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date: 23 October 2017

Reading Reception in the Digital Era

Summary and Keywords

The digital era offers a plethora of opportunities for readers to exchange opinions, share reading recommendations, and form ties with other readers. This communication often takes place in online environments, which presents reading researchers with new opportunities and challenges when investigating readers’ reading experiences.

What readers do with what they read is not a new topic of scholarly debate. As early as the 14th century, when scribes questioned how their readers understood their words, readers have been scrutinized. Contemporary reading investigations and theory formation began in earnest in the 1920s with I. A. Richards’s argument that the reader should be considered separate from the text. In the 1930s, Louise Rosenblatt furthered the discipline, using literature as an occasion for collective inquiry into both cultural and individual values and introducing the concerns for the phenomenological experience of reading and its intersubjectivity. While there is no universal theory of how readers read, more recent scholarly discourse illustrates a cluster of related views that see the reader and the text as complementary to one another in a variety of critical contexts.

With the advent of social media and Web 2.0, readers provide researchers with a host of opportunities to not only identify who they are, but to access in profound ways their individual and collective responses to the books they read. Reader responses on the Internet’s early email forums, or the contemporary iterations of browser-hosted groups such as Yahoo Groups or Google Groups, alongside book talk found on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, present data that can be analyzed through established or newly developed digital methods. Reviews and commentary on these platforms, in addition to the thousands of book blogs, Goodreads.com, LibraryThing.com, and readers’ reviews on bookseller websites illustrate cultural, economic, and social aspects of reading in ways that previously were often elusive to reading researchers.

Contemporary reading scholars bring to the analytical mix perspectives that enrich last century’s theories of unidentified readers. The methods illustrate the fertility available to contemporary investigations of readers and their books. Considered together, they allow scholars to contemplate the complexities of reading in the past, highlight the uniqueness of reading in the present, and provide material to help project into the future.

Keywords: reading reception, digital reading reception, social media, Web 2.0, interdisciplinary research, ethical research

New Sites for Investigating Reading Practices

Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, may seem to some as normal parts of everyday lives. Indeed, for some readers, social media has been part of how one communicates with friends, family, and even strangers for the better part of their lives. When some of the first scholarly research about reading reception in an online environment appeared, however, these platforms did not exist. At the turn of the 21st century, interactive websites, now referred to as “Web 2.0,” were where readers met online to discuss the books they were reading and to create various kinds of communities. Since then, various iterations of social media have appeared (and disappeared). These platforms are not only spaces where readers respond to what they are reading, share recommendations for future reading, and create connections to other readers. The unique technologies also offer researchers opportunities to better understand reading in the contemporary moment.

Web 2.0 and social media platforms, and the resultant discipline of new media studies, have become investigative sites for reading researchers, historical and contemporary. In order to best understand those sites, conversations between literary analysts, communication scholars, information scientists, and historians are necessarily taking place.

The research realm of contemporary reading response includes, but is not limited to, the following questions: Who reads what, and why? What kinds of influence do social relationships have on those decisions? What pleasures or displeasure do readers express, and what do those responses look like? That is, what language do readers use in writing about their reading, in making sound or video files about their reading, or in producing images—such as an Instagram photo of the book pile on their nightstand—about what they read?

A Brief Introduction to Theorizing Reading Response

In her keynote address to the delegates of the 2015 Annual Conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing in Montreal, Quebec, book historian Leslie Howsam encouraged the audience to think about the wide range of material ways that people over time have produced, distributed, consumed, and shared knowledge and stories. She challenged scholars to set aside disciplinary boundaries to effectively interrogate the “evolutionary change” facilitated by books. Rather than a discipline-specific account of reading response in a digital era, including where those responses take place, it is fruitful to look at the development of what Howsam calls an “interdiscipline” (approach) to account for the changing forms of the book, the platforms and communication channels that readers use to articulate their experiences, and ways that readers connect with publishers, booksellers, authors, and each other.1

For many scholars working in reading studies, or reception studies, Howsam’s call to broaden the disciplinary purview might seem unnecessary because our research has never really fit into specific disciplinary boundaries. Within literary studies, reading response research did not gain momentum until the turn of the 20th century.2

Contemporary reading investigations and theory formations did not began in earnest until the 1920s with literary critic and rhetorician I. A. Richards’s argument that the reader should be considered as separate from the text. Louise Rosenblatt furthered the theory in the 1930s.3 As an English literature educator in the mid-20th century, Rosenblatt used literature as an occasion for collective inquiry into both cultural and individual values, introducing concerns for the phenomenological experience of reading and its intersubjectivity.4 Since then, other researchers have approached this area of research from a variety of perspectives. Contemporary reader-response criticism is a heterogeneous practice that has come to describe the works of critics who use the reader, the reading process, and reading response as an area of investigation.5 Probing the practical and theoretical consequences of the reading event, reading response criticism interrogates the relationship between the private and the public; or how and where meaning is made, authenticated, and valorized; or why readers’ interpretations are consistent; or why they are not. Loosely sharing the idea that the text cannot have meaning, or even exist apart from its readers,6 reader-response critics provide different theories of the reader. These theories include, but are not limited to, the implied reader, whose responses are in part determined by the text itself and solidified by the reader filling in gaps;7 the sign reader, who applies complex sign systems to interpret the text;8 the model reader, who works with the author and the text to make sense of the story;9 and the resisting reader, who reacts to unbalanced power structures through the act of reading.10

These are only a few of the major considerations that informed reading response research at the turn of the last century. There is no single, widely agreed-upon theory of how readers read. However, more recent scholarly discourse illustrates totemic views that see the reader and the text as complementary to one another in a variety of critical contexts. More recently, that context includes the Internet.

