Grace L. Chao and Amanda Ambinder Shapiro, Bookclub social: A reader’s guide to online book clubs (#BookReview)

BookcoverBack in 2016, I completed a survey about online bookclubs, and answered some supplementary questions about “my” sort of club. I also took part in a follow-up telephone interview with the two American researchers involved, Grace Chao and Amanda Shapiro. Now, three years later, they have completed their research and self-published it in their book, Bookclub social: A reader’s guide to online book clubs. Of course I bought it, because although it’s some time since I’ve been active in online book clubs (or, OBCs), I am interested in reading communities of all sorts.

Chao and Shapiro explain their research process in the opening chapter. They describe their work as an ethnography, and so used “anthropological methodology”. This involved the survey (for which they received 840 responses, a 22% response rate), followed-up by in-depth interviews with around 100 participants, and participant observation of a number of clubs in operation. They divide the clubs into seven genres:

  • Classics (which includes Literary)
  • Erotica
  • General Reader
  • Horror
  • Mystery/Thriller
  • Romance
  • Sci-fi

You won’t be surprised to hear that I slotted into the Classics group.

Anyhow, in this chapter they explain their aim as being to look at “how the nature of community is being redefined and shaped in the digital age”. I wouldn’t say, necessarily, that what they found was surprising – at least not in terms of my own experience of such clubs – but the book makes some cogent points about how international online communities can work, what they can offer, and some of the challenges they face too.

Of course, Chao and Shapiro found that, overall, female readers dominate most of the clubs, which is similar to face-to-face clubs, although in certain genres, like sci-fi, men are involved in greater numbers than in others. They found that people join these clubs to converse about books, “to deepen and enhance their reading experience”, and often, to seek both intellectual and social outlets. Face-to-face clubs can do these too, but OBCs can offer more.

For example, and this is something that I particularly liked, in a traditional face-to-face book club, there is limited time for discussion, usually just an hour or so. As Chao and Shapiro put it, these groups require “a faster thought process where there is less time to analyze or to react”. In an OBC, you can read a comment by another reader, mull it over, and write a response in an hour, a day, or whenever (within the rules or practices of the club.) I learnt so much during my 10 years or so of active involvement in these clubs.

However, it’s not only the extended time-frame which enables deeper or more expansive discussion. The global nature of these clubs allows for a more “diverse cultural exchange of perspectives and opinions”. This diversity can be generational, gender, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, political and/or religious based.

For some readers, Chao and Shapiro found, OBCs represented the only outlet available to them for book discussion. These are readers who live in countries/places/situations where “a shared reading culture is not prioritized” (or, even, approved of), or who read genres (like Erotica) for which it is not always easy to find local reading communities, or who, for some reason (such as being housebound), are unable to access activities like face-to-face reading groups.

A propos the first group, Chao and Shapiro write that “for members from more restrictive cultures and communities, a virtual shared reading community could be their first foray into a community which allows personal expression and choice”. They include some moving stories about such readers, mostly women, who are desperate to be part of a reading community. A member of a Romance bookclub told Chao and Shapiro about a member from Pakistan, who was being pressured to marry “an elderly gentleman”:

Shortly thereafter, she told us that her family was not allowing her to post in the group anymore and even restricting her access to the internet. In her last post, she wrote: ‘Think of me.’ I didn’t know what to do. We never realized the risk she was taking by being a member of our book club. Through our book discussions, she was exposed to different cultures, religions, politics, morals, and values; she was able to speak her mind freely, things we take for granted in