Platforms and the Shape of Reader Participation

Last week, I discovered yet another way to share reading experiences online: Call Me Ishmael. It’s a somewhat self-consciously retro website launched in the US in early June that invites readers to call Ishmael and leave a voice message about “a book you love and a story you’ve lived.” Selected stories are published on the site’s main page, along with links to find the book in a library or buy it from a bookstore and a synopsis. The site says nothing about who created it, and its domain has a proxy registration so is equally mysterious. It is, at least, transparent about sales supporting the site, though the prominent inclusion of a library search link suggests it’s not primarily commercial in nature. For each story selected, a video is introduced with a key phrase:

Maybe I didn’t have a place I could call home anymore . . .

Shortly after getting an autism diagnosis, I was so focused on trying to fix the situation, and on how to get my son back, that I was missing the point entirely.

I know it’s about love & ‘blah’ but …

(I’m on a plane and) all of a sudden I hit a stretch of narrative that just totally wrecks me, and I start sobbing, and I mean like complete, shameless, snot-flowing-down-my-face kind of sobbing.

Each audio recording is accompanied by a transcription that appears as if from a manual typewriter using a battered Courier typeface. A video introducing the project includes the image of the phrase “sometimes books give meaning to our lives.” The letters then rearrange themselves: “Sometimes our lives give meaning to books.”

Unlike many social sites devoted to sharing reading experiences, this one invites the performance of reading experiences, but is unusually anonymous. We don’t know who Ishmael is. We don’t know who the people leaving messages are; they share intimate stories with the world from the safety of anonymity. In the past week, a new part of the site has launched where visitors can listen to galley calls, referring to galleys as pre-publication copies of books and as the part of a ship where food is prepared. They then can vote for whether the message should be transcribed or not, with ratings chosen from a list and confidential. There is also a call for volunteers to help transcribe messages for the site.

This site bears less similarity to book-focused social platforms such as Goodreads or LibraryThing than to PostSecret, an “ongoing community art project” which invites anonymous contributors to submit artwork on a postcard. These have been collected into books and exhibited in museums by its founder, Frank Warren. Like the PostSecret site, Call Me Ishmael offers a curious mix of archness, cultural aspiration with a populist flavor, emotional connection, and anonymous exhibitionism. Its premise deliberately shifts the act of reading from the kind of literary analysis learned in the classroom into personal self-actualization. Books are a therapeutic mirror; after we gaze into them, the stories they tell us are turned into stories about us that we can share.

This is the kind of reading that Oprah and Richard and Judy encouraged. When books are hard work, it’s because they contain secrets about our lives that have to be coaxed out and interpreted. Some literary scholars think this affective and personal response to reading can tell us valuable things about the reading experience (as Janice Radway famously explored with romance readers) or because it might be a useful bridge for students toward more nuanced critical reading. Rita Felski argues that enchantment as a quality of the reading experience is distrusted by her fellow literary scholars because it is associated with women readers and their supposed tendency to succumb to escapist fare while also being a crass kind of manipulation performed by profit-driven mass media concerns. She writes,

 While much modern thought regulates such hyper-saturations of mood and feeling to the realm of the child-like or the primitive, the accelerating interest in affective states promises enchantment is richer and more multi-faceted than literary theory has allowed; it does not have to be tied to a haze of romantic nostalgia or an incipient fascism. Indeed, enchantment may turn out to be an exceptionally fruitful idiom for rethinking the tenets of literary theory. (76)

What interests me at the moment is not just what the act of sharing reading experiences tells us about readers and the role that books play in their lives, but how the technical platforms we use to share these experiences are mediated by both the commercial and cultural contexts of reading in the 2ist century and by the choices designers of technical platforms make. LibraryThing has both a different business model and ethos from Goodreads, and the way these platforms have been designed shape the ways readers use them to interact with one another and with the public. These underlying design features matter.

Trevor Owens has studied twenty years-worth of manuals to explore the ways coders’ and community managers’ changing assumptions about how and why people interact in online communities has influenced their platforms which, in turn, has influenced users. He points out that “online communities are governed by a logic of ownership, control, and limited permission (161) and he urges researchers to bear that in mind when using the record of these communities in research.

It’s important to ask whose voice is heard here? How do I know this is what it purports to be? What parts of this set of records are missing? Who constituted this collection of records, and for what purpose? Lastly, where might I look in this data for perspectives and points of view that differ from those who had the power to decide what is and isn’t kept? (169).

If we fail to consider the ways the platform shapes participation and expression, we are likely to read into people’s reading a kind of agency and freedom of expression that is constrained by the platform’s architecture and design.

As Lisa Nakamura puts it in a study of Goodreads,

Now more than ever, literary scholars must bring their skills to bear on digitally networked reading. Researchers who are versed in reading’s many cultures, economies, and conditions of reception know that it is never possible for a reading platform to be a “passive conduit.” For reading has always been social, and reading’s economies, cultures of sharing, and circuits of travel have never been passive.

image courtesy of Pingnews

Tagged with: , ,
2 comments on “Platforms and the Shape of Reader Participation
  1. Bronwen Thomas says:

    Thanks Barbara, for another fascinating post. I am really excited by Call me Ishmael, and am looking forward to exploring further. In our talk at the symposium last week I think we made a start on looking at how mods help shape forum users’ experience of talking about their reading. In my interview with one of the mods, the design of the site and the fact that it is now beginning to feel dated cropped up. The dilemma is that users become familiar with the site’s design and so may resist change, but to compete with new sites and keep things interesting, a refresh may be necessary. Cost also cropped into the discussion and it was very clear that some activities previously welcome on the site (notably fan fiction) had now been removed. If I may also return to a particular hobby horse of my own, I also wonder about the role of lurkers on these sites and the extent to which their seeming lack of participation may in some cases be a form of resistance to how the site has been set up and is managed.

  2. Barbara Fister says:

    Trevor Owens’s dissertation is interesting in that it made me more aware of the kinds of design decisions made when setting up a community platform. He writes about adapting Vanilla to add a discussion function to Zotero (a citation management program that supports group libraries). He thought it would be good to include numbers of posts and some kind of reputational ranking – and quickly learned that those strategies violated the philosophy of the Vanilla developer community, which argued such features could be gamed and promoted behaviors that were detrimental to community-building. In his survey of manuals on setting up and managing online communities, he traced major shifts in the perception of what these platforms are for – from the Well (which had a rosy view of how such communities would improve the world through freedom and participation) to the social-media-as-marketing assumption that seemss to be fundamental to so many sites today (and which are merging with older impact factors for measuring the impact of scholarship – a tend about which i have the kind of reservations Owens encountered among Vanilla coders.)

    i would love to know if there is resarch on lurkers. My sense is that a majority of online community participants feel quite comfortable partiicipating by listening, not talking.

Leave a Reply