Friday, January 28, 2011

The Times and the New Social Reader

On Monday, I had a great idea for a blog post. So good, in fact, that I almost asked Caroline to switch days. But then I remembered how devoted Caroline is to her Monday posts, polishing drafts over the weekend, thinking about subjects for weeks in advance.

No one gets between that girl and Mondays.

Well, that’s fine, I thought, it can wait until Friday. Except now Friday is here and, as you’ve probably already guessed, I’ve forgotten the topic that so inspired me. After thinking about it, hard, I thought of something that could have been my great idea—but I’m not sure. The one feeling worse than not remembering a great idea: possibly remembering it, but not having that sense of conviction, not hearing that little snick as it clicks into place.

Anyway, here’s what I was thinking about. I’m currently in a master’s program, and this semester, I’m taking a class on readers and reading. In our first session, our professor had us share our thoughts on that subject—remembering Katie’s beautifully written post from a few months ago, I brought up the question of professionalizing reading (something Jess touched on yesterday as well). That was fine, but a more interesting point was made a few minutes later, when a classmate mentioned the historical shift from communal reading (the family gathered around a father and the fire) to private reading, from the oral to the silent. Now, this woman said, we seem to be swinging back to a more social form of reading with the proliferation of comments, Twitter, and email, with all of the ways of discussing reading material as a group and sharing pieces you find interesting.

The conversation quickly switched topics again, but I stayed with her observation for a while, because it just seemed so true to me. Some of the recent articles in The New York Times on "Why Criticism Matters" also mentioned the socializing effect of internet commentary, where everyone's a critic, but—I thought in class—isn’t the truly strange part how much we share? Looking at the Times’s home page, under “Most Popular,” we find this:

Most E-mailed
Most Blogged
Most Searched
Most Viewed

That, my friends, is peculiar. First of all, it’s peculiar that these forms of sharing (e-mailing, blogging, even searching) are so prominent. When “Most Popular” means “Most E-mailed,” it does not mean “Most Read.” That, one would assume, corresponds to “Most Viewed.” Instead, “Most E-mailed” means those articles readers feel most compelled to give to friends and family. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at this moment, the subjects of those articles are not incredibly serious:

“Most E-mailed” is to “Most Popular,” I would contest, as the Thursday Styles section is to the rest of the Times (and in fact you’ll see Styles articles on the list frequently). The articles are a little bit more embarrassing, more about wacky health trends and shocking diet discoveries and, well, the shortcomings of gyms. By contrast, here's "Most Viewed" at the same moment:
OK. There’s some overlap. Japan, Bittman, stressed freshmen. But really, doesn’t this second list give you some sense of pride? Readers of the Times may be sharing articles about calcium and meditation, but they’re reading about the protests in Egypt and domestic economics and politics. They’re more internationally and nationally engaged than “Most E-mailed” might lead you to believe.

Bu in the publishing world, it’s “Most E-mailed” that matters. When a first serial piece makes it there, we’re delighted. When a particularly smart Sunday magazine article is up, we take notice, and you can bet that writer’s agent will be getting a few calls. But friends: what’s being emailed is not necessarily what’s being read. If that were the case, wouldn’t you expect the two lists to match exactly, or almost exactly? People seem to be reading the news they seek out on their own more than the news that their friends send them. And yet—books don’t work that way, do they? What seems to breed a bestseller is a combination of quality and word of mouth. You need it to be shared.

I’m not sure yet what to make of these thoughts, but it seems to me that the Times’s structuring of their “Most Popular” articles says something about how we should think about buying and selling books in publishing. Americans—or those who are reading the Times, anyway—seem to be interested in the tough topics, although we have to dig a little for that information. So my question is this: how do we make our “Most E-mailed” list look more like the “Most Viewed”? How do we make our readers buy and share the books it seems they just might want to read? How do we make the private reader of the past translate into this new (old) social reader?

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