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Prominent among the social developments that the web 2.0 has facilitated is digital social reading (DSR): on many platforms there are functionalities for creating book reviews, 'inline' commenting on book texts, online story writing (often in the form of fanfiction), informal book discussions, book vlogs, and more. In this article we argue that DSR offers unique possibilities for research into literature, reading, the impact of reading and literary communication. We also claim that in this context computational tools are especially relevant, making DSR a field particularly suitable for the application of Digital Humanities methods. We draw up an initial categorization of research aspects of DSR and briefly examine literature for each category. We distinguish between studies on DSR that use it as a lens to study wider processes of literary exchange as opposed to studies for which the DSR culture is a phenomenon interesting in its own right. Via seven examples of DSR research we discuss the chosen approaches and their connection to research questions in literary studies.
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Digital Humanities and Digital Social Reading
Simone Rebora1,2*, Peter Boot3, Federico Pianzola4,5, Brigitte Gasser1, J. Berenike
Herrmann1, Maria Kraxenberger1, Moniek Kuijpers1, Gerhard Lauer1, Piroska Lendvai1,
Thomas C. Messerli1, and Pasqualina Sorrentino6
1: DH Lab, University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland
2: Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Verona, Verona, Italy
3: Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands, Amsterdam, Netherlands
4: Department of Human Sciences for Education, University of Milan-Bicocca, Milan, Italy
5: Sogang University, Seoul, South Korea
6: Department of German Philology, University of Göttingen, Göttingen, Germany
* Corresponding author
Email: simone.rebora@univr.it
¶ These authors contributed equally to this work
Abstract
Prominent among the social developments that the web 2.0 has facilitated is digital social
reading (DSR): on many platforms there are functionalities for creating book reviews, 'inline'
commenting on book texts, online story writing (often in the form of fanfiction), informal book
discussions, book vlogs, and more. In this article we argue that DSR offers unique possibilities
for research into literature, reading, the impact of reading and literary communication. We also
claim that in this context computational tools are especially relevant, making DSR a field
particularly suitable for the application of Digital Humanities methods. We draw up an initial
categorization of research aspects of DSR and briefly examine literature for each category. We
distinguish between studies on DSR that use it as a lens to study wider processes of literary
exchange as opposed to studies for which the DSR culture is a phenomenon interesting in its
own right. Via seven examples of DSR research we discuss the chosen approaches and their
connection to research questions in literary studies.
Keywords: Digital social reading, Research categorization, Computational methods, Literary
studies
Note: this is the preprint of a paper currently under review.
Introduction
Over the last decades, with growing digitization and the fast-paced development of social media
platforms, reading has become a more socially interactive experience than ever before, in which
the Internet plays a key role. Platforms such as Goodreads, Lovelybooks, and Wattpad are
online environments where millions of people from all over the world share their love for the
written word. Members discuss what they read and what they judge as good or bad literature,
they recommend books to one another, and try their hand at writing fiction. In the research
community, this phenomenon has been labeled in many different ways (online book
discussions
,online reading and writing
,(online) social reading
, etc.). In our study, we propose
the term digital social reading (DSR) for shared reading experiences which happen either online
or offline but involve some use of digital technology and media, either for reading or for sharing
experiences elicited by books. While this label misses some key aspects of the phenomenon
(e.g. the extensive writing activity in DSR communities), it still catches the determinant role of
social interactions around the experience of reading, which are visible through DSR practices
and platforms. Readers on the Web are increasingly becoming ‘wreaders’ (Landow 2006), and
scholars of literature are starting to recognize their centrality in the global system of literary
production (Miall, 2018).
One of the first publications exploring the extent of DSR is by Leveratto and Leontsini
(2008), who noted how the internet has enabled a whole range of social interactions revolving
around reading. After a series of articles that highlighted the relevance of DSR for literary
studies (Schreier, 2010; Boot, 2011; Nakamura, 2013), the first extensive survey was
accomplished by Cordón-García et al. (2013), who described ‘social reading’ by highlighting the
increased relevance of readers and even proposing a connection with the ‘Gutenberg
parenthesis’ theory, which sees print books as just a phase between ancient and modern (or
digital) forms of orality. More recently, Murray (2018) coined the term ‘digital literary sphere,’
referring to Genette’s concept of paratext (Genette, 1987) to locate its characteristic niche,
generally ‘in the (digital) margins’ of books. In national contexts, beyond anglophone countries
(e.g. Finn, 2013; Barnett, 2015), digital social reading has received specific attention in Italy
(Faggiolani and Vivarelli, 2016), Germany (Bartl et al., 2017), and Spanish speaking countries
(Cruces Villalobos, 2017; Centro National de Innovación e Investigación Educativa, 2019;
Cordón-García and Gómez-Díaz, 2019).
