Crowdsourcing a book club; when will it end?
Monday, March 29, 2010 at 08:43AM
Melody in Online Community, Twitter, crowdsourcing

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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