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Crowdsourcing a book club; when will it end?

The adoration of the crowd has really gone too far.

Jeff Howe, of Crowdsourcing fame has "a dream. An idea. A maybe great notion."  He wants everyone on Twitter to read the same book at the same time to form “a massive international book club.” The idea, One Book One Twitter (#1b1t) is modeled after some city programs that took off earlier in the decade and were publicized by local libraries and politicians to encourage, for example, residents of the city of Chicago to read To Kill a Mockingbird in 2002. Howe writes:

“When the program works — and it doesn’t always — it gets more people reading, more people talking and more people generally appreciating the written word. What’s not to like?”

A lot.

First, engaging with literature over Twitter is like experiencing literature through Cliff's Notes. It's a quick, convenient, nuance-free platform. The more time you spend thinking about how to condense your thoughts into 140 characters, the less time you spend thinking about the content. Like in Cliff’s Notes, you get the major events and themes, but not context.

Second, Twitter is about broadcast, not conversation.  In my experience, it is extremely rare to see a conversation between two people go beyond 1-2 @ replies. Multiply that by the thousands that Howe hopes to see as part of this idea and what you have is a lot of noise and very little changing viewpoints and new insight. Umair Haque has described some of these interactions as “the linguistic equivalent of drive-by shootings” which is an apt metaphor. People pop in and out of ad hoc massive online communities through convenience; it’s easy to drop a provocative statement, hear no response and assume that means everyone agrees with you. Or conversely, to hear lots of contrary opinions and walk away assuming that no one is as smart as you. This dynamic is unlike a real book club where you know and respect the participants and engage in continued discussion among several people.

Finally, literature is best experienced through individual critical thinking, not through the coalescing of the hive mind.  One of the easiest ways to be a lazy reader is to read a book uncritically then read lots of commentary on it. Then you can have an opinion without needing to form it yourself.  The value placed on crowd insights is overstated across industries – and the oft-stated benefit that the bad answers cancel each other out may work well when you’re guessing the weight of a cow, but is a sure race to the bottom of insight when you’re talking about anything abstract.

I find it the height of irony that the book most likely to be chosen for this effort is Fahrenheit 451, the classic novel where critical thought through reading is outlawed. Many #1b1t fans think this theme makes it the perfect choice for a project that is supposed to be about reinvigorating reading. But Ray Bradbury, discussing the book in an interview clarified its key message: "it's not about censorship; it's about the moronic influence on public culture through global tv news, the proliferation of giant screens, and the bombardment of factoids." I shudder to think about how he would view people dissecting his work into mini-insights on Twitter, the ultimate factoid engine.

Howe’s energy for #1b1t comes from a good place: a love of books. As a fiction reader myself though, I would encourage fellow book lovers to grab a great book, find a quiet nook to enjoy it, turn off the Twitter, and form your impressions independently.  Nuance and deep thinking are just not something the crowd does well; trust your own judgment.

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Reader Comments (10)

Huh. Couple things:
1) There's nothing crowdsourcey (at all) about this. I just happened to be the guy who coined that word. No one's "crowdsourcing" a book club. I'm not even sure what that would mean.
2) Really? Of all the various ills in this world, you picked on the fact we're trying to get a bunch of people to read a book? We're not trying to inculcate anyone into the hive mind, or prove a point. We're trying to have fun. Remember? Like we did when we were kids? Man you're a killjoy.

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Howe

Jeff, Thanks for the response. Pulling together a book club through a massive crowd and choosing as a crowd what title to read is what says "crowdsourcing" to me. Maybe I ascribed too much to that since I read about the program from your @crowdsourcing handle. I'm not sure what exactly is fun like "when we were kids" about broadcasting mini-insights on a book through Twitter. What I was a kid, the fun to me was discovering a book for myself, getting deep into the experience, and coming to my own conclusions. I'm skeptical of what constant broadcast does to the reading experience. The "hive" I fear is when thousands of people read the same book at the same time and follow the same mini-commentary. Maybe you're right and that will lead to more diversity of opinion, not less. I'm trying to imagine what it would have been like to read Bradbury for the first time with a live stream of tweets next to me. My instinct is that it would have crowded out my own creativity of thought.

