Above is a screenshot of one of the comments in my spam filter (click to embiggen). Sometimes real comments get lodged there, so I check periodically to make sure nothing needs rescuing, and initially, that seemed to be what had happened here. Citing Wayne Booth is usually pretty convincing evidence that you’re a real person.
A second look, though, draws attention to the link that redirects to some sort shady online “nutrition supplement” operation. Clearly, the spambot culled a few sentences about unreliable narrators from Google Books or an academic website. Still, the precision of that targeting is a bit eerie. If the spambots read enough narrative theory, will they become self-aware?
My work on turn-0f-the-century novels and their reviews stems from an interest in how novels got talked about in public, at a time when public discussion of novels was much more frequent and took place in a much wider range of periodicals than today. These days, book reviews have considerably less influence on the discourse surrounding a given novel, making them not all that interesting to me personally.
Amazon reviews, on the other hand, are absolutely fascinating. Not just the book reviews, although that’s primarily what I want to talk about. I bought a set of espresso cups from Amazon a couple of years ago and came across the following review: “Maybe it’s just me but I think the cups are just too small. It’s hard to judge how much they will hold by the pictures and description but after receiving them, they seem more appropriate for a child’s tea set. They are a good quality, but I don’t think that many ‘men’ will drink out of these…..they are very tiny. Only hold about 1.5 ounces. ”
For the record, the cups hold 3 ounces, and none of the ‘men’ who’ve used them have had any complaints (at least to my knowledge).
But what does one do with the vast potential of Amazon reviews? Paul Gutjahr’s work on reviewers of the Left Behind books, which I’ve talked a bit about here, provides one example. Gutjahr’s study, though, was conducted in 1999 and published in 2002, and Amazon, as well as the web in general, has changed a lot since then.
This is old news, but I’m perennially behind and just getting around to talking about it: The internet got all astir a couple of weeks ago when the tumblr Hunger Games Tweets started collecting tweets from Hunger Games fans who were surprised and often angry to learn that two of the book and movie’s most sympathetic characters were black. Buzzfeed has screenshots of ten of the most offensively racist tweets here. The discussion of the tweets has had some pretty remarkable staying power–HuffPo published a response less than a week ago, and Slate published both an interview with two of the teens whose tweets were published on Hunger Games Tweets and a response from the tumblr’s creator.
There are a lot of reasons both the tweets and the online reaction are interesting. As people commenting on the tweets are quick to point out, the novel is very explicit about Rue’s and Thresh’s race—they are described as having dark hair, dark brown skin and dark eyes. They also come from the district responsible for agricultural production that, based on the second book, seems to correspond roughly to the American southeast. They’re fairly explicitly marked as black in the novel. Beyond that, the issue of race and casting for the Hunger Games has been a hot-button issue in certain parts of the internet for quite some time.
So a big part of this discussion has been about reading comprehension, misreading, and even authorial intent. The teens who tweeted their surprise at Rue’s race are poor readers, and they’re often called out as such. But while some tweets just reveal those poor reading skills—generally expressed at surprise that Rue and Thresh didn’t look the way the teens expected them to—others reveal a deeply troubling racism—admissions, for instance, that the tweeters didn’t care about the characters once they found out they were black.
That second aspect of the tweets gives way to some interesting discussions of race and racism, as well as a nice breakdown on the New Yorker‘s “Book Bench” of the history of the blonde, innocent, angelic, and dead little white girl (from Little Eva to Jon-Benet Ramsey). Notably, even if Rue doesn’t fit the type, Katniss’s little sister Prim certainly does.
In the post on Slate, the tumblr creator separates the misreaders from the racists, implying, as I think many of the discussions about the tweets do, that the misreading is understandable, while the racism is deplorable. That may be true, but I think it’s worth attending to the way the two are deeply intertwined.
This past week has seen an absolutely fascinating dust-up over at one of my favorite blogs. I’ve been reading Slacktivist, authored by journalist and liberal evangelical Fred Clark, off and on for seven or eight years now. Fred writes about religion, politics, and contemporary public discourse with considerable insight, but more importantly, with a degree of charity and graciousness that sometimes borders on mind-boggling. He also writes an immensely satisfying regular series of posts eviscerating Tim LeHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins Left Behind books chapter by chapter. Like many of his readers, I came for the Left Behind posts and stayed for the rest of the commentary. Many of those readers are also active participants in the comments section, which usually takes Fred’s posts as a springboard for a wide-ranging discussion among a number of thoughtful, well-read (and often highly educated) people of a number of religious and political stripes.
Last week, Fred announced that the blog would be moving from Typepad, a general blogging platform, to the website Patheos, a community of blogs and resources devoted to religious discussion. Fred described Patheos as a genuine, if imperfect attempt at pluralism, and explained that having his blog hosted through Patheos would give him both visibility and credibility (he would no longer be just some guy with a Typepad blog), while also allowing him to engage more directly with people with a wide variety of perspectives. He also explained in a later post that there were financial considerations—moving to Patheos would provide him with some income from his blogging (it’s hard to fault him for that one—every newspaper journalist in the country is probably looking for secondary sources of income right now). He promised that the content of the blog would remain unchanged, as would the community of commenters.
The commenters, though, were not so easily swayed. Many of them started looking around Patheos and found that, though the site purports to be widely inclusive, the portals devoted to Christianity seemed to be more recently updated than those devoted to Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. The library contained inaccurate or outdated information. The most prominent bloggers appeared to espouse many of the fundamentalist positions that Fred works to refute. They were concerned that their comments, pageviews, and clicks might support a community whose values they found problematic. They also worried that the Patheos community would be hostile towards the newly-arrived atheist and agnostic readers (Patheos’s atheist/humanist section appeared to be abandoned). Many commenters were also concerned that the discussion in the comments section would become more inflammatory as commenters found their way to Slacktivist from other Patheos sites. The Typepad comments community had been largely self-policing, and the commenters were concerned with their ability to continue to maintain a similar environment with the new larger and potentially less-invested audience. Many of the commenters expressed sadness at seeing the disappearance of a community they had considered a safe space. And finally, they were unhappy with the technical changes made to the site and the comments in general, particularly the introduction of threaded comments and the repositioning of the comments box from the space below the already-posted comments to the space above it.