking about spandex shorts? (I can’t revisit that disorienting series of messages to confirm my memory. Unlike the Dorothy-L Listserv, Yahoo Groups had a storage limit at that time, and a moderator went through the archived messages and deleted any that didn’t relate to monthly reading reports from members  or book discussions to ensure we didn’t go over the limit.) But I stuck with it and it didn’t take long for me to get the hang of things.

There were regular prompts to share reading experiences and recommendations. There were three formal book discussions every month, and a process for nominating and voting for books to be discussed. There were lively discussions about life as an avid reader, including whether an oven could be used for book storage and how to deal with people who ask silly questions like “have you read all those books?” There were hilarious accounts of adventures on the 62 bus in Glasgow posted by a Scottish member, Donna Moore. Members often attended fan conventions and, whenever possible, organized meetups. Frequently photos of those gatherings were shared at the group’s site.

In February 2006, the moderators invited me to join them when one of the original moderators retired. It was an honor to be asked, but also a chance to see behind the curtain at all the work that went into keeping the group harmoniously humming along. All new members had to be approved. Members who were new or prone to posting problematic messages had to have their posts approved, one by one. If a conflict threatened to boil up, combative members were placed on moderation temporarily. Nominations for discussion books had to invited and collated, with a runoff poll created for the five top-ranking books. Discussion leaders (called Question Maestros) had to be recruited and polls created to collect readers’ responses to a book, with results posted to a database of books discussed that dates back to the beginning of the group. January was “moderator’s choice” month, so we had to decide which books to discuss and come up with discussion questions. Once a year, the moderators went through a byzantine process to select series reads that would offer members a variety of series to discuss. Each moderator has a distinct set of housekeeping duties and jointly discussed problems that come up from time to time – should this person be put on moderation? is there some way to liven up moribund discussions? Is this off-topic conversation going on too long? From time to time the Yahoo platform went through changes, with a particularly extreme transition in 2014 to the “neo” platform, which was rolled out piecemeal and with major functions broken – all of which required moderator intervention.

Apart from the mostly hidden work performed by moderators, I’ve been fascinated by the ways group members interact to affirm one another, maintain long-running jokes, celebrate happy moments, and comfort one another when there’s an illness or a loss.

Edited to add: Jessamyn West, who worked as a moderator at Metafilter for many years, has written a great analysis of what goes into moderating a site well at Medium. Another excellent discussion of moderation styles can be found in a paper by James Grimmelmann, “The Virtues of Moderation.”

Collective individualism

For a time, I belonged to a USENET group, rec.arts.mystery, established in the early 1990s. It was self-moderating in a fascinating way. USENET, which launched at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1980, embraced the free-wheeling free speech ethos of the early days of the internet and was decentralized by design. Though the focus of rec.arts.mystery was crime fiction, politics and religion were not off-limits. Political messages routinely led to flaming hot arguments, but somehow the community of regulars used humor and a common interest in genre fiction to surround the combatants and keep the flames from burning the place down. In a sense, the members who were most active in sustaining the community and its anarchic values played a moderator role without having the technical levers most platforms provide. Unlike 4MA, there were no scheduled book discussions or prompts to share reading experiences. Rather, a core group of regulars kept up an ongoing loosely-joined conversation about books and everything else.

As USENET grew less easily available to the casual user, more devoted to sharing files than messages, members dropped off to seek another platform. Some carry on at Google Groups, a neglected corner of a very large company that has not been successful at developing social media platforms. Much of the diaspora settled on Facebook, where private or public groups can be created but the most powerful levers are trade secrets controlled by the ghost in the machine.

If these three online communities were likened to a fan convention, one might say Dorothy-L would be most like the interactions between authors and readers at the convention hotel bar, 4MA would be the fan-organized program, and rec.arts.mystery would be the free-wheeling conversations in the hallways among friends. In reality, these online communities intersect with the in-real-life fan communities at events such as Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Crimefest, and other volunteer-led crime fiction-focused gatherings. For members who couldn’t attend Bouchercon, the largest of these annual fan events, members of Dorothy-L routinely held a virtual party for those left behind.