The importance of online book discussion for reception studies was argued by Montesi
(2015), who discusses how social reading sites can show the impact of books on readers
individually as well as on society at large. Reading platforms and readers themselves are also
relevant objects of study (i.e., their personal libraries and their social relations). Rehfeldt (2017)
rejects the tendency of researchers to consider online book reviews a defective version of
literary criticism (cf. Hugendick, 2009) and argues that lay reviews are better than 'official'
reviews in showing the effect of the book on the reader, since users feel no need to be
objective.
In the remainder of this article we will be discussing the state of the art of DSR research
by referring to seven current case studies. In the first part, we propose a categorization of DSR
research by identifying ten dominant categories; for each category, we discuss the disciplines or
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fields which are studying it (or may find useful to study it). In the second part, we present seven
case studies in correspondence with the categorization and highlight the key role of Digital
Humanities in the study of DSR.
Categorizing Digital Social Reading Research
Several taxonomies have been proposed for DSR. The first was by Stein (2010), who identifies
four defining dichotomies in book discussions, which can be used to categorize types of DSR:
online vs. offline; synchronous vs. asynchronous; formal vs. informal; and ephemeral vs.
persistent. A more practical taxonomy, from the perspective of literary criticism, was given by
Ernst (2015), who focuses on online literary criticism, distinguishing between online presence of
print media, born online individual criticism (such as blogs), and social media-based criticism,
which he in turn divides in multiple categories. Much more advanced is the taxonomy by
Kutzner, Petzold, and Knackstedt (2019), which takes into consideration a total of 15
dimensions, from the cultural artefact (print book, ebook, audiobook, etc.), to the
presence/absence of off-topic communication, the type of author/reviewer gratification, and
many others. These taxonomies can account for most of the practices and platforms that have
emerged in recent years. However, one of their main limitations is that they use a purely
descriptive approach that misses some important dimensions of social reading: first, the impact
that DSR has on the wider cultural and social context; second, the disciplines involved in
studying these aspects. To fill this gap, we propose a categorization that groups the studies on
DSR into ten different categories that reflect the most relevant aspects of DSR.
For each category, we identify the scholarly discipline or field with which it is associated
(Fig. 1). Research in each category can either be on DSR itself or use DSR as a lens to study
wider reading practices. Some categories will lend themselves more easily than others to this
type of generalisation: our estimate of this generalizability is represented by a position further
away from the center of the figure. As our main focus is on literary studies, we ignore research
that uses or investigates DSR from the point of view of information technology (e.g. Tang et al.,
2014), or legal issues such as copyright or privacy (e.g. Shipman and Marshall, 2013). Due to
space constraints our review is necessarily limited, but we also compiled a broader public
Zotero bibliography (Pianzola et al., 2019).
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Fig. 1 Aspects of Digital Social Reading (in red) with the relevant disciplines, highlighting the
interdisciplinary nature of DSR research
With reading oriented research we mean research that studies the process, experience
and impact of reading. The focus may be on the effects of the reading medium (paper, e-book);
the research may use reviews and comments on texts to study reading processes, or it may
differentiate among these processes by (genre of) book, time period, or author. However, in
reading oriented research, the focus is on the act of reading itself and not on the interaction
among readers, wider social implications, or the digital reading platforms. The real strength of
reading-oriented DSR research is in the access to the reader's experience. Driscoll and
Rehberg Sedo (2018) give a good example of this, investigating reading experiences in reviews
on Goodreads, manually coding for experiential language as well as applying automated
sentiment analysis. It is a good example of the multi-method approach that is often fruitfully
applied in studying reading-oriented DSR. Manual coding brought out the different emotional
registers that the reviews employ, whereas sentiment analysis was used for analysis at a larger
scale. The authors conclude that the intimate experience of reading, formerly elusive to
research, to some extent becomes visible on platforms such as Goodreads. Similar analyses
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have been done with respect to what readers value in a text (Milota, 2014), to metaphors for
reading (Nuttall and Harrison, 2018), or the ethical positions that readers take in processing a
controversial book such as We Need to Talk about Kevin (Nuttall, 2017). We expect growth to
occur especially in the fields of empirical literary studies, cognitive poetics and reading research
in general, when it comes to this area of DSR research.
