From Barbara Fister’s Place, August 1, 2015
I have been fascinated by the critical, interpersonal, and social dynamics of discussing reading experiences online for as long as I have participated in online reading groups. These are places to observe how these informal critical communities participate in the formation of cultural tastes around books. Since these groups date back to the early days of the internet, they reveal how changes in platforms and their affordances frustrate or promote group cohesion. I decided exploring these things would be the subject of a sabbatical project.
Though it’s a relatively new topic of serious study, I’ve found books and articles by scholars in multiple disciplines who have analyzed reading communities, online and off, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. I’ve collected these references in a public Zotero group. I’m going to say a few words about how some scholars have approached this topic and then delve into my personal experience as a member of a variety of reading communities.
I suspect that literary critic and historian Janice Radway laid the foundation for inquiries into popular reading practices by exploring gender, the economics of book publishing, and collective reading experiences in her influential book, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984). In a sense, she gave us permission to turn critical attention away from texts to focus on readers and to their everyday reading experiences. Sociologist Elizabeth Long’s study, Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life (2003) comes at it from another discipline. She examined book clubs as an increasingly popular if gendered social phenomenon. It’s telling that her fellow sociologists found her subject matter too bourgeois and feminine (i.e. trivial) to be of scholarly interest.
Since then a variety of scholars in multiple disciplines, including Ted Striphas, who considers how Oprah’s Book Club functions in The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control. I’ve dipped a toe into the voluminous research on fan culture online and the ways that digital interaction is changing culture and our legal framework for understanding cultural materials as intellectual property. Henry Jenkins’s book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006) does a good job of unpacking these ideas and includes an interesting chapter on how young fans have appropriated and interacted with the Harry Potter series. DeNel Rehberg Sedo has studied both in-person and online reading groups, including Twitter as a book club discussion platform. With Danielle Fuller she has written the book on mass reading events in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Lisa Nakamura sees in Goodreads a new way of exploring books; she argues that the digital traces of shared reading experiences is a more fruitful site for scholarship than the more common focus on contrasting digital and print textual formats. Nancy M. Foasberg has examined reading challenges posed by bloggers as a feature of contemporary reader engagement that can tell us something about how and why we read collectively.
Finally, two essay collections are particularly valuable: From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century (2012) edited by Anouk Lang and Reading Communities from Salons to Cyberspace (2011) edited by DeNel Rehberg Sedo. They are brimming with fascinating insights.
Back in 2005, I added my two cents’ worth with a mixed-methods study of an online reading community that I participate in, arguing that these digital gathering places are valuable to librarians for their contributions to reader’s advisory, for the insights such groups provide into the reading practices of avid readers, and as a demonstration of the social nature of reading. It was fun to mix my personal passions with my scholarly life.
As I write this, I am exploring autoethnography with a group of far-flung colleagues to see how and if this methodology might be a useful tool for practicing librarians. Though I am still in the beginning stages of learning what autoethnography is and how to do it, it has inspired me to think about online reading communities in the first person, by analyzing my own experience in a variety of communities that have formed around discussions of crime fiction.
I was first motivated to seek out these communities not because I am an avid crime fiction reader (though I am) but because I had a contract for my first novel and got the impression (I cannot recall from whom – an editor? My agent? Something I had read?) that I should start building an audience by connecting with readers online. The only place I knew of to do this was Dorothy-L, the legendary Listserv-based email list founded in 1991. I joined (according to its archives, available to members) in the fall of 2001. It was surprising to revisit my posts from that time. I clearly wasn’t ready to out myself as an aspiring writer. My self-presentation was as a crime fiction fan and a librarian. My posts were mostly comments on books that I was reading and recommending or on my response to a book someone else had mentioned. I also commented with some frequency on what someone else had posted related to book culture (publishing, marketing, bookselling, whether reading was on the decline or not, and the like). At times, I tossed a question or challenge out to the group – what mysteries would you put on the reading list for a course on the geography of mystery? What overlooked writers deserve to be on the bestseller list? Sometimes an online community can seem a series of posts related only by a common interest, but the back-and-forth conversations collectively sharing knowledge of and fondness for the genre was the list’s greatest attraction for me.
