Reading as/and Performance

My assigned topic is “Reading As/And Performance”, and I’m approaching it through the material I am currently gathering for my AHRC project, Developing methods for analysing and evaluating literary engagement in digital contexts. This project uses data from social media to consider individuals’ relationships to books and reading, and so an integral part of the research involves thinking about how to disambiguate information about the value books and reading hold for individuals from all the other messages and discourses that circulate on these platforms: reputation management, self-presentation, the mediating effects of the social media platform in question, and so on. This is not to make the assumption that there is some kind of “pure” message about reading that can be excavated from social media, of course, but I think the notion of performance is still a potentially valuable one to use to think through how we might be able to use some of the “noisiness” of the data – elements that do not at first seem to have much to do with reading – to illuminate the role that these platforms play in the reading lives of individuals.

In light of this, I have found it useful to think about Twitter in the context of Erving Goffman’s work on the presentation of self. Goffman uses the metaphor of the theatre – and its attendent components of “audiences”, “roles”, “routines”, and so forth – as a resonant metaphor with which to discuss the ways that individuals present themselves to others in the attempt to control the way others treat them. As Goffman points out, when people are presented with a new individual they try and get information about that person – socio-economic status, competence, trustworthiness, attitudes towards others, and so forth – by a number of means, including by observing her conduct and appearance, past experiences with people who appear similar, stereotypes and so forth. But there are some aspects of self-presentation that can’t be tested at the time: “[m]any crucial facts lie beyond the time and place of interaction or lie concealed within it. For example, the ‘true’ or ‘real’ attitudes, beliefs, and emotions of the individual can be ascertained only indirectly, through his avowals or through what appears to be involuntary expressive behavior” (Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life [1959], p.2). What I find interesting about social media is that in our performative acts of self-presentation to others, we lack many of the channels that we would normally be able to rely on in our in-person interactions, so “involuntary expressive behaviour” as articulated through our textual expressions becomes proportionately much more important. While there are other constituent aspects of online identity other than the text one types – one’s profile picture and profile information, the frequency with which one posts, conversations one contributes to, hashtags one uses and so forth – I am going to restrict myself mostly to discussing the textual aspects of Twitter usage below.

In common with all social media, Twitter does not offer a representative selection of users’ opinions on anything, let alone reading. As Daniel Allington and Andrew Salway observe in their post on big data, the cross-section of the population that uses social media is not representative of society at large. For a start, having sufficient access to a web-enabled device, and the time to use it, is a mark of privilege; danah boyd has written about some of the other pitfalls to be aware of when studying Twitter data here. But, even once these limitations have been taken into account, and the necessary hedging has been done about the impossibility of taking self-reports on social media platforms as offering unmediated access to a reader’s ‘real’ opinions, there is still something terribly seductive about the sheer amount of data that is available, and the almost frictionless manner in which it can be gathered (shameless plug: come to my Twitter workshop at the DRN symposium to find out how). All of which makes it difficult material to resist plunging into, as much as to figure out the methods by which scholars of reception can make use of it as to find out about Twitter users’ reading habits themselves.

One of the things I’ve been looking at in this project is commentary on Twitter about books and authors who win high-prestige prizes such as the Nobel and the Booker. Cultural authorities, ie. the judging committees for these prizes, have already bestowed a high value on these books and these authors, so they are intriguing test cases for the ways that readers articulate cultural value in vernacular spaces. The tweets I have been gathering from the Twitter API about Eleanor Catton’s Booker-winning novel The Luminaries, which picks up all of the public tweets with the hashtag #theluminaries, give a sense of some of the flavours of book-related self-performances on display:

I know it’s good. I know it’s a kind of a big deal. But, but.. I’m just not… really… loving it #theluminaries

katejoanna, 2014-01-27 07:01:48                       

One way of interpreting the use of hashtags is that they signal a user’s assumption that there is already a conversation going on about the topic in question, which in this case can be accessed by searching for the hashtag #theluminaries. This user, katejoanna, is more explicit in demonstrating her awareness of the wider context of where Catton’s book sits on the taste hierarchy (“I know it’s good. I know it’s a kind of a big deal”). I read her tweet as wanting to assert her own interpretation in the face of what she knows is mainstream opposition. Another point to notice about the use of hashtags is that at least over the period during which this data was collected, users were not building up a large body of tweets around this hashtag, or using it as a means of carrying on a conversations with others: they were tweeting once or a handful of times about the text and then moving on.