To account for the ways readers participate in online spaces, one must take into consideration both individual and social ways of being in the world. While debates endure about whether reading is a solitary practice or a social one, when considering reading response that happens in online spaces, reading is necessarily a social activity. In a blog post on the website Graham Smith introduces a project book club by quoting Walter Benjamin:

The reader of novels differs from those who immerse themselves in a poem or follow the course of a play. Above all, he is alone, unlike the member of an audience, but also unlike someone reading a poem. The former has subsided into the crowd and shares its response, while the latter is willing to turn into a partner and lend his voice to the poem. The novel reader is alone and remains so for a good while. Moreover, in his solitude he takes possession of his material in a more jealous and exclusive way than the other two.11

While a reader might read “in solitude,” Simon R. Frost, Elizabeth Long, Claire Squires, Shafquat Towheed, Rosalind Crone, and Katie Halsey, among others, illustrate that reading has been always a socially embedded process.12 The “social infrastructure” of books and reading is “a network composed of intersecting material, technical, interpersonal, institutional, and discursive relations.”13 Shared reading is at once a social process and a social formation.14 In the first instance, when analyzing a reader’s individual reading practice, accounting for the social structures that bring a book into the hands of a reader, such as libraries, schools, family and friendship circles, and the publishing industry is imperative. From this perspective, reading is never an individual endeavor.

Robert Darnton argues that “books belong to circuits of communication,” and “by unearthing those circuits, historians can show that books do not merely recount history; they make it.”15 Using interdisciplinary research methods and more contemporary research frames that include the global movement of books and digital environments, such as that created by Padmini Ray Murray and Claire Squires, helps to make evident readers’ interactive role in book culture.16

Reading becomes much less of a solitary practice when considering what happens after a reader reads a book. Perhaps the clearest example of this is that millions of readers talk about a book in face-to-face settings by participating in book clubs. By bringing the various Internet platforms into the analytical frame, new individual and shared reading practices are made visible. Online spaces enable readers to augment their interactions with a book: by affording various points of access to the book itself, its author, its publisher, and other readers; by providing reading recommendations to one another and exchanging opinions about reading experiences; and, sometimes, through forming ties with other readers.

The Internet serves as a reminder “that books are no ordinary commodity but are heavily invested with symbolic value and deeply embedded” in social systems, as Anouk Lang argues in her introduction to From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.17 The cultural value of books is maintained by both institutional and less formal social systems. Readers, and the tools they use to articulate their responses to reading, participate in these systems and thus actively influence (and are influenced by) the status of books. Alongside the evolution of ways that readers share their interpretations are the digital technologies that assist or hinder reading researchers’ abilities to access and interpret responses to reading.

Social Media and Web 2.0 as Environments for Reading Response

Reader responses on the Internet’s early email forums, or the contemporary iterations of browser-hosted groups such as Yahoo Groups or Google Groups, alongside book talk found on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, present data that can be analyzed through traditional or newly developed digital methods. Reviews and commentary on these platforms, in addition to book blogs, reader websites such as Goodreads.com and LibraryThing.com, and bookseller websites illustrate cultural, economic, and social aspects of reading that have often been elusive to reading researchers. These “[public] fora—websites, comments, blogs (web-logs), message (or discussion) boards, and other related public online postings—have the benefit of being both public and personal as well as commonplace.”18 “Data” can be captured without the interference of a researcher. “Data” is in quotation marks because the word sometimes implies an impersonal and nonhumanistic approach to capturing how people think about, talk about, and use literature in their lives. And yet, the wide use of “data” across different research paradigms is perhaps an indication of the interdisciplinary nature of thinking about reading response in a digital era. Of course, along with often exciting access to new fields, texts, and data come ethical and methodological implications that researchers may never before have had to consider.

The public spaces of Web 2.0 and social media platforms are plural. That is, each platform offers users distinctive experiences that should not be considered identical. Different experiences are also available within each platform. For example, reading responses will be unique to private and public Facebook groups, and across those groups. To consider them as an aggregate is a deterministic view that limits the possibilities inherent in individual platforms and clouds the possibility of robust critique. As Barbara Fister argues,

the technical platforms we use to share [reading] experiences are mediated by both the commercial and cultural contexts of reading in the 21st century and by the choices designers of technical platforms make. LibraryThing has both a different business model and ethos from Goodreads, and the way these platforms have been designed shape the ways readers use them to interact with one another and with the public. These underlying design features matter.19

As an example, in 2011, Marwick and Boyd found that many tweeters use Twitter without knowing who will be reading their tweets, implying that when they tweet, they address an unknown public.20 Informal observations of Goodreads, on the other hand, suggest that reviewers assume real and imaginary audiences. Writing for an imagined public is much different than writing for one whose members could be considered part of a community, whether that community is ephemeral, geographical, political, or ideological.

Communication scholar José van Dijck provides a useful framework from which to begin analysis of social media platforms. Her model of individual platforms, which she calls “microsystems,” assumes a socioeconomic foundation consisting of six elements: technology, users/usage, content, ownership, governance, and business model.21 Each microsystem, and thus analytical frame, takes into account the differences in the back end of the platform, which always informs the front end—how readers use the platform and what scholars make of it.

Social media has been defined in various ways, and often overlaps with the interactive nature of the Internet that has been called Web 2.0. They are not necessarily the same thing: “social media” was originally conceived as a marketing term.22 The term “social media” is defined as “a specific set of internet-based, networked communication platforms. These use a business model of a database built by its own users. And they enable the convergence of public and personal communication.”23 Wikipedia, for example, is Web 2.0 technology because it is user generated, but the lack of opportunity for communication between users puts it outside of the social media definition, as does its not-for-profit status.

