The ways in which we receive information and interact with our environment and others have dramatically changed; the book is at the forefront of this change, with technology being its catalyst. When we consider what the role of the book in society is today, this question is certainly complex and multifaceted. By comparing the traditional print forms such as books and newspapers with the digital platforms of social media applications, it is evident that these different publications overlap in nature. In the article “Words with Friends”: Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads, Lisa Nakamura offers an insightful critique on how our relationships within our social networks have been modified by technological disruption and intervention. Specifically, she focuses on how digital media has new created new social valences of reading, emphasizing how websites such as Goodreads offers all the conventions of social networking which allows reading to become a more social and creative process.
Nakamura begins by highlighting how digital media has allowed texts to become more lively because writers and readers can interact with each other and create intimate social relationships. She suggests that instead of focusing on the book’s new forms and the devices themselves, we should shift the conversation to understand how that use of digital reading devices have added value to the act of reading and the surrounding discourse. I appreciate the author challenging the notion of false divisions between old and new media, which we also touched upon last week in the reading Mediation and the Vitality of Media. In the era of movable type and handwritten manuscripts, public engagement was low and rare. With the emergence of the public sphere, we have experienced a vast shift in society from a print literate to digitally literate culture. However, it is important that we acknowledge that it is not the tools themselves that have singlehandedly created this shift in our media landscape, but understand that is it our shift in behaviour and how we interact with these tools that have transformed our readership and authorship. The focus should not be on the apparatus itself, but instead its functions, what it has to offer, and how it benefits our user experience.
Goodreads, the largest social network site for readers, is regarded by Nakamura as an “exemplary Web 2.0 business” as it offers all the conventions of social networking, inviting participants to comment, buy, blog, rank, and reply through a range of devices, networks, and services. Of course, Web 2.0 is reflective of how we are all now creators and shapers of content and experience, which brings us back to the author’s emphasis on how books have always been a means of social networking and should be viewed as being commodified and digital. While different mediums offer very distinct reader experiences, when we begin to unpack the idea of a book, it is not bound by any one form but as its role in society, which is a source of communication. Regardless of the medium, both print and digital technologies offer a social experience.
What I found the most intriguing about this article is Nakamura’s critique on how Goodreads creates an “egocentric network of public reading performance” which emphasizes the “pleasures of readerly sociality… [and] foregrounds reading as a spectacle of collecting.” The author explains how the website’s main purpose is to provide users with familiar tools that encourage them to perform their identities as readers in a public and networked forum. She supports this argument by highlighting how Goodreads shelves remediate earlier reading cultures where books were displayed in the home as signs of taste and status. As a website that is structured around public consumption that produces and publicizes a reading self, does it then become just another extension of our digital identity? I would tend to side with Nakamura as she continually drives the point of our identities as readers as being a “spectacle” and a “performance.” As we communicate through these social media applications, we become more aware of ourselves relative to the rest of the online community that we engage with. These tools contribute to our reputation management and community participation and become another way for us to negotiate our sense of self within the public sphere.
She further argues that by availing ourselves to display our readership, “we are both collecting and being collected under a new regime of controlled consumership”. Goodreads shows us how social networking about books has become a commodity and how user content has been placed in the service of commerce. I found Nakamura’s argument to be a deeply interesting link to our identities as consumers, where she highlights how we “pay with our attention and our readerly capital, our LOLs, rankings, conversations, and insights into narrative, character, and literary tradition.” Not only has digitization transformed the way we access and consume information and how we experience books, it has also transformed the way we understand our consumership and what we value and privilege. There is a constant battle for our attention in an increasingly cluttered and competitive media landscape, and we “pay” through means of social capital.
Within digital publishing, we have experienced significant developments in defining the roles of author, publisher, and reader. More than ever before, it is crucial for users to learn how to be able to mediate between these various roles with ease. Authors are able to have the flexibility and freedom to create and share their content, while also having the opportunity to play an active role in being able to build and engage with their publics and audiences. As the patterns of the digital network are exploratory and unpredictable, the pace of our creation and participation have also subsequently accelerated, which bears a whole new level of potentiality for sharing ideas and collaboration. As we examine the features of this new environment and consider both the benefits and implications, we are then able to gain a better understanding of how much the web is becoming integral to how we understand and co-exist with both our digital selfhood and the world around us.
Nakamura, Lisa. 2013. “Words with Friends”: Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads. PMLA 128 (1). 238-243.