Linked together

Another online reading community has formed around crime-fiction-focused book blogs. While many blogs belong to writers or groups of writers, readers also share their reading experiences through individual or group blogs. Comment threads often gather together readers who visit multiple blogs and form a loose-knit community. One of the most active weavers of these threads was Maxine Clarke, an editor for Nature who reviewed mysteries on her own blog and made a point of encouraging other bloggers by visiting and commenting prolifically. She invited me to a new platform for online communities, FriendFeed, where she had set up a crime and mystery fiction room.

FriendFeed was a social RSS feed reader. Individuals could synchronize multiple feeds and follow those curated by others, sharing and commenting on links of common interest, with the most recent material rising to the top of the page. In addition to allowing backchannel DMs (direct messages), members could set up rooms where groups could pool feeds and hold conversations. Once I got the hang of the platform, I visited daily or more often to see what was new. This community, unlike the others I belonged to, was not dominated by American members. The most active members were from the U.K. and Australia and my knowledge of the genre expanded as a result. Because of its immediacy, this room on FriendFeed gave me a sense of being always on top of the latest news about the genre as well as up-to-speed on the blogs that I formerly had followed more intermittently. Though the most extensive comments remained on individual blogs, the Crime and Mystery Fiction FriendFeed Room promoted a warm sense of comradery.

That community spirit was tested when (to my complete shock and dismay) a member posted the news that Maxine had died after a long illness. While she was generous with her time and attention, she wasn’t one to make personal things public. I had no idea she was in the last stages of cancer. I remember reading that brief message and trying to understand it. How could that be? I had already started planning to research online reading communities for my sabbatical and assumed Maxine would be there to share her instinctive and thorough knowledge of how these communities worked. Apart from that, I felt she was a true and close friend, and it was not only a heartfelt loss, but a reminder that there was so much that I didn’t know about people who I felt so close to. It’s perhaps a measure of the community that Maxine pulled together and nurtured that a remembrance blog was put together to commemorate her passion for the genre and an annual prize was established in her name. This prize, for the best Scandinavian work of crime fiction of the year, has a sterling line-up of judges (who meet, fittingly, at an annual fan convention to deliberate) and has gained so much respect from publishers that winners note the award proudly on their dust jackets.

Dénouement

Dorothy-L trundles along even as new social platforms draw attention away from pre-web community platforms. My impression, on rejoining the list in 2015, is that readers have continued to chat about mysteries while the most self-absorbed writers have gone elsewhere to promote their books. It could be, of course, that I’m simply less sensitive to writers and their discontents, having greater distance myself from my first unhappy publishing experience. (I have published three mysteries altogether, the last coming out five years ago from the smallest of the Big Five publishers. I still feel uncomfortable identifying myself as a writer, but I don’t feel a pressing need to perform that role.)

4MA has grown in membership but activity has declined. The draw of other platforms has probably had an effect, but the disastrous rollout of the new “neo” platform is my prime suspect; participation in Yahoo groups, which number in the tens of thousands, appears to have tumbled across the board in recent months. The moderators decided to drop the mid-month series read this year due to lack of interest, and though the group still holds two formal discussions monthly, fewer members participate. A member survey suggested that people still value the list, so we’ll muddle along, but it’s not the dizzyingly busy list it once was.

I haven’t remained as well connected to my favorite bloggers since FriendFeed was shut down. I had grown dependent on having a single point of contact and haven’t restored a habit of visiting blogs routinely. Though the group reestablished itself on Facebook (which bought FriendFeed years ago and apparently remembered just long enough to shut it down), I haven’t kept up with it because I object to Facebook’s business model. For the same reason, I have never been a regular member of Goodreads (owned by Amazon, now, and built on the big-data-collection model that Facebook uses to sustain itself). Yahoo is a similar offender, gathering far too much personal information from its members, but it appears to be so much less competent at it that I’m  lulled into acceptance. Of the two non-profit platforms I have used for sharing reading experiences, USENET has ceased to be a place where people gather to talk things over and is no longer supported by many internet service providers; the Listserv platform used by Dorothy-L continues to be widely used in academia, though that may be changing. The academic librarian lists I have belonged to for years are slowing down now that there are so many other ways to share news and discuss ideas.