When readers use social media platforms to write, talk, or illustrate via producing and uploading photos, tagging, retweeting, or “liking,” they are performing “cultural work reflecting historical, ideological, social and aesthetic factors” that are collected into databases for commercial purposes.24 The gathering of the “data” into a database is sometimes called “big data,” but “big” has various definitions depending on academic fields and the ways in which it is managed and evaluated. Computer scientists define “big” as anything in the cloud, or extremely large amounts of data; in the humanities, “big” can be any amount of data that requires more than close reading; and, in the social sciences, “big” means entire populations instead of a sample or samples.25

Using technology helps to collect, manage, analyze, and report big data sets, but not all projects necessarily demand the often-criticized “distant reading” as opposed to the close reading associated with New Criticism and regularly practiced by literary studies scholars.26 Certainly, distant reading enabled by software can be useful, but this analysis requires human expertise to produce insights. Users of programs that “scrape” data from websites, such as Outwit Hub, or that perform automated sentiment analysis, discourse analysis, and social network analysis, know this. Close reading can result in rich scholarship when used in conjunction with distant reading.27

Applied linguistics often uses both close and distant reading to analyze the language of the novel or poem and the language readers use to talk about those texts, demonstrating links between narrative strategies and readers’ responses.28 Such analysis can illuminate “how that talk constructs and reflects the social contexts of its production.”29 Joan Swann and Daniel Allington, for example, used the computer-assisted software Atlas-ti to create quantifiable themes in readers’ talk, but necessarily had to use their own interpretive abilities to create codes to manage their data set of more than 300,000 words.30

When readers articulate their responses in online spaces, they may or may not be consciously adding to a dataset that is often commercialized. For example, readers who tweeted about American Gods during the first Twitter book club most likely were not thinking that their tweets could be mined by publishers for analysis that could be turned into potential advertising copy for Neil Gaiman’s next novel. Most likely, they were also not considering that academics would scrutinize what they posted to answer research questions.31

Researching Reading Online and Ethical Guidelines

Researchers come to their project from their own unique scholarly training, but each investigates the larger question of the place of reading in contemporary times utilizing scholarship from other disciplines. The intention is to provide not an exhaustive review but rather an overview of some of the different ways of investigating reading that the Internet makes possible. The examples are organized according to platforms, which should also not be considered fixed. Whatever the investigative site, ethical research practices are imperative because within this new environment, issues arise that heretofore have not required consideration.

A discussion of ethical research protocol is a necessity when humans are involved. This may not be a revelation to researchers in hard or social sciences, but it might be unfamiliar territory to researchers trained in the humanities. When investigating online, remembering the humanity behind the screen is a useful place to begin thinking about the project. The resulting research then works toward paying attention to universal codes of ethical research that call for “fundamental rights of human dignity, autonomy, protection, safety, maximization of benefits and minimization of harms, or in the most recent accepted phrasing, respect for persons, justice and beneficence.”32

Most, if not all, universities have a research ethics board that provides recommendations and vets applications. Members of the Association of Internet Researchers created the interdisciplinary and crosscultural guide, Ethical Decision Making in Internet Research: Version 2.0.33 The guide reflects the evolving Internet environment, and is appropriate for the interdisciplinary nature of contemporary reading research: it takes into account that researchers come to their projects from different perspectives and disciplinary assumptions, and work within diverse political and academic environments.34 The document also takes into account the diverse range of methodologies that we bring to our work, and provides examples and illustrations for all stages of a research project.

Early Book Groups on Chat Forums

Much about the various social media platforms today is reminiscent of early discussion boards, or what were called news groups and bulletin boards.35 Usenet, and later the commercial enterprises of CompuServe and AOL, facilitated forum discussions that have today evolved depending on ownership, business models, and users.

Google Groups, for example, facilitates discussions through a web interface or via email. From the main landing page, searching for “book club” identifies more than 6,500 groups. Some of the groups are no longer active, but many are younger than those found on Yahoo.com. This is not surprising considering that Yahoo groups were extremely popular in the late 1990s and for the first decade of the 21st century.

Although a search on Yahoo.com’s Groups page for “book club” or “book group” will bring up thousands of hits, many of the most recent posts were made in the mid-2000s. The groups’ interests and discussions include specific genres, regions of reader origin, and much more. The discussions are still accessible even though the last discernable reader post was made in 2011, and since then the automatic bots have filled the board with interesting, if irrelevant to reading, posts. With the rapid speed at which platforms change, this historical data is at risk of being lost. Website data mining might be useful for retrieval.36 In addition, a significant amount of groups are still active.

Barbara Fister wrote about her experiences with 4 Mystery Addicts, which remains an active group with more than 1,400 members, noting the social norms that form in discursive communities.37 Her more recent reflections highlight the unease that readers feel when norms are disrupted by commercial platform changes.38 Discourse analysis through a sociocultural perspective of reading responses that meet in chat forums also illustrates that “the affordances and constraints of such environments might shape book discussions, making some discussions more dialogical than others.”39 Analysis of online discussion book groups in chat forums or on Facebook also makes evident the cultural power of online moderators and illustrate the influence this power has on readers’ responses.40

Message boards that appear within websites are rich investigative sites. Jennifer Grek Martin, for example, used the cloud-based free text and social network analysis software Netlytic to analyze the discussion or message boards on TheOneRing.net.41 Her analysis of the discussion around J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations illustrates that the mental imagery the website readers/viewers get from reading and that which is presented visually work together to help readers understand space in Tolkien’s stories.

