Digital Textual Communities as Deep Maps: A Case Study


Map readingFor our third and final sprint, our Digital Textual Communities group has opted to produce a series of case studies of online communities that each of us belongs to, in order to give an insider’s perspective (or an emic approach, to be technical) about what it was like, in early 2014, to participate in these spaces. Our definition of a digital textual community has been kept deliberately broad, and resonates with what we have been calling the “ambient text”—the state of being surrounded by a flow of digital text, whether in the form of the Gchat windows that pop up unbidden on your laptop while you are attempting to concentrate on something else, the Twitter conversations that you follow while waiting for the lights to change, and the “old media” textual manifestations such as the advertisements at the bus stop or the book that you carry to read on the bus.

I have chosen to write about my neighborhood social network, a digital textual community that I have belonged to since its inception. To keep it anonymous, I’ll give it the pseudonym This site has been in existence for somewhere between five and ten years, and was set up by a private individual with no links to the local government authority or existing community groups. It is sustained by the ongoing care and attention of its founder and a small group of dedicated moderators, and has won international awards for its contributions to improving the neighborhood. Its membership currently stands at over seven thousand. It is not a textual community in the sense of gathering together people to discuss texts, but it is a platform on which communication with others is done almost entirely through text. Participation in it involves, of course, an aspect of identity management. I myself have two identities on the site: a primary one, which my friends know is me, and another more anonymous one for activities that I don’t want tied to my primary identity (usually for security reasons, so as not to give away where exactly I live). I think the site is worth writing about in this context because it is unusual for a social network in that a larger-than-normal proportion of its members have met in real life, evident from the number of events such as pub meet-ups that are organized, and the many threads in which individuals arrange to meet in order to loan each other equipment, pet-sit for one another, swap plant seeds, and so forth. There is some disagreement on the threads, and a small amount of trolling, but for a digital community there is a generally high level of civility, which I put down to the fact that participants are aware that there is a good chance they will know, and be known by, at least some of their interlocutors in real life.

What is it like to belong to this community? I’m wary of waxing techno-utopian, but I feel more at home in my neighborhood than I have in any place that I’ve ever lived, including the sleepy suburb of Sydney where I spent fifteen-odd years as a kid, and is at the very top of the list of reasons why. It tells me what is going on. It helps me to find people whose interests match mine. It has helped me to find people who have been happy to lend me various pieces of home hardware equipment, and to lend out various things myself; to uncover local knowledge about who is best at fixing a leaking roof and where the go-to places are for taking small children on rainy days. Through it, I found a nanny share, and a spare flat for visiting friends to stay in. My partner found a cricket team, and through that a group of friends. On my way to and from the tube station and the corner store, I pass people who I know and who will smile at me—a rarity on the mean streets of the capital!—because we have encountered each other first via London has a reputation as a large, hostile city, in a country of famously reserved and unfriendly people, but the virtual community that has grown around this site has managed to cut across many of the social barriers we tend to throw up around ourselves, often for good reasons, in an overcrowded urban environment.

Rising above the personal to the communal level, other good things have been brought about by the site. There has been a great deal of local campaigning, some of its successful, to fix local problems from the mundane (litter and traffic) to the substantial (mistakes made by the local council, which have been pointed out and rectified). Recently, in a high-octane thread (which the writers of Law & Order should totally make into a storyline; I look forward to hearing from them with a proposal to consult), some muggers were reported to be operating along a particular stretch at a particular time of night. Thanks to reports by site members (and, it appears, by police picking up information by lurking on the site) the suspects were caught in a police sting.

One of my favorite occurrences is when a site member comes across a historical document (sometimes by knocking down a Victorian wall in their house and finding it among the rubble) and posts about it. It may be, say, a list of names of residents who lived in a particular road in the 1940s, or a photograph of a road which had just been bombed in the war. This generates a flurry of responses as current residents chime in, asking about who lived in their house, or adding details about the photo. The site provides a platform for recuperating, sharing, and preserving an oral history of sorts about the area that might otherwise be lost. I love learning things about my adopted city, but even more than this I love seeing my neighbors engaging with these historical texts, speculating about the past, making connections, and generating meaning in co-operative ways that are more than a little redolent of the way readers engage with books and with each other. I read those threads with delight, and I see the people who have posted on them in the pub, or walking their kids to school. The many threads of this sort that are woven together on make me think of my neighborhood as a text. Sometimes this textuality is almost literal: the sidewalks on one half of my road differ from those on the other half, and one day I discovered from that this was due to a historical boundary between local authorities, who had different means of upkeep for their roads. That historical boundary has long ceased to exist, but its traces are still visible in the built environment, and every time I pass them I can read London’s shifting political divisions in the ground under my feet. The digital community, which you could term a geographical paratext, brings the local environment to life in unexpected ways.