Where will readers gather in future to discuss their experiences with books? I have no idea, but I’m convinced having spent a decade and a half chatting online about crime fiction on a daily basis, that they will, one way or another.

self-portrait in bookstore

photo courtesy of Cristina Souza


sabbatical dreams

March 9, 2013

socialcollider_003

So, if my sabbatical proposal is accepted, it won’t happen until the 2014-15 academic year, but I had fun outlining a project that I’m actually excited about (and think I may still be excited about 18 months from now). I want to immerse myself in online reading communities.

But you already do that, you say? Yes, I do. But this would be my excuse to do more of it, and to look a bit more closely at how readers talk about books on a variety of platforms and think about what this means for readers, authors, libraries, and publishers in a world where reading is global (and publishing contracts remain local). It ties into my resistance to algorithmic marketing messages and the commodification of our identities in a socially networked, hyper-commercialized world. It’s also my opportunity to highlight how savvy crime fiction readers are and how that deep communal knowledge base can tell scholars something wise about literature and the reading experience.

Also, I want to experiment with the ways scholars could communicate now that we don’t have to rely on traditional mechanisms. I think scholarship is valuable, and not just of interest to a tiny sliver of like-minded specialists (or, if it is only that, those specialists shouldn’t expect the rest of us to foot the bill for their inward-gazing research written up for an audience of six or ten; you all can hash it out amongst yourselves, okay?) So fair warning: I’m going to be all exhibitionist and post stuff here and elsewhere in case anyone else is interested. If you aren’t – no worries. I am not in this for the “likes.”

One thing that makes me sad is that I originally imagined flying over to the UK to meet Maxine Clarke, because what she did to promote online discussion of mysteries was one of the inspirations for this project, and her extraordinary background in scientific publishing would have made her a terrific cultural informant. Unhappily, I waited too long – but her presence in our global reading community has been a major influence on this project of mine.

Anyway, here’s the proposal I’m sending in, in case anyone is interested. Wish me luck.

—–

Sabbatical Proposal
Barbara Fister
March 11, 2013

I would like to spend my next sabbatical working on a digital humanities project with two purposes: (1) to conduct research into online reading communities and (2) to present my findings in ways that explore alternatives to traditional scholarly publishing.

(1)    Social Reading Practices Online

There hasn’t been much research to date on online communities of avid readers that have formed to discuss books and the reading experience together. Their existence has become more visible with the advent of the GoodReads social network, which currently has over 14 million members, as well as its older, geekier cousin LibraryThing (1.5 million members). The rise of Amazon as a vertically-integrated book industry powerhouse is also an example of a platform that mixes commerce and voluntary book discussion and interaction between readers and authors, though controversies erupt periodically over review sock-puppetry and reviewer rankings (e.g. Pinch & Kessler 2011, Steitfeld 2012).

However, online reading communities date back to the early days of the Internet, with Usenet groups such as rec.arts.mystery (formed in the 1980s), Listserv groups, such as Dorothy-L (founded at Kent State University in 1990), and thousands of Yahoo and Google groups devoted to books that have formed in the past three decades. Such communities provide intriguing sites for researchers to explore what group members get out of reading for pleasure, observe the social aspects of reading, and witness how informal critical communities participate in the formation of cultural tastes around books. They also are places to observe social interactions in a digital space, including the negotiation of difference and the evolution of group social norms. Finally, they provide a vantage point for observing the ways people integrate their online and IRL (in real life) identities and can offer opportunities to consider cultural attitudes about digital versus face to face social interactions.

