Reading Goodreads: A Note to Historians of the Future

There has been a recent flurry of interest in archiving social media. One of the big questions to ask before we start saving is which of this stuff is useful? We need to do a bit of work to imagine the kinds of things that people might do with social media data in the future. To that end I hope to occasionally post about some notes to historians of the future. While there is a general tendency for social media to mean twitter and facebook I think many of the most interesting examples of value come from the niche networks.

When You One-Star Something in the Lit Canon

The following is a annotated reading of one of the 43,000 reviews of Kafka’s Metamorphosis on Goodreads. That’s right, Goodreads has 43,000 reactions to Metamorphosis. Now with that full set you could do some really interesting kinds of data mining, but instead I wanted to share this back-and-forth that happens in reaction to one of the reviews on the first page.

He’s A Cockroach: The Critic

We need to start off with the original review. (I am only going to include relevant snipits here but feel free to read the whole thing over on goodreads.)

…I’m sorry, but all this stuff about him being a symbol for Jesus and struggling for mankind is a bit over-the-top I think. He’s a cockaroach. There’s no explaination for it, and his family is only mild freaked out at the fact that he suddenly turned into a giant bug. If the family tried to take him to the doctor, or sell him to the circus, or perhaps even give a damn at all, the story might have kept my attention for more than the first few pages.

Goodreads lets anybody post their comments. Just tell the world what you think about a book. In this case our writer chooses to dismiss something from “the canon.” As you can imagine this view provokes a response from fans of the book.

Stick to Harry Potter: The Critic’s Critics

Some of you might be able to guess where this is going. Dismissing this book in a comunity of book lovers is bound to stir something up. The first response is a bit pejorative, but I think it feels like the reviewer’s heart is in the right place.

You should try reading it again when you’re older. I also thought it was stupid the first time I read it. But, I read it again about 15 years later, and it was great.

From there we start to get something a bit more snarky.

what’s “over the top” is how badly you’ve missed the entire point of the story. stick to harry potter from now on, unless all that wizard talk is too confusing for you…

Then snark turns to full blown sarcasm and hyperbole.

I just wanted to say sorry on behalf of the educated community. We were wrong to judge this a literary classic; I guess none of us realized that Gregor’s just a cockroach and that there’s no explanation for it. The community and I went up to Johns Hopkins the other day, and surveyed the mental health department. 98% of them agreed that “yeah, that kafka fool was irretrievably insane, ergo ‘The Metamorphosis’ has insignificant literary value.” What fools we all were! If only the Emperor could return his new clothes…

Well, looks like its time to start burning every copy in every Literature class in the country. Can’t look back, though; always must try to recover from our mistakes! Oh Kafka, you conniving scoundrel, you!

P.S. Hope you don’t mind, we’ll be abandoning “Masterful use of Symbolism” from our list of characteristics of excellent literature, as well as changing the standard of “Understandable to a majority of people at/above a high school reading level” to “Straightforward, resolution-oriented, and written with a vocabulary of under 200 words.” Thanks again!

Literatti Peacocks Come Out to Strut: The Critic’s Critic’s Critics

With full blown snark in play it is now time for a rebuttal. Importantly, this rebuttal, all of these comments actually, are not responses from the original reviewer. This is simply other community member doing what they see as due diligence.

And the literatti peacocks come out to strut. So far we have: ‘Read it when you’re older and smarter like me’; ‘Stick to Harry Potter, you moron’; and a sad variation of ‘The literary establishment thinks it’s genius so how could your opinion possibly matter?’

And the sad part is within all these appeals to authority they actually think it turns this circle-jerk of a metaphor into something impressive.

Stick to your guns, Kathy. Even pretentious assholes with Lit degrees can’t spin straw into gold.

It’s worth noting that this critic’s critic’s critic is not alone.

Great, another elitist prick. The literary world doesn’t have enough of those! Sneer more please.

Can’t We All Get Along: The Critic’s Critic’s Critic’s Critic

One might imagine that this would be the end, but no. There is still an open call for someone to try to cut through the various stances in this thread.

The problem with these “classics” is that people who don’t like them are viewed as uncultured morons, and the people who do like them are viewed as snobbish.

Can’t the people who like them just like them and the ones that don’t just don’t? Personally, the ridiculousness of it all is what made it interesting to me, but I guess some people might view it as stupid.

Yes, the ridiculousness of it all is what is fascinating! For good measure, one commenter felt it necessary to remind us:

Not all people with Lit degrees are pretentious. I am going for my creative writing degree. However if there are pretentious literati then there are pretentious opposites as well. I wish we could steer clear of finger pointing and name calling. It’s distasteful.

Oh, Then There is Me: The Critic’s Critic’s Critic’s Blogger

Right, so it’s recursive like that. This post itself is part of that nesting doll. Now what do we find in all of this posturing? We probably do not learn that much about the book itself. But I’m not particularly interested in that anyway. The back and forth between each of these camps gives us a treasure trove of information for picking apart how different kinds of readers think about themselves. When I tweeted about this thread a few months back Chris Forster said it best when he suggested that “the 10th comment in that thread is the shortest summary of Bourdieu’s DISTINCTION” he had ever read.

I think the lesson here is that the real power of this site, and many social media sites, is not in what they tell us about the objects under discussion. What is on display here is what they have to tell us about the nature of the discourse surrounding the objects. This is commentary, and commentary on the commentary, and commentary on the commentary on the commentary. In that dialog I think we can find an unbelievably rich set of information about viable viewpoints in our society.

Someone is wrong on the Internet:

Someone is Wrong on The Internet, from XKCD

The more I think about this the more I become convinced that Ftrain’s idea about the internet as the medium that answers the question, Why Wasn’t I Consulted? As we talk about what we should save and what people will do with what we save I think it is going to be valuable to think about what sets of commentary we want to be able to mine at a latter date. I think the XKCD here describes the situation that occurred with many of the above responses. People went to goodreads to tell you why you are wrong and when they do so they tell us a lot about themselves. Collectively these statements show us what kinds of opinions are acceptable to different kinds of readers.