From Social Computing to Social Reading

In the final paragraph of his essay From Reading to Social Computing, Alan Liu asks,

[W]hat is the differentia specifica of literary social computing? That is, how does engagement with literature or literary communities inflect, extend, or criticize the culturally dominant tools and practices of vernacular social computing?

I would like to turn this question on its head to ask, How might reading in a social-computing environment inflect, extend, or criticize culturally dominant tools and practices for engagement with literature and literary communities?

But I would like to take the discussion a step further, giving it a practical turn: If a platform for social reading is to perform these functions – inflecting, extending, criticizing – what features must it possess? And how might we build them?

For example:

  • Small-group discussion – in the classroom, in self-organized readings clubs – is a culturally dominant tool for engagement with literature. Social reading platforms such as CommentPress and already operate at some level as implicit critiques of this tool by enabling and encouraging conversations that are broader and more inclusive. But can they also be made to operate so as to extend and inflect what is valuable about small-scale conversation? After all, small-scale conversation is not merely an artifact of technological limitations but a way of focusing discussion among particular people or for particular purposes. There are things we’d like to say to the world about a text, but there are also things we’d like to say to just these people, even if we don’t mind letting the world listen in.
  • Speaking to questions. The conference session is a dominant tool for engagement with texts that is often question-centric rather than text-centric. Can we build an online social reading platform that combines – at multiple scales – engagement around a text and engagement around questions?
  • Speaking on occasions. The conference itself, or in book form the festschrift, is a way of organizing textual engagement around a particular occasion. The always-on nature of social engagement on the web usefully breaks the occasion model, allowing us to converse whenever we please, but it thereby loses some of the focus that occasions (like particular questions) can provide. Is there a way for social reading platforms to allow both occasion-less and occasion-focused conversation to co-exist? To re-purpose the former (occasionally) for the latter?
Categories: Collaboration, Crowdsourcing, Open Access, Session Proposals, session-talk, Social Media |

About Paul Schacht

I'm project director of Digital Thoreau (, a collaboration among SUNY Geneseo, the Thoreau Society, and the Walden Woods Project.