It will also be interesting to explore the emergence of new social platforms and their effect on online communities. Web 2.0 – the interactive web that includes blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other media – contains contradictory impulses. On the one hand, these platforms provide “free” spaces for interactivity and self-expression. On the other, they are designed around the self as a commodity. Personal information about habits, tastes, and interpersonal connections becomes valuable raw material platforms gather for data aggregation, mining, and resale. Individuals participating in these networks, in turn, are encouraged to market themselves and measure their social capital through the attraction of friends, likes, comments, retweets, and other quantitative analytics build into the platforms. I am curious about how these built-in analytics, which encourage self-representation in terms of marketing and promotion, influence reader group formation and social regulation. I am also interested in the role authors play in this space which is a mix of social interaction and self-promotional marketing work.

I plan to focus my study on readers of crime fiction, primarily because I am already a long-term participant in a number of online groups focused on that genre. I expect to use interviews, surveys, participant-observation and other primarily qualitative research methods. In addition to submitting my research plans to the IRB, I will refer to the recommendations for ethical research developed by the Association of Internet Researchers (2012) to ensure that I gather and use information ethically. I anticipate addressing an interlocking set of questions which will likely include the following lines of inquiry.

  • What are the social dimensions of reading and how does online reading group participation compare to the groups studied by Elizabeth Long (2003)?
  • Do the experiences of avid readers who participate in online groups confirm or depart from Catherine Sheldrick Ross’s findings (1999)?
  • How does online group participation enhance the reading experience for participants? How do those benefits compare to face-to-face reading groups?
  • What are the demographics of online reading groups? Who participates? How does age and gender figure in group composition? Are there some platforms that younger readers prefer, and if so, why?
  • What social rules emerge within a group? Are they explicit and is the group moderated? If not, how does the group handle trolls or heated disagreements? What kinds of relationship work do members perform to overcome a breach of group norms? How do they welcome new members?
  • How do members of online reading groups learn about new books that might interest them? “Discovery” is a compelling problem for publishers, who in the past relied on physical distribution to reach markets with sales reps and booksellers playing a key role. What can readers online tell us about the discovery process in a world saturated with choices?
  • How do authors and readers interact in these groups and how do readers and authors negotiate  the difference between peer relationships and commercial relationships?
  • Is the author-reader relationship changing authorship itself (as Stephanie Moody has suggested)? How does what Henry Jenkins calls “convergence culture” affect writers who interact regularly with their reading base?
  • How are avid readers reading today? What affordances contribute to the choices they make about print versus e-books or among e-book platforms?  How device-agnostic are they? What do they think about the rights issues articulated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (2010)?
  • Given that reader communities are borderless, what does membership in these communities contribute to greater understanding of other cultures?
  • How do readers experience rights restrictions, territorial sales, and (in cases such as the Australian book market) protectionist policies that limit access to books across borders? As discovery outpaces access, what are the implications for the book business?How do avid readers tap into local book culture? Does online engagement with books parallel local patronage of bookstores, libraries, author events, and other book-related cultural practices?
  • What are the advantages and constraints facing avid readers in different countries? (I will likely focus primarily on readers in the US, UK, and Australia, but may also study the experience of readers in Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, since their economic, cultural, linguistic, and social situations make for distinctive book cultures – and they all have a lively presence in online communities.)
  • What roles do brick-and-mortar bookstores, public libraries, and fan conventions play in the lives of genre readers?
  • For readers who engage in multiple social media platforms, what distinctions do they draw between them? What features appeal to them as readers, or are seen as drawbacks?
  • What is the history of discussing books online? How have the platforms for interaction changed, and what impact have those changes had on participants?
  • In an era of dwindling review space in traditional media, how have these reading communities, (including online review sites and book bloggers) provided an alternative? How well do these alternative media work for those making reading choices?
  • How does the kind of criticism performed in these public places intersect with literary criticism, if at all? Do avid readers provide a depth of knowledge about genres that has critical value? What do scholars of literature have to learn from fan culture?
  • What contribution can this work make to the ongoing debates about digital culture enjoined by critics of technophilia such as Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, Sherry Turkle, and Evgeny Morozov, as well as more utopian views of digital networks found in the work of David Weinberger, Yochai Benkler, and Clay Shirky? What can the study of online reading communities contribute to our understanding of the interplay between digital culture and culture in general?

