The OF Blog: Deficiencies in online book discussions

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Deficiencies in online book discussions

I love to read, having (according to my mother) taught myself how to read when I was around 5 years now.  I like to discuss things, either with friends I've grown up with, or with people I had classes with, co-workers, students, or most anyone that I've met and known for more than a few minutes.  Discussion is great.  New ideas, discovering how you arrived at a process through interactions with others, learning how to express yourself.  All great and wonderful things.

I especially remember how wonderful it was being in my undergraduate and graduate history (as well as my undergrad lit courses), reading a text, having a question or two posed, and bam!  off we were, like hungry pit bulls lusting to close our jaws around the throats of those pernicious questions.  But yet despite our eagerness to argue and to posture and to hold out in the face of counterarguments, what made the discussions so valuable was that there was a sense of respect for Authority.  Not an unconditional respect; oh, we would debate our professors on various stances or schools of thought, but rather that any information provided by the instructors (or from fellow grad students who had done some prior research in such an area) was not immediately discarded nor were they looked upon as being detriments to our discussions.  If anything, a learned perspective was valued as being something that we could test and see if our own takes were better, or if they proved the worthiness of those experience-tested opinions and evidence. 

It is much easier to respect received Authority when people are discussing face-to-face, or at least have quite a bit of knowledge of each other.  It is a very different matter to discuss things, especially if they are things read in books, with a group of strangers.  Humans are very hierarchical in nature; a lack of leadership can be a very bad thing in group settings.  Even in discussions of ideas or stories found in books, generally most discussions break down quickly if there is not a perceived "leader," someone who is more experienced in discussing the material at hand and whose perspective may be based on prior experiences with the material. 

It has been my experience over the past 10 years (nearly 8 of which served as being a moderator and occasional "book club" leader at wotmania) that online book discussions in general fail beyond a certain surface level.  It is a reluctant admission, one that I still continue to resist today, but it is one that unfortunately is grounded in a wealth of hard-earned experience.  When I used to lead discussions, I first tried the old "pose some categorical questions about favorite characters, plot points, etc." in order to give just a bit of guidance, but nothing that would impinge upon the readers' initial experiences with the work.  Almost inevitably, the discussions would rarely go beyond, "well, I like this point, but didn't like that other one," with very little to nothing in the way of the group as a whole expanding upon this; typically, the points were left unaddressed, or only 1 and maybe 2 others would address another.

At times, it felt as though there were a dozen or more detached statements about a surface quality, but no real discussion of the story.  People said their peace and that was it.  Next.

Of course, this is if the so-called online discussion was "good."  Sometimes, things would go bad.  If some were to discuss how a particular book was non-enjoyable and gave detailed reasons as to why,  then there might be more of a focus on issues of persons involved rather than the text itself.  Or perhaps someone were to discuss something from his/her experience, and it was too refined, too much like an academic discussion, or just plain outside what another person or sub-group wanted.  You then might get accusations of being "elitist" or having "pretensions" of being "a teacher lecturing to students."  In other words, those who have prior experience/perspective would not have those experiences or perspectives valued, but instead, regardless of actual intent on the part of the participant, might find their takes and manner of presentation disparaged because there is a real or perceived difference in knowledge and understanding.

That last bit I've seen dozens, if not hundreds, of times over the years.  Sometimes, I receive such accusations.  Instead of getting frustrated by it anymore, I just tend to shake my head ruefully, bow out, and watch the near-inevitable implosion of discussion threads into individualized declarations of what they liked, disliked, all without much in the way of questioning one's own and others' takes on the matter.  After all, doing such would be "pretentious" and being a bit "arrogant," I suppose, whatever the hell that might mean.

A few, rare occasions, some limited success can be achieved.  Generally, this seems to occur when there is a perceived "leader" who is both knowledgeable and open-minded.  With a few people participating who are willing to question their own assumptions, sometimes you can get a bit of real dialogue established, which I believe is the cornerstone of actual discussion.  Unfortunately, this is rare in discussions of more than 2-3 people and it rarely lasts long.

Sometimes, essays can generate discussion in the form of comments or other essays.  This is a time-honored tradition that dates back centuries and to a degree, something more lasting is achieved when this occurs.  However, the inevitable time lags can lead to delays and the loss of immediacy, while the changes in reader habits, especially when it comes to online scribblings, often leads to comments or unspoken thoughts of "too long, didn't read."  Discussion dies here as well.