Reading Response in 140 Characters

Because of the public nature of Twitter—that is, because one does not need a password to see the discussions—it has been a particularly rich site from which to gather data. Equally notable is that as of June 30, 2016, the company estimated that there are 313 million users on the site, 79 percent of the accounts are outside of the United States, and more than forty languages are used in Twitter discussions.42 Researching this large, global communication platform may seem a daunting task, but mining data from social network sites does not require knowledge of computer programming or each platform’s application programming interface, although it is extremely useful to have a research collaborator on the team who both feels at home with program coding and is interested in how people use books, literature, and reading in their lives. Data mining, managing, and analysis tools have evolved to become (mostly) user friendly and (in some cases) inexpensive or free.

Shamanth Kumar, Fred Morstatter, and Liu Huan have made available a resource called Twitter Data Analytics, which outlines methods for finding, gathering, storing and managing, analyzing, and making visual representations of analysis.43 Making visual representations of findings is one of the benefits of using software tools that rely on datasets obtained from social media or other Internet sources. Almost all software makes this function available.

Anatoliy Gruzd and DeNel Rehberg Sedo used Netlytic to investigate Twitter’s first book club, One Book, One Twitter (#1b1t).44 The pair analyzed a corpus—“a corpus analysis relies on a conception of whole datasets as an ‘information space’ in which semantic features (words, hashtags, etc.) intersect in potentially interesting ways, irrespective of the time they are expressed.”45 They were able to visually demonstrate how the readers/tweeters were connected to one another and who held more cultural capital, which would not have been possible using only discourse or content analysis.

Twitter, as Beth Driscoll has written, is an embodiment of Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptualization of field—including the literary field—in that it makes obvious the actors within the field. “It shows the objective relations and interactions between a wide range of agents—publishers, readers, libraries and so on—inflected by the workings of a globally mobilised market and highly developed technological capabilities.”46

Driscoll’s analysis of the tweets made by audiences at the Melbourne Writers Festival highlights the unique relationship between readers, authors, and publishers enabled by contemporary digital communication tools. Driscoll’s analysis used corpus analysis and also what is referred to as “temporal” analysis. Leading up to the Melbourne Writers Festival, during the festival activities, and after closing, Driscoll was able to capture the festival’s “temporally unfolding narrative” through the official hashtags, which is how Twitter indexes information.47 Utilizing opinion mining, or what is often called sentiment analysis, with the software SentiStrength illustrated large patterns in the emotional language that the tweeters used. These patterns were tested against close readings of the tweets and quantitative survey findings of festival attendees to find that “attendance at literary festivals can be a prompt for public and private textual responses, and that these often articulate emotion. The emotional language in these responses is frequently linked to the experience of intimacy among audiences and presenters, and thus performs an important role in building the sense of cultural community that is at the core of the festival’s promise.”48

In Twitter, Literary Prizes and the Circulation of Capital, Driscoll illustrates how the rapidly changing landscape of social media affects readers’ engagement with contemporary print culture.49 By analyzing the corpus and temporal tweets around the 2012 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, Driscoll argues that Twitter users can gain social capital in the literary field by interacting in the Twitterverse before, during, and after a literary awards ceremony. Using the analytical tool Netlytic to collect, manage, and analyze 622 tweets, she draws links between the various actors in the Australian literary field. While the most prolific tweeters were not individual readers but rather cultural workers, such as librarians, literary programmers, and media professionals, Driscoll concludes, “When people or organisations associate themselves with a prize on Twitter, they mobilise and appropriate its cultural authority, media status and economic power.”50

In addition to Netlytic, NodeXL and Chorus are two of the many other software programs available for digital reading reception analysis.51 Most programs work for Twitter and the various other social media platforms where reading response takes place.

YouTube

The popular video upload social media platform has been owned by Google since 2006, and is host to thousands of book video bloggers, or “vloggers,” as they are known. Arguably one of the most influential young vloggers is Zoe Sugg, who hosts a W. H. Smith-sponsored book club. In June 2016, her young adult reading recommendations pushed author Amy Alward’s The Potion Diaries up nearly twenty-five thousand spots on Amazon’s British book charts within twenty-four hours of the video release.52 The video has had more than one million views since its release and has spurred response videos from other young readers, including Kala Blondie xo, Emma Oulton, and Sarah Churchill. Visiting Churchill’s channel on YouTube illustrates the media ecosystem of contemporary readers: in addition to the now ubiquitous Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ icon buttons that users can access, Churchill’s nearly eighteen thousand subscribers can also click through to her Tumblr, Instagram, and Goodreads accounts. Each of these accounts, including those of thousands of other youth and adult BookTubers, as they are commonly known, hosts space where other readers can make comments about books they are reading, have read, or want to read. Not only do the comments make visible youth’s reading responses, the tracing of network paths makes transparent the political economy of the publishing industry, which was identified by Marianne Martens in her study of online youth reading audiences.53

Social Cataloguing, Communication, and Community

Social media platforms usually evolve in ways that reflect earlier versions of communication technologies. Developers are often educated in similar programs and will move from company to company, taking with them their experience and knowledge.54 In turn, users will transfer their literacies from one platform to another. For example, Twitter users employ hashtags to categorize or amplify what they are saying, and they will use the same techniques on Instagram. The same logic holds for social media platforms that focus on books and reading. Reader-users of Goodreads, for example, can be “followed” by other reader-users, as on Twitter.

