Interfaces and Commitment: Do Read the Comments?

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Extract from LibraryThing homepage (http://www.librarything.com/home)

To think about the ways that interface design and architecture contribute to the kinds of digital textual communities generated is to immediately be struck by the ballooning number of interfaces that are out there, and the fact that any single scholar can only grasp a small selection of them. (And also: what counts as a “text”? and what is a “community,” anyway? But those are questions that I hope we may address later on.) My way into this complex knot of problems is to take a small number of examples and to think about what it means to commit to them as a user. What’s involved in participation? And how does the level of a user’s commitment inflect the forms that their participation may take?

I think first of all about that most ubiquitous (and despised?) form of online textual participation: comments on articles. “Despised” because of the view that comments are invariably a cesspit of illogical, unsustainable, and poorly-spelled opinions: an interpretive community that the “don’t read the comments” meme tells us we don’t want to be involved in, either as readers or authors of the content being commented upon. The context with which I’m most familiar in this respect is the Guardian, a British newspaper with an overtly left-wing orientation whose reader-commentators, from their generally high level of spelling and orthography, could be broadly assumed to be middle-class and generally well educated. There is a very robust community that has grown up in the comments section, to the point where posters will refer to one another’s contributions in other threads, warn others about particular users (for example “we all know about [username x] – ignore him, he’s got a history of doing y”), and perform other behaviors familiar to anyone who participates in online discussions. What is interesting about this community is that its members have been very vocal about the technical limitations of the commenting platform, and eventually the paper made technical changes to its platform, including moving to threaded comments, which made following different conversational threads much easier. The newspaper has also recently begun to do little profiles of different commentators, which is a way of acknowledging both their presence and the value of their contributions. Despite this acknowledgement, the generally civil level of discourse, and users’ ability to shape, in a limited way, the form of the commentary platform, it’s striking that this comment space is still far from an utopian space of mutual enlightenment, and illustrates that this kind of online textual participation is, at its lowest level, drawn towards what could be termed “drive-by” commentary. Users’ comments aren’t necessarily subject to the same kind of filters (for civility, misogyny, racism, etc.) as exist in face-to-face communication, and at their most debased may be simply be a user’s rapid-fire opinion delivered, and published, without many consequences for future interactions or one’s real-world identity. The level of commitment required, in other words, is low.

Now consider Twitter. Also well-known as a hospitable home for drive-by commentary that can give voice to the kinds of opinions and text that are socially unacceptable in other contexts, its interface—in which one’s followers see one’s tweets—can act as a counterbalance to the freewheeling, putatively consequence-free discourse that can overwhelm the kind of spaces in my first example. You can, in other words, also use Twitter to do drive-by “critique,” but your followers will see what you’ve said, so that is a part of the context that shapes what you say. But participation on Twitter is of course also governed by the various interfaces one uses to access it. Simply using the Twitter.com website makes it hard to see others who, for example, are tweeting with the same hashtag; a desktop client such as TweetDeck or Janetter makes it much easier to see existing conversations, and hence to be inducted into the various social conventions that go along with that hashtag (which ties into the literacies/grammars of participation that others in this Textual Communities group will be addressing). A smartphone can also facilitate users’ ability to find groups of others who are tweeting on similar topics, though they make it more difficult to do other things such as reading long-form text to which other users may be linking. Twitter, then, requires a somewhat higher level of commitment than commenting on an online article.

My third example is the website LibraryThing. Billing itself as a site that “catalogs your books online, easily, quickly and for free,” LibraryThing is intriguing to consider in this context because it offers its users a range of ways to engage with other readers, and to respond to books. To take advantage of the full functionality of the site, you need to upload the titles in your personal library—whole or partial, real or imagined—into LibraryThing. Once this is done, the site gives you the chance to see a list of algorithmically-generated recommendations that might appeal to you, based on the similarities between your library and those of other site members. (It appears that subject headings also play a part in these recommendations, though LibraryThing is cagey about how exactly its algorithms work.) Previously, in order to obtain book recommendations of this sort, you needed to go through this process in “meatspace” with a few select friends whose physical bookshelves you were able to see and get ideas for your own reading list from. LibraryThing widens the net of such “friends” out to the global membership of the site, and adds a bunch of bells and whistles familiar from other social media: the ability to give one-to-five star ratings, to write reviews, to engage in threaded online discussions, and more. As an interface, LibraryThing provides some wonderful affordances for its users: the opportunity to see how your book collection stacks up against those of others; the chance to find out what others think of a book via ratings and reviews (also a feature of Amazon, though LibraryThing has important differences from Amazon, the most obvious being that it is not driven by commercial imperatives in the same way—they aren’t interested in getting you to buy the books); the chance to see how it has been tagged by other members. If I was to generalize, I’d say that these can be boiled down to seeing how a book “means” for others, and getting the chance to tell others how a book signifies for you. The price of admission, though, is a higher level of commitment still: inputting the details of some or all of one’s books and investing time in getting to know the different affordances of the LibraryThing website.

These feel like very obvious points to make about three digital spaces for reading, but they illustrate some of the basic differences that I see in the way interfaces call forth different behaviors in readers, and the varying levels of commitment that are engendered. As a final thought, I’d also like to think about how identity management, and how different reading interfaces, stimulate different forms of image construction: the extent to which someone is using their literary tastes, discussions about texts, and so forth as a proxy for their learnedness/hipness/etc. That is, of course, a part of the context of participation in an interpretive community that has always been in play, whether the space is digital, analogue, or at a place on the continuum somewhere in between.

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