(2)    New Approaches to Sharing Scholarship

This project, because of its digital focus and its multiple potential audiences, would provide a good opportunity to play with new ways of communicating scholarship. I propose making this a totally open project, with the questions that arise, speculations, dead ends, and conclusions available publicly and open for comment at every step of the way. I see the audience for this work to be not just other scholars (though I hope it will make a contribution to the scholarship around popular literacy, genre fiction, reading, and digital culture) but a cross-section of readers, publishers, writers, fans, and anyone interested in the book and its future.

Toward that end, I want to make this work accessible to these various audiences, both in terms of how I express myself (blending my scholarly interests with more vernacular approaches to genre literature and the act of reading) and in terms of who has actual access. For the past few years, I have been actively involved in the open access movement. In recent years I have only published my scholarship in venues which are open to all, either because there are no fees for access or because the publishers’ contracts allow self-archiving. (In fact, my entire department pledged in 2009 to make our work open access; we were the first liberal arts college to pass a departmental open access mandate.) Free access means more than a low, low price. It is an approach to scholarship that is open to discussion and available for others to repurpose. (See Suber, 2012, for a clear discussion of the distinction between gratis and libre open access.) I have followed and participated in experiments in open peer review such as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence with interest. I would like to make this project public from the start and invite contributions and comments from members of my multiple communities:  readers, writers, publishers, critics, digital humanists, librarians. I am not sure at this point exactly what form this public work will take, but if this sabbatical project is approved, I envision beginning a series of interactions using social media such as Twitter (which is home to a lively digital humanities community) FriendFeed, old-school online reading networks that use groups and listservs, single-author platforms which invite comments (blogging), a public web archive of any relevant documents, a public bibliography via Zotero, and perhaps ultimately a book-length anthology or compilation of findings. If I create such a culminating document, I will likely use an open source platform such as PressBooks. I plan to use the most open Creative Commons license available for all of this work to invite remixing and reuse.

In many ways, the two parts of this project knit together my various interests in a satisfyingly complementary way. Knowing how communities of readers interact online will have implications for the lifelong learning goals we have for our students, who tend to see research as a set of academic tasks to be completed according to spec rather than as participation in an ongoing conversation. I have been trying, with mixed success, to introduce students to using blogs and other social media for invention, curation, discovery, and expression. I worry that we introduce them to only a piece of what it means to do research. They can find and use sources when needed, but they are not necessarily prepared to follow up on new developments in an area of interest, participate in professional digital communities, or apply their writing skills and intellectual training to public expression using social media. I have used blogs in classes for eight years and have not seen much increase in students’ familiarity with the technological and design capabilities of social platforms or in students’ ability or inclination to keep their eyes open for interesting things going on in the world. They are much happier if given a prompt to respond to rather than being asked to look around for something intriguing to write about. I’m sure time pressures contribute to this aversion for frequent informal and improvisatory invention, but being curious and able to develop personal filters to scan and sort through new information is a skill worth cultivating that is largely neglected in our pedagogy.

I’m also invested in the future of trade and scholarly publishing. We’re on the cusp of sweeping changes, and librarians need to step up and be part of the solution. Trade publishing matters because books are a significant record of our culture. Leaving its future in the hands of major publishers or Amazon – corporations more focused market share than on sharing or preserving culture – would be a betrayal of library values and a serious problem for future scholars who may have no public cultural record to consult. Scholarly publishing is ripe for new models and repurposing library resources and skills to help with the transition seems more important than finding yet new ways to wring more temporary licensed access to knowledge out of shrinking budgets. Finally, as the humanities face challenges from public figures who are hostile to education that is not firmly tethered to workforce readiness (and who fail to see how very much the humanities do, in fact, prepare their future hires to think, communicate, organize, and lead), I am committed to making research public and to do what I can to break down the barriers between academia and “the real world.” I’m hoping this project might help me discover some models for sharing and inviting participation in scholarship as it develops that others may find useful.

