In my scholarly life, I research the ways that people use language in social media contexts. To do this, I use two methods/approaches to language—the so-called “New Literacy Studies” (NLS) framework and something called “North American rhetorical genre studies” (RGS). I basically spend a lot of time participating in and observing social media communities and contexts, watching for trends and patterns to emerge. I try to determine whether these practices are recurring enough to be a “thing” (a genre), and if so, how and why they work the way they do.

For example, I’m interested in how hashtags were once designed and used primarily to sort information, but over time have become more metacommunicative and contextualized for certain purposes and populations. What might have started as a wayfinding tool to enable searches within big data sets (#tbt—short for “throwback Thursday” or #sorrynotsorry or #sherlocklives) is now an identity expression used to signal membership within an online network or space. Communities of social media users are retaining the hashtag form but redesigning its function in order to achieve specific rhetorical objectives.

The very act of posting via social media has its own language depending on what’s being posted by whom and in what context and for what platform. What it means to tag an image in Tumblr, for example, is markedly different from tagging images on Instagram. Pinterest uses the hashtag (#) form, for example, but its function is essentially useless as an organizational tool for searching (as of the writing of this post, anyway; that might change).

Therefore it is only through sustained, contextualized participation in these social media communities that users come to redesign language forms in order to achieve new meanings. And each community or network has its own (often strong) opinion regarding what things mean and even how they should mean (e.g., see the numerous anti-hashtag Facebook groups, or the regular debates among Imgur users about whether hashtags should be used there in the ways that they’re used on Tumblr). Perhaps not surprisingly, this is very close to the way that language works in offline networks as well.

Language has always been social, and it has always been a product of particular situations as they arise within specific communities. Even in the dark ages, monks were writing notes to each other in the margins of Latin texts. Therefore any discussion of how texts work must necessarily include a study of the places from which those texts were born. Language and culture are inextricable. Social and digital media forms must reflect their cultural ecologies.

Of course this presents an interesting methodological problem for those of us who study these things. Is it possible to study how language works without participating in its community? Yes, but I would argue that the “emic” (as opposed to “etic”) perspective gained via participant observation and ethnographic data collection will yield the most accurate and nuanced understanding of language-in-use. Can a great study of Twitter be conducted via a “scrape” of a large set of data? Absolutely. But the questions I hope to answer in my research require me to work from the inside-out. I guess I’m just one of those scholars who believes the richest knowledge about language, writing, and literacy comes from my direct experience with the people who are producing new meaning-making practices via social media every day.

Social Reading and Writing: The Long View


Reading and Writing have always been profoundly social experiences. It’s the reification of ideas into printed, persistent objects that obscures the social aspect so much so, that our culture portrays them as among the most solitary of behaviors. This is because in the print era, what we characterize as social takes place outside the pages—around the water cooler, at the dinner table, and on the pages of other publications in the form of reviews, citations, and bibliographies. From that perspective, moving texts from page to screen doesn’t make them social so much as it allows the social aspects to come forward and to multiply in value.

That said, the transition will take time. Not only do we need new reading and writing platforms which capitalize on the social affordances of digital networks, but the fundamental value proposition of our educational institutions—which rewards solely on the basis of individual effort—needs to change as well. “Plays well with others” may appear as a marker on primary school report cards but is rapidly discarded as children move up and out of the educational system.

So it’s not just that we need new tools: we need a culture which rewards collaboration. Realistically, the breadth of knowledge in any one area is so huge today that individuals can’t be expected to possess a comprehensive grasp of a field or even a question within it. There’s a wonderful phrase from computer pioneer Alan Kay, that “point of view is worth 80 IQ points.” Bringing different perspectives to bear on a problem is likely to yield better answers, syntheses that no individual is likely to get to on her own.

Asocial Text


Writing is a fundamentally social activity. Even when you do it alone, in a locked room, wearing your new noise-canceling headphones, you are (hopefully) writing for someone. A private language, says Dr. Wittgenstein, is an impossibility. Reading is a social activity too, because at the very least, it is an encounter of two minds. But usually, there are many more minds involved: other texts, other writers, co-authors, co-readers, book clubs, literature professors, snooty bookstore employees, publishers, and book critics.