Under literature as an institution we group research that considers online book
discussion as a form of literary criticism or gatekeeping, looking at its role in the literary field and
its relation to other actors. Underlying differences in literary values often play a part in these
investigations. Allington (2016), for instance, compares both types of review for Desai's The
Inheritance of Loss
, manually coding several aspects of evaluation and some political variables
in the reviews, and then quantitatively analysing the results. He finds, among other things, that
user reviews are much more negative than professional reviews, probably because the book is
targeted at a literary rather than a popular audience.
Rather than comparing reviews, Verboord (2010) asks readers directly whether they
trust what he calls 'expert' or 'internet' critics. He finds that people with an 'omnivorous' taste in
books ('persons combining [...] “highbrow” tastes with “middlebrow” or “popular” tastes') have
less confidence in expert critics. Stein (2015) discusses 'lay' literary criticism as a
'communicative practice in the literary system,' and notes its tendency to be intellectually less
demanding and therefore perhaps favouring less demanding literature. Johnson (2016) on the
other hand studies US book blogs as what she calls 'the new gatekeepers,' and positively
appreciates book bloggers' attention towards more popular books.
With research focusing on literacy we move from a literary to an educational viewpoint.
Literacy-oriented research considers DSR mostly as a tool for education in reading, writing,
literature, and personal development, including uses of DSR in library environments. Indeed,
some of the earliest research came from digital library studies. Kaplan and Chisik (2005), for
example, use a process of participatory design to create a digital book prototype in which young
readers could interact through annotations. They motivate their research explicitly by the desire
'to preserve the values we perceive in the notions of reading for pleasure' (p. 8). Later attempts
to get readers to discuss books moved online, into specifically created book clubs (AuYeung et
al., 2007) or existing platforms such as Goodreads (Thompson, 2010; Merga, 2015). For
example, Miller's thesis (2011) investigates whether blogging about young adult literature
influences adolescent literary development. Moving from reading response to creative writing,
Korobkova's thesis (2017) investigates affordances for literacy development built into Wattpad.
One of the most important conclusions is that on these sites users 'gain self-efficacy and a
positive disposition toward literacy as a result' (p. 102). Affinity, authenticity, and affect are what
motivates their involvement on these sites. Korobkova also notes that not all users are equal,
they need 'differential routes to participation and success' (p. 152), a point echoed by Taddeo
(2019).
Research focusing on society looks at larger social issues that DSR may exemplify or
contest, such as (in)equality, participation, democracy, feminism and inclusiveness. It also
includes research that sees readers as an audience that may be passive, resistant, or that
would rather request an active role, as in discussions of reviewers as ‘prosumers’ (Toffler, 1980)
or ‘produsers’ (Bruns, 2008). Dörrich (2014) investigates audience rebellion in the realm of the
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book, by interviewing Lovelybooks users, noting that there will always be a tension between
corporate control and consumer participation, expressed for instance in some users' concern for
ownership of data and privacy (see also Albrechtslund, 2019). Steiner (2008), too, expresses
doubts about the democratizing potential of the internet, which could be 'the worst kind of fraud,
since it makes people believe they have the power to influence the public sphere, when in
reality the web is only another way for capital to profit.' In the context of fanfiction studies,
researchers have generally taken a more positive approach towards users’ active role in online
writing. Pugh programmatically called her book on fanfiction The democratic genre (2005),
mentioning among other things that readers become co-creators and consumers become less
passive. Fanfiction scholars have also stressed the feminist character of much work in fanfiction
(e.g. Leow, 2011). In general however, it is fair to say that in other domains (such as news
production) web 2.0 has had a heavier impact on society than in the domain of reading and
writing.
Research in the community category looks at the interaction between users on DSR
platforms and specific platform cultures, be it with ethnographic methods, network analysis tools
or other methods. For example, Rehberg Sedo (2011) uses participatory observation methods
to study an online group of professionals (teachers, publishers) discussing young adult books.
As in face to face book clubs, discussions are influenced by the authority recognized to
members on the basis of their cultural capital. In these online affinity spaces readers act not so
much as independent agents but rather as members who learned strategies that allow them to
be part of a community. The importance of community is also stressed by Lukoschek (2017).