As Web 2.0 technologies became more common during the early years of the 21st century, the emerging niche social networks—such as Flikr or ClassMates.com—looked and functioned much like early message boards and social bookmarking websites, such as del.icio.us. Communication between reading niche social media users was, and to a large extent still is, facilitated through profile maintenance and virtual bookshelves, which, as Lisa Nakamura writes, have the function of “creating a bibliocentric as well as an egocentric network of public reading performance.”55 Book ratings, reviews, and recommendations that are evident on book-focused social media platforms are similar to those found on commercial bookseller websites. They, too, are rich sites for investigating contemporary reading reception.56 Through the various modes of communication, including tagging, readers are linked and often form communities around taste and preferences, or what Julian Pinder identifies as “affinity” in LibraryThing’s users.57

LibraryThing.com launched in 2005 and has outlived its more direct competitor, Shelfari, which was purchased by Amazon in 2008.58 In 2013, Amazon purchased Goodreads,59 another book-focused social networking site that boasts over fifty million reader accounts as of 2017.60 To the dissatisfaction of some Shelfari users, their files were migrated to Goodreads earlier this year.61 Interestingly, Amazon also owns AbeBooks, an online distribution bookseller, which has a “major stake” in LibraryThing.62 Amazon now owns an arguably very big “big data” base.

On first glance, Goodreads is a reading researcher’s dream site because of the sheer number of readers’ reviews: fifty million as of February 2017. Potential data appears in readers’ bookshelves, which include past reads, reading in process, and to-be-reads. There is also a star rating system of past reads, or as Matthew Sangster has written in his study of Goodreads reader reviews of China Miéville’s Bas-Lag series, of books “that they purport to have read—by its very nature, Goodreads is a space of social performance, with readers recording and advertising their tastes and adding to a collective body of opinion.”63 The unpaid cultural work that readers provide to “populate”—to use a social science term—the commercialized database also has the potential to become part of a scholarly researchable database. Such work on the part of readers should be acknowledged, respected, and protected.

Not Necessarily Social Media but Certainly Web 2.0

Technologies that are not necessarily social media platforms but that capture reading responses include blogs written and produced by both professional and nonprofessional readers and writers. Book blogs or “Litblogs,” as they are sometimes called, are not considered social media platforms because, while most enable comments and community participation, they do not create a user-generated database that is used for commercial purposes.64 They often link to the producer’s social media platforms, becoming part of the online book culture environment. Book blogs also have a profound influence on traditional media65 and the discussions around what constitutes as cultural authority.66

Other Web 2.0 technologies, such as hypertext narratives and fanfiction websites, bring into question the cultural value and the role that readers have in creating literature. These sites illustrate the evolution of not only reading experiences but also reading practices that infuse the writing experience. These texts in themselves provide data for the reading researcher. For example, in the cases of hyper- or interactive-fiction, readers are co-writers with the author, and the format of the book can have a profound influence on how readers respond to the story.67

Melanie Ramdarshan Bold’s analysis of Wattpad, a platform for new and established authors, demonstrates how authorship is evolving to include more interaction with readers (and other writers), and forcing new relationships with traditional publishing institutions: “Readers can be editors (beta readers) and can increase the circulation of the text through their own networks.”68

Readers are now curating the content, sifting through the morass of stories to pick the hits from the misses and choosing what authors they want to back and endorse. As this research has shown, without the constraints of publishing gatekeepers, new trends, authors and markets begin to emerge based on readers’ tastes, participation within these reading communities and personal relationships with the author and the texts.69

The data that these reading sites produce can be telling for the publishing industry and reading researchers, who have never had access to this process before, especially in such great numbers.

Electronic Paratexts

Electronic paratexts, which can be considered similar to print marginalia, are also new “sites” of investigation. E-book reading devices, such as Sony eReader, Kobo, and Amazon’s market-dominant Kindle products; as well as tablets, smartphones, and the apps that go with them, facilitate note taking and annotation and can be considered digital paratexts. The annotations and highlights are stored in the platform’s database and can be shared and viewed by other readers. They “[add] in non-textual and para-textual elements that approximate the experience of reading a material book as closely as possible while capitalizing on social media tools and trends to develop a social framework for reading on and offline.”70 While it might be unsettling to consider reading responses as collectible, categorizable, and therefore commercial,71 they also are indicative of “social reading, networked beyond location, through platforms that support the integration of technologically supported social networking into reading practices.”72 The data, according to the website, is made public only if the readers turn on “public notes” in their device settings.73 While researchers will have access only to the paratext made publicly available, Amazon—and certainly other electronic reader manufacturers, booksellers, and publishers—are adding the data to the rest of their big data. What they do with this data is a good question for a research project, both now and, more realistically—considering the proprietary potential of the data—for future book historians. Ted Striphas provides an early philosophical critique of the commodification of reading experiences as exemplified by Kindle and its big data: “Kindle objectifies reading by transforming a process into a recordable, transmissible thing. And it is precisely this existential work that invites comparisons of readers to laborers and of the fruits of their reading to personal property.”74 Is this what we as researchers do? Perhaps, and for this reason, we must pay attention to known ethical concerns, and to those yet to be discovered.

For a more theoretical debate about the future of writing and reading with and through e-readers, Ali Alizadeh and Jennifer Mitchell’s online public debate illustrates that discussions about the commercially held platforms that house readers’ responses and [material visual] engagement with texts themselves, their authors, and other readers are important ones that need to continue.75 That their arguments are published online is also an illustration that, without technology, some individuals would not be privy to the conversation.