Yet, these are quiet social encounters. They require a measure of focus, solitude, and introspection. It would be a mistake then to envision the future of the book simply in terms of social media. Part of what makes a book a book is its ability to block a part of the present physical world in favor of atemporal virtual reality. The book literally blocks vision. It privileges mental constructs over immediate input of the senses. To be lost in a book is to project one’s sense of being into another world.

Let’s imagine then a better book, one that further protects the sanctity of mental life, at least for the duration of reading. Imagine a book which, when opened, literally surrounds its reader in a protective cocoon. Imagine a book that can balance the reader’s dopamine levels. Imagine a wearable winter coat book, a pillow and blanket book, an umbrella book, a climate-controlled book built like a house or a nuclear fallout shelter or a biodome.

Paper, as it turns out, is a pretty durable material—much more durable than, let’s say, silicon chips or copper circuit boards. It can also be used for insulation, it bends and burns better, and can make for versatile construction material (for the folding of paper planes, for example). I say this without irony and without fetishism or nostalgia. Whatever technology comes beyond the book, it should at the very least do all those things better than cloth and paper.

United in Hate-Reading


The filter bubble is often discussed in terms of affinity: Online, the theory goes, we congregate around our likes and our passions, whether they are political causes or My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

But hatred also unites people—and I’m not talking about the loathsome outposts of racists and misogynists. Many people—most of us—cherish at least the occasional hate-read, delighting in something that irks, irritates, and infuriates.

In 2013, after the New York Times examined the hate-read phenomenon, my Slate colleague Katy Waldman captured the psychology behind it:

No doubt some hate-reading comes from a place of bored or dissatisfied loneliness. (Where are my betches? Why aren’t I in Vegas? I despise you, Instagrammed artisanal blueberry-clove cupcake-on-a-doily!) But maybe one’s deep scholarship of detestable crap on the Web is more than just the expression of an inferiority complex. Maybe it is an outlet, a way to access or exorcise extreme passion, sort of like watching a horror movie. The Greek tragedians knew that getting worked up is more than entertaining—it’s cathartic. And the experience of hate-reading is one part pure transport, one part fascination with the intensity of one’s own feelings, and one part something else. This third rail of hate-reading, I think, is what redeems it. At its best, hate-reading highlights something lighthearted and even anti-hateful in us: a playful capacity to be amused by (and thus step back from) our own contempt.

But hate-reading is not just a solo activity. Many an Internet community is built on such shared amusement and contempt. These are not trolls, in that they are not solely trying to provoke outrage, though they may delight in driving someone off—making a blogger “flounce” from the Internet. Rather, they are seeking and developing communities that are, in their own way, affirming.

Perhaps the best example is Television Without Pity, whose motto is “Spare the snark, spoil the networks.” TWOP, which was purchased by NBC Universal’s Bravo Media LLC in 2007, offers a space for people to dissect the shows they hate to love and love to hate. In TWOP forums, viewers compete to find plot holes and, for reality TV, continuity flaws, or evidence of producer machinations; an earnest, as opposed to ironic, defender of a show may find herself mocked by commenter after commenter. Sourness and crankiness are virtues.

Similarly, bloggers who evince strident philosophies or worldviews—especially when it comes to parenting—may find their fan communities invaded by groups of those who wait eagerly for new posts to appear so they can cut them down. Sometimes, the hate-read contingent can bring a blogger down, either because she can’t stand the criticism any longer or because they uncover questionable information about her. (For instance, devoted critics of the mommy blogger MckMama dug into her bankruptcy and created not one, but multiple, forums where they could trade theories and rumors about her.)

When the uninitiated encounter such sites online, they often ask: Don’t you have a life? For many, the answer may well be no; if you are a rumormonger at heart but have no one about whom to gossip, snark communities like these can provide a target, peers, and affirmation that their hobby isn’t bad or unusual.

These hate-read-based communities can offer incisive observations about culture, entertainment, and politics, but the worthwhile material is often buried among vitriolic pointing-and-laughing and cheap shots. Smarter hate-readers give glimpses of being capable of creating commentary that rises above gossip and cruelty, and indeed they may do so elsewhere. But the lack of empathy for the subjects of their criticism—whether a parent blogger or the producers of a show—is notable, and makes me wonder: Are they venting in a way that allows them to be more kind and tolerant in their in-person reactions, or can rather mean-spirited thought processes online seep into “real” lives, thus leaving them more isolated and in need of hate-read communities more than ever?