The need for exchange between like-minded readers often crosses the boundaries between
individual communities: the same people who have book blogs also meet each other on
Facebook, Twitter, Lovelybooks and elsewhere. In a landmark study on Goodreads, Thelwall
and Kousha (2017) investigated (among other things) the relative importance of the social and
book-related features of the site. They concluded that 'Goodreads seems to be a book-based
social navigation SNS [Social Networking Site] rather than being primarily either a book website
or a general SNS' (p. 981). Book-based discussion sites can also be conceived as 'boundary
objects' that enable the establishment of community and structure (Worrall, 2019), processes in
which moderators often play a crucial role (Thomas and Round, 2016).
With the market label we refer to studies which consider the relevance of DSR
platforms, texts, and participants for commercial purposes. This is the focus of the work by
Sutton and Paulfeuerborn (2017), who evaluate the impact of book blogs on the (German)
market through an online survey, producing a purchase decision model that might be beneficial
for both publishers and bloggers. Much more critical is the approach by Moody (2017), who
emphasizes how market needs can support practices such as sabotaging and bullying, which
are generally overlooked by research focused solely on the positive aspects of participation.
The complexity of this context is confirmed by Murray (2016), examining the ways in which
readers’ evaluations on Amazon and practices like book trailers and blog tours are drastically
transforming marketing strategies. Traditional methodological frameworks might prove
inadequate to study them, if not supported by an understanding of the algorithms that are used
to filter and aggregate readers’ evaluations, or of the digital environments where they flourish.
This implicit call for DH methods finds only partial realization, such as the study by Faggiolani,
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Verna, and Vivarelli (2018), who adopt network analysis to visualize the relationships between
Italian publishers on the DSR platform aNobii
. Much work still needs to be done on this aspect
of DSR. A combination of marketing research and DH methods might throw new light on its
internal dynamics.
Textual oriented DSR research is another category where DH can play a key role, in
particular through computational linguistics and stylometry. This category of research is mostly
interested in textual features characteristic of DSR platforms, such as style and wording.
Inevitably, it has strong connections with the ‘literature as institution’ category, as the
identification of a distinctive style generally derives from the confrontation with a model. Harada
and Yamashita (2010) do precisely this, comparing online book reviews to reviews in
newspapers. The focus here is not on the possible effects on traditional criticism, but rather on
what distinguishes DSR per se
. In Germany, Neuhaus (2017) points to distinguishing elements
such as the lower quality of writing, the absence of specialized language, and frequent
references to the I. Using also computational approaches, Mehling et al. (2018) identify the
dominance of emotions, suspense, and enjoyment in the evaluation of books. In the English
context, Hajibayova (2019) uses the LIWC software (Tausczik and Pennebaker, 2010) and
manual annotation to devise a model for the language of Goodreads
reviews.
With the source category we refer to research that is mostly interested in what DSR
activities say about the text that they comment on. Often this research uses reviews as a way to
highlight a possible reception or interpretation of a work or genre, with a focus on the received
work, not on the recipient. One clear example is the work of Gutjahr (2002), which focuses on
the Christian book series Left Behind
. Through analyses of Amazon
reviews and interviews with
readers, Gutjahr investigates the reasons for the success of the series, suggesting how it puts
into question the very distinction between literary fiction and sacred texts. However, one of the
most representative cases for this category is the research on Jane Austen’s novels. While
statistics on DSR platforms like Wattpad confirm how Pride and Prejudice
is the most read (and
most commented) classic among contemporary teenagers (Rebora and Pianzola, 2018), studies
like that of Mirmohamadi (2014) investigate the ‘digital afterlives’ of the British author, focusing
both on the reading/commenting activities and on the creative reinterpretations of fanfiction.
Subjects can also be successful novels like Gomorra
in Italy (Brugnatelli and Faggiolani, 2016)
or more generally disregarded titles like the Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
by Marc
Twain (Harris, 2019). In all cases, the main goal of these studies is to show how DSR can
constructively contribute to literary criticism.
A large amount of studies can be collected under the site type category. With this term
we refer to research that describes the working logic and functionalities of one or more
platforms, generally focusing on a single aspect (e.g. the reviews), without necessarily drawing
conclusions about other aspects. One of the first examples is the work by Nakamura (2013),
who provided a brief introduction to the then-understudied phenomenon of Goodreads
. In a
similar way, studies on platforms like LibraryThings
(Pinder, 2012) and on phenomena like
‘bookstagram’ (book reviews on the Instagram
platform, cf. Jaakkola 2019) stimulated the
interest of the research community towards DSR practices. The importance of such studies is
undeniable, especially when they provide ample overviews (e.g. Cordón-García et al., 2013,
pp.167–89; Cruces Villalobos, 2017).