Looking back, my posts seem both long-winded and a little goofy (intentionally). When I was responding to a topic that wasn’t about reading mysteries, I generally ended with an explicit attempt to redirect the discussion to be “on topic” – to sharing experiences of reading mysteries. I was apparently not only unready to present myself as an author, I tried to influence the community’s attention, directing it away from writing and publishing toward books and reading. I’m not sure, at this distance, whether I was responding to group cues or if that focus was my personal preference – or both. There seemed a tension on the list about its purpose. While authors were encouraged to let members know about new books, I sensed some uneasiness that the list was becoming dominated by authors talking to one another while competing for readers’ attention.
One of the shortest messages I posted in 2002 was an invitation to a bookstore signing for my first crime novel. Clearly, I was not at all comfortable with the identity “writer” and hesitated to call attention to that part of my life, even though I had joined ostensibly to make that identity known. Other members who were writers were not shy about reminding members of their status. In fact, the subject of how writers should present themselves was often under discussion. Members criticized “drive-by” authors who only posted when they had a new book to promote and praised those who participated as genuine people who were generous with their attention. Straddling the line between promotion and more authentic self-representation was often on my mind as I saw how members responded to negatively to promotional messages while warmly welcoming messages from favorite writer-members.
I posted fairly often throughout 2003 and into 2004. All this time, I was struggling to produce a second book in a three-book contract for an editor who didn’t like anything I wrote. (My original editor had left the house long before the first was published and my relationship with the editor who inherited my orphaned books was unhappy.) A message from March 2004, responding to a post about an article in Salon describing an anonymous midlist author’s misery, reveals something of my ambivalence.
I thought the article did one thing tellingly–reveal how personally everything about publishing can be taken if you’re not careful. I thought [the author’s] sense of frustration or jealousy that made it hard for her to enjoy reading or watching television because her own sense of failure was so in her face was something I’ve heard, though not so up front, from a lot of unhappy people.
I think an industry that involves people’s hearts and souls–and I think that goes for many editors and booksellers and readers, not just writers–is bound to get personal. You have to do it for the love of it and hope you can pay your bills. (Hey, if not, read some of those caper books and see if it gives you ideas!)
Meanwhile–why I’m posting from my desk at work–I’m reading this fascinating article in Behavioral and Brain Science–really!–about an experiment in which some researchers stripped names off published research and resubmitted them; a huge number were rejected. In the multiple responses to this article is one from a guy who did the same in trade publishing–submitted a Jerszy Kosinski novel that won an NBA to agents and publishers who said it was unpublishable trash. Which just goes to show you…. something. Maybe that we’re all human and we’d better not take the process too seriously. Or too personally. Or that one man’s trash is another man’s award winner.
Here I am acknowledging my identification with the painful aspects of being a writer who is struggling in a difficult business without explicitly confessing my own emotional state. Instead, I throw in a list-appropriate joke and turn to my academic librarian identity, drawing on a scholarly article to both bolster my point and deflect it from my own experience.
In the following month, I suspended my subscription to the list. It had actually become a source of pain for me. My writing career was not going well and the list seemed to me to have be taken over by irritating self-promoters with a grim desperation for attention. Dorothy-L had started as a forum for discussing mysteries, but from the start had allowed BSP – blatant self-promotion – because many members enjoyed forming relationships with writers in this informal space. When I first joined, I was pleased to see occasional posts by Ian Rankin, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, and Charlaine Harris before they were routinely on the New York Times bestseller list. In this sense, it was not unlike a fan convention, where fans and the objects of their enthusiasm mingle. But it also had become a place where authors sought attention and squabbled with each other over publishing issues. I didn’t want to be exposed to so much anxiety and yearning for publishing success when I was experiencing too much of that emotional turmoil myself.
Besides, by then I had found a different community that was a more comfortable fit. I somehow got chatting with a Dorothy-L member offlist who recommended that I join 4_Mystery_Addicts (colloquially known as 4MA), a Yahoo group founded in 1999 that held regular formal group book discussions and sternly warned authors applying for membership that they were to be present only as readers, not as writers. BSP was strictly banned, as were links to self-promoting blog posts or surreptitious log-rolling among authors promoting each other. If somehow a promotional message slipped past the moderators, group members were quick to call it out. Contentious issues – politics and religion specifically – were also unwelcome unless they were intrinsic to a book under discussion. For me, this was a safe space where I could talk about mysteries without getting depressed about the process of publishing them. It was a place free of the frantic self-promotion that seemed to be making all the writers I knew miserable. Members had meaty, in-depth discussions of actual books, which was fun for me as a reader and informative as a writer.
