Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Posts tagged ‘social media’

Reading is a Technology that is still Changing

When Greeks began to write, Plato lamented this new technology, claiming it would ruin learning and memory. Instead of having to memorize everything, people could store knowledge externally in print and in text form. If you have some time to read more about how writing is a technology, check out this article (warning: it’s long and dense). In the long run, people still retained knowledge and added to our knowledge base over the millennia in art, science, math, literature, and so on. We live in an age where one newspaper may contain more information than the average citizen might come across in a lifetime just a few centuries ago. But how well are we remember these days in a new era? Nick Carr explores how we treat memory and attention span differently know that we are constantly on the Internet and can store vast amounts of information in cyberspace. Why remember when Marie Antoinette was beheaded when you can look it up in seconds on Wikipedia? Why memorize your friends’ phone numbers when they’re stored on a mobile device?

Out With the Old, In With the New 

I’m getting off topic, but what I mean is that whenever we develop a new way to store and disseminate information, we evaluate if this new technology will affect our way of thinking, analyzing, and remembering. And it usually does, although we cannot fully analyze the long term effects for decades. Along with multitasking and web surfing affecting our train of thought and ability to concentrate  we’re changing the way we read because of the e-book. I read an article that explores this topic. I’ve already talked about how e-books change reading comprehension for people who’ve grown up on print books (though not children). I’ve also talked a little bit about how some publishers and retailers like Amazon want to make reading social with shared underlinings and annotations (Amazon, stop sharing my notes! It’s creepy); some applications like Riffle try to make reading and recommendations a social media experience.

But apart from sharing our highlights and notes, e-readers gather information about our reading habits–how quickly we read, where we stop and start reading, how often we read, etc. What you read and how you read it is no longer your private information. This is obvious when we get book recommendations from retailers, but publishers might use this gathered information to encourage readers to edit. For example, if readers on average stop around page 50, the publisher might recommend that the writer shorten the exposition. What if a book you buy is automatically tailored to your tastes via algorithms that know your buying habits and your preferences? What if readers have the option to group edit a text? Of course, publishers have been coming out with new editions of books for years, but usually a new edition takes a while to write and is widely publicized.  What if the edition is specific to you, or you never know that what you’re reading isn’t what came out originally? What if the accessibility of a book is dependent on other readers? All of a sudden, that quiet, private afternoon curled up with a book seems way more disturbing and intrusive.

Is Sharing Caring? 

Mikhail Bakhtin theorized about the relationship between writer, audience, and genre. From what I can remember, a writer writes a book and publishes it, but its reception and genre is dependent on audience. For example, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was intended as an adult novel, but now it is widely considered YA fiction, though much of the content is memoir. Now, that relationship might books more malleable and changeable than ever before: writer publishes book, audience reads book on an e-reader, publisher gathers information and edits the book, and the book comes out again in a new, revised form based on the reader’s preferences and tastes.

I have no idea if this is a good or bad thing. If publishers really do start changing books to appeal to the audience preference’s, both the author’s autonomy and the reader’s choice will be limited. However, as long as the original print version is still available, I guess I’ll just switch back to print instead of risking reading a book that is not what the author intended. I would like to interpret and make reading decisions for myself, thanks very much.

The Book as Social Media?

I recently read an article I found on my PW Daily e-mail about if books will become more social over time like the newspaper and other media (for the full article: Apparently technophile Clive Thompson believes that the book, which has stubbornly resisted the trend to become social, as a solitary activity will disappear, replaced by the social book. I have severe reservations about this claim. Thompson thinks that books online and on e-readers will feature more commentary and conversation embedded within the book as you read. I am not sure that this feature will appeal to readers. I’m usually already annoyed when my e-book on the Kindle shows how many other people have highlighted a particular section, like they’re imposing on me what I should find important or poignant just because everybody else did. Add on inserted conversations embedded in the text, and I will begin a literary uprising. Bibliophiles read because they like the solitary nature of reading a book: curling up on the couch with a blanket, a cup of coffee, and a book is a relaxing past time for many people who enjoy taking time out of their day to be alone and in their heads while reading a book. Books allow our imagination to roam freely precisely because we are the only ones projecting the mental image in our heads, the only ones adding interpretation as we go along. We don’t want influence from others unless we discuss it (either forcibly for class or willingly for a book club).

Speaking of which, we already treat books in a social light. We go to book readings and signings; we join book clubs; we participate in online forums about book; we loan our books to our friends. This system seems to work–we seek out the social capacity of books when it suits us, and when reading alone strikes our fancy, we don’t have the internet blogosphere and twitterverse chattering in the background. The joy of reading, at least in my opinion, is the love of doing something on your own, that for that time is your own, your own experience. There is a reason that book lovers have a stereotype for being shy and introverted: many of them are, which is precisely why they like to be alone, in their own heads, reading a book.

Here’s a quote from Thompson about how much books will enormously benefit from a social aspect: “Books are going to provoke the best conversations because people think really deeply about them. And people bring a certain level of intellectual seriousness to them that they don’t even necessarily bring to newspapers. I am absolutely convinced that being able to see what other people have said about a book and to talk about it and respond to it is going to be a freakishly huge boon for books.” Like I said above, we already do this. It’s called the book club. If I want to talk about a book, I’ll seek out other people who have similar literary tastes, and we’ll eat pastries and drink frothy, foamy drinks in little cups and discuss man’s inhumanity to man in the book. We already post reviews of books on Amazon or comment on others’ reviews through the various websites that post commentary on books for potential readers. I am not sure how Thompson proposes we integrate the conversation further into books, and if he’s proposing adding in comment features onto e-readers automatically, there better be an option to turn that stuff off. I’d say, “Get your comments out of my reading experience and your annotations off my e-pages. Get that highlighting off my electronic ink.”

Apparently, young people don’t like e-readers because they aren’t social. If this is the case, I’m deeply worried about our youth who appear unable to spend time alone, so desperate for artificial connection that they spend hours on facebook and twitter without ever picking up the phone. Through social media, are we training kids to rely on constant external stimulation and validation? Are we giving them the tools to never be disconnected and fear that disconnection, fear of being alone? Being alone is important, for solitude allows us to recuperate, to repair, to relax, and if we are afraid of being alone, ever, then we are afraid of being human. Sherry Turkle discusses this phenomenon in her Ted Talk, alone together, which can be viewed here:

Perhaps it’s time we ask ourselves why newspapers, books, movies, etc, must become social activities. Perhaps this impulse to constantly share and connect is a negative rather than a positive. Maybe it’s time we find time to be alone and live, just for a little while, within the pages of a book.

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