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To conclude our categorization, the studies grouped in the theory and method category
focus both on the methodological needs of DSR research and on the theoretical impact it can
have on disciplines such as book history and the history of reading. Among the first to highlight
the possible relevance of the phenomenon, Maryl (2008) analyzed reader responses on the
Polish platform biblioNETka with the main goal of understanding if and how they can be useful
for reading research. His conclusion was mainly positive, but with awareness of all the risks and
limitations that come with the analysis of such material (i.e. frequently noisy, unstructured, and
unreliable). Bridle (2010), referring to Benjamin’s philosophy, proposes a re-conceptualization
of the ‘aura’ of books (shifting from paper’s physicality to the text itself); Costa (2016) tries to
re-define a phenomenology of reading, where the commenting and rewriting activities become
an essential part of reading itself. More recently, Murray (2018a) has directly called the
relevance of book historians into question, suggesting that their discipline needs to reinvent
itself radically if it wants to account for the current changes in reading habits. While perspectives
are generally positive and stimulating, Rowberry (2019) makes a relevant critical note about the
future of theory and data-driven DSR research, adopting software criticism to highlight the
inability of modern ebook technologies to provide relevant data for the study of reading.
Case studies
As shown by our overview, multimethodology is one of the main characteristics of DSR
research. Methodological richness can sustain its development, but it might also hinder its
coherent evolution, if no disciplinary framework or central research field is identified. We
propose that DH may provide this bond, in at least two ways. First, like with all subjects in the
humanities, it can provide the tools for structuring and interconnecting the entire research field.
Figure 2, for example, shows how a simple combination between a digital bibliography and
network technologies can provide an efficient visualization of our categorization, highlighting the
connections between categories. Second, and more importantly, its research interests and
methodologies are frequently in line with the goals of DSR research, as the discussion of seven
ongoing projects will demonstrate.
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Fig. 2 Network based on the DSR Zotero library (Pianzola et al., 2019). Edges represent connections
between texts and categories in our categorization
Wattpad - Network Analysis
Wattpad is the most popular platform for reading and commenting on fiction. It offers millions of
stories written in more than 30 languages ranging over different genres, including literary
classics, fanfiction, and original fiction. It is mostly accessed via smartphone and the average
audience is between 12-25 years old. Previous research has mostly focused on the identity and
activity of authors (Mirmohamadi, 2014; Ramdarshan Bold, 2018) and the possible educational
applications of Wattpad (Korobkova and Rafalow, 2016; Taddeo, 2019). Focusing on readers
and analysing the comments written by 300,000 users in the margins of 12 English novels, we
reconstructed the network of social interactions related to reading Classics and Teen Fiction
(Pianzola et al., 2020). The goal was to see whether there is any difference in how teenagers
read different genres socially on Wattpad. Given the huge quantity of data available in the
form of comments linked to the respective paragraphs/chapters/books and to the replies by
other readers visualising the networks of interactions helped us to select users and comments
that we wanted to observe more closely. In this way, we discovered that when the linguistic and
cultural complexity of texts increases (Classics), readers tend to interact more, helping each
other to understand the writing style and the historical context of the novel. However, with teen
fiction stronger and more prolonged interactions between readers emerge, even extending
across different novels. Therefore, Wattpad can be considered both a community of peer
learners and a social bonding tool, aspects that can be leveraged by educational projects that
aim at promoting reading. In general, users comment much more actively on teen fiction novels
8
than classics, confirming that Wattpad is a platform mainly used to read original stories written
by teenagers (Contreras et al., 2015; Taddeo, 2019).
