In Defense of Literary Celebrity

Barnes & Noble in Manhattan

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

– William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919)

I’m concerned about the kinds of conversations we’re able to have with each other about books now, in an increasingly fragmented literary landscape. In what ways can we talk about books with one another when even avid readers haven’t read any of the same books?  Like Yeats (and Joan Didion, who invoked this same passage in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)), I’m worried about dispersion.

Even with my most literate friends, I find myself mostly pitching books, talking mostly about plot. After all, it’s almost impossible to talk about style, craft, and the subtle nuances of ideology with people who haven’t read the book. I read a lot of literary fiction, and I admit that my particular form of anxiety might be specific to that genre. How do I really talk about the greatness of a Jennifer Egan or Jeffrey Eugenides when I’m stuck explaining the plot? In other words, do I have to enroll in an MFA program to have these conversations about texture and form?

It’s this concern with the analytical quality and specificity of our conversations about books that leads me to literary celebrity as a construct. I find celebrity promising as a construct because it is a cultural machine for generating common points of reference. But I’m increasingly certain that for most of the literary landscape, it’s doesn’t really exist. I might think that Margaret Atwood (winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Booker Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship) or E.L. Doctorow (winner of the National Humanities Medal, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award, and the Library of Congress Prize) are bona fide consensus figures: living legends. But my most literate friends and my colleagues at Arizona State University frequently know little about them and their work. At the same time, they’re equally scandalized about my lack of familiarity with Jonathan Lethem or Thomas Pynchon.

In the chair next to me, Lee Konstantinou is writing about One Book and Big Read projects that unite an entire community around a single text. Two seats down from Lee, Dan Gillmor is writing about how authors create small niches of readers who hold them in particularly high regard. Digital platforms like Goodreads and in-person social formations like book clubs (not to mention university programs at the undergraduate and graduate level) represent ways of confronting this problem. And maybe it’s not a problem after all. Some readers/consumers prefer dispersion to an arbitrary and exclusionary canon, especially since most of our canons unquestioningly support and reproduce the privilege of wealthy straight people, white people, and men.

But I still worry that there’s something impoverished about a literary marketplace without (deserving) celebrities. Even in its most easily-despisable Hollywood form, celebrity enables diverse groups of people to participate in conversations at a significant level of detail. Celebrity can be a conduit for incredibly broad and inclusive conversations about values, ethics, politics, and the mechanics of identity and selfhood. Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Lindsay Lohan and their ilk give us a rich grammar to talk about who we are and who we want (and don’t want) to be. I believe that books are even more powerful devices for generating productive and challenging conversations, but without literary celebrity to diffuse shared referents throughout large swaths of the public, reading becomes a solitary activity instead of a starting point for interaction, interpretation, and thoughtful debate.

Maybe Goodreads and LibraryThing solve this problem for some of us. I hope that people respond to this piece by suggesting tools for having these kinds of in-depth, deliberative conversations.

It’s worth noting that digital platforms like Goodreads chain together reading and writing. If you want to use one of them to have a conversation about a book, you have to commit to some intellectual labor. So for those of us who consider ourselves ardent readers but not always enthusiastic writers, Goodreads can feel like another chore. And for a white collar professional / knowledge worker like me, Goodreads and book clubs sometimes too closely resemble things like web management and staff meetings—they can look and feel a little bit too much like work.

Perhaps this is an arena where booksellers can act as curators, or where other cultural authorities (like Lee Konstantinou’s Book DJ) can catalyze and manage conversations. By performing the cultural work of igniting and managing conversations in a highly visible way, maybe they can make the rest of us feel like we’re just having fun, enriching our minds, and freeloading on their sweat.

In their defense, authors and publishers are doing everything they can on the celebrity front—from Twitter and Facebook to low-yield book tours and TV appearances, where they can pick them up. Is literary celebrity even possible anymore? The only place I see it these days is in the red-hot young adult market; J.K. Rowling, like Stephen King before her, even failed in a subterfuge to escape her global fame. Maybe it’s just not possible for authors like my beloved Egan and Eugenides to “tip” in a broader media landscape where films, TV, and increasingly video games dominate our attention economy.