I joined in June of 2003, and in the first two or three days felt lost. It was an incredibly busy group at that time; in that month alone, 3,713 messages were posted by some 600 members. There were inside jokes and abbreviations I didn’t understand. I was nonplussed when a dozen or more members personally welcomed me. I wasn’t sure what the protocol for responding was, and had an momentary sense of panic: how can I fit in here? How will I manage this avalanche of messages? Why are we talking about spandex shorts? (I can’t revisit that disorienting series of messages to confirm my memory. Unlike the Dorothy-L Listserv, Yahoo Groups had a storage limit at that time, and a moderator went through the archived messages and deleted any that didn’t relate to monthly reading reports from members or book discussions to ensure we didn’t go over the limit.) But I stuck with it and it didn’t take long for me to get the hang of things.
There were regular prompts to share reading experiences and recommendations. There were three formal book discussions every month, and a process for nominating and voting for books to be discussed. There were lively discussions about life as an avid reader, including whether an oven could be used for book storage and how to deal with people who ask silly questions like “have you read all those books?” There were hilarious accounts of adventures on the 62 bus in Glasgow posted by a Scottish member, Donna Moore. Members often attended fan conventions and, whenever possible, organized meetups. Frequently photos of those gatherings were shared at the group’s site.
In February 2006, the moderators invited me to join them when one of the original moderators retired. It was an honor to be asked, but also a chance to see behind the curtain at all the work that went into keeping the group harmoniously humming along. All new members had to be approved. Members who were new or prone to posting problematic messages had to have their posts approved, one by one. If a conflict threatened to boil up, combative members were placed on moderation temporarily. Nominations for discussion books had to invited and collated, with a runoff poll created for the five top-ranking books. Discussion leaders (called Question Maestros) had to be recruited and polls created to collect readers’ responses to a book, with results posted to a database of books discussed that dates back to the beginning of the group. January was “moderator’s choice” month, so we had to decide which books to discuss and come up with discussion questions. Once a year, the moderators went through a byzantine process to select series reads that would offer members a variety of series to discuss. Each moderator has a distinct set of housekeeping duties and jointly discussed problems that come up from time to time – should this person be put on moderation? is there some way to liven up moribund discussions? Is this off-topic conversation going on too long? From time to time the Yahoo platform went through changes, with a particularly extreme transition in 2014 to the “neo” platform, which was rolled out piecemeal and with major functions broken – all of which required moderator intervention.
Apart from the mostly hidden work performed by moderators, I’ve been fascinated by the ways group members interact to affirm one another, maintain long-running jokes, celebrate happy moments, and comfort one another when there’s an illness or a loss.
For a time, I belonged to a USENET group, rec.arts.mystery, established in the early 1990s. It was self-moderating in a fascinating way. USENET, which launched at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1980, embraced the free-wheeling free speech ethos of the early days of the internet and was decentralized by design. Though the focus of rec.arts.mystery was crime fiction, politics and religion were not off-limits. Political messages routinely led to flaming hot arguments, but somehow the community of regulars used humor and a common interest in genre fiction to surround the combatants and keep the flames from burning the place down. In a sense, the members who were most active in sustaining the community and its anarchic values played a moderator role without having the technical levers most platforms provide. Unlike 4MA, there were no scheduled book discussions or prompts to share reading experiences. Rather, a core group of regulars kept up an ongoing loosely-joined conversation about books and everything else.
As USENET grew less easily available to the casual user, more devoted to sharing files than messages, members dropped off to seek another platform. Some carry on at Google Groups, a neglected corner of a very large company that has not been successful at developing social media platforms. Much of the diaspora settled on Facebook, where private or public groups can be created but the most powerful levers are trade secrets controlled by the ghost in the machine.
If these three online communities were likened to a fan convention, one might say Dorothy-L would be most like the interactions between authors and readers at the convention hotel bar, 4MA would be the fan-organized program, and rec.arts.mystery would be the free-wheeling conversations in the hallways among friends. In reality, these online communities intersect with the in-real-life fan communities at events such as Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, Crimefest, and other volunteer-led crime fiction-focused gatherings. For members who couldn’t attend Bouchercon, the largest of these annual fan events, members of Dorothy-L routinely held a virtual party for those left behind.