Wattpad - Sentiment Analysis
Comments in the margins of paragraphs enable to investigate the progression of readers’
response to a story, linking the verbalization of aesthetic, cognitive, and emotional reactions to
specific text passages (Rebora and Pianzola, 2018; Pianzola et al., 2020). The method we have
employed to explore the relationship between text and comments is that of sentiment analysis
for the creation of the emotional arcs of stories (Reagan et al., 2016; Jockers, 2017). Beside the
text of the novels, we also applied this technique to the dataset of comments, creating a plot of
the emotional valence of readers’ response along the progression of the story (Fig. 3). By
comparing the two plots we discovered a statistically significant positive effect of the story
sentiment on the comments’ sentiment, meaning that positive emotions in the story elicit
readers’ positive utterances. This effect is weaker with classics, probably because there are
more user-user interactions that tend to have neutral values, since they are a more
cognitive-oriented kind of activity aimed at understanding the text rather than expressing
emotions. Moreover, looking at the intervals where the two sentiment values have extreme
peaks or diverge the most allows to identify text parts that trigger stronger emotions, or
reactions contrasting with the story events. For instance, we found that teenage readers love
witty characters, conflicts of affects and values, and cultural references that are familiar to them
(Pianzola et al., 2020). Overall, this kind of data and computational analyses can provide
large-scale empirical evidence about the link between textual features and readers’ emotional
response to stories, thus offering a new resource to literary theory, cognitive stylistics, and
reading research.
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Fig. 3 Graphs with the emotional arcs of story and comments for six classic novels
Values on Lovelybooks
The case study about literary values and evaluation on Lovelybooks works with a corpus of
around 1.3 mill. German-language online lay book reviews by approx. 54,000 users.
Lovelybooks, similar to Goodreads, is a social reading platform that invites its users to share
their reading experiences. This written response to reading consists of semi-structured text and
a rating (one to five stars) on the other. We regard each review as a window that provides
insights not only into reading experiences, transformed into a written account, but also into
underlying literary values (axiological values in Heydebrand and Winko, 1996) and value
systems that serve as a conceptual basis for different evaluative actions.
We approach the data from at least three methodological vantage points: (1) Our
hermeneutic approach to small samples of data has shown that lay reviews establish a complex
system, in which they position themselves, their audience and the book on macro-, meso- and
microscopical levels. It is relative to this system, constructed ad hoc, that evaluation proper
takes place. (2) Our corpus-linguistic analyses show that the collective reviews employ
sentiment and evaluation vocabularies, which at the same time serve as predictors for users’
quantitative ratings. We found that the variables rating and sentiment (SentiWS; Remus et al.,
2010) are significantly associated (χ2(4) = 227469, p < 0.001; Cramer's V=0.08). Figure 4 shows
that negative sentiment and low ratings are clearly associated, as are positive sentiment and
high ratings.
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Fig. 4 Mosaic plot of polar sentiment across five rating categories in the LOBO corpus. Rating is plotted
on the y-axis (“one to five stars”; s1-s5), and binary sentiment (“SentiWSneg”; “SentiWSpos”) on the
x-axis. The color codes correspond to the sign of the residuals (the differences between observed and
expected frequencies per cell), with blue indicating an overrepresentation, and red an
underrepresentation
Post-hoc analysis of features indicated that the style of evaluation is associated in
specific ways with the ordinal rating scale, with for example first-person pronouns being
overrepresented in singular form (I, me) in low to medium rated reviews (1-3 stars), while the
plural form (we, us) is overused in highly rated reviews (4-5 stars).
Furthermore, our corpus approach to conceptual metaphor theory has shown that users
also systematically map objects of their reading experience to a range of experientially salient
source domains. For instance, reading is often presented either in terms of food intake or
motion. (3) Machine-learning based studies based on word embeddings will reveal, for instance,
the local semantic space with which reviewers collectively encode their reading experiences.
Together, our analyses present a text-based, mixed-method approach to evaluative
practices in the DSR context, which allows informed inferences about reading experiences,
reader identities and (literary) value systems insofar as they are discursively constructed in
written reviews.
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Sources of Authority in Online Reviews
With the advent of DSR traditional authorities in the literary field are said to have become less
important (McDonald, 2007). In this research project we ask which persons or institutions are
considered authoritative by online reviewers. This is a question that takes an institutional
approach to the study of literature; we look at which institutions are trusted by readers. Our
interest is in today's reader in general and so uses DSR as a lens to study wider reading
practice.
In a pilot investigation, we have looked at references to possible authorities, such as
traditional critics, newspapers, prizes, television programs, the book trade (publishers,
booksellers, libraries), authors, teachers, websites and private contacts. Reviews were
downloaded from weblogs, mass review sites, an online magazine and a newspaper (Boot,
2013). We investigated which authorities were mentioned, what their role was and whether the
reviewer agreed with this. We used collections of search terms and regular expressions to
search the downloaded reviews. Irrelevant hits were removed, relevant hits were annotated.