Nailed it. In a week. Fantastic. Catton spinning plates. Some notes required. Totally worth it. #TheLuminaries

Tom_Blaikie, 2014-01-27 03:34:49

and this is the image accompanying the tweet (click for larger version):




I particularly like this image, as it is an analogue illustration, in digital form, of the way that on Twitter one presents oneself almost exclusively through text. Where the genre of the tweeted photo might have led us to expect a selfie with a book, here we get something different: a picture of two texts, Catton’s and the reader’s, literally pushed up against one another. The page of scrawled notes – the evidence of close, careful, thorough reading – is adjoined to the book as object, which is solid, hefty and thick, with cream binding and gold lettering, the embodiment of a prestigious cultural artefact. The tweet is self-congratulatory, imbuing the reader with the value that the text has itself accrued by being difficult, and that its author has commanded by being ingenious. We can observe the language of value at work: the reading, implicitly difficult, was “worth it”.

Elsewhere on Twitter, other users record their progress through the book, and congratulate themselves for getting into it:

206 pages down, 624 pages to go. #TheLuminaries #EleanorCatton #TheNeverEndingStory

gfaithd, 2014-02-02 17:55:21+00:00

Have just passed the halfway point in #TheLuminaries and feel quite proud of myself.

calvinhunter75, 2014-02-25 15:04:17

Finished #theluminaries. Took 300 pages to meet all the characters and get the back story but the final 200 pages, couldn’t put it down

mosborne01, 2014-02-16 09:00:48

Finally finished #TheLuminaries – probably my biggest achievement of this year so far 😉 loved it!

SRustill, 2014-03-08 13:46:52

Climbed my Everest today…finally finished #theluminaries by @EleanorCatton. Stunning piece of work. #ReadWomen2014

AnnaMaye89, 2014-03-09 23:24:50

One user who charts his/her progress states that s/he is reading the novel for a book club. These tweets, all within a few minutes of one another, do not say much about the content of The Luminaries or this user’s interpretation of the book, but they do tell us quite a few other interesting things about the context in which this user has approached the book. S/he’s motivated to finish it because of a book club meeting; beer is involved; s/he has had most of a day available to devote to reading it, and despite the time pressure of getting the entire thing read, s/he still has both the time and the desire to tweet about it.

I’m halfway through #theluminaries by @EleanorCatton and gotta be at #bookclub in less than 2hrs! If only I could pause time!

rodbaxter, 2014-01-25 04:17:27

I’m pretty impressed with today. I’d only read 1/8 of #theluminaries when I woke and am now halfway. This is more doable than first thought.

rodbaxter, 2014-01-25 04:20:15

I must also confess @Garage_Project helped fuel the last few hours of reading #theluminaries. #beer + #books = #win

rodbaxter, 2014-01-25 04:24:04

While it might seem odd to tweet about having left the reading of a bookclub book till the last minute, if we think about this sequence in Goffman’s terms we can see that there are ways of understanding it as a positive presentation of self. The problem of being only halfway through the book becomes, four minutes later, a reason to be “pretty impressed” with oneself for quick reading: the user has exceeded her/his own expectations. (Plus the mention of beer alongside books raises the hipster quotient.) Reading tweets like these, I think: at whom is this presentation of self directed? One’s own Twitter followers, certainly, but more specifically: other members of the book club? The world at large? The digital equivalent of one’s fellow passengers on the tube who, when they notice you are reading a book, crane their necks in a not-so-surreptitious attempt to find out what its title is?

There are many other tweets on the continuum between candid and studied which offer insights into book club-directed reading:

Finally finished #theluminaries and seriously need some reflection time! Wish I’d had done and dusted in time for #bookclub

rodbaxter, 2014-02-08 08:40:56

86 smug points to me for finishing this months massive 800 page book club read 3 days before we meet. #TheLuminaries

smuffie, 2014-02-02 23:12:48

Another book-related use of Twitter is for quoting favourite excerpts, like the social media version of a commonplace book:

“Reason is no match for desire: when desire is purely and powerfully felt, it becomes a kind of reason of its own.” #theluminaries

QBDTheBookshop, 2014-01-27 22:32:40

But onward also rolls the outer sphere – the boundless present which contains the bounded past. #TheLuminaries

skwsimpson, 2014-02-08 04:31:04+00:00

Negative reactions to the book or to Catton provide insights into the background knowledge and expectations with which readers approach a book:

Overdosing on exponential back stories. Too much telling, no showing. #TheLuminaries

lighteur, 2014-01-20 21:47:52

This user is critical of The Luminaries, but uses the vocabulary of creative writing classes – back stories, “show, don’t tell” – to articulate its critique. Another user gives a series of critical pronouncements:

I have to give praise to the innovative structure and sheer amount of research that must have gone into #TheLuminaries

yornup, 2014-02-18 02:22:33

But (for me at least) the prose is somewhere between comatose and dead #TheLuminaries

yornup, 2014-02-18 02:24:51

Is the pay-off worthy of the laborious back story? No. #TheLuminaries

yornup, 2014-02-18 02:32:31

And as for the much-lauded astrology/horoscope structure and narrative? It is… not for me. #TheLuminaries #skepticalscientist

yornup, 2014-02-18 02:34:30

This mini-critical review is simultaneously defiantly forthright – “somewhere between comatose and dead”, “laborious back story”, and hesitant about generalising its finders to other readers – “(for me at least)”, “It is… not for me”. Another user, perhaps less certain of his/her own negative assessment, appeals to the community of her/his followers, perhaps rhetorically, to help with judging the book’s value:

Page 322 of #TheLuminaries & bored out of my brains. Should I persevere? Why did it win the Man Booker prize? #confused #bored

JuliaRawson, 2014-01-21 08:46:01

This desire for discussion with others to help with one’s own processing of a book will be familiar to those who study reading in “off-line” spaces, and there is plenty of evidence of it online as well:

Have finished #TheLuminaries but having trouble fleshing everything out in my head. Wanting to chat #1book140 When are you back @peajayar?

KymmInBarcelona, 2014-01-29 00:59:10

Help! Readers of #TheLuminaries. So how did the man end up in the crate???

lucyfarmer295, 2014-01-19 22:07:34

OK, Real Question: does anyone have a link to a no-spoiler char guide for #TheLuminaries? I’m reasonably bright, but I keep losing track!

Black_Anise, 2014-03-08 07:36:16

Ok who has read @EleanorCatton #theluminaries I need need need to talk about it! Will buy you a drink if you dissect it with me

PolinaKalinina, 2014-03-11 00:09:15

Anyone read #TheLuminaries and is it worth pursuing? #longread

rosieroserosie, 2014-03-26 10:43:16+00:00

Returning to the idea of reading as performance, other tweets suggest that Twitter can be used in tandem with one’s reading habits as a platform to broadcast one’s own sophistication:

Sipping a cup of caffé latte & reading #TheLuminaries. Such a complex and recondite book to read and…

rezuanramli, 2014-02-01 06:45:36

Not minimalistic, not meant for global understanding. Rich language, good literature. #TheLuminaries #Book #Love

JabberwockyGal,  2014-02-01 14:12:16

And then there are articulations of pleasure, some of which give insight into the location of reading and the immersive power of a narrative:

Very much loving #TheLuminaries. Totally hooked.

beatrixcoles, 2014-02-09 08:59:36

I love when you’re enjoying your book so much that you actually look forward to the London commute #theluminaries

paperbk_reader, 2014-02-12 17:41:55

I was so immersed in #theluminaries on trip that places began to look like 1860s NZ gold rush towns, weird for 2014 SE Asia. Loved it.

kerryglencorse, 2014-02-28 13:31:12

This tweet, which gives some insight into how one reader fits a long book into a busy everyday life, suggests by its use of hashtags that the reading of the novel belongs to multiple discursive communities: not only those people reading The Luminaries, but also users of the audiobook service Audible and those with babies:

Quick ironing session and catching up on #TheLuminaries on #Audible whilst #baby is #napping.

MarianneT_H, 2014-03-17 10:33:20

Finally, the Twitter data offers some insights into the physicality of reading (mention was frequently made of the heaviness of the book), and the experience of reading Catton’s novel on an e-reader:

My enjoyment of long (previously heavy) books has been rekindled by my Kindle. #TheLuminaries

GinaDellabarca, 2014-03-24 09:01:32

@EleanorCatton Finished #TheLuminaries on my kindle…while I walked…home…in traffic. Left a mess not even Walter Moody could untangle.