The research that has been conducted on the digital paratexts enabled by electronic readers and apps indicates a deepening of thinking about readers and their reading practices. For example, Tully Barnett’s study of Kindle’s public notes offers a reconfigured understanding of youth reading practices by suggesting that the young people who use their Kindles to make connections and talk about books may be creating lifelong associations between reading and enjoyment.76 Simon Rowberry’s 2016 Reading Automata explains the aggregation of annotations and highlights that readers make on their e-reading devices, and how booksellers, such as Amazon, can use this data.77

Making History

Contemporary reading scholars bring to the analytical mix perspectives that enrich last century’s theories of unidentified readers. When studying readers’ responses in online environments, there are critical approaches across the interdisciplinary field of inquiry that should inform all studies. From the perspective of critical media literacy, Steven Funk, Douglas Kellner, and Jeff Share78 identify five elements that can be considered and adapted for reading reception studies. First, there is recognition that texts—in this case books, platforms, and reading responses—are not neutral, but rather they are social constructions. Second, languages, genres, codes, and conventions are specific to different platforms and are made evident through textual analysis. Third, readers will negotiate the meanings they make of their reading, which reflects their cultural literacy and readerly capital, and/or reputation management, and self-representation.79 Fourth, scholars must assure the “problematization of the process of representation to uncover and engage issues of ideology, power, and pleasure.”80 Finally, research requires careful analysis of the business models that shape the books, the social media platforms, and in some cases, the readers’ responses.

Individual researchers or small research groups conducted many of the studies highlighted, most were likely influenced by scholarly discussions that took place online. Three of the larger research projects facilitated by digital technologies provide starting points for new projects or provide data for ongoing queries. In addition, the projects address the larger research questions that contemporary reading researchers ask.

Collaborative digital projects that emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of the relationship readers have with the books they read, such as interviews with readers found on Reading Sheffield, illustrate and make available the fruitfulness of oral history. The crowd-sourced, or citizen-scholar-sourced, accounts of reading responses through the Reading Experience Database make accessible nearly five hundred years of ordinary readers’ experiences. Katherine Halsey, for example, used the database to analyze “the value placed on works that are suitable for reading aloud during the nineteenth century; nineteenth-century conflations of style and morality; and the frequency with which readers respond to texts viscerally, rather than intellectually, throughout the period—in order to reconstruct, from the recorded responses of readers, the particular sorts of expectations (and prejudices) that they brought to the texts they encountered.”81

These projects illustrate the fertility available to contemporary investigations of readers and their books. Ideas and research are shared through the Digital Reading Network. Considered together, these online sources allow scholars to contemplate the complexities of reading in past, highlight the uniqueness of reading in the present, and provide the material to project into the future.

Further Reading

Bold, Melanie Ramdarshan. “The Return of the Social Author Negotiating Authority and Influence on Wattpad.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, June 2016.Find this resource:

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.Find this resource:

boyd, danah m., and Nicole B. Ellison. “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13.1 (2007): 210–230.Find this resource:

Brooker, Phillip, Julie Barnett, and Timothy Cribbin. “Doing Social Media Analytics.” Big Data & Society 3.2 (2016).Find this resource:

Driscoll, Beth. “Readers of Popular Fiction and Emotion Online” in New Directions in Popular Fiction: Genre, Reproduction, Distribution. Edited by Ken Gelder. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.Find this resource:

Frost, Simon R.The Business of the Novel: Economics, Aesthetics and the Case of Middlemarch. New York: Routledge, 2015.Find this resource:

Fuller, Danielle, and Rehberg Sedo. Reading beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013.Find this resource:

Lang, Anouk. From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century. Studies in Print Culture and the History of the Book. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Long, Elizabeth. Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Peplow, David, Joan Swann, Paola Trimarco, and Sara Whiteley. The Discourse of Reading Groups: Integrating Cognitive and Sociocultural Perspectives. New York and Milton Park: Routledge, 2016.Find this resource:

Squires, Claire, and Padmini Ray Murray. “Digital Publishing Communications Circuit.” Book 2.0 3.1 (2013): 3–24.Find this resource:

Notes:

(1.) Leslie Howsam, “Thinking Through the History of the Book,” Mémoires Du Livre/Studies in Book Culture 7.2 (2016), paragraph 22.

(2.) Danielle Fuller and Rehberg Sedo, Reading Beyond the Book: The Social Practices of Contemporary Literary Culture (New York: Routledge, 2013), 37–47; and David S. Miall, “On the Necessity of Empirical Studies of Literary Reading,” Frame; Utrecht Journal of Literary Theory 14.2–3 (2000): 43–59.

(3.) Ivor Armstrong Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959); and Louise M. Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration, rev. ed. (New York: Noble and Noble, 1968).

(4.) Louise M. Rosenblatt, “Toward a Cultural Approach to Literature,” College English 7 (1946): 459–466.

(5.) DeNel Rehberg Sedo, “Badges of Wisdom, Spaces for Being: A Study of Contemporary Women’s Book Clubs,” Simon Fraser University Institutional Repository, 2004, http://summit.sfu.ca/item/8708.

(6.) Elizabeth Freund, The Return of the Reader: Reader-Response Criticism (London and New York: Methuen, 1987).

(7.) Wolfgang Iser, “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” in Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 50–70.

(8.) Jonathan D. Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981).

(9.) Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979).

(10.) Judith Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978).

(11.) Graham Smith, “Our First Reading Group Meeting,” Memories of Fiction: An Oral History (website), December 7, 2015.

(12.) See, for example, Simon R. Frost, The Business of the Novel: Economics, Aesthetics and the Case of Middlemarch (New York: Routledge, 2015); Elizabeth Long, “Textual Interpretation as Collective Action,” in The Ethnography of Reading (Berkley: University of California Press, 1992), 180–212, and Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Claire Squires, Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain (New York: Springer, 2007); Shafquat Towheed, Rosalind Crone, and Katie Halsey, The History of Reading: A Reader, 1st ed. (New York: Routledge, 2011).

(13.) Long, “Textual Interpretation,” 190.

(14.) Fuller and Rehberg Sedo, Reading Beyond the Book, 27.

(15.) Robert Darnton, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (New York: PublicAffairs, 2010), 206.

