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Social Computing’s Dark Side

I struggled through Alan Liu piece From Reading to Social Computing. His technological analysis on how we got to today’s social computing and his explanation of social reading is beyond my paygrade, so ill have to take his word for it. There is something he says in the introduction that doesn’t sit well with me, however –“Social computing encourages literary scholars to remember and repurpose the long history of social writing, publishing, reading, and interpreting.” Is social computing, just a continuation of people sharing literature socially or is it something completely different and incomparable with the way we did things in the past? I feel that, for all its benefits, we could be massively underestimating the negative effect social computing can have on literature.

In a social computing manor, I searched Wikipedia for insights into the history of social writing. There wasn’t much to be found there, so I turned my query over to Google. The top result is a book by Tom Standage called – Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years. The description informs us that “Social media is anything but a new phenomenon” and goes on to give examples of how people in the past sharing information mirrors today’s social networks. Maybe so, but there is one fundamental difference between the past and now. In the past, we didn’t have much information about an author beyond his or her work. The work was what mattered first and foremost. Status and reputation came later.
Mysterious or unknown people often wrote words that led to revolutions or made us think differently. Nowadays there is anonymous social computing, but for the most part, we can easily find out way too much about who is writing, publishing, reading and interpreting literature. We now judge authors work increasingly with other aspects of their life and not just what they wrote.

Regardless, social computing is here to stay, and Liu thinks we should embrace/dissect/research it academically. For instance, he addresses why contemporary literary scholarship should take an interest in contemporary social computing: “If one loves literature, I think, one now has to be willing to go speculatively where the language of passionate life goes, especially among the young, who will carry on the cool literary adventure.” Being cool is great in all, but not if it’s for cool’s sake. Could it be that trying to be cool is our first real intention when engaging in some social computing? I fear that superior or lasting artistic merit is lost in the quick gratification social computing gives or worse encourages.

I agree with Liu in that “social computing and literary activity are both aspects of a single communicational phenomenon: the contemporary form of the human need to say something well (memorably, persuasively, movingly, beautifully, wittily, and so on) to someone else.” However, he then goes on to say that “Conceiving of such a unified field of literary and social communicational study will require significant methodological work.” Why does our need to say something well to someone else have to be such hard work? If what we are reading fits this criterion, then it’s just good writing – no matter who said it or how it comes to us.

The article concludes that social computing allows us to “seek knowledge and experience wherever it is vested and most easily accessed.” This is undeniably true- we can access knowledge like never before with computers. The danger with social computing is it gives us access to unknown worlds around literature too that maybe should remain unknown. Often this only shows us the messiness of human life and removes us from the work itself.

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