So is there much hope for online book discussions?  Outside of general Q&As sometimes posted in reviews or maybe a discussion between a handful of people who've read the same book and who are willing to admit that there may be those who have better perspectives than their own, not really.  The online discussion formats are just too deficient for such a person-necessary thing such as actual discussion to occur.  At best, a simulacrum might be created, but more often, a very faint shadow of the participants' stated goals ever occur.


Fabio Fernandes said...

I agree with you - though an agreement here wouldn't take us much far, huh? ;)

Now, seriously. A few years ago, me and a couple of friends tried to discuss serious issues regarding SF and Brazilian fandom - all online, because I lived in Rio, one of them in São Paulo, and the other in Manaus (capital of the state of the Amazon).

We only got through to the 4th round of discussions. Recently me and Lucio (the São Paulo guy, who moved to Rio at the same time I moved to São Paulo, go figure) even created a blog to try and resurrect the coloquiums, as we called them - again, we didn't make it much farther.

Anywho, I really think we did build something - but, in our case, the Brazilian fandom simply wasn't willing even to read what we were writing, much less to argue. I think now things are beginning to change - but just beginning (egos can be such destructive things, my friend).

Even so, I would like to try again - in English, perhaps. Why not?

Fabio Fernandes said...

Oh, I found the link for our second and last attempt:

Hope you like it.

Cindy said...

I agree....... (it was so tempting to just type that and leave it ;) ).

I am a part of several online "book discussions" and one real life one. I don't know if it's because the internet doesn't allow you to draw off the emotions of others or whatnot. But the internet discussions as you pointed out are usually "I like this." "I didn't like this" I'm like WHY, REASONS. I don't know if it's because people are afraid of being called out or if it's just a lack of desire to type things out. Who knows.

Fabio Fernandes said...

That's why I seldom post reviews lately, Cindy. I've been thinking of it very hard lately - I'm even considering abandoning it entirely in 2011. I feel a very strong responsibility to write a big, fat, good review, and I feel awful by any reason I think I didn't make it. Better to focus on my fiction, then. (Even though I love reading more than writing, as Jorge Luis Borges did.)

Bryce L. said...

I think some of the problems are time and timing. Discussions could evolve and grow if people not only had hour upon hour to sit there and discuss, but at least if they could all be there at the same time keeping up with the discussion.

Too many times, people will put up an "I liked it, I'm outta here" response because first off, all they did was read the original post. Second, they may have read more, but are only able to respond to that one thing.

Anyway, I'm just rambling here, and it does nothing to solve the problem. Just some thoughts.


Cindy said...

See I write the reviews because there's no one to talk to about the book. It's my way of saying here's what i liked and didn't like. I wish people would comment more but it's a way for me to express myself and it helps people out.

I would love it if people were like "hey what about this" but it doesn't seem as if people have the time, energy to respond to reviews, discussions and such.

I don't need praise or pats on the back but when you know X amount of people look at something SOMEONE somewhere has to have an opinion on something!

I'm a moderator for a fairly big online book group and it has thousands of members. Only a handful of people discuss the book a month. It's sad. I don't think timing is an excuse for the lack of discussion, I really think it comes down to the amount of energy a person puts into it. I guess typing on the keyboard is just to time consuming in some cases.

Bryce L. said...

@Cindy - That was kind of what I was going for, but you put it much better than I did. The effort that goes into it is definitely a big problem.

Maybe it's the anonymity as well, which seems to be a pervasive problem on the internet. Lots of people feel like they can do whatever they want and that can lessen the amount of responsibility people have over what they do and say.

Liviu said...

I only partly agree - school comparisons are irrelevant since there you *must* read and *must* participate, otherwise you do not graduate; also in school there is a sort of "shared" goals and levels - after all you did not discuss graduate 503 class book 1 with grade 8 class so to speak and maybe not even with undergraduate 201; online you just do not generally know who you are talking with unless you restrict to a consistent and relatively small group - which still begs the common goal issues

All in all private email exchanges and more generally small mailing lists are more effective for deeper involvement imho

Dave Cesarano said...

Online dialogue is important, but yes, it often devolves when the less-knowledgeable get involved. There is a definite tendency to fear and reject intellectualism. I've had my experience in conversations both online and in person where I was accused of elitism for giving cogent arguments and requiring statements to be backed up.