Perhaps the shift to “lifelong learning” that we’ve continued to hear about throughout the 1990s and 2000s will mean that classroom-style interpretive exercises—either in-person or virtual—will become a more consistent part of people’s adult lives. But “lifelong learning,” at least so far, hasn’t been a conversation about humanities education. I do believe that structure and obligation and community membership—soft forms of force—might be necessary if we want literary discourse to be a vibrant part of the broader culture. This will also require a critical understanding of the concept of a “canon” as something to be questioned, revised, critiqued, and examined closely, instead of an unassailable stamp of cultural primacy.

To close with one last quandary: if we’re not having these conversations about literature, has the conversation moved to another cultural site? Are video games, or apps, or movies, or sports, the place to look for robust, inclusive, analytical conversations that are “about” more than they seem to be about? If we can agree that it’s valuable to come together and talk about something we all have in common, what is that thing today? What should it be in the future?


Photo courtesy of Monica Arellano-Ongpin, used under a Creative Commons license

For Nonfiction Writers, New Connections with Readers


Once, we manufactured books. The process—writing to editing to design to production to printing to shipping to selling—followed an Industrial Age model: create, manufacture, distribute.

That system is breaking down in the 21st Century. We still create, though increasingly we do it in a collaborative way. More important is what we do with what we create: We put it online; other people come and get it; and we all talk about it. The new model: create, make available, discuss.

by AJ Cann, via Flickr:

by AJ Cann, via Flickr:

For authors of all kinds, the new system offers incredible new opportunities and challenges. For readers, there’s so much more to choose from, and sometimes a deeper connection to the authors.

I’m convinced, based on my own work, that the opportunities for nonfiction writers vastly outweigh the challenges. The keys are conversation and reputation.

When I was working on my  first book, We the Media (2004), I’d already learned from blogging that conversation with my audience—I was a newspaper columnist at the time—was improving my work. So I published the outline and chapter drafts on my blog. The feedback was amazing, and the result was a much better book.

A decade ago this summer, the book became available, into bookstores and on the Internet. We published it under a Creative Commons license that allowed anyone to download, read and share it for free. I opted for Creative Commons in large part to make a statement: that while I strongly believed (and still do) in copyright, I also felt strongly (and still do) that the American copyright system was broken—and that it was more important to me that people be able to read what I’d written than to attempt to wring every last penny out of the process.

What I didn’t fully realize at the time was that I was exploring some new boundaries of conversation with my audience, enhancing my own reputation, and ultimately ensuring that the book would make money. By ensuring that anyone who wanted to read the book could do so, I was marketing my ideas, not just a book. Inevitably, or at least to the extent that my ideas were credible, that boosted my reputation in my relatively small literary niche: the collision of media and technology. It definitely led to more speaking invitations, some of which were for pay. (Not coincidentally, I’m still getting royalty checks for that book, because it’s been free to download since the day it went into bookstores.)

Nonfiction authors no longer have to rely on publishers’ publicity departments, not that publicists have ever been all that effective in the first place. Marketing has always been part of the author’s job, even if that’s an uncomfortable role.

Since most authors don’t have mega-bucks marketing budgets, we market our work in mini ways, and hope that everything we do adds up to creating attention. Attention spurs conversation (and vice versa) and, assuming high-quality ideas and writing, boosts reputation, which feeds back into attention. All are related to sales of books and speaking gigs, of course, but also to other kinds of benefits that accrue from reputation, including (as in my own case) offers of other kinds of paid jobs.

Where should we have these conversations? I’m tempted to answer, “Everywhere we can create good ones”—but that feels wrong given the bad behavior of some of the companies that host these conversations, Facebook in particular. I realize I’m costing myself significant contact with my own audience by abstaining from that service, but I can’t abide its corporate policies, many of which have been designed to reduce people’s privacy in a world where we need more and more control over our data, not less. Moreover, we don’t really control what we post on Facebook (and Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram et al.) because they are platforms owned by third parties that have the right to remove our work at their discretion. Yes, participate in social networks. But I tell my students they should register their own domain names, and create blogs. Every author—every author—should do this, too, and create an online home base where they can define themselves, and which they own.