Fig. 5 Mentioned authorities in the collection of downloaded online reviews
Because of many limitations, the procedure will not give us firm numbers. The main
findings however are summarized in Figure 5. The four most frequently mentioned authorities
are authors, companies and institutions, online critics and prizes. This is noteworthy for a
number of reasons: first, in the view of readers, the author is certainly not dead; second,
commercial institutions are frequently mentioned, which is not quite the effect democratising
influence; third, online critics, by and large peer critics, do play an important role; but fourth, the
importance attached to prizes may be the revenge of the traditional critics, because they are
12
often members of the juries that award these prizes. Finally, the question of whether our culture
in this domain is switching from a vertical, hierarchical orientation into a more horizontal and
peer-oriented orientation is important. It deserves fundamental investigation and online book
discussion offers important insights into the question.
Styles of Criticism
In this project, we use a corpus of Italian book reviews (Salgaro and Rebora, 2018; Salgaro and
Rebora, 2019) to understand how professional critics, journalists and passionate readers differ
in writing reviews and what features can be used to identify them.
The corpus is divided into three subsets: reviews published on DSR platforms (source:
aNobii), in paper magazines (Il Sole 24 Ore
), and in scientific journals (Between
,Osservatorio
critico della germanistica
, and OBLIO
). All sub-corpora have an approximate size of 650,000
tokens. Considered the high variance of text length (mean = 259 words; SD = 363 words), we
concatenated and split the reviews in the three sub-corpora, generating a series of artificial text
chunks of the same length. In this setup, we ran a series of experiments in machine learning
combining a total of nine features. The first three were the results of a stylometric analysis
(divided per category), using Cosine Delta distance and 2,000 MFW (Evert et al., 2017). The
remaining six were based on simple wordcounds, using as resources:
- an extensive lexicon of literary criticism (Beck et al., 2007);
- selections of terms related to mental imagery and emotional aesthetic response, derived
from tools in empirical aesthetics (e.g. Knoop et al., 2016);
- the ‘social’, ‘emotion’, and ‘body’ dimensions in the LIWC Italian dictionary (Agosti and
Rellini, 2007).
First, we tested the efficiency of machine learning methods in assigning the reviews to
the three categories. Notwithstanding the limited number of features, results are promising. See
Table 1 for an overview.
SVM
Logistic Regression
250-word-long chunks
0.94
0.938
500-word-long chunks
0.96
0.964
1000-word-long chunks
0.976
0.978
Table 1 Accuracy values for the classification of book reviews in the corpus (using a leave-one-out
strategy for training and testing)
Second, we evaluated the relevance of features in the classification (Logistic
Regression, 250 words). Figure 6 shows how stylometric distances are the most effective
features. Most interesting outcomes are the ineffectiveness of the lexicon of criticism for
scientific journals and the effectiveness of mental imagery for both DSR and paper magazines.
13
Fig. 6 Importance of features (absolute z-values) for the classification of book reviews, using Logistic
Regression on 250 word-long chunks
Our analyses confirm the relevance of machine learning approaches for the textual study
of DSR and its comparison with more institutionalized forms of criticism.
Shared Reading
This research project focuses on the reading behavior of young people. It is assumed that
reading literature will not decrease because of digitization and that the distinction between
reading printed books and using e-readers is not central. However, the way literature is read
and discussed is changing and we specifically examine how young people participate in online
literature communities.
There are countless online literature communities where people interested in literature
can get together, but for the German-speaking world the two international and multilingual
platforms Goodreads and Wattpad are of relevance, beside the exclusively German-language
platforms Lovelybooks, Buechertreff and fanfiktion.de. Users usually have access to the
following functions and networking options via the platforms: compilation of own book
catalogues, insight into the book catalogues of other users, administration of book collections,
writing reviews and evaluations, discussions in groups, as well as book recommendations
based on the books read and the reviews written by the users themselves.
In examining the impact of digitization on the reading behavior of young people
participating in online literature communities, we consider the following emotional, cognitive and
social aspects: social relationships through sharing, reflected speaking, empathy, change of
perspectives, and the ability to concentrate and follow longer action sequences and complex
figure constellations. Methodologically, the project is divided into three parts. First, the relevant
14
online literary communities are identified and functionally categorized. In a second qualitative
step, we examine young people’s practices of digital reading through interviews, a qualitative
survey, and scholarly articles about experiences with online literature communities.
Subsequently, quantitative methods will be used to investigate the functions of digital reading.