March 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterMelody

I'm on the fence on this one.

Great scenario: I, friends of mine from various communities (and geographies), and people I respect from a distance all read the book. I tweet/reply/and retweet about it, they do the same, and overall I'm exposed to a bunch of live thoughts from people I care about. When I next have dinner with one of them, I could follow up on a tweet or an exchange. That could be pretty neat.

Not so great scenario: Few if any people I know care about are among the book reading group. I don't really get any value out of their random thoughts or following hashtag trends. There are people who enjoy this more anonymous form of interaction: chat rooms, discussion boards, blog comments, and chatroulette are all evidence of that. Its just not for me. (I'm here because I know Melody.)

I think Melody is visualizing the second scenario. To be fair, this would probably only work for people who have a rich social graph on Twitter already. If most of the people you follow are anonymous and topic-specific, I don't see this idea working out. From this perspective, while the 1b1t effort is certainly not a negative thing, its easy to imagine better ways to promote and engage in reading.

Jeff is likely hoping for the possibility of the first scenario (he probably has a pretty rich social twitter graph) and/or is one of those people that does enjoy more anonymous dialogue. If the latter, why not pull chatroulette into this too? You could have a designated day for going onto chat roulette to discuss the book. That might be amusing for a while.

So I'm on the fence because I don't see the great scenario working out for me personally, and I'm not enthusiastic about the not so great scenario. But I do see how some people could get a kick out of this, and it is an effort to promote reading.

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim

I think you don't spend a lot of time on Twitter, honestly. As a writer, Twitter has become a way to connect with other published/agented writers in my genre. I've made friends, networked for book tours, and - above all - learned a ton of useful information from these people. Of course, there will be people who contribute nothing to the conversation. However, I am also very confident that little pockets of conversation will pop up as well. And if it fails? Um... oh well. Better to try than just boo hoo everything.

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBryan

@Tim, thanks, I think you captured the two viewpoints pretty well. I suspect this is far more about the second scenario. And even then, it's not just that there are better ways to promote reading; I think this could be bad for reading. Reading (especially fiction) should be about taking space to reflect and think. A live tweet stream does not promote that space. If it does, as you suggest it may, convince a lot of people who would not otherwise be reading to pick up Ray Bradbury, then maybe it has potential to be a net positive.

@Bryan, I wasn't trying to bash Twitter. I think Twitter is great in a lot of ways (to jumpstart this conversation for example) and it IS a great way to connect with lots of new people. My problem is specific to this application - thousands of people tweeting their reactions to a classic novel does not contribute to a deep and productive dialogue. It's not about "boo hoo" ing everthing - I am enthusiastic about a lot of things - but whether this effort is good for reading or not. I'm leaning towards not, but I appreciate the conversation and I'm open to being wrong.

March 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterMelody

I dare say this is one of the best blog pieces I have seen on Transcapitalist and I fully agree with the author.

Why does providing a critical opinion that happens to disagree with someone else's opinion have to be described as "boo hooing" or being a "killjoy". This seems to me like exactly the reason why scenarios like Tim's #2 are more likely - you state your opinion and explain where it comes from and you are greeted with personal and unfounded insults.

I agree that reading is a very personal experience. When I read to Kill a Mockingbird the first time, I read it as a young child, on my own, without my parents or teachers asking me to read it and without anyone's insight on the book. In my own little world I fell in love with the book, the characters, the plot. I slept with it under my pillow and to this day it is the only book I have read more than once. I didn't actually get the greater themes of the book until my later years but I did get something else - a strange version of a personal companion. Great literary works I read subsequently for school assignments never created a similar experience. I am thankful to have been exposed to them, but my experience with them was never quite as personal. Teachers brought out teams to me. That was very interesting. But my brain also molded my understanding of the book to fit the theme that had been proposed to me. Whatever shape the book had taken in my mind prior to the theme being introduced to me was lost.

That is not to say that discussing books is bad. Quite the contrary, it is a great way to discover our own final interpretation of the book. But to do this, we must first create that impression on our own so that we can defend it or alter it when presented with another impression. I think that reading a book together with thousands of others and following their thoughts live on the internet makes it very difficult to create our own impression and critically think about a book (just as Melody herself has explained.) Experiencing a novel is supposed to be relative; doing it communally takes away the relativity.

