November 9, 2011


Digital scholar looks at 'the social lives of books' on Amazon

“I like to think of this as the social lives of books,” where authors’ fame, how they are received and the culture of reading intersect, said Ed Finn about his talk, “American Networks, American Nerds” on Nov. 2 in the Woodruff Library’s Research Commons.

Finn, a University Innovation Fellow at Arizona State University, was the Digital Scholarship Commons’ first guest speaker, with more planned on digital scholarship as it relates to research and the humanities. He gave a visual presentation on his network analysis of online retailer Amazon’s consumer reviews and explaining how these differ from literary critics’ assessment.

He used as examples David Foster Wallace and Junot Diaz, twoauthors he described as “contemporary nerds,” thinking about “how their work creates new kinds of dialogue with readers online and lets us explore literary prestige.”

Finn also offered perspective on how digital scholarship can be used in the humanities. “In the digital age, we are increasingly engaging with culture through computational media,” he said, using automated recommendation systems, such as the one on Amazon, as one example.

“The game of contemporary literary analysis is really changing quickly as our reading preferences change,” Finn said. “Millions of individual acts such as buying one book instead of another are now recorded and interpreted by websites like Amazon, giving literary scholars new windows into the heart of cultural exchange.”

Finn picked Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” and Diaz’ “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” to explore the middle ground, which he called “the most interesting space where cultural exchange and literary judgment takes place.”

“The sincerity with which people approach that literary experience is deep and fundamentally very collaborative because you realize that these people are writing their reviews on Amazon to communicate with other people who are writing their reviews on Amazon, [so] each book starts to develop its own little community of readers,” Finn explained. “And people start responding to one another’s reviews and engaging in dialogue. Within the large ecosystem of Amazon trying to sell you books, there are these smaller consumer ecosystems of people actually communicating to one another.”

Finn said, “Reader reviews are more emotional and affective responses to the book.  People on Amazon talk much more about the characters than ideas as compared to the critics who are approaching these as social commentary.

“On the Internet, you can know new and different people and there are new kinds of communities emerging. I think social media in particular is changing the balance of power between those personal and quasi-personal communities of knowledge and what we think of as the professional arbiters of taste.”

One of the things Finn found fascinating in his project was “the history of the network that Amazon has constructed for you, but wants to remain only in the present. They want to eternally refresh and keep you eternally in a consumer present — what you could look at now, what you might want to buy now. They don’t want you to think about what they suggested for you last week or last month.”

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