Absorption in Goodreads
This project utilizes online reader reviews in order to validate a measuring instrument from
empirical literary studies; its purpose is to capture the experience of feeling absorbed in the
story world (Rebora et al., 2018). Story world absorption is a multi-faceted experience,
comprised of deep focused attention that results in loss of awareness of self and surroundings
and the track of time; emotional engagement with characters, vivid mental imagery of what the
characters and the story world look like; and the experience of deictic shift of the reader from
the real world to the story world (Kuijpers et al., 2014). As the experience of absorption is hard
to simulate in a lab and instruments like the Story World Absorption Scale (SWAS) are used to
retrospectively assess reading experience based on an experimenter-selected story, we focus
on developing ways to study absorbing experiences in a data-driven way, i.e. comparing the
statements in the SWAS to unprompted reviews on Goodreads. This raises the issue of shared
interpretation, in particular concerning the extent to which it is possible to identify and adjudicate
text spans that reference absorption experiences in unstructured natural language input. We
trained five annotators to tag a set of absorption categories in Goodreads reviews. So far, 380
reviews have been annotated using brat (Stenetorp et al., 2012) and gold standard labeling has
been determined for 60 of them. When comparing annotations and gold standard,
inter-annotator agreement (Cohen’s Kappa) for the SWAS categories ranges between 0.53 and
0.63, on the margin of substantial agreement.
Such data offers multiple possibilities for analysis. To test whether the annotation
process can be automated and thus scaled, we performed baseline experiments training
classical machine learners (SVM, random forest, logistic regression) on part of our corpus (cf.
Lendvai et al., 2019) and obtained an encouraging 0.45 F-score on a test set of 100 reviews. To
distant read the annotations, we used log-likelihood and compared the annotated texts with
100,000 randomly-selected reviews. Figure 7 shows how terms like hooked and gripping
,
together with personal pronouns, are overrepresented in passages expressing absorption
(while, quite surprisingly, the term series
is the most underrepresented).
15
Fig. 7 15 over- and underrepresented words in the passages annotated with SWAS-specific categories
Conclusion
In this paper, we presented a categorization of the research on DSR and discussed seven case
studies which show the key role of DH in the study of the phenomenon. DH is notoriously a hard
subject to define (Terras et al., 2013) if it is a subject, and not a practice, field or discipline.
What many definitions have in common, however, is that they define DH research as the union
of digitally-supported research into traditional humanities subjects with research into digital
culture or artefacts (Gibbs, 2013). Research into DSR fits into both aspects of this definition. For
example, data collection and database structuring are at the basis of almost all projects:
advanced knowledge of markup languages, web technologies like APIs, and computational
techniques like web crawling are fundamental for the very feasibility of the projects. Expertise
should not be limited to technical aspects, though, as approaches like stylometry, sentiment
analysis, and semantic annotation require the discussion of theoretical frameworks like stylistics
(Herrmann et al., 2015), theory of emotions (Hogan, 2016), and conceptual modeling (Flanders
and Jannidis, 2019). Advanced methodologies such as network analysis and machine learning
can be involved only after having defined these frameworks.
When Franco Moretti (2000) introduced the concept of distant reading as a kind of
‘second hand’ reading of the literary tradition, accepting that in researching world literature we
have to rely on specialists whose work we cannot verify, he might be said to have paved the
way for DSR research. Continuing on the path indicated by Ted Underwood (2017), we suggest
16
the ‘second hand(s)’ of distant reading could also be those of the millions of readers who are
offering us a treasure trove of information on the experience of reading. All the computational
tools of DH will be required to study this treasure. DSR studies can thus bring about the
definition of an “exponential” distant reading, whose potential for literary studies we are just
starting to understand. The only way to fulfill this understanding is through analysis and
exploration, through theorizing and testing, being aware of all the limitations of both the study
subject and current methodologies. With our work, we hope to have cast the groundwork for all
this, by indicating a study area where DH can find new stimuli, new challenges, and new
opportunities to grow further.
17
Funding
This work was partly supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation [grant numbers
10DL15_183194, 10DL15_183012, 10DL15_183221]; and the European Union’s Horizon 2020
research and innovation programme [grant number 792849].
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... We used this protocol because it reduces the bias and improves the quality (Moher et al., 2009). Young individuals in this study refer to social media users aged over 13 and below 24 years old (Ferreira, 2012;Lian et al., 2014;Mbuthia et al., 2018;Rebora et al., 2019). It is also worth mentioning that some of the studies we reviewed included a more comprehensive range of users age 11-25. ...
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