And if I can push it one step further, I think that trying to encourage reading in today's society through this method also makes it difficult to allow others to feel that personal joy of reading (as in this new idea could be called a killjoy). Readers should not run to a new book for the sake of participating in Twitter conversations on the book and if they do they could be missing that relative experience of reading. I believe that there is a very special relationship between author and reader in which all authors are attempting to speak on a very personal level to the reader, not to the masses, and that the comments that capture our true love for a literary work are not the ones that we would ever tweet to the public. In fact, discussing the book with others in such a public forum makes it so that we are now distancing ourselves from the book (for how could I every say publicly to the world that a secret in my life bonds me to a cherished character and preserve any privacy? so I must approach that character differently altogether, and conceal or even reject my true experience of the book).

I am happy to see that Mr. Jeff Howe wishes to encourage more people to read. But I think that approaching the matter this way strips away the true value of reading. I don't think that his idea will fail. And I am sure it will bring great marketing to novels. But today's lack for the love of reading (if it truly exists) can only be eliminated by tapping into the deep and real reasons why people fall in love with reading in the first place.

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

beyond the criticism of 'crowdsourcing' which is probably misplaced and irrelevant to this particular post, perhaps melody is simply trying to pose the question: "nihilo sanctum estne?" there is a certain private romance many have with books that we're in a losing battle to protect, thus the revulsion some are expressing in subsequent commentary. we slowly watch as our neighborhood independent bookstores go out of business and our satisfaction of collecting books in physical form is endangered by the electronic form. the suggestion to collectively read a book and discuss it on twitter flies in the face of what so many of us hold dear about the reading experience: forming a lifelong bond with a writer and trying to interpret what they're saying, often applying it to our own lives and experiences to learn something new or minimally, be reflective. howe and thousands of others are free to read whatever book they want and share their thoughts in 140 characters or less - more power to them. in the meantime, i'll be sitting with a hot cup of tea and my book, computer and phone off, lost in my own private thoughts that will be shared...with no one.

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commentera

@anonymous: like you, i felt a visceral reaction to this subject because the topic was fiction. If it had been about say, a Twitter club dedicated to web 2.0, I'm suspect I wouldn't have been so emotional. I really appreciate your comment; it was so thoughtful.

@a: yes I admit crowdsourcing was a misplaced term. a poor title that i never actually used in the post itself. and of course, the natural reaction is just not to participate, which will certainly be my course. i just fear a future of reading where the important part of the experience is immediately sharing your reactions and following others' reactions throughout the reading process. it's a 2.0 mentality that sharing thoughts is better and connecting online over something leads to better outcomes. individualism and personal experience are the losers. and when it comes to fiction, that is particularly sad. there is such a range of possibility that shrinks when reactions are distilled into fragments.

March 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterMelody

I want to comment on this claim in the original post: "One of the easiest ways to be a lazy reader is to read a book uncritically then read lots of commentary on it."

I don't know what it would mean to read a book uncritically. It seems to me that if someone is reading a book for purposes other than school then they're necessarily reading it as best they can. If they read it all the way through, then their impressions and opinions will be what they are. I just don't think the metaphor of critical reading glasses that one can put on and take off at will stands up to the reality of the reading experience.

And therefore if someone takes the further trouble to "read lots of commentary" on a book they're actually read they're going to have their initial takes challenged, expanded, sophisticated, and put into context by the commentary writers. I would call this rigorous reading, not lazy reading.

Maybe Melody is thinking of "the lazy reader" as the one who doesn't read an assigned book and has to cobble together a paper off of rumors, summaries, and safe generalizations. But if so that's not uncritical reading, that's not reading at all.

April 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJack

@Jack, Your phrase, "If they read it all the way through, then their impressions and opinions will be what they are" gets to the heart of what I am saying. When reading for fun, it should definitely be about doing the best that you can. But you aren't doing that if you are double-checking, verifying, or revising your impressions consistently while following a live stream of tweets. Turning to commentary for a deeper look or alternative point of view is indeed rigorous reading, but it requires making your own judgments first.

April 18, 2010 | Registered CommenterMelody
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