The reader, social media, exosomatic stores of knowledge and a brand new made up word

I have been thinking about social reading, the move from an information society to a communication society and the impact that this shift has on our understanding of the exosomatic stores of knowledge. Karl Popper’s third world, his “Objective Knowledge” explains that exosomatic stores of knowledge have an existence independent of those who created them. I’m going to go all “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” here and point out that exo comes from the Greek word meaning out and somatic comes from the Greek word for body thus exosomatic being knowledge no longer contained within the body. In the mid 20th century Karl Popper conceptualised objective knowledge as the knowledge that is held in books, libraries, galleries, museums, archives and records. Once these creations were independent of their creator they could not be controlled by their creator and the user could interact with objective knowledge anyway they chose.

So a book would get published and sent into the bookshops, libraries and homes of readers and potential readers. As soon as that author signed off on their final manuscript they no longer had any control over their book and its use. If groups of people wanted to meet up at their local library to talk about the book, unless the author lived in the next town or was on tour and invited to attend, the discussion was purely about the users relationship with the author’s exosomatic brain (the object that he/she conceptualised and produced). Even a published correspondence between an author/artist/creator and a critic became a part of the exosomatic knowledge store.

However, with digital media exosomatic stores are much more vulnerable. Creators can make changes through the removal or editing of information through DRM (which ends up being an even bigger topic but for the purpose of this blog piece, only a tangent) but they can also influence changes that cannot be tracked. That is, the creator blurs the exosomatic knowledge stores. Last week, @Liz_Mc2 posted about authors misusing their influence to get readers and reviewers to change their negative reviews and that she doesn’t feel it is good customer service to contact the reader/reviewer. Read her post “Hey Author, I don’t want to be your ‘Customer'” As I have been known to do, I start a comment on Liz’s blog that ends up as a slightly related blog piece over here. Thankfully, most authors have the good sense (and possibly their publisher’s advice) to never comment on reviews or reader discussions. However, a small minority of authors view approaching readers and reviewers on third party social and commercial aggregators such as Amazon and goodreads as “good customer service”, others take the simplistic view of “If you don’t agree with me you must be simple so I will explain it to you a gazillion times – as an author I can intervene in any conversation about my work” without realising that it curtails dialogue. In the example that Liz disucsses the author in question feels that through approaching the writers of negative reviews and coercing them through dialogue to give her books a higher rating she is performing a “good customer service”. This is loaded with problems. The first of which I will illustrate with a hypothetical question I posed to my 14 year old son and his friend:

You create a Facebook group to discuss your favourite TV show. You post discussions about the show and one discussion has you bringing up some lines that you both hated. The writer of the show joins in and explains why he wrote those lines. How do you feel?

BOY 1: Flattered!
BOY 2: That would be really cool!

The writer has very politely told you why you are wrong for disliking those lines he wrote.

BOY 1: That’s cool too. You can defend your work.

The writer has told you that as he has explained why you are wrong that you should delete your comments (on your FB group not the TV show’s). How do you feel?

BOY 1: I’d consider him a dick.

Would you do it?

BOY 2: No. And I would probably stop watching his show.

I love teens. They understand the implications quicker than most adults (though they might not be able to articulate them without the use of genital expressions).

The implication is that a creator can try, and in many instances succeed, to control his/her product when it is no longer somatic. And the more concerning problem is not whether readers, reviewers, recommenders, bloggers or commenters choose to change their opinions due to undue pressure from the creator but the lack of being able to follow the thread that led this decision to be made. In most cases the original work is being altered rather than a postscript stating the changing view. I have no issue with people changing their mind about a piece of work. Hell – my Goodreads profile states that I reserve my right to make changes at a whim. But then I put my Information Science cap on and I start grappling with the implications of these unrecorded changes. Whether they are due to a whim, a genuine change of mind or due to intimidatory practices that vary from passive aggressive to outright stalker behaviour from a creator there is no way that a dissenting voice can be researched by future historians. The only record they will see is the last one that was edited. Digital records may be preserved such as through the Pandora project but emails on individual creator’s computers are not likely to be attached to digitally preserved sites. The process of thought, the growth of knowledge and understanding, dissenting views, open dialogue and even the pivotal moment where a view has been changed is no longer traceable.

In an age where we are shifting from an information to a communication society, I believe we have transcended the exosomatic stores and we have shifted to a metasomatic (and yes – I made up this word for the purpose of my blog) stage where we need to question the pathways that led to digital information and opinions on social media and commercial review sites and their veracity. Metasomatic stores, in my mind’s definition is where the knowledge has exited the creator but the creator, through digital interactions can still manipulate it’s use but without hard evidence. Can this behaviour be halted? I don’t believe it can be halted. But it can be acknowledged and understood. Unless it is published by a source independent of the creator and third party aggregator, such as digital publishers, due to the poor behaviour of the few intimidatory creators, reviews from unknown persons will always be read with cynicism and doubt. Let’s just hope that future historians will be aware of these issues and will take the same stance.