Over the years I’ve developed a few rules for my conversations. Here are a few:

  • Always answer email about your work. Even if someone is writing to tell you you’re an idiot, and explains why, you can make a fan out of a critic by paying attention. I learn more from people who think I’m wrong than from people who agree with me, after all. (And when you discover you’re wrong, say so.The only exception is pure abuse.
  • Use the social networks not just to promote, but also to engage. I don’t respond to every Twitter post with my @dangillmor username in it, but I do this enough to keep learning new things.
  • I like getting paid speaking gigs, but I often do them just for expenses if I have the time and the location and audience will be new. Kevin Kelly, a wonderful technology writer, does speaking gigs for people who’ll agree to buy copies of his books for the audience.
  • Join other people’s conversations. You don’t have to post everything you say only on your own site or in your own social media feed. Sometimes I reply to people with blog posts, but it’s a signal of respect to comment on other people’s work where they wrote it in the first place.
  • Above all, don’t do all the talking. The first rule of having a good conversation is to listen.

The New New Media


Exit Doormat: Serial format. 2′ x 3′ x 1″ or 60 x 90 cm x 2.5 cm in metric system countries. Sends you out towards your day with a bit to chew on. Latest bestseller is a RPG based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) in which your character is assigned based on your social network and the chemical breakdown of the residue on the bottom of your shoes when you return home every day.

Headbox: Cubic long-form media. You stick your head in the hole at the bottom of the head box in order to dedicate yourself solely to the experience of the medium. Typically used in hour-long bits over the course of a week or so, or one transatlantic flight. Can be stacked in the living room or garden after consuming so as to beg conversation about the experience. Latest bestseller is a voluminous box constructed of crude ore on the dawn of the Iron Age by Neal Stephenson.

Sweet Notings: Stories are packaged in confectionery form and played from within your skull when you suck on the candy. Both serial and long-form versions are available. Popular format for short excerpts from longer devotional texts. Latest bestseller is a hour-long bittersweet lollipop by Nicholas Sparks.

Adventure Shoes: Long-form travel literature built into appropriate footwear genre. Stories can be consumed aurally as you travel, or can be read off the bottom of your soles when you’re cooling your heels. Latest bestseller is a peripatetic retelling of the history of the Panama Canal, packaged in black rubber boots, by Bill Bryson.

People Watching Glass Apps: Short-form AR format. Popular at cafes. You just set your eyes on interesting passersby, and stories are projected around them. Latest bestseller is a site-specific work by Lewis Black, Delusions of Grandeur, which was offered at the TED 2025 conference.

Toy-based Omni-media: Serial format targeted at children under 12. Toys, songs, accessories, shows, videos, clothes, games, books, magazines, camps, and curricula adapted to popular character properties. Your children will adopt specific character narratives and then allow this property to pervade your home until such time comes that each character becomes “too childish” for your offspring, whereupon another character set is selected and the omni-media experience repeats.

Celebrity-based Omni-media: Serial format targeted at adults. Same as Toy-based Omni-media, only centered around Actual Famous People rather than fictional characters.

Literary House (for Andrew Losowsky): Extended intermittent long-form multi-media real-life game experience. You reside for an extended period in a house blessed or haunted by a narrative. Aspects of the narrative are ingrained in the decor, interaction, and, in particularly bespoke circumstances, confederate actors that can act as roommates or neighbors. Most spectacular recent example is the gothic Usher house which was sold for $11.5 million in 2023.

Why I’m Here

Public domain image by Jimos

Public domain image by Jimos

The page is terrifying and liberating. I want to layer it on top of my ideas, to place the world around it and beneath it. I want it to lock down my thoughts so I can keep them on my shelves and look back on them like memories.

Writing freezes a moment and reinforces our memory. Soon the words are shaping our collections of recollections.