Some notes about the interface, as we are in part writing this as a quasi-historical account of what participation in such online communities entails. Much of the site’s activity consists of threaded discussions; those who post in them are informed of updates by email (and these notifications can be turned off). Members can post events; there are groups to which one can sign up in order to be kept abreast of activities in that group. Many members use real names and actual photos of themselves for avatars (I choose not to). As is standard for online social networks, there has been a fair degree of grumbling about the site’s interface, and from time to time moderators respond with changes. There is an automated system whereby the first dozen or so words of new forum posts are sent out on Twitter, meaning that it’s possible to discern the presence of content that moderators have decided to delete. Moderators’ decisions to delete threads or individual posts are from time to time challenged, but the moderators are well-known in the face-to-face world and so there are usually plenty of members who jump to their defense.

In terms of demographics, it is obvious that the site excludes a large proportion of the people who live in the area (which has high numbers of Greek, Cypriot, Turkish, and Polish people): those who do not have English as a first language, and who tend to be older. It’s noticeable when someone is an outsider, because they don’t know the conversational norms, they type in all caps, or they will perhaps come on to the site without a history of prior posts and rant about something that is upsetting them without giving any indication of how they could be practically helped or even contacted. Sometimes site members will offer gentle suggestions; sometimes these obvious interlopers will simply be ignored. As with any community, online or offline, you need to be fairly expert with the established communicative conventions to take full advantage of all the resources the site offers. (I feel like it took me years of lurking on other forums to learn the rules of engagement for this one.) Discursive behaviors that contravene the site’s norms have led me to notice the ways in which I’ve learnt to conform, which include conventions such as these: if asking for advice, signal that you have already done a search; tag your posts correctly (posts asking for recommendations for a good plumber need to be tagged with “plumber”). This is part of a grammar of community participation that is every bit as important as linguistic grammar for laying claim to group membership.

Drawing this back to the idea of a digital textual community, there is an obvious way in which text mediates much of what occurs on the site: users communicate primarily by means of typed text, and to a lesser extent through images (photos and avatars). But, less obviously, this digital textual community could itself be seen as a text: the “book” of the neighborhood, with a depth and breadth of information whose richness owes everything to the profusion of contributing “authors” on the site. As an enthusiastic consumer—and creator—of digital maps, I also think of how much of the information can be tied to specific geographical points, and how the site might be understood as a “deep map” of the neighborhood:

A deep map is a detailed, multimedia depiction of a place and all that exists within it. It is not strictly tangible; it also includes emotion and meaning. A deep map is both a process and a product—a creative space that is visual, open, multi-layered, and ever changing. Where traditional maps serve as statements, deep maps serve as conversations. (“Spatial Humanities,” 2012)

If our smartphones, responsible for so much of the “ambient text” in our environment—such as the thread I checked one evening before deciding not to head down the street on which the muggers would shortly be arrested—are making it increasingly easy to link text to geolocation data, this is something that serves to blur the distinction between the book and the map. It’s a feature that I think will increasingly come into play as we imagine the future of books, and the future of the communities that cluster around them.

Vernacular Criticism


One term that has come up in our discussions at Sprint Beyond the Book is vernacular criticism, and it’s one that I think is worth picking up on as a useful concept for considering the relationship of readers to the machinery of textual production which Robert Darnton sets out in his diagram of the circuit of communications (recently updated for the late twentieth century and for self-published authors by Padmini Ray Murray and Clare Squires). A great deal of smart stuff has been written about this already, for example Rosa Eberly’s Citizen Critics (2000) and Jan Radway’s ethnography of readers of romance novels, Reading the Romance (1991), one of the foundational texts for the field of reception studies. In the contexts examined by these studies, the “real readers” in question had no opportunity for making their readerly preferences known, and for pushing back on the publishers and authors who produced content they may or may not have liked. Many of Radway’s romance readers described their dislike for insufficiently happy endings, for instance, but the only opportunity they had to register this discontent was to refuse to read and/or buy such titles.