When Books Go Blu-ray


50 GB still seems pretty big to me. We can all date ourselves in the computer age by the amount of storage that first seemed huge. I was 11 when my father brought home a computer that had 220 Megabytes on its hard drive, and it was like the new sublime, until I tried importing a CD in WAV format; I remember looking in horror at how much of that space Pearl Jam’s Ten took up on that previously sublime amount of space.

But 50 GB, that’s still pretty big for a book, right? I take it from the standard size of Blu-ray discs of movies, which confer upon most blockbusters (and even movies that score very low—very rotten—on RottenTomatoes.com) the laurels of multiple commentary tracks, interactive features,  making-of featurettes, and so forth. It feels to me like a “deluxe” treatment for a movie that came out last year.  Even though this treatment seems to be a purely industry-driven form of added value, at the same time, why not?

So: What would a 50-GB edition of a book look like?

Or, to ask it another way: what materials would be worth putting onto a sublimely huge edition of a contemporary book?

We have great models already, of course. The Norton Critical Editions series is great, and I teach with these all the time: they collect a good edition of a text with explanatory footnotes, letters from the author, information about different editions of the text, early reviews of the novel, and excerpts from critical essays. The edition of Nella Larsen’s Passing, a novel about an African American woman passing for white in 1920s New York, contains news clippings and other materials about a major contemporary court ruling on a “passing” case, as well as excerpts from many of the other books from that era that also addressed passing as a social issue. I love teaching students from this edition, and it’s just paper, but: this is still in the Mere Megabytes. (It would even have fit onto that 220 MB hard drive in 1992.)

There are lots of terrific online archives for authors like Walt Whitman, the pre-Raphaelites, Marcel Proust, Miguel de Cervantes, and many, many others. These stretch our imagination about what a “deluxe” treatment would be for a great book—images, sound recordings, films, and more that can enhance the experience of learning about a text—and they’re also edging into Gigabyte Territory.

The big change with contemporary fiction in the age of the web has been just how much readers and critics respond to texts on fan sites, discussion forums, fiction sites, and in other creative modes—I think that’s how we fill our Blu-ray book. And I think such a book would be an amazing record of what books do—and what we do with books—in the world. The Blu-ray book would trace as much of the network of a book’s presence on the web as possible, aiming for the maximum. We could have an edition of Twilight that aggregates fan fiction, discussion forums, records of cosplay events, and so forth.

Would we read it all? Probably not, but we could create features that would make it navigable. If we want to read fan stories with particular tags—centering on a particular character, with a certain number of “thumbs-up,” or in a particular alternate world of the novel. And sure, this “edition” of a novel is already how the most avid readers interact with a text already. Imagine the way a Harry Potter fan might scour the web for more fiction and discussion about Ronald Weasley’s further adventures at Hogwarts.

The 50-GB book would have to be dynamic. (Wait: okay, if our hypothetical book has to be an object, then let’s say it’s a rewritable Blu-ray disc). Scripts could aggregate the kinds of materials from fan sites I’ve mentioned already, along with allusions, TVtropes.com entries (the Wikipedia of the conventions of science fiction, fantasy, and more), reviews of the book in publications and on websites like Amazon and GoodReads, and so forth. We could add feeds into it, and it would change every time someone tagged a new allusion.

Most crucially to the Blu-ray book, we’ll be able to use computational methods to “zoom out”: we could make, say, word clouds, network visualizations, and other sorts of snapshots of the big phenomena that literature make in the world. The ability to zoom in and out, to consider the phenomena of literature as big data and as individual and collective stories, is certainly exciting to me.

And there is, to me, something both exciting and reassuring about the possibility of seeing the big-ness of the book, of bringing a text and its world well into Gigabyte Territory (for now). The Blu-ray book would be a demonstration of an important message for humanists, for publishers, and for policymakers: that people are as enthusiastic about good books now as they’ve ever been.

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.