I like to sit inside books when I open their hinges, and to feel protected by their fixed boundaries. As soon as those boundaries are taken away, dissolved, reshaped to include everyone at once and nobody in charge, how do I stay on the path? Why do I feel like I need a path? I experience the world through my own experience, and I only hear one voice at a time in my head, writing my narrative for me, as I do. If we open the page to the cacophony, what does it sound like?

You can never cross the same river twice. Can we ever read the same book as another person? Can we ever write the same book as a group?

If we try to organize, to funnel and then filter the best and worst ideas, how much are we going to reinforce cultural assumptions and push away divergent thoughts and experiences?

Words were created to fix information and to lock it down so that it didn’t change whenever we might look at it. If the words keep changing, how long before we start to break them?

Who is the author? Once the text is out there, do they ever stop being the author?

Bay Area author Rebecca Solnit: “Writing is the act of saying to everyone and to no-one what you cannot bring yourself to say to someone.”

Is the future of reading the act of everyone talking to someone, instead of vice versa?

I am here because I don’t know if there are any answers. But I want to find better questions.

Why I’m Here


I’m here to explore the changes that have been happening in publishing and writing as a result of the changing ways that people are reading. Over the past 30 years, the relationship between the writer and the page has changed. What a page actually is has changed. What happens to the pages you write has changed. Many people of varying skills and energy levels have been empowered to write and imagine on the Internet, first in the form of blogs and posts, and more recently, with the advent of easy self-publishing and self-enabled distribution (whether via individual or collective websites or via Amazon and other self-publishing programs).

How will readers sort this out? How will writers sort it out? Will publishers die out and be replaced by platforms? Will more sophisticated sorting systems be developed, beyond the inevitable and inaccurate “More like this”? As a writer I am totally convinced of my value—or rather, the value of my work—to some readers, but in the great noise of the Internet I am not so convinced that those readers will find me or that I will find them.

I am also concerned about exploring new ways of reading and integrating material. William Gibson has sometimes described himself as a collage artist, and I think the changing nature of prose, influenced by hypertextual communication (mainly now in linking, but also possible using more direct hypertext tools), will increase both readers’ and writers’ ability to think several things at once, and to understand multiple associations—sort of living footnotes or interlineations, if you will.

The Medieval manuscripts we were looking at earlier this morning at Stanford University Libraries’ The Circle of the Sun exhibit utilize these same hypertextual additions, limited by the size and format of the manuscript. Experimental writers have long made such associations explicit, but they have had to overcome the constraints of the printed page. We now have a way to create unlimited associations between texts. Is there a way to incorporate that ability into entertaining, accessible works? Are readers becoming better educated in how to read such works, as they leap about the web? Are sophisticated computer games books? There are some excellent writers (Marc Laidlaw and Maureen F. McHugh, among others) involved in creating them.

Certainly the possibilities for a sort of layered, sequential collaboration are here. In Japan, for instance, Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine (1990) was published with a sort of glossary that I had created in English as a friendly critical analysis of the novel (Gunn 1990). Note: the authors of a work many not be happy with this kind of unplanned “collaboration,” but contemporary literary criticism could unfold the meanings of a work in a very interesting way. (Interesting at least for people who are comfortable with handling multiple meanings in a single phrase. Many readers are not.) Aside from criticism, planned narrative collaboration of this sort would probably be interesting and fun to develop.

Writing and publishing have a long history of collaboration: it takes many people to produce a book. With new technologies, the ongoing (post-publication) collaboration between a book and its readers may become more evident.

“Why Am I Here?” the Man Asked


What’s the purpose of a “sprint beyond the book”? I guess I’m here to find out.

I am both a book designer and a writer about typography and design, a typographer and an editor, an editorial designer and a reader. All those aspects of publishing and reading seem completely interrelated to me; I’m always surprised when someone concentrates on only one part or another. This “Sprint Beyond the Book” seems like an invitation to explore the ways in which all these parts fit together—not just today, or traditionally, but also in the future.