(16.) Sydney J. Shep, “Books in Global Perspectives,” in The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book, ed. Leslie Howsam (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 53–70; and Claire Squires and Padmini Ray Murray, “Digital Publishing Communications Circuit,” Book 2.0 3.1 (2013): 3–24.

(17.) Anouk Lang, “Introduction: Transforming Reading,” in From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, ed. Anouk Lang (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 1–24.

(18.) Jennifer M. Grek Martin, “Two Roads to Middle-Earth Converge: Observing Text-Based and Film-Based Mental Images from TheOneRing.net Online Fan Community,” master’s thesis, Dalhousie University, 2011.

(19.) Barbara Fister, “Platforms and the Shape of Reader Participation,” Digital Reading Network, June 26, 2014, http://www.digitalreadingnetwork.com/platforms-shape-reader-participation/.

(20.) Alice E. Marwick and danah boyd, “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience,” New Media and Society 13.1 (February 1, 2011): 114–133, 117.

(21.) José van Dijck, The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 28.

(22.) Graham Meikle, Social Media: Communication, Sharing and Visibility, 1st ed. (New York: Routledge, 2016), 5.

(23.) Meikle, Social Media, x.

(24.) Jason Ensor, “In Data & Metadata, I Would Argue That Tagging Is Cultural Work Reflecting Historical, Ideological, Social & Aesthetic Factors #sharp16,” microblog, Twitter, @JasonEnsor (July 18, 2016).

(25.) Andrew Salway and Daniel Allington, “‘Big Data’ Workshop,” presented at Digital Reading Network, March 6, 2015, Sheffield, http://www.digitalreadingnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/DRN-Sheffield.pdf.

(26.) Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (New York: Verso, 2013); Amir Khadem, “Annexing the Unread: A Close Reading of ‘Distant Reading,’” Neohelicon 39.2 (July 24, 2012): 409–421; and Salway and Allington, “‘Big Data’ Workshop.”

(27.) Beth Driscoll, “Sentiment Analysis and the Literary Festival Audience,” Continuum 29.6 (November 2, 2015): 861–873; and Driscoll, “Readers of Popular Fiction and Emotion Online,” in New Directions in Popular Fiction: Genre, Reproduction, Distribution, ed. Ken Gelder (London and New York, In press).

(28.) Sara Whiteley, “Text World Theory, Real Readers and Emotional Responses to The Remains of the Day,” Language and Literature 20.1 (2011): 23–41; and Whiteley, “Ethics,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Stylistics, ed. Peter Stockwell and Sara Whiteley (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

(29.) David Peplow et al., The Discourse of Reading Groups: Integrating Cognitive and Sociocultural Perspectives (New York and Milton Park: Routledge, 2016), 3.

(30.) Joan Swann and Daniel Allington, “Reading Groups and the Language of Literary Texts: A Case Study in Social Reading,” Language and Literature 18.3 (2009): 247–264.

(31.) Anatoliy Gruzd and DeNel Rehberg Sedo, “#1b1t: Investigating Reading Practices at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century,” Mémoires du livre 3.2 (2012).

(32.) Annette Markham and Elizabeth Buchanan, “Ethical Decision Making and Internet Research,” Association of Internet Researchers, 2012, p. 4, http://aoir.org/reports/ethics2.pdf.

(33.) Markham and Buchanan, “Ethical Decision Making.”

(34.) Markham and Buchanan, “Ethical Decision Making,” 3.

(35.) Ronda Hauben, Michael Hauben, and Jay Hauben, Netizen: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet, online book, Columbia University, 2012, http://www.columbia.edu/~hauben/netbook/.

(36.) Sanjay K. Arora et al., “Using the Wayback Machine to Mine Websites in the Social Sciences: A Methodological Resource,” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 67.8 (August 1, 2016): 1904–1915.

(37.) Barbara Fister, “Reading as a Contact Sport,” Reference and User Services Quarterly 44.4 (Summer 2005): 303–309.

(38.) Barbara Fister, “Platforms and the Shape of Reader Participation,” Digital Reading Network, June 26, 2014, http://www.digitalreadingnetwork.com/platforms-shape-reader-participation/.

(39.) Peplow et al., The Discourse of Reading Groups, 171.

(40.) Peplow et al., “The Discourse of Reading Groups”; DeNel Rehberg Sedo, “‘I Used to Read Anything That Caught My Eye, But. …’: Cultural Authority and Intermediaries in a Virtual Young Adult Book Club,” in Reading Communities from Salons to Cyberspace, ed. DeNel Rehberg Sedo (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 101–123; and Bronwen Thomas and Julia Round, “Moderating Readers and Reading Online,” Language and Literature, in press 2016.

(41.) Grek Martin, “Two Roads to Middle-Earth Converge.”

(43.) Shamanth Kumar, Twitter Data Analytics, SpringerBriefs in Computer Science (New York: Springer, 2014).

(44.) Gruzd and Rehberg Sedo, “#1b1t: Investigating Reading Practices at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century.”

(45.) Phillip Brooker, Julie Barnett, and Timothy Cribbin, “Doing Social Media Analytics,” Big Data and Society 3.2 (2016): 5.

(46.) Beth Driscoll, “Sentiment Analysis and the Literary Festival Audience,” Continuum 29.6 (November 2, 2015): 861–873, 105.

(47.) Brooker et al., “Doing Social Media Analytics,” 4–5.

(48.) Driscoll, “Sentiment Analysis and the Literary Festival Audience,” 871.

(49.) Beth Driscoll, “Twitter, Literary Prizes and the Circulation of Capital,” in By the Book?: Contemporary Publishing in Australia, ed. Emmett Stinson (Huntingdale: VicMonash University Publishing, 2013), 103–156.

