For our final sprint, the Digital Textual Communities group is taking case studies in…digital textual communities, especially those in which we have participated. Mine is the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), which is a site dedicated to reviews, essays, and interviews. It’s based out of UC Riverside, but with a public-facing humanities ethos that I and many other humanities scholars find promising as a model.
In my previous post, I was trying to expand a concept of “the book” to include all the digital paratexts—fan responses, reviews, and creative engagements, among others—that proliferate around contemporary fiction. This expanded concept of the book might be applied as easily to genre texts that have become fan phenomena to literary texts that make the rounds on blogs like The Millions.
As a writing group, we’ve been wondering what makes a successful digital textual community, and, of course, what criteria might be used to gauge success. A tacit point in our conversations so far is that the online textual community is usually something of a “planned community.” (An aside: there’s often a fascinating feedback loop between the interfaces that designers plan and the ways that sites are actually used, or perhaps rather a “redesign loop,” such as Facebook’s implementations of hashtags and emoji in response to client use.)
The LARB is an online community built around books and culture that, from my perspective as an occasional (well, twice) contributor, is driven primarily by ethos. The site is beautifully designed but also simple and not unusual, and, unlike the communities my co-writers are discussing, the language is pretty ordinary, too. The LARB started as a Tumblr site for most of a year before being redesigned and deployed as a stand-alone site, but in both forms its writers and readers have treated it as an increasingly ordinary genre, the online magazine—something just a bit more formal than a blog, by virtue of articles being pitched and revised by editors. The defining feature of the magazine (which is now also a print publication) seems to be not in its form or its language but its ethos. It features intelligent and lively—not academic in the bad sense, that is—engagement with great new books and literary and arts culture, written largely by humanities professors and students, as well as authors and other critics, for anyone out there who might be interested. It was a belief in this attitude about the great potential for public-facing humanities that got me excited enough about it to participate, both as a commenter and contributor.
My first point with this example is that ethos, a defining attitude and approach—rather than linguistic practices or the forms that interfaces might take—may well be the most important defining feature of online communities in general as we imagine them.
My second point reiterates my conclusion in my previous essay: the wide variety of online communities that cohere around books is something to be recognized and celebrated. Regardless of the form, the physical container, the word count, or the interface, the book—as shorthand for a site of sustained engagement with textual content that excites us—will probably stick around.