Reading and sociability in the days of social media

Lectura y sociabilidad

Have those interested in reading ever wondered what elements characterize contemporary reading practices? Or, by chance, have they wondered how new technologies have transformed the ways of being a reader in the last decades?

The research titled “Sociabilidad y nuevas tecnologías en las prácticas lectoras. Un estudio en Ciudad de México“ sought to answer these questions, more focused on how we read than on how much we read, by approaching a population that stands out for the intensity and frequency of their reading practices, that is, cultural creators, especially visual artists and writers. This study provided a systematic overview of the vast repertoire of ways of reading that characterize these subjects and concluded that they all share certain ways of selecting, organizing and processing texts that can be called reading by projects, a concept that is explained in Hacia una antropología de los lectores.

When we ask ourselves about the sociability dimension that typifies contemporary reading, it is necessary to question the ingrained image of the reader as a solitary and introspective figure by highlighting those facets of reading that activate and become meaningful in community.

Reading, like other forms of cultural consumption, takes place within the framework of a wide network of social relations. At the same time, if we hold on to a broad definition of reading that is not restricted to edited books, we confirm that much of the textuality that is produced through technological devices operates as an extension of face-to-face sociability: technologies offer the possibility of restoring social interaction where there is a distance between speakers. Digital media have shown the dialogical and social character that lies in every reading practice by virtually reducing the distance between speaker and receiver.

Taking these reflections as a starting point, we can argue that current ways of reading involve new senses of the social in at least three aspects:

The social dimension of reading, past and present

“A text is a something that is shared,” say our informants. Reading creates complicities and activates a circuit of loans, recommendations and exchanges that strengthens human relations. The formation of reading communities —especially in adolescence and youth— is regarded as a crucial stage in the expansion of social horizons. If something has changed with the arrival of the Internet is the possibility of doing what we did before, but at another speed: the cycle has been shortened and the pace with which the communities of readers emerge, reproduce and separate is more vertiginous. Social media have expressed this social dimension of reading in unsuspected ways, multiplying links and generating synergies among collaborators. All this deconstructs the “I” as the axis of readings, to leave this agency to others: these convergences in a new public field facilitate the task of mapping the field, familiarize with authors and texts, access books and situate one’s own production within the contemporary stage.

Authorship reshaping

Furthermore, we observed that new technologies have transformed the ways of conceptualizing and exercising authorship. The different perceptions gathered by this study speak of the dissolution of the author as an independent and individual creative genius, advocating a free transit of knowledge that celebrates appropriation as a valid resource for artistic and writing creation. Many of our interviewees —artists and writers— now feel closer to their readers and viewers, with all the positive (critical readings) and negative (insults, persecutions, etc.) consequences that this entails. This author-reader relationship is increasingly porous, as speakers multiply and there is room for new voices. However, the questioning of traditional authorship is not free of contradictions nor does it cease to be problematic in practice.

Collaborative readings and creation platforms

“Social networks streamline and help collaboration,” says one narrator, commenting on a collective translation project he undertook through Twitter. In both the real and virtual worlds, we can see that reading can be a way to strengthen the community: we now see a revitalization of specialized, collective or transhumant libraries, or reading workshops in different locations.  At the same time, contemporary connectivity offers access to platforms that make it possible not only to comment collectively, but also to produce works among many creators, even if they are scattered in geographical terms.

To conclude, we can point out that the reading experience of cultural creators indicates that the incorporation of new technologies into active literacy practices gives new courses to certain dimensions of sociability that have always been present. Artists and writers prove that intensifying this “conversational” level of texts can be a fruitful exercise, as these exchanges are the seed of new creative projects. The multiplication of screens is not an unequivocal synonym of personalized and individualistic forms of reading. There are also dynamics where the network of readers acquires a new role, affecting the ways in which we read and share what we read.

The notion of sociability is distinguished from socialization —or social bond in a general sense— for its independence from the economic and social interest, or the inability to reduce it to it. Sociability, liberated from the realm of needs, unfolds in all its extension, in the democratic sphere. In this vein, reading experiences of cultural creators seem to indicate that this elective group is at the center of a joyful and productive reading life. Reading calls for affinities and creates complicit links, strengthening social bonds and contributing to building a society open to dialogue. Therefore, it is necessary to complement the current strategies of reading policies with messages that highlight this link between reading and sociability: reading serves to connect with others, is a social and collective experience, and instils the values that support democratic life.

Carla Pinochet Cobos

Academic in the Department of Anthropology, Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Chile. She is a researcher and professor on the anthropology of art and studies on cultural practices in Latin America. Her e-mail is: