“Meaning is not in things but in between; in the iridescence, the interplay; the interconnections; at the intersections, at the crossroads. Meaning is transitional as it is transitory; in the puns or bridges, the correspondence.”
Norman O. Brown, “Freedom,” Love’s Body (1966)
“The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form. Quantity has been transmuted into quality. The greatly increased mass of participants has produced a change in the mode of participation. The fact that the new mode of participation first appeared in a disreputable form must not confuse the spectator. Yet some people have launched spirited attacks against precisely this superficial aspect.”
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936)
Because of my reviews for Translation Tuesdays, I was invited to join Riffle, a new social media website devoted to literature. In addition, I have been a long time member of LibraryThing, a website where one can catalog his or her library. LibraryThing also has publisher giveaways, discussion groups, and links to local events. This essay seeks to investigate the linkages between social media, device connectivity, and “the book.”
Boundaries of the Book
During the last decade, there has been a revolution in how consume data. More specifically, how we consume books, music, and film. But the change in consumption did not happen overnight or in a vacuum. As creatures of habit, we remain skeptical and resistant to technological change. New products like ebooks and digital music downloads have disrupted our normal perceptions of consumption.
Concurrent with these new technological innovations, the Internet’s increased availability in the mid-1990s spurred a democratization of knowledge. Email and Instant Messenger made communication instantaneous and free, as opposed to paying for postage and long distance phone calls. Into this melange we now have things like freeware and Makerbot. These user-based tools/movements have become a counter-voice to proprietary software and top-down producer-consumer paradigms.
All these various activities and innovations have created an environment for change in how consumers interact with other forms of data, specifically books and music. Napster and the like began as free file-sharing software, allowing consumers to download songs. It was advantageous for those who enjoyed one or two songs from a rather middling album. Smashmouth’s “Walkin’ on the Sun” became a popular download because no one wanted to pay $12 for an album with only one good song. Then Lars Ulrich became litigious and made many people very angry. Eventually programmers and business executives came to an understanding that led to the common paradigm of purchasing downloadable music. The rise of the iPod also smoothed the transition, since it operated on playing downloaded digital music files and not cassette tapes. And it was smaller and held more songs.
Music was easy, books are hard. Music consumption has periodic transitions – wax cylnders to records, records to tapes, tapes to CDs, CDs to digital files – but books present a different history. There has not been a major transition in book consumption since Gutenberg and even then it was only a matter of speed and cheapness. For the most part, books still came in numbered pages between hard covers. What is inside a book has changed radically since the 16th century with the onset on digital publishing and printing. One only has to browse a used bookstore and see art books from the Seventies and Eighties to appreciate the changes made.
Still, despite some superficial aesthetic changes, consumers still purchased books that looked like books. The bookishness of a book, as it were. This intrinsic nature – the smell of ink, the feel of paper, the weight of the volume – has become the hardest thing to abandon. One could read emails or blogs or newspaper websites for free, but all three of those things lack the implicit gravitas of a book. But this is to speak in generalities. To delve further, one has to investigate the variety of books available to the consumer. Not merely the Taschen coffee table book, but also the almost-disposable bestseller or the pulp thriller. The ease and quickness in how one reads a Grisham novel or a Steven King horror story is in stark contrast to a coffee table art book. A coffee table art book is an artifact. Something to be preserved and displayed like a sacred relic. That’s how I treat my copy of Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini or the 7-volume edition of Rising Up and Rising Down by William T. Vollmann.
Where ebooks have been successful is in the realm once occupied by drugstore paperbacks. Unlike the coffee table art book, these paperbacks are made with cheap materials. One reads them with speed and one can consume many books within a year. Besides the cheap paper, these paperbacks also cost considerably less. The Spartan content – no visuals or fold-out maps – make them much better candidates for ebook consumption. The technological innovation of the ebook has created a niche once occupied by cheap paperbacks from the Thirties to the Sixties, the Golden and Silver Ages of popular genres like Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Erotica.
Ebooks dissolve the boundaries of the traditional book. One still calls it a “book” despite the absence of page numbers. While content harkens back to a bygone era, the functionalities of ebooks harken back to scrolls, content delivery systems used in Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Besides the scrolling, there is a futuristic addition with the presence of hypertext. Hypertext makes ebooks three-dimensional objects. One can scroll up and down, but one can also click on a word and go through. As Doc Brown said, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
Lists are fun. Whether it is reading a list or making a list, the fun comes in creating and adding entries. Cracked.com excels at making lists. Long the weak counterpart to MAD Magazine, Cracked reinvented itself as an online comedy website. It did so through lists. The lists existed as an arrangement of factoids for quick consumption. Cracked.com likens it to “comedy heroin.” Short, strong doses of intense comedy. A catchy title and stock photography get mixed in with fact-based article liberally dosed with dick jokes and sophomoric humor. Ironically, such mischief has its antecedents in Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532) by François Rabelais.
Riffle, the new social media website, also allows users to make lists. After creating a list, the user then has the option to post it on Twitter and/or Facebook. It offers a space to create opinions and search similar tastes. The lists serve the user as a counter to such things like the algorithms used on Amazon and Netflix. The idiosyncrasy of user-generated lists are self-made. The users create them for their own personal edification. They have nothing at stake but their own satisfaction. The algorithms of Amazon and Netflix exist because the System is trying to give its best guess at what a potential consumer might want to purchase. Amazon and Netflix exist as monetized environments: consumer ecologies. Riffle is more communitarian in nature.
Connection and Connectivity
Riffle and LibraryThing function best when they bring people together. I have been a longtime member of LibraryThing, cataloging numerous books and interacting with various discussion groups. When the cataloging function is fulfilled, then one move towards interaction. The same behavior exists on Facebook, where once one has accumulated various and sundry friends, then went one to “Like” numerous things, then one focuses on renewing old friendships or kindling new ones.
Today Facebook exists as the incumbent paradigm. All roads lead to Facebook. Riffle’s functionality becomes useful in its connectivity with Facebook.
Riffle → Facebook
The same thing with this blog. Once I’m done writing this essay, it will be posted on the WordPress blog and then re-posted on this blog’s Facebook page.
Driftless Area Review → Driftless Area Review Facebook Page
When I write book reviews, I post them on LibraryThing, post them on this blog, and then, finally, the Driftless Area Review Facebook page.
Posting Book Review
LibraryThing → Driftless Area Review* → Driftless Area Review Facebook page
*This becomes further complicated when I post elsewhere, including The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP) (also posting on their Facebook page), The Joe Bob Report, and The The Poetry Blog.
CCLaP page → LibraryThing → Driftless Area Review → Driftless Area Review Facebook page → CCLaP Facebook page
In addition to the content, what becomes especially important is connectivity. The CCLaP has created a platform for viewing the site across all media types (computer terminals, iPads, mobile devices, etc.). To call back the Norman O. Brown quote, “Meaning is not in things but in between; in the iridescence, the interplay; the interconnections.” The Internet fueled democratization of content has created a digital ecology dependent on connectivity. Once consumers were satisfied that the computer could access the Internet via the phone lines. Wifi has changed that perception. The demand that content be available immediately everywhere is premised on the notion that all these numerous devices can talk to each other.
But connectivity comes at a cost. Unlike the hard point connecting a desktop and a phone line, Wifi is much more tricksy. Many more variables come to the forefront when one beams information over the airwaves. Everything from security to the weather can play havoc with content distribution. In addition, the variety of machines available to the public also come with their own idiosyncratic behaviors. Cell phones offer increased convenience for communication, but at the cost of dropping out at unexpected times to cell towers not working.
Riffle, LibraryThing, and Facebook (among the many other not mentioned) offer social connection. The ascendancy of multiple devices in the household means we depend not only on the content they provide, but whether or not they can talk to each other.