*Added a day later*

I realise that I have muddled up my exosomatic brains and knowledge and stores. My only excuse is that I wrote the comment-turned-into-blog at midnight. At this stage, I am not inclined to change anything as I was playing with an idea and not writing a factual essay.


8 thoughts on “The reader, social media, exosomatic stores of knowledge and a brand new made up word

  1. This is not a shallow post! You’ve brought up another aspect to authors commenting on reviews that I hadn’t considered before, and I agree that it’s important. The only other thing I’d add is that even if the author/creator doesn’t ask for the review to be pulled, the mere act of joining the conversation changes the conversation. They may not do it intentionally, and the tone of the discussion might not turn negative or sinister (and I’m not saying they should stop all contact with readers/reviewers, because there are aspects to these conversations that are positive), but the discussion does change, and I think everyone is better served when authors and readers acknowledge this.

    Thanks for this post. Much to think about!

    • I really didn’t go into the complexities of how I felt about the authors entering conversation. And it is a place where I could easily contradict myself as I love discussions with authors on Twitter and on blogs though I feel that many of these discussions are with the authors as readers and not a discourse of their published work. However, I know it influences my online comments about books and if I know an author very well (some of my closest friends yada yada) I don’t make any comment whatsoever.

      I am more concerned about the digital information that will be seen in 30, 40, 50 years time and in what context it will be understood. I don’t think that we can consider it in the same way as we consider a print book where comments are in margins and alterations are visible and traceable according to which edition you are reading. And yes websites are archived for posterity but the archive is only a specific date every few days/month/years according to the individual specifications. Comment threads can easily be written and deleted between these archive periods and the minutiae of ideas will be lost.

      As for not being shallow enough for you – if I contradict myself will I be shallow enough for you? Or do I need to write about chest hair again?

  2. The more people that tell me reviews and reader discussions are not for me the more sense it makes. Writers are best served getting to work on the next book rather than worrying about things that if they attempt to alter, will as said, only make them look like a dick. Great post.

    • Thank you. I think that it is fine for authors to join in reader discussions about books in general as they too are readers. It is authors making uninvited comments on reviews of their works that is more of a concern. I don’t think that anyone could ever halt authors doing this. I just think that information specialists, historians and sociologists need to be aware of the sociological changes that digital publishing has brought. Previously, debates, corrections, criticisms and retractions that were made either publicly or privately were eventually traceable as it all fit like a puzzle. But now, the original item is changed and deleted and the pieces are too disparate to be able to be searched.

  3. Love your thoughts! I think the recent fanfic discussion on DA also resonates with your post too. I was reading Jonathan Miller’s ‘Subsequent Performances’ about the role of the director in relation to the playwright’s work when that came up and I wrote a quick and dirty review on Goodreads so I didn’t lose the thought:

    “” ….”Subsequent Performances” by Jonathan Miller is about the role of the director in Theatre. Published in 1986, it is a reflection on the ‘afterlife’ of literary work; on the relationship between tradition (eg. Shakespeare’s plays) and individual talent (the director’s take). The book looks at the director’s role and place creating interpretations in-between the text and the performer.

    It seems to me “Subsequent Performances” offers another way to think about the relationship between original work and subsequent work. One of the things Miller talks about is the ‘difficulty of extracting from either a dead or a living author the meaning of the play he [sic] has written’ I think fanfic is often an attempt to create or give or document the meaning of the original work by its readers. Miller also talks about writers never fully being aware of the meanings that are present in a work they make.

    He suggests that original author’s are in a privileged position in relation to their work but are not the sole arbiters of what it means. He talks about plays ‘being emergent objects that can only be realised in many subsequent performances’.

    In this light I am also interested in the IASPR12 (International Association for Study of Popular Romance 2012 conference) tweets which have mentioned analysing romance novels in conjunction with their reviews and comments (e.g. on blogs like Dear Author) and reviews on Amazon. In the past only the book could or would have been discussed….””

    I think Miller’s point that an author has a privileged but not sole understanding of their work is key in thinking about what is going on in the exosomatic reading experience and about the role of reviewers. I am also very interested in the academic studies noting that it isn’t just the book review but the comments i.e. the discussion of the book that has to be taken into account in any analysis. So this makes your last points an especial concern and also highlights the critical role of reader/reviewer blogs as sites and repositories of development and change in the metasomatic (now added to spellchecker :))world.

    I am also now thinking about a comment I made on Liz blog when we were talking about TBR piles this week. Because I do buy some books because of the discussion around them but also so I can be part of that discussion – my reading is about social connection as much as it is individual experience.

    • It seems to me “Subsequent Performances” offers another way to think about the relationship between original work and subsequent work.”

      I really like that quote! And in the context of now looking at a novel within the context of reviews and comments it takes information to another level. And that the author has a privileged position in relation to the work but not an exclusive relationship. That feeling of exclusiveness that is now worthy of study because the author can more easily manipulate the reviewer/commenter relationship directly if they chose to do so.

      I think for many of us, the past 10 years has seen our reading shift from being a private connection to being a social connection and we really don’t like the thought of anyone – even the creator – manipulating this new collective.

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