(50.) Driscoll, “Twitter, Literary Prizes,” 119.

(51.) See Brooker et al., “Doing Social Media Analyitics,” for information about Chorus.

(52.) Amelia Butterly, “Zoella Book Club Propesl Young Adults Authors up Charts,” BBC Newsbeat, June 9, 2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/36488872/zoella-book-club-propels-young-adult-authors-up-charts.

(53.) Marianne Martens, “Reading the Readers: Tracking Visible Reading Audiences,” in Plotting the Reading Experience: Theory, Practice, Politics, ed. Paulette M. Rothbauer et al. (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2016).

(54.) See van Dijk, The Culture of Connectivity.

(55.) Lisa Nakamura, “‘Words with Friends’: Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads,” PMLA 128.1 (January 1, 2013): 238–243, 3.

(56.) See, for example, Ed Finn, “New Literary Cultures,” in From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, ed. Anouk Lang (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 177–203; Tim Gorichanaz, “Novel Experiences: On Page, In Ear, On Screen” (iSchools, 2016); Ann Steiner, “Private Criticism in the Public Space: Personal Writing on Literature in Readers’ Reviews on Amazon,” Participations 5.2 (November 2008).

(57.) Julian Pinder, “Online Literary Communities: A Case Study of LibraryThing,” in From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, 73.

(58.) Jason Kincaid, “Amazon Acquires Shelfari: Moves To Corner Book-Centric Social Networks,” TechCrunch, 2008, http://social.techcrunch.com/2008/08/25/amazon-aquires-shelfari-moves-to-corner-social-book-space/.

(59.) Svati Kirsten Narula, “Millions of People Reading Alone, Together: The Rise of Goodreads The Atlantic, February 12, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/02/millions-of-people-reading-alone-together-the-rise-of-Goodreads/283662/.

(60.) See the “About Goodreads” page on the Goodreads website: https://www.goodreads.com/about/us.

(61.) See for example, the “Shelfari and Goodreads are merging” thread on Reddit, January 17, 2016, and the “Amazon Kills Shelfari” post on The Readers Room (blog), January 12, 2016.

(63.) Matthew Sangster, “Iron Council, Bas-Lag and Generic Expectations,” in China Miéville: Critical Essays, ed. Caroline Edwards, Tony Venezia, and China Miéville (Canterbury: Gylphi Limited, 2015), 190.

(64.) Meikle, Social Media: Communication, Sharing and Visibility.

(65.) Porismita Borah, “Blog Credibility: Examining the Influence of Author Information and Blog Reach,” Atlantic Journal of Communication 23.5 (2015): 298–313.

(66.) Pinder, “Online Literary Communities: A Case Study of LibraryThing,” 72–82; Peplow et al., The Discourse of Reading Groups, 153–166; and DeNel Rehberg Sedo, “An Introduction to Reading Communities: Processes and Formations,” in Reading Communities from Salons to Cyberspace, ed. DeNel Rehberg Sedo (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 7–11.

(67.) James Pope, “Where Do We Go From Here? Readers’ Responses to Interactive Fiction Narrative Structures, Reading Pleasure and the Impact of Interface Design,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 16.1 (February 1, 2010): 75–94.

(68.) Melanie Ramdarshan Bold, “The Return of the Social Author Negotiating Authority and Influence on Wattpad,” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, June 16, 2016, 3.

(69.) Ramdarshan Bold, “The Return of the Social Author,” 16.

(70.) Tully Barnett, “Platforms for Social Reading: The Material Book’s Return,” Scholarly and Research Communication 16.4 (2015): 3.

(71.) See Alexandra Alter and Karl Russell, “Moneyball for Book Publishers: A Detailed Look at How We Read,” New York Times, March 14, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/business/media/moneyball-for-book-publishers-for-a-detailed-look-at-how-we-read.html.

(72.) Tully Barnett, “Social Reading: The Kindle’s Social Highlighting Function and Emerging Reading Practices,” Australian Humanities Review 56 (May 2014): 142.

(73.) See the FAQ on the Kindle website.

(74.) Ted Striphas, “The Abuses of Literacy: Amazon Kindle and the Right to Read,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 7.3 (September 1, 2010): 297–317, 34–305.

(75.) Ali Alizadeh, “The Obscure Object of E-Reading Desire,” Overland, October 31, 2011, https://overland.org.au/2011/10/meanland-the-obscure-object-of-e-reading-desire; Alizadeh, “The Subject Supposed to Read: The Case against the E-Reader,” Australian Humanities Review 56 (2014): 187–196; and Jennifer Mitchell, “Writing and Reading in the Age of the Thrilling Unknown,” Steep Stairs Review (blog), December 16, 2011.

(76.) Barnett, “Social Reading.”

(77.) Simon Peter Rowberry, “Reading Automata,” June 12, 2015.

(78.) Steven Funk, Douglas Kellner, and Jeff Share, “Critical Media Literacy as Transformative Pedagogy,” in Handbook of Research on Media Literacy in the Digital Age, ed. Yildiz N. Melda (Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2015), 8.

(79.) Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984); Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Polity Press, 1993); Driscoll, “Readers of Popular Fiction; Anouk Lang, “Reading As/and Performance,” Digital Reading Network, June 19, 2014, http://www.digitalreadingnetwork.com/reading-asand-performance/; Pinder, “Online Literary Communities: A Case Study of LibraryThing”; Sangster, “Iron Council, Bas-Lag and Generic Expectations.”

(80.) Funk et al., “Critical Media Literacy as Transformative Pedagogy,” 8.

(81.) Katherine Halsey, “‘Folk Stylistics’ and the History of Reading: A Discussion of Method,” Language and Literature 18.3 (August 2009): 233–234.