I’m not interested in just jettisoning the past of publishing and leaping bright-eyed into the unformed future without a thought. Nor am I interested in just re-creating the past of publishing in new forms, though I am committed to maintaining the strengths and the best traditions of book publishing and extending them in new ways.

E-books have followed the pattern set by other new technologies: like the earliest movies, which imitated stage plays, e-books have been imitating printed books, as though transferring a page spread from a printed book onto a screen would somehow be satisfactory. The reading medium is different. Besides obvious differences like backlit projected light rather than reflective light from a printed page (and the in-between forms of e-ink and its progeny), the most fundamental thing about how we read onscreen is that there are many screens: they’re not the same size, nor the same resolution, not necessarily the same aspect ratio (shape), and we look at them in a wide variety of physical situations (sitting at a desk, holding a tablet or laptop in, well, our lap, or peering at a phone screen in bright sunlight on a windy day).

As readers, we’ve gotten used to being able to change how what we’re reading is formatted—most obviously by increasing or decreasing the size of the letters. Just the act of changing the font size changes everything about the composition of the page; all those aspects of text design that a good book or editorial designer pays close attention to (and that a reader should never even notice, if they’re successful) get screwed up when the format is malleable.

What we need, then, is book pages that are smart, that adapt their design intelligently to changing circumstances; book designers of the future need tools that let us make decisions about how the design ought to change, so that we can set defaults for an e-book that will make it inviting and easy to read. (The user—the reader—may well change their settings from the defaults; but 99% of people never change the defaults at all, so they’d better be designed to work well right from the start.)

As the type designer Cyrus Highsmith has pointed out in his witty little book Inside Paragraphs (2012), the paragraph is the fundamental unit of how we read any extended text. And it’s the formatting of that paragraph that makes it readable. Starting with the invention of the word space in the Middle Ages, we’ve found ways to orchestrate and annotate the written word to make it easier to read. That’s what punctuation is all about; as Robert Bringhurst (1992) says, it’s essentially musical notation, telling us how to read the words. The typographer’s tools—line length, font size, color, spacing between letters and words and lines—all exist to help the author communicate and the reader hear.

So we’ve got our job cut out for us: to make up new forms for the book that preserve the values of reading and writing and publishing, while extending them into new areas and discovering what we can add to the art of cultural transmission.

Why Indeed?


Why am I here?
Why do I let myself get sucked into strange and quixotic ventures on little more than an email invitation?
Is free coffee and tasty cookies reason enough?
Is it because I have asked more than my fair share of friends, friends of friends, and people I admire from afar on the Internet to write for me, for free?
Why did those people say yes?
Was it the parties?
Was it a vacation from other more pressing work that actually pays the bills?
Is being easy just my way of paying off that karmic debt?
Is it worth making payments on a debt that can never be cleared in full?
Speaking of money, has anyone here cracked the code on making money on writing?
How many people here are real writers?
What makes a person a real writer?
How many terrible things does a person need to write before they write well enough to win a Nebula award? Or any award?
Does anyone else here have difficulty just finishing books?
Does anyone else here have difficulty just starting writing?
Is this the future of writing?
Is the future of writing a series of favors, paid forward, with fun parties and nice snacks, or is there something more here?
Does there need to be anything more?

Why I’m Back In the Book Sprint…


The “Sprint Beyond the Book” has arrived on my turf—Silicon Valley—for a three-day session at Stanford University. I’m here to keep exploring.

As I wrote when I participated in the project last fall at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I’m here for two main reasons:

First, as a writer who’s been trying to push boundaries for years, I’m keen to learn more about where authoring, publishing and reading (all in the broadest sense) are heading as we evolve away from our traditional manufacturing models. Second, I’m sitting at a table with authors and thinkers I admire.

Iqra: Read by Swamibu / © Some rights reserved.

Publishing, or whatever we want to call the process of making books (whatever they are in this new era), is an ecosystem, not a a process or an industry. The creative process should be central to the production of media of all kinds, but in the traditional publishing world it was subsumed to the needs of the publishing companies. Now, it’s all about getting the creator’s ideas into the hands, and brains, of the people who are interested in the topic.

