Bookish Identities: How the Online Reading Community Empowers the Self

***Leah Perry considers the intersections of identity and authorship in the context of infosphere by drawing on examples of online reading communities. Leah is on Twitter @leahplis***

Introduction

The pervasiveness and increasing usage of digital technologies and information communication technologies (ICTs) influences not only how we view the world around us, but how we view ourselves. We are plugged in to an incessant stream of information and networked to other informational entities – or inforgs (Floridi, 2010) – and in order to find our place in the vast landscape of the Web, we bring to it elements of our identities and settle amongst others whom we share, or want to share, traits with. In pockets across various social media platforms, the online reading community occupies a space where readers produce, disseminate, discuss, evaluate, and organise information, and are empowered to be in control of information regarding their identities and their shared – and at times conflicting – interests. This essay will examine how these modern forms of publishing and subsequent information behaviour provide ways to explore and express identity. Firstly, this essay will briefly examine how reading and social media as a broad concept connects to questions of identity; then it will consider three topics where the online reading community empowers the self: collaborative production, information source evaluation, and knowledge organisation.

Bookish Identities and The Online Self

Our identities have been subject to influence from mass media since the emergence of ICTs. Radio, television, and the internet live in our homes – where we feel most ourselves – and as such, contribute to our socialisation (Gripsrud, 2017). In the interest of brevity, it can be understood that there are two types of identity: personal and social. Personal identity refers to qualities that are seen as unique to the individual; how they are different from others. Conversely, social identity refers to shared qualities; how the individual is similar to others in the group. What we conceive ourselves to be, what others conceive us to be, and what we actually are, are mutually dependent states (Floridi, 2014). Identity is both stable and unstable, we are plastic (Bush, 2020), never definite, always developing. The self is comprised of many independent factors that can stand alone or work in tandem with one another. Social media allows us to freely explore any component of our selves, and this can be revelatory: discovering new language that relates to us; and informative: understanding how different facets of our selves intersect with one another (Miller, 2017). It also exposes us to identities that differ from our own, and allow us to relate these back to questions of our own identity in the shape of desirability and comparison.

Books also allow us to interact with identities similar or different to our own. They can be “windows, mirrors or sliding glass doors” (Sims Bishop, 1990), offering models of desirable or undesirable identities, representations of our own identity, or perspectives from alternative identities, respectively. Many of us spend a great deal of time pursuing leisure activities, so much so that we may define ourselves by our hobbies. Reading for pleasure is intensely important to readers – it is as definitively a part of their identity as their eye colour, or their nationality – some saying that without reading, they simply would not be themselves (Ross, 1999, p. 787). Hobby-centred communities are prevalent offline – sports clubs, gardening groups, skate parks – but social media platforms provide new and unique ways to exist within a community. Goodreads and LibraryThing are bookish social media sites focused on recording, cataloguing, discussing, reviewing, and sharing information about books. These sites – and, indeed, social media itself – are often understood to offer democratic spaces missing in their reality equivalent (libraries), as power and responsibility are distributed evenly amongst its users (Faraj, Jarvenpaa and Majchrzak, 2011). The online reading community also inhabits other non-centralised social media platforms, most notably YouTube (Book Tube), Instagram (Bookstagram) and Twitter (Book Twitter). While these still exercise a democratic approach, in that anyone can publish and interact with published work, bookish social media influencers boast hundreds of thousands of followers, which suggests that their content is of high value, and thus sit at the top of a hierarchy. The relationship between influencer and others in the community is parasocial, in that it is mostly one directional. This can lead to identification (Hua, Mina, Hanb and Liua, 2020) which is particularly interesting in a library and information context, as it can shape one’s identity and increase the influencer’s reputability as an information source.

Collaborative Production

The participatory nature of Web 2.0 changed our understanding of authorship. Traditionally, texts are thought to be exclusively produced by an individual, despite the fact that the creative process is often synergistic, including practices such as taking inspiration from other texts, discussing ideas with others, and editorial revisions (Love, 2002). Modern forms of publishing such as social media cater to collaborative production, blurring the line between author and reader, and challenging the view of the single author. This is found in reply and edit functions across the Web, but also in participatory methods such as citizen journalism (Masip et. al, 2015).

On Goodreads, readers can “become co-author, author and maybe even publisher,” (Bech Albrechtslund, 2020, p. 555), as they disseminate information about books and their own personal reading experiences. Goodreads facilitates collaborative production through the ability to publish reviews, interact with others’ published reviews, discuss in closed groups, and edit public catalogue records. To publish a review, to declare love or hate or indifference for a book, to like someone else’s review, or engage through commenting is to demonstrate and explore one’s identity (Xie, 2019). Readers communicate their personal experiences, perspectives, and discovered meanings of books, and this is discussed and mediated by other users, encouraging an exchange of information, and in turn the production of new information (Worrall, 2019). Repeated collaboration and presentation of the self reinforces social identity, as readers feel connected to others who have similar interests, or they have shared experiences with – i.e., read the same book – even if they have contrasting opinions. This then motivates further engagement with information exchange within the group (Flanagin, Hocevar, and Samahito, 2014). Through continual exposure to the identities of others within the community, readers can begin to shape their understanding of others, anticipating what they will do, think, and say (Blanchard and Markus, 2004). This is exemplified by any BookTuber’s comment section, which is always filled with book recommendations from viewers who believe they have deduced the BookTuber’s reading preferences based on their opinions of previous reads.

Crucially, for collaborative production to take place, readers must feel that their own identity is being accurately interpreted by others (Ma and Agarwal, 2007). To feel part of a community, the subsequent sense of belonging, and to contribute to the good of that community is inherently rewarding. In the online reading community this can be achieved through enhancing and editing metadata records; exposing new perspectives and creating new meanings; and communicating other book-related information with others. Some information that the online reading community produces collaboratively is unique in its value of subjective information (Stover, 2009). This is as a result of its members having a strong sense of social identity, and therefore feeling comfortable and supported in their vulnerable expression of emotion. Where traditional reading spaces centralise metadata, subject, and topic to describe a book’s aboutness, newly developed social media book site The Storygraph offers readers the option to tag a catalogue record by moods they thought the book evoked. Tagging books – whether that is by genre, subject, topic, theme, mood, metadata, pace, content warnings, linked data, or rating – is a collaborative process with the goal of creating enriched records that aid users to express and explore their personal and social identity. Knowledge organisation on social media book sites and its capacity to empower the self will be examined in more detail later in this essay.

Online communities rely on collaborative production from members to “maintain the community infrastructure, generate new and updated information, and provide social and emotional support to other members.” (Ren, Kraut and Kiesler, 2007, p. 378). It is a mutually reinforced relationship, then; it is the contributions that make the community, and it is the community that make the contributions.

Information Source Evaluation

With an ever-increasing and accelerating quantity of information, and perpetually diversifying formats in which to publish, on the Web and offline, we must often rely on others for information (Buckland, 2017). While face-to-face interaction and offline personal information sources such as friends and family remain valuable and popular avenues to acquire information (Bawden, 2020), our reliance on information dissemination via ICTs is prevalent. As much as we may wish, we cannot read every book in the world, and so members in the online book community rely on the information of other members to inform them.

Historically, we have turned to the voice of the expert for reliable information. But the profession of the literary critic has somewhat fallen victim to the volume of diverse media production and the bureaucratic nature of the web (Greene, n.d.). This is also seen in the rise of citizen journalism, where participation and collaborative knowledge is the “new ecology of news production and consumption.” (Newman, Dutton and Blank, 2014, p. 146). Internet users’ trusted information sources online are increasingly not whom we would typically deem an expert, and not out of a lack of locating one. In fact, in the online reading community, members turn to sources within the community whom they determine to be reliable. This decision is often based on questions of identity. Firstly, the sources can be bookish social media influencers, or they can be other members of the community who are seen as similar to the information seeker.

Social media accounts with large followings are hugely influential across all platforms, in and out of the online reading community. The nature and extent of their effect is interesting in a library and information science context, as it demonstrates a unique approach to the evaluation of information sources. Social media influencers are hugely effective, leading people to change the way they view themselves, and alter their offline behaviour (Herther, 2021). Despite previous practice of looking to experts for information, for example, to a critic for a book review, members of the online reading community will look to influencers, because information seekers do not always evaluate information sources by their levels of knowledgeability, but rather their interests (Van House, 2003). The information seeker views the influencer as relatable – unlike traditional celebrities, who are seen as an altogether different kind of person – and popular (for reference, most popular booktuber Bel Rodrigues has 898,000 followers), and therefore already trusted in the community. It is precisely because they are not traditional experts that they are reliable; they are just like the information-seeking readers. This creates a strong sense of shared social identity. Repeated exposure to the influencer increases their reputability as information sources and integrity as fellow community members (Arrieta, Peña and Medina, 2019). Equally, information produced, co-produced and disseminated by influencers in the online reading community often surround the entire reading experience, which can expose aspects of their personal life (Savolainen, 2020). This can be found in the introduction to book reviews, reading vlogs, or simply in a comment. This type of information reduces the feeling of distance between member and influencer, and increases their sense of similarity (Hua et al, 2020), leading to identification and heightened information credibility (Malinen and Koivula, 2020).

However, identification does not happen exclusively between members of the online reading community and an influencer; it can also occur between members. Those with a strong sense of social identity within their bookish network view their fellow members – who are like-minded – as reliable information sources, and in turn, trust their judgement on information evaluation (Kaakinen, Sirola, Savolainen and Oksanen, 2020).

Knowledge Organisation

The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) is arguably the most widely implemented controlled vocabulary for subject cataloguing in the world; but the literature is saturated with criticism of it. While it is criticised for its American bias (Lo, 2019) and Western-centrism (Bethel, 1994), it is perhaps most prominently noted as failing in the descriptions of people (Berman, 1993). With global standardisation as its objective and its slow pace to implement change, prejudices and bias remain in its inaccurate, disconnected, and sometimes offensive descriptions of marginalised identities including African Americans, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ people. The aim of interoperability of catalogue records often means specificity is avoided, especially when concerning identities that defy the supposed standard of whiteness, maleness, and heterosexuality, leading such documents to be lost in the swarm of broad descriptors, which Olson (2002) terms “ghettoization.”

Naming identities is a powerful process, and one that has historically been in the hands of those who conform to the aforementioned supposed standard, and this contributes to the marginalisation of entire communities. Discovering texts about one’s own identity labelled with an unfamiliar or inaccurate term can prompt distressing self-reflection (Adler, 2017). Folksonomies and user generated tags – social tagging – found on book social media sites Goodreads, LibraryThing and The Storygraph, reallocate the power of naming into the hands of the people being named.

LGBTQ+ identities are granular (Keilty, 2009), defy simple categorisation (Campbell, 2000), and are inherently rooted in the deviation of perceived normativity. Some LGBTQ+ identities are ideologically antithetical to knowledge organisation, understanding gender and sexual identity to be in a constant state of flux and unable to be permanently categorised. Defining one’s identity is intensely personal and unique, and language is subjective; words mean different things to different people, and even different things to the same person at different times. Homosexual women, for example, may define themselves as lesbian, gay, queer, dyke, or any other variation and combination of these, and traditional indexing systems do not, and cannot, support this disparity (Drabinski, 2013). Due to this, user-generated tags can be messy, uncontrolled, and unstandardised (Thomas, Caudle and Schmitz, 2010), but they offer the democratisation of categorisation (Adler, 2009), and give “information seekers a voice inside the catalogue.” (Olson, 2002, p. 234).

In the online reading community, members can define a book’s subject however they wish, either for their own private organisation, or to contribute to the richness of the text’s record for the good of the community. This is an empowering act, and reinforces feelings of personal and social identity. To examine the complexities of identity and the subsequent process of subject cataloguing with traditional controlled vocabularies versus user-generated tagging, take Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters as an example. The identity-related terms assigned to WorldCat’s record of the text , using LCSH, are: “Lesbians” and “Identity.” Bookish social media sites’ subject tags are far more comprehensive, with too many identity-related tags to relay. LibraryThing’s record has assigned tags including: “bisexuals”, “coming out”, “cross-dressing”, “drag”, “drag king”, “f/f”, “gay”, “gender bending”, “glbtq”, “homosexuality”, “lesbian”, “lesbianism”, “lgbt”, “LGBTQ+”, “queer”, “sapphic”, “sexuality” and “wlw”; Goodreads’ tags include: “lgbt”, “lgbtq”, “queer”, “lesbian”, “lgbtqia”, “glbt”, “wlw”, “sapphic”, “gay”, “f-f”, “queer-lit”, and “gender.” These sites facilitate the use of natural language, a function that many thesauri aim to control, by accommodating the words and terms used by communities to describe themselves, which “resonates with the radical postmodern, highly individualised conception of identity.” (Bates and Rowley, 2011, p. 434).

Number allowance for subject headings within traditional cataloguing systems is strict, and therefore often do not cater for intersectional understandings (Howard and Knowlton, 2018). Intersectionality is central to identity, as the various facets of identity overlap with one another, and the place where they merge creates a new identity consideration, independent of its constituent parts. The social categories “Woman” and “Black” may be separate, or they may be so intertwined that for some it is more accurate to view these components of their identity as one: Black womanness. While white lesbians and Black lesbians share the facets of womanhood and sexuality, Black lesbian identities may feel that their womanhood and sexuality is inextricable from their Blackness, and want to describe this experience as such (Fox, 2016). User-generated tags afford members of the online reading community the power to explore and define the disparate or intersectionality of their identities.

Conclusion

In review, modern forms of publishing in the online reading community and members’ information behaviour demonstrates a relationship between questions of identity and library and information science concepts. By contributing to the good of the community, whether this is thorough creating, evaluating, disseminating, or engaging in some other way with information, members of the online reading community experience their social identity strengthen. Being a part of a community surrounded by like-minded peers, and having one’s own identity accurately recognised by others, further encourages collaborative production. This process can also reinforce personal identity, as much of the information shared on bookish social media sites regard opinion and perspectives, which are ultimately a reflection and declaration of the self.

Information-seeking practices in the online reading community often do not include the role of the literary critic or expert, as the bureaucratic nature of the Web provides the opportunity for anyone to publish their knowledge, and those with whom we share a social identity with are often determined credible information sources. Bookish influencers can stand in the place of the expert, as their unique social status between peer and celebrity prompts identification, and their popularity is a mark of trust from other members of the community.

Where cataloguing systems typically aim for standardisation and language control, user-generated tags facilitate natural language and equity of term creation, providing the power to label oneself. This is most notably important for identities that are not served well in traditional knowledge organisation structures, such as LGBTQ+ people. Social tagging also allows for representation of intersectional identities, supporting the complexity and individuality of the self, which is unable to be standardised or definitive.

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About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

I am artist in residence in the MA/MSc Library and Information Science department at City, University of London and module year coordinator for MA/MFA Performative Writing/Vade Mecum at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.My research interests include intermediality, live performance in digital culture, participatory and immersive theatre, performance documentation, archives, and performative writing.
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