Now, however, digital platforms that take account of reader preferences—both consciously delivered feedback and unconsciously delivered metrics about, for instance, how far a reader gets through a text before abandoning it—make it possible for those at the production end of the communications circuit to take into consideration aggregated data about reader preferences as they produce the texts those readers will consume. On my flight to Arizona, the in-flight magazine had an article about precisely this (Boyd Farrow, “The Happy Ending You Asked For”) and what struck me was not the content of the article—which is not news to anyone who studies digital books, or even keeps half an eye on the culture pages of major newspapers—but the fact that this disruption of publishing practices is sufficiently interesting to feature in a publication such as an airline magazine that is designed to appeal to as a wide a range of readers as possible. Farrow cites publishers who take reader suggestions on board and require authors to alter their storylines accordingly, and points to some historical precedents (the 18th-century rewriting of the ending of Romeo and Juliet). Digital interfaces for reading, however, have both sped this process up—reader feedback can be delivered to publishers far more swiftly—and allowed it to happen at a level of greater granularity (the exact page a reader stopped reading vs. a petulant letter to a publisher that might or might not reach an editor, agent, or even an author).

There are several ways to look at this development. One response is to be delighted at the disruption to conventional structures of literary authority whereby a small cadre of elites dictates who, and what, will be published, and a second cadre of elites of critics decides on where these published texts will sit within the field of cultural production: the cultural space where some artistic products occupy positions of prestige (e.g., “difficult” texts such as the works of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot), some are deemed popular (e.g., comics, television soap operas, romance novels), and others sit somewhere in between (e.g., “middlebrow” books such as might feature on the reading lists of book clubs). Self-publication has helped with this process of disruption: examples abound of feel-good stories of authors who began self-publishing fiction that had been summarily rejected by publishers, and found acceptance, fame, and eventually wealth through the magic of the interwebs. But for those who read rather than write, their preferences as readers now have the power to be examined by publishers, and to shape what those publishers deliver, in ways that may or may not be visible. If you are a reader who has ever been dissatisfied with the way a book has ended, or the way a character has been treated, these kind of readerly interventions may be appealing.

Another response is to think about this development in terms of the threat to authorial autonomy. An author has a vision for her text, and having to attend to, and fall into line with, readerly desires is unlikely to be conducive to that. Authors, of course, have never been free of external strictures: publishers put pressure on them to deliver certain kinds of texts, editors shape their prose, and many other elements contribute to a cultural product that is not conceived in isolation. But digital platforms for reading are delivering a whole new kind of reader feedback that—especially at a time when publishers are struggling with the financial implications of the advent of digital technology—make it easier for publishers to demand texts that deliver what the market wants. I’ll nail my colors to the mast here: part of me is horrified at the thought of the difficult, challenging narratives that I love being in some way tempered to fit audience expectations, in the way that blockbuster films produced by the major studios undergo audience testing so as to deliver the ending that audiences want. Think of twentieth-century literature without the magnificent polyphony of Ulysses, the bewildering ending of Coetzee’s Disgrace, the abjection of Dolores Haze at the end of Lolita, and the lack of closure of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. Our cultural heritage would be the worse for it. I think of a study I did some years ago which looked at audience responses to Joss Whedon’s (hilarious) superhero musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, serialized and disseminated over a period of weeks on the Internet. When the final installment aired, fans were initially dismayed, as the narrative contained developments that did not initially appeal to them. But as they discussed their responses to the story together and tried to make sense of it as an interpretive community, they came to understand and appreciate the narrative in a different way, in part by resituating the text in a different genre, that of the origin story. (The study, which is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, is here, if you are interested.)

So: should vernacular criticism, and the voices of real readers, play more of a role than they have previously in the mechanisms of book production? Should literary criticism be opened up to a wider range of people than just book reviewers and literary scholars? Has this ship already sailed, and are these questions therefore purely rhetorical? I’d like to think that some corners of the literary field could be protected from too much encroachment, even as we welcome the changes to conventional structures of literary authority that have already begun to change the shape of the publishing landscape.

Interfaces and Commitment: Do Read the Comments?

LibraryThing logo

Extract from LibraryThing homepage (

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 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.