Another online reading community has formed around crime-fiction-focused book blogs. While many blogs belong to writers or groups of writers, readers also share their reading experiences through individual or group blogs. Comment threads often gather together readers who visit multiple blogs and form a loose-knit community. One of the most active weavers of these threads was Maxine Clarke, an editor for Nature who reviewed mysteries on her own blog and made a point of encouraging other bloggers by visiting and commenting prolifically. She invited me to a new platform for online communities, FriendFeed, where she had set up a crime and mystery fiction room.
FriendFeed was a social RSS feed reader. Individuals could synchronize multiple feeds and follow those curated by others, sharing and commenting on links of common interest, with the most recent material rising to the top of the page. In addition to allowing backchannel DMs (direct messages), members could set up rooms where groups could pool feeds and hold conversations. Once I got the hang of the platform, I visited daily or more often to see what was new. This community, unlike the others I belonged to, was not dominated by American members. The most active members were from the U.K. and Australia and my knowledge of the genre expanded as a result. Because of its immediacy, this room on FriendFeed gave me a sense of being always on top of the latest news about the genre as well as up-to-speed on the blogs that I formerly had followed more intermittently. Though the most extensive comments remained on individual blogs, the Crime and Mystery Fiction FriendFeed Room promoted a warm sense of comradery.
That community spirit was tested when (to my complete shock and dismay) a member posted the news that Maxine had died after a long illness. While she was generous with her time and attention, she wasn’t one to make personal things public. I had no idea she was in the last stages of cancer. I remember reading that brief message and trying to understand it. How could that be? I had already started planning to research online reading communities for my sabbatical and assumed Maxine would be there to share her instinctive and thorough knowledge of how these communities worked. Apart from that, I felt she was a true and close friend, and it was not only a heartfelt loss, but a reminder that there was so much that I didn’t know about people who I felt so close to. It’s perhaps a measure of the community that Maxine pulled together and nurtured that a remembrance blog was put together to commemorate her passion for the genre and an annual prize was established in her name. This prize, for the best Scandinavian work of crime fiction of the year, has a sterling line-up of judges (who meet, fittingly, at an annual fan convention to deliberate) and has gained so much respect from publishers that winners note the award proudly on their dust jackets.
Dorothy-L trundles along even as new social platforms draw attention away from pre-web community platforms. My impression, on rejoining the list in 2015, is that readers have continued to chat about mysteries while the most self-absorbed writers have gone elsewhere to promote their books. It could be, of course, that I’m simply less sensitive to writers and their discontents, having greater distance myself from my first unhappy publishing experience. (I have published three mysteries altogether, the last coming out five years ago from the smallest of the Big Five publishers. I still feel uncomfortable identifying myself as a writer, but I don’t feel a pressing need to perform that role.)
4MA has grown in membership but activity has declined. The draw of other platforms has probably had an effect, but the disastrous rollout of the new “neo” platform is my prime suspect; participation in Yahoo groups, which number in the tens of thousands, appears to have tumbled across the board in recent months. The moderators decided to drop the mid-month series read this year due to lack of interest, and though the group still holds two formal discussions monthly, fewer members participate. A member survey suggested that people still value the list, so we’ll muddle along, but it’s not the dizzyingly busy list it once was.
I haven’t remained as well connected to my favorite bloggers since FriendFeed was shut down. I had grown dependent on having a single point of contact and haven’t restored a habit of visiting blogs routinely. Though the group reestablished itself on Facebook (which bought FriendFeed years ago and apparently remembered just long enough to shut it down), I haven’t kept up with it because I object to Facebook’s business model. For the same reason, I have never been a regular member of Goodreads (owned by Amazon, now, and built on the big-data-collection model that Facebook uses to sustain itself). Yahoo is a similar offender, gathering far too much personal information from its members, but it appears to be so much less competent at it that I’m lulled into acceptance. Of the two non-profit platforms I have used for sharing reading experiences, USENET has ceased to be a place where people gather to talk things over and is no longer supported by many internet service providers; the Listserv platform used by Dorothy-L continues to be widely used in academia, though that may be changing. The academic librarian lists I have belonged to for years are slowing down now that there are so many other ways to share news and discuss ideas.
Where will readers gather in future to discuss their experiences with books? I have no idea, but I’m convinced having spent a decade and a half chatting online about crime fiction on a daily basis, that they will, one way or another.