Though it may seem arcane to study readers’ responses to a particular slice of genre fiction, a case could be made that it’s in these cultural environs that we can find common ground between everyday readers and scholarly approaches to culture. We might even discover that they’re not as separate as we may think.

Works cited

Association of Internet Researchers. (2012). Ethical decision-making and Internet research: Version 2.0. Retrieved from http://aoir.org/reports/ethics2.pdf

Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks: how social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press. This book can be retrieved from http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/wealth_of_networks/

Carr, N. G. (2010). The shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton.

Electronic Frontier Foundation. (2010, February 16). Digital books and your rights: A checklist for readers. Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.eff.org/wp/digital-books-and-your-rights

Fitzpatrick, K. (2011). Planned obsolescence. New York: New York University Press. The Media Commons version of the crowd-reviewed manuscript can be retrieved from http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/mcpress/plannedobsolescence/

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.

Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget: A manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Long, E. (2003). Book clubs: Women and the uses of reading in everyday life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moody, S. (2011) Virtual relations: Exploring the literary practices of ecommunities. Paper presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication Annual Conference, Atlanta, April 2011.

Morozov, E. (2013). To save everything, click here: The folly of technological solutionism. New York: PublicAffairs.

Pinch, T. & Kesler, F. (2011). How Aunt Ammy got her free lunch. Retrieved from http://www.freelunch.me/filecabinet

Sheldrick Ross, C. (1999). Finding without seeking: The information encounter in the context of reading for pleasure. Information Processing & Management,35(6), 783-799.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. New York: Penguin Press.

Streitfeld, D. (2012, December 22). Giving mom’s book five stars? Amazon may cull your review. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/technology/amazon-book-reviews-deleted-in-a-purge-aimed-at-manipulation.html?smid=pl-share

Suber, P. (2012). Open access. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.

Weinberger, D. (2007). Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder. New York: Times Books.

Selected past publications related to this project

On student learning

The library’s role in learning: Information literacy revisited,” Library Issues  (March 2013): 33.4.

Wikipedia and the challenge of read/write culture.” (2007, January). Library Issues 27.3

The Devil in the Details: Media Representation of ‘Ritual Abuse’ and Evaluation of Sources.” (2003, May). SIMILE: Studies in Media and Information Literacy Education 3.2.

Teaching the rhetorical dimensions of research.” (Fall 1993). Research Strategies 11.4: 211-219.

On reading

Reading, risk, and reality: Undergraduates and reading for pleasure,” with Julie Gilbert, College & Research Libraries 72.5 (September 2011): 474-495.

“‘Reading as a contact sport’: Online book groups and the social dimensions of reading.” Reference and User Services Quarterly, 44.4 (Summer 2005): 303-309.

On publishing

The public versus publishers: How scholars and activists are occupying the library.” Anthropologies 12 (March 2012).

Liberating Knowledge: A Librarian’s Manifesto for Change.” Thought & Action (Fall 2010): 83-90.

Trade publishing: A report from the front.” (2001). portal: Libraries and the Academy 1.4: 509-523.

On crime fiction

The millennium trilogy and the American serial killer narrative: Investigating protagonists of men who write women” (2012). In Rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Beyond: Contemporary Scandinavian and Anglophone Crime Fiction edited by Berit Åström, Katarina Gregersdotter and Tanya HoreckLondon: Palgrave: 34-50. 

Copycat Crimes: Crime Fiction and the Marketplace of Anxieties.” Clues: A Journal of Detection 23.3 (Spring 2005): 43-56.

image courtesy of Social Collider – a screenshot of some of my Twitter connections in the past month. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s pretty.