Reader Response, in Theory
by Kathleen Fitzpatrick — Modern Language Association
July 14, 2012 – 07:11
In my last post, on blogs as serialized scholarship, I noted that a colleague of mine had posted a link to a prior post on Facebook, resulting in an interesting conversation that I regretted not being able to share. That inability is in fact two problems, not one: first, a technical problem, and second, a social one.
The technical problem has everything to do with Facebook’s hoovering action: it’s very easy to share material into Zuckerberglandia, but very, very hard to share it out. This is on the one hand a good thing, given concerns about privacy and the personal nature of a lot of what gets shared on Facebook; things people post there often spread further than they expect, given the friends-of-friends phenomenon, and if those things were easily able to leave the FB platform, they would have the potential to do even more damage to their unwitting posters.
On the other hand, the closedness of Facebook has produced some significant problems for folks who are trying to produce open discussions of ongoing work. Bloggers who have been at it for a while have noted a recent decline in commenting, and while that decline may have begun with the popularity of RSS feeds (which abstract the content of blog posts from their web presences, encouraging reading without interaction), it has accelerated with the privatization of discussion on platforms like Facebook. When a friend shares a link there, it’s only natural to discuss the link with that friend, in that environment, rather than discussing the text with the author, on the author’s site.
This is, of course, not exclusively a Facebook issue; links posted on Twitter often produce tweeted responses, and other platforms like Google+ (yes, there actually are some people active there) have similar effects. While this proliferation of platforms has enabled many internet users to find the right spots for the discussions they want to have, and the right groups with which to have them, it’s had a diminishing effect on the kinds of discussion that, at my most idealistic moments, I continue to believe that blogging can produce. The problem is that in order for blogs to be the fruitful platforms for serialized scholarship that I imagine, their authors need to engage — and need to be able to engage — with the responses that their posts produce.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that all responses must be contained within any given blog post’s comments; if you look at the comments on my last post, you’ll see that most have come in from Twitter, and a few others are pingbacks from other blogs. Twitter’s relative openness (an openness that is extremely fragile, and that Twitter has recently begun to close off in various ways) and the extremely porous design of blogs allow their conversations to be aggregated in ways that both support small communities of practice and engage related groups in a dispersed and yet connected network (hey!) of conversations. So there’s a link on my seriality post to Collin Brooke’s fabulous post on “surreality”, generated by a link on his post to mine; similarly, the link in my last clause will produce a link on his post to this one. We can sustain a conversation with one another in this way, while nonetheless keeping our own contributions on our own preferred platforms.
Facebook, again, disrupts that ability, both technically and socially. There’s no mechanism through which my blog post can aggregate FB links or comments, and there are no real norms for when and how it’s acceptable to reproduce FB discussions in other spaces. Frank Kelleter, the colleague who linked to my post on unpopularity, encouraged me to share the discussion that it produced here, but without getting similar permission from his interlocutor, I’d be uncomfortable responding to comments other than his own. That interlocutor would probably grant permission if I asked, but the need to ask highlights some of the issues that new platforms create for the flow of scholarly discourse. We do not need to ask permission to respond to one another’s publications, but assume that it’s okay to do so as long as appropriate credit and citation are given; linking to one another’s blog posts has followed this pattern. It has generally been considered good form to ask the author before citing unpublished work, however, including personal communications, and referring to comments on privatized platforms like Facebook appears to fall more into that model.
This all seems fairly obvious, as I write it, and yet it’s important for the development of networked platforms for scholarly communication that we think together about whether the norms we’re working within, and the mechanisms supporting those norms, are in fact what’s best for the work we’re doing.
- There are of course other issues involved in the decline of commenting, as the link above notes, not least that many of us find ourselves spread thin across the many platforms on which we maintain presences, and that thinness has resulted in thinner engagements with one another’s work. ↩
- And yes, I’ll eventually get around to responding to the actual comments that Collin, and Frank below, made on these posts, rather than just responding to the fact that they commented. ↩