Digital scholarship blog

12 October 2020

Fiction Readers Wanted for PhD Research Study

This a guest post is by British Library collaborative doctoral student Carol Butler, you can follow her on twitter as @fantomascarol.

Update: Due to a phenomenal response, Carol has recruited enough interviewees for the study, so the link to the application form has been removed (13/10/2020).

In 2016 I started a PhD project in partnership with the British Library and the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design (CHCID) at City, University of London. My research has focused on the phenomena of fiction authors interacting with readers through online media, such as websites, forums and social media, to promote and discuss their work. My aim is to identify potential avenues for redesigning or introducing new technology to better support authors and readers. I am now in my fourth and final year, aiming to complete my research this winter.

The internet has impacted how society interacts with almost everything, and literature has been no exception. It’s often thought that if a person or a business is not online, they are effectively invisible, and over the last ten years or so it has become increasingly common – expected, even - for authors to have an online presence allowing readers, globally, to connect with them.

Opportunities for authors and readers to interact together existed long before the internet, through events such as readings, signings, and festivals. The internet does not replace these – indeed, festivals have grown in popularity in recent years, and many have embraced technology to broaden their engagement outside of the event itself. However, unlike organised events, readers and authors can potentially interact online far more directly, outside of formal mediation. Perceived benefits from this disintermediation are commonly hailed – i.e. that it can break down access barriers for readers (e.g. geography and time, so they can more easily learn about the books they enjoy and the person behind the story), and help authors to better understand their market and the reception to their books. However, being a relatively new phenomenon, we don’t know much yet about how interacting with each other online may differ to doing so at a festival or event, and what complications the new environment may introduce to the experience, or even exacerbate. It is this research gap that my work has been addressing.

Early in my research, I conducted interviews with fiction authors and readers who use different online technologies (e.g. social media such as Twitter and Facebook, forums such as Reddit, or literary-specific sites such as GoodReads) to interact with other readers and authors. All participants generously shared their honest, open accounts about what they do, where and why, and where they encounter problems. It became clear that, although the benefits to being online are widely accepted and everyone had good experiences to report, in reality, people’s reasons for being online were riddled with contradictions, and, in some cases, it was debatable whether the positives outweighed the negatives, or whether the practice served a meaningful purpose at all. Ultimately – it’s complex, and not everything we thought we knew is necessarily as clear cut as it’s often perceived. 

This led me to make a U-turn in my research. Before working out how to improve technology to better support interactions as they currently stand, I needed to find out more about people’s motivations to be online, and to question whether we were focused on the right problem in the first place. From this I’ve been working to reframe how we, in the research field of Human-Computer Interaction, may understand the dynamics between authors and readers, by building a broader picture of context and influences in the literary field.

I’m going to write another blog post in the coming months to talk about what I’ve found, and what I think we need to focus on in the near future. In particular, I think it is important to improve support for authors, as many find themselves in a tricky position because of the expectation that they are available and public-facing, effectively 24/7. However, before I expand on that, I am about to embark on one final study to address some outstanding questions I have about the needs of their market – fiction readers. 

Over the next few weeks, I will be recruiting people who read fiction – whether they interact online about reading or not - to join me for what I am informally referring to as ‘an interview with props’. This study is happening a few months later than I’d originally intended, as restrictions in relation to Covid-19 required me to change my original plans (e.g. to meet people face-to-face). My study has ‘gone digital’, changing how I can facilitate the sessions, and what I can realistically expect from them.

I will be asking people to join me to chat online, using Zoom, to reflect on a series of sketched interface design ideas I have created, and to discuss their current thoughts about authors being available online. The design sketches represent deviations from the technology currently in common use - some significant, and some subtle. The designs are not being tested on behalf of any affiliated company, and neither do I necessarily anticipate any of them to be developed into working technology in the future. Ultimately, they are probes to get us talking about broader issues surrounding author and reader interactions, and I’m hoping that by getting peoples perspectives about them, I’ll learn more about why the designs *don’t* work, moreover why they do, to help inform future research and design work.

I’ve been ‘umming and ahhing’ about how best to share these designs with participants through a digital platform. Sitting together in the same room, as I’d originally planned, we could all move them around, pick them up, take a red pen to them, make notes on post-its, and sketch alternative ideas on paper. There are fantastic online technologies available these days, which have proved invaluable during this pandemic. But they can’t provide the same experience that being physically present together can (a predicament which, perhaps ironically, is fitting with the research problem itself!).

A screen image of the Miro platform, showing a drawing of a person wearing glasses, with a text box underneath saying Favourite Author
A sneaky peek at a sketch in the making, on Miro

I have decided to use a website called Miro.com to facilitate the study – an interactive whiteboard tool that allows participants to add digital post-it notes, doodles, and more. I’ve never used it before now, and to my knowledge there is no published research out there (yet) by others in my research field who have used it with participants, for me to learn from their experience. I think I must prepare myself for a few technical glitches! But I am hopeful that participants will enjoy the experience, which will be informal, encouraging, and in no way a judgement of their abilities with the technology. I am confident that their contribution will greatly help my work – and future work which will help authors and readers in the real world.

If anyone who is reading this is interested in participating, please do get in touch. Information about the study and how to contact me can be found here or please email carol.butler@city.ac.uk.

Update: Due to a phenomenal response, Carol has recruited enough interviewees for the study, so the link to the application form has been removed (13/10/2020). Thanks to everyone who has applied.

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