I’m especially glad that this week’s gathering is ranging beyond “authors” in the traditional sense of the word. In particular, people who focus on design are part of the mix—and we need them in a big way. Books have gone through centuries of design evolution, with the result we’d expect: a physical book, done right, is a pleasure to hold and to read.

Now that we’re moving everything into digital forms, we are all rethinking—among other things—a) what a book is; b) what kind of media it can include; c) what it should look like; d) how it should work interactively; and e) how we can ensure that at least some authors get paid for what they do.

Among the things I’m looking forward to discussing here is what we can include in the category of “book”—media of various kinds (video, games, etc.), conversations with audiences, and more—while focusing more on the “reader.” The words “book” and “reader” are in quotes because they feel inadequate to what we’re going to be doing, as creators and audiences, in coming years. Do we need new words? Probably not; we still “dial” phones even though rotary dials left the scene decades ago, and people create “films” that have never been within a mile of celluloid.

Like most authors I tend to write what interests me, figuring that if I care someone else will, too. As I work on a new project—a book (and more) about who controls technology and communications and how we can reverse what I consider a pernicious trend of centralization—I’ve been wondering what I can do to make it more useful, and compelling, to the people who are concerned about what’s happening. My last book included a WordPress installation (with lesson plans) for teachers. This one will include a MOOC, a massive open online course, that I hope will help people understand what’s at stake and do something about it.

Needless to say, I plan to do more listening here than than talking. Here we go.

Event: The Future of Reading

The Future of Reading

Terrace Room, 4th floor
Margaret Jacks Hall
Tuesday, May 13
4 pm

How is reading being transformed by digital platforms, democratized publishing, experimental book design, and other social, technological, economic, and aesthetic forces? Join us for a discussion of the future of reading, and learn about Sprint Beyond the Book, an experiment in collaborative, performative publishing unfolding at Stanford University from May 12-14.


Mark Algee-Hewitt

Ed Finn

Dan Gillmor

Eileen Gunn

David Rothenberg

Download the Event Poster

Unbound Pages


Originally published in The Magazine, Issue #13, March 28, 2013

Reading is a cultural act. What we preserve in writing and pass on through reading is our cultural knowledge, whether it’s instructions on how to change a lightbulb or a lyric poem written in response to someone’s death. For more than half a millennium we have relied on printed books for transmission of culture, along with an ever-expanding cloud of printed ephemera.

In recent decades, our dissemination of written knowledge has expanded without the need for physical printing. But we’re still learning how to read the unprinted word; and the people who lay out pages for readers are just now figuring out how to present those words in an easy-to-read form. That form isn’t always the same as the ones developed for books, magazines, and other members of the print family.

As the late Bill Hill liked to say, “No one ever asked us to upgrade to Reading Version 2.0.” Bill Hill was the co-inventor, with Bert Keely, of ClearType, software developed at Microsoft (one of my former employers) to increase the apparent resolution of type, making letters onscreen appear sharper. “We tend to take reading for granted,” said Hill, “since we learn how to do it at about five years of age, and we continue to use the same basic technique for our whole lives.”

Read Me a River

The mechanism of human reading hasn’t changed since we were puzzling out what shamans scratched onto tortoise shells or squinting at a bill of lading in cuneiform pressed into a clay tablet. Our eyes haven’t grown any bigger or shrunk any smaller, our arms still hold what we’re reading about the same distance from our eyes, and the size of the letters or other symbols that we’re comfortable reading for any length of time still falls within a narrow range.

If you’re reading this on an iPhone or iPad, you see the result of a whole series of decisions about how to present these pages in iOS in an attractive and readable form. It’s a static page—scrollable, but otherwise unchanging, except that the lines break differently if you turn your device from a vertical position to a horizontal one. (Different choices were made for the web, where there are more variables.)

