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Social reading remakes knowledge production in digital era

ZHAO LIBING | 2017-09-07 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


On WeChat, Douban, Zhihu, Amazon Kindle and other online reading platforms, readers are able to acquire information and exchange ideas with others via bookmarks, tags, forwards, and comments.

In recent years, the advancement of information technology has transformed reading behavior. The popularity of WeChat, Douban, Zhihu, Amazon Kindle community and other online platforms has enabled readers to share with others via bookmarks, tags, forwards and comments. This new type of reading characterized by digitization, intelligent content promotion and sharing is called social reading.

The habit of social reading means that readers no longer immerse themselves in extended reading sessions. They tend to skim content, which profoundly impacts people’s way of thinking and social interactions while reshaping the information dissemination mechanism and knowledge production process.


Sociality, reading
 “Man is a social animal,” Aristotle said more than 2,000 years ago when describing the nature of human beings. Though times have changed, the urge to make friends, socialize and form groups remains. Reading can become an important social channel if it is expanded into a common social activity and made an inseparable part of study, work and daily life.

Through books, people are able to dialogue with the past and with their peers. Completely freed from the restrictions of space and time, the reader can engage in social interactions on a much larger scale. In this sense, reading and socializing are closely associated. In other words, reading has social attributes.

In the social media era, the innate links between socializing and reading become more prominent. Media has penetrated every facet of social life, social structure and ways of thinking. At the same time, the core position of social interactions in social life and production is highlighted. It can be said that readers no longer read for reading’s sake. More importantly, they do it to establish and maintain social relations. People show their attention toward others through likes, comments and forwards. The purpose is not simply to convey information but more to communicate, build ties and facilitate conversations. In the end, reading has intrinsic social properties and reading is a means of socializing.


Major shifts in social reading
As the primary actors in the process of reading, authors and readers have always been the focus of traditional reading research, giving rise to contradictory author-centered, text-centered, and reader-centered theories on the issue of text interpretation. In those theories, authors and readers stand separately on the two ends of the information line as transmitters and recipients, falling short of dialogue and interaction.

However, in the context of social reading, the give-and-take actions run through the whole process of the text production and circulation, so the meaning production not only depends on the subjectivity of both sides, but also relies on their inter-subjectivity, i.e. the process of dialogue and consultation.

First, the line between professional and amateur writers is increasingly blurred. Chinese writing has evolved over the ages from oracle bone inscriptions to bronze inscriptions to bamboo and silk slips to engraving printing and finally mass media. Writing started out as the province of gods, kings and emperors but over time, it spread to the populace.

As Walter Benjamin predicted in his work The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, “the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character…At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.” Today, that prediction has somewhat become a reality.

Knowledge production and free publication are regarded as the natural rights of people. When we post about our lives or share content on social platforms, we all become contributors to the torrent of online information. In a way, creation equals life, as Benjamin called “literarization of the relationships of life.”

Second, a transformation of the identity from readers to users occurs. The readers have undergone a change in identity. Once they were followers of religions as well as subjects of emperors and nobles, but today they are citizens of a democratic society. This transformation has been accompanied by a more egalitarian perspective.

Traditional reading plays the role of moral cultivation, passing on orders and promoting social integration. Readers are relegated to passive receivers, a state of collective aphasia or even a distorted role in the chain of meaning production.

In modern times, however, readers have discourse power and are equipped with media tools that can be used to interpret texts. They not only actively participate in text circulation but also replenish the text through likes and comments, to the point that on occasion they overtake the role of the author by exerting public opinion pressure through community discussion, or crowdsourcing efforts to affect content production. The intent of reading platforms is also not to cultivate or educate readers, but to transform “readers” into “users” and exploit their commercial value.

Lastly, reading has lost some of its sacred character and it is now a regular facet of daily life. Cultural consumption is in full swing. Since ancient times, reading has been endowed with rich connotations of utilitarianism, culture, morality and the pursuit of meaning. In people’s deep consciousness, reading has the power to change life, and it is on par with knowledge, wisdom, rationality and even divinity.

However, the flood of available digital information is overwhelming and many find it a challenge to maintain a habit of deep immersion and extended reading. In the prevalent scattered, shallow and random reading mentality, traditional reading has stepped down from the altar. As the classics, rational thought and literary significance lose the aura they once had, readers start to look at authors and their works on an equal footing and with humanity. As a result, recreational reading, pop culture and social interaction will tend to dominate reading habits, and human society presents an unprecedented cultural landscape of data, information and a consumption boom.


Remaking knowledge production
In the phase of traditional publishing, insufficient information technology created a barrier between publications and cultural consumers, so readers’ feedback was unable to reach the publishing house quickly and accurately, causing low-level repetition and a waste of social cultural resources.

At the same time, communication among readers is confined by time and space, which not only hinders the flow of information but also restricts the interaction of ideas, and is not conducive to the appreciation of cultural capital.

In the age of social reading, reading platforms can analyze users’ browsing, commenting and forwarding history to develop a precise user profile for targeted and personalized marketing, thus greatly promoting the process of knowledge production while creating a pluralistic, open and inclusive new reading ecology.

First, a new knowledge production field is constructed. With the wide application of Web 2.0 technology, group and community reading is now the norm. Whether it’s the Amazon communication platform developed for business purposes or Douban group based on interest and hobbies, the space-time gap between readers is undoubtedly reduced, contributing to collision of ideas—elimination of the false and retention of the true—and the screening, condensation and sublimation of new knowledge.

Second, a multi-level communication system has formed. Traditional reading is a one-way street and has a linear structure, so information transmission and coverage are narrow and the cost of information acquisition is high, whereas social reading features multiple nodes and a divergent, non-linear structure. In addition to traditional publishers, agents, “online celebrities” and ordinary users constitute a multi-level communication system that plays an increasingly important role in screening, filtering and strengthening knowledge innovation.

Third, the mechanism of information circulation has been reshaped. The real problem in the information age is not the information itself but how to locate the information one needs in the vast pool of data. In social reading, the concentration that traditional reading requires no longer attracts the attention of the highly dispersed audience, so topic-oriented and event-oriented reading marketing strategies have become popular. The topic is indeed the gist of daily conversations, which are condensed and summarized social events that people pay attention to in their everyday lives. They are in timely-fashion, efficient and easy to circulate. On the back of all sorts of hot topics and social outbursts, social reading could easily rise to the top and steal the spotlight.


Zhao Libing is from the School of Journalism and Communication at Jinan University.