Having sat in high school and university discussion-groups, I noticed the adolescent tendency is to desire to have a say, regardless of how meaningless it might be. The problem is, these adolescents then grow into adults and they never learn that their opinions, if backed by reasoning, logic, and rationality, can actually have some sort of IMPACT. It is almost as if people reject the ability to have actual impact, and they reject the impact others might have on their thoughts. There's no exchange. It's just people sitting in a room talking aimlessly. That's not a discussion, but that seems to be what many people want.

Hopefully, however, like attracts like, and blogs like this and others will spur conversations (on- and off-line) and help further the exchange of ideas.

Cindy said...

I think another issue besides time and energy is the general mentality of online people. If I were in real life and said "Such and such book was completely off. I didn't like it because of ......." the chances of someone calling me a moron, idiot, and stupid for what I believe are slim to none because they don't want to be hit upside the head.

Online, if someone expresses an opinion on something and someone disagrees there's 40 people waiting to make you feel stupid, call you names, and general just be internet trolls. I wonder if this is part of why no one wants to really get into a discussion. While others don't care what someone else says online it might effect others and no one really wants to deal with that type of thinking.

Bryce L. said...

@Cindy - That's a really good point and I think you're right. There is always a group who not only disagrees, but will make you feel like an idiot just for contributing.

I know for me, that's what makes me hesitant, but at the same time, it makes me rethink what I'm saying and at least try to write something semi-intelligent. So I guess it has pros and cons.

Simeon said...

There is another reason. Most people don't think outside the margins of "like/dislike", which they mistake for "good/bad" and defend with "everything is subjective, and every opinion counts as much as any other". There is no place in their value systems for such refined takes as "it was horrible, but I loved it", or "it is great, but I couldn't get into it" (my view of McDonald's The Dervish House btw), not to mention authorities. Everyone is equal on the Internetz, unfortunately, and it is very hard to break that attitude.

However, even with open-minded people it is harder to do any kind of discussion on-line. It's really quite simple. When you discuss something live, you just throw words around, half-focused thoughts that, in the course of the discussion, coalesce into more complex opinions. When you write a post though, you have to START with a coherent thought, expressed in a written form. That requires not only time, but also concentration and a lot of thinking before you even start writing. Very few people have the patience for it, and so they prefer to just go into surface mode and bash at anyone who actually does the effort.

Neth said...

I was mystified just how blatantly resistent people were over at Westeros, but on thinking on it more I suppose I shouldn't have been.

I don't participate in on-line book clubs much, for many of the reasons you outline. At least I've seen things, it's far to impersonal to work

Lsrry said...

Lots of comments...ummm, where to begin?


At least you all managed to get somewhere with your discussions, even if they petered out in the end. I'll read the link later this weekend.


If I ever knew the reasons why people just stick to declarative statements, I'd make a killing on marketing how to break them of that habit. Or maybe a few hundred :P


There is that. Time is an issue, not just the busyness that people experience in their lives (not many are going to be online for hours composing their thoughts), but also knowing that there is such a huge lag here. I waited until I had a bit of time to respond and it's what, 18 hours after the first comments?


Yes, there is the compulsion factor, but I was also thinking about how much was discussed even before the instructor walked in the room. Something about face-to-face discussions with one's true peers, I suppose.

As for list servs and their kin, there is something to that, I think. I do recall reading the old Usenet discussions on certain books and on the whole, it seemed more intelligent and composed compared to the majority of forum and even blog comments these days.


Those are some very good points to keep in mind. Hopefully, there can be more dialogue, both here and elsewhere.


I had been thinking on this topic before that thing you mention happened yesterday, but yes, that is a very apt example. But hey, will I ever manage to go a month without being called "elitist" or "arrogant" on fora like that one? :P

Anonymous said...

I might suggest you take a look at the discussions of the massive American Civil War history tome Battle Cry of Freedom on Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog. Over 100 comments each time around (couple chapters a week), with a number of commenters far exceeding the 2-3 you're talking about. You might want to say that it's Coates' blog and he serves as the authority figure, but he's already said his piece on these subjects a fair bit and barely even participates in these free-for-all threads after kind of an initial burst of his own thoughts.

One such discussion:

Lsrry said...

I've heard of Coates and have read a few of his writings several years ago, if I recall correctly. I'll certainly look into this shortly - thanks!

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