The iOS app for The Magazine [where this article originally appeared] determines its articles’ typeface, set at a particular (but adjustable) size and with a particular amount of space between the lines. It also determines the margins around the text block, and all the other aspects of the appearance of the page.

But what is a page? In a printed book, that’s an easy question to answer: the page is one side of a sheet of paper. Or more precisely, the surface of one of the sheets of paper that, when they’re folded, trimmed, and bound, make up the book. The content of that page—text, titles, illustrations, captions, whatever—has to fit somehow onto that surface. The essence of a book is a lot of pages, bound together, with text sprawling across those pages in sequence, page after page.

The same can be true on a screen (any kind of screen, from a phone to a home cinema). Just as you’d lay out a page of text to fit on the printed page, you can lay out a screen “page” of text to fit on the screen. If your book is going to be read on several different kinds of devices, you can design the pages differently for each device (an iPad screen, for instance, versus a Nexus 7). But that’s still a static format: one page to one screen.

Another approach is to think of the screen as just a window onto a large page: you scroll up or down or right or left to see other parts of the page. We think of this as unique to computer screens, but in fact it reflects the way books were often composed before the format we’re used to—separate sheets bound down one side—became common. (That is called the codex format. Not to be confused with a software codec.) With an ancient scroll, the reader held the two rolls of the scroll, one in each hand, and read the page that was displayed in between. (Unlike what we see in mock-medieval movies when a proclamation is being read, book scrolls were held horizontally, not vertically.)

The “page” then was a block of text, written in relatively short lines and read, like a codex page, from top to bottom. The scroll was essentially a series of pages side by side, with the unseen pages rolled up on either side. The normal page of a scroll had lines noticeably shorter than a lot of our modern books, and the handwritten letters were usually larger than the printed letters we see today in, say, a newspaper or a mass-market paperback. But not by much.

On a screen, the fundamental design question is whether to make the page larger than will fit on a single screen, so that you have to scroll down or sideways to read, or to design a page that fits exactly into the visible area of the screen. (With a real physical scroll, the motion of “scrolling” moved from one page to the next, not down a single long page.) What you’re reading right now in The Magazine takes the former tack; you have to scroll down to read the rest of this article.

Pew Survey Finds Rising E-Reading, Continued Dominance of Print


A January 2014 survey from the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project demonstrates that while e-reading and e-reader ownership is on the rise, print isn’t going anywhere either. About 70% of U.S. adults read a print book in the last year, and only 4% of readers are “e-book only.”

The typical U.S. adult read 5 books in the past year (the average number is 12, thanks to a small group of avid bookworms), and 50% of Americans now own a handheld device like a tablet or e-reader. More and more Americans are turning to tablets for e-reading, although the number of adults that own a dedicated reading device like a Kindle, Nook or Kobo jumped from 24% in September 2013 to 32% in January 2014.

At our “Knowledge Systems” book sprint in January, many of our collaborators wrote about the continued vitality of print books, as well as the great degree of cultural capital and nostalgia that has congealed around the printed, bound word. This Pew study finds that while Americans become increasingly comfortable with e-reading, their fundamental relationship with the worlds of words and literature continues to be an analog one.

Read the full results of the survey by Kathryn Zickuhr and Lee Rainie at the Pew Research Internet Project:


Image courtesy of Pam Lau, used under a Creative Commons license. Thanks Pam!

Skeptics Online


For about a year now I’ve been an active member on the Skeptics forum within the Stack Exchange (SE) network. Stack Exchange bills itself as “a fast-growing network of 114 question and answer sites on diverse topics from software programming to cooking to photography and gaming.” Many of my readers will be familiar with Stack Overflow, the site for professional and enthusiast programmers. Stack Overflow shows up frequently in search results about various software- and programming-related queries. The other sites in the network are less popular by several degrees of magnitude, but they also have more of a community feel. On Skeptics, the core group is small enough to recognize its members by name.