Stevecorner, 2014-03-13 09:07:19


What I’ve given here is obviously a highly subjective set of interpretations of these micro-narratives of reading, inflected by my own experiences of using Twitter, reading long books, sitting on public transport, being part of a book club and so on. (Qualities that also shape the way one approaches the study of reading in non-digital contexts, of course). Moreover, these interpretations are limited because the tweets I’ve adduced as evidence float largely free of any meaningful context. Even at 140 characters they are so rich, yet in other ways they are dismayingly poor. So the question emerges: is it even possible to do close analysis of this sort with Twitter data about people’s reading habits? Given the limitations of Twitter as a genre, is it more robust to work with a large volume of responses, which would be difficult (and perhaps undesirable) to close read, but which yield other insights which are not compromised to the same extent by the lack of context? These methodological problems pick up on some of the discussions around big data fostered by Daniel and Andrew’s post and workshop. If we have all this data, whether actually big, or merely ‘big’ by humanistic standards – what kind of methods can we use to make sense of it? Following a single reader’s Twitter feed gives one an impression of their participation in literary activities, which can provide more nuanced contextual information that we could hope to gather from a large number of accounts. But, if there is a value in gathering broad as well as deep data on readers and their computer-mediated articulations of the value reading holds for them, how should we go about it? Computer scientists have developed sentiment analysis, for instance, in which algorithms determine the extent to which a statement may be deemed “positive” or “negative”: is a method such as this of use? As someone trained in literary studies, my soul rebels at the very thought of automated sentiment analysis, but I am nonetheless impressed at how frequently the algorithms get it right. I also realise that the computer science researchers who work with this methodology are much more aware of its limitations and its potential than people in the humanities are, and they have been dealing with the so-called problems of big data for a great deal longer.

So, having laid before you some micro-performances of Twitter users’ reading selves, let me now throw the floor open to those of you who have been investigating similar datasets and facing similar questions. I’d be interested to know which theorists and ideas you have found helpful in approaching this material, which on some days seems to me to require an impossibly eclectic combination of disciplinary approaches, or else an improbably erudite slate of collaborators.

[Cross-posted on my own blog here]
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4 comments on “Reading as/and Performance
  1. Barbara Fister says:

    This is brilliant! Thanks – whish I could be at the workshop. I love the way you uncover the rather intimate (though broadcast) ways in which readers project their relationship to a book they are reading. What’s also interesting is the way some readers Tweet while reading, showing an unfolding relationship with the book that is not part of typical literary analysis or even less formal reviewing. It’s more viewing than re-viewing!

    • Anouk says:

      Thanks, Barbara – glad you liked the post. I agree that one of the most compelling things about using data from social media is the ability to capture aspects of the reading experience while it is still in process, ie. before the overall shape of the narrative and the ending have had the chance to solidify a reader’s response to a book. (I first got interested in this during a study I did a while back of a serialised text, in which readers gave their responses to the narrative as it was unfolding, and then changed their view of what the text was once they had experienced the final instalment of the text, where the lack of a happy ending caused them to rethink both the structure and the content). Reading isn’t just a retrospective view, in other words: it can be very different at different points in the narrative, but it can be extremely hard to capture that difference as a researcher.

  2. Sara Whiteley says:

    Hi Anouk – thanks for this really though-provoking post and fascinating data. I’m afraid I haven’t got much in the way of answers to the questions you raise! But I find your comments about the possibility of doing close reading of this kind of data really interesting.You note that the tweets ‘largely float free of any meaningful context’ and so when we interpret them, we have to supply a lot of that context through our own inferences ‘inflected by [our] own experiences’. To me (from a cognitive perspective), this is one of the really interesting aspects of twitter communication, because it highlights the interpretative work tweet-readers perform. It also demonstrates the kind of shared knowledge which members of a particular community of readers have and refer to. So I do think it is possible to do useful close reading of these tweets and find out quite a bit about the context which we supply when we interpret them – you demonstrate this here! I look forward to seeing how you combine close reading with the big data approaches you refer to here too. Surely a combination is the best method? 🙂

    • Anouk says:

      Hi, Sara – thanks very much for your thoughts. Yes, my own current thinking is that a combination of methods is the way ahead. I suppose it can just feel a bit slippery underfoot, though: I worry about the lack of methodological rigour in cherry-picking particular tweets to tell a particular narrative. I am reminded of something Patrick Juola (computer scientist who does stylometry & author attribution; most well-known for his recent demonstration that JK Rowling was the likely author of the Robert Galbraith crime novels) said at the recent DH conference in Lausanne: if you have a big enough data set, you can find evidence in it to prove anything. With enough tweets about The Luminaries, I could probably find compelling evidence that readers valued it most for its depictions of alien abductions and insights into the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But, in all seriousness, I agree that it is possible to recuperate some context, and I suppose that is one of our major jobs as reception scholars. I just worry a little that my own experiences as a reader will colour my understanding of other people’s reading contexts in analytically unhelpful ways.

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