My purpose here is to describe this little corner of the Internet, both as an ethnographic exercise and as a moment of self-reflection. At the very least, I hope to capture a snapshot of the quickly evolving life of an online forum. All Stack Exchange sites look and work the same way, using the same underlying software service. The idea of question and answer forums has been around since the early pre-Internet days of bulletin boards: you visit, write a post that asks a question, and hope someone answers. SE improved on that model by seeking not just an answer, but the definitive answer. Where general forums encourage open-ended discussion, SE is set up to finish the conversation. In a perfect world, a question should have one succinct answer. That is what makes SE so popular. Where, on other forums, the answer is hidden in a long string of replies, SE prominently features the definitive answer on top of the pile of responses.

Like many other social web sites, SE is heavily “gamified.” Active users get points for good questions/answers and badges for various achievements (like answering a particularly old question, for example). A registered user is able to vote on the quality of the post (in a binary way, either up or down), adding to the total count of the author’s reputation points. The end effect is a system of social filtration. Poorly-received posts “sink” to the bottom of the pile. Quality content “floats” to the top.

Points and badges (which are the essence of gamification) can feel infantilizing sometimes, but in this case the achievements are tied to real editorial privileges. It takes roughly 125 points (at 10 points per upvote) to be able to downvote someone, for example. At 2,000 points, a member can start editing all questions and answers (and not just her own). The ability to vote to delete posts from the site entirely kicks in at 3,000 points. 20,000 points grant further editorial privileges. Interestingly enough, the community moderators are elected in an open election that does not require a reputation threshold. Of course most moderators (who can do things like change the look and feel of the site) tend to be long-time contributors to the community. This model of governance rewards stable identities and active, high-quality participation. (The quality part is an important piece here. Other reward systems encourage quantity over quality, which can result in the frequent appearance of repeated “meme” content. At SE, such posts would be voted down and some effort is taken to remove duplicate content).

The Skeptics forum has high evidential standards. Questions must present a notable claim—something that appears in popular media, for example. Similar to the Wikipedia policy, SE answers should not contain popular research, relying rather on peer-reviewed scholarship and other reputable sources. When the answer is good, other members of the community may ask for further clarification, better source material, or offer other editorial suggestions. And, although it is not required, the person asking the question is encouraged to accept the correct answer, which brings a few extra points to the answerer.

SE sites tend to cluster around communities of expertise, like programming, physics, photography, and English language usage. The Skeptics community differs slightly from these in that it is a forum for applying the general principles of scientific skepticism. The site specializes in debunking notable bogus claims, popular misconceptions, pseudo science, and superstition of all kind. Medicine comprises the most popular category by far, with nutrition and history following close behind. My most popular answers on the site include “Do wild dogs use trains to commute to and from Moscow?” (yes they do),1 “Did only a handful of people in Europe know how to do division before the 13th century?” (no, long for division was widely known at the time),2 and “Did the Ancient Egyptians use twenty-sided dice?” (yes!).3

Writing these posts is time consuming, taking anywhere between a few hours (when the answer is limited to simple citation) and a few days (when it requires extensive synthesis). Why do I contribute?

First, I find it relaxing. There is great pleasure in using my research skills in areas which I don’t normally encounter in my professional life. Second, I believe in the cause of tough-minded skepticism. It is the sort of thing that often goes by the name of “critical thinking,” even though few are willing to apply it to all aspects of their belief. Third, I feel compelled to do it as a small measure of civic duty or citizen scholarship. I have easy access to university resources like PubMed and JSTOR, which are closed to the rest of the world. It takes me just a few minutes to answer questions like “Do girls mature more quickly than boys?”4 or “Is the value of a tree $193,250?”5 using fairly reliable, state-of-the-art sources. Finally, I find in Stack Exchange a powerful model for academic publishing (or publishing of any kind for that matter). Running a journal requires an enormous amount of work (by editors, managing editors, and reviewers). Most of this labor is invisible and, for the most part, unrewarded. We could learn a lot about streamlining the peer-review process from communities like SE. Imagine, for example, accruing reputation points for being an active reviewer (or being on time with your comments), and then trading those points for expanded editorial privileges or for faster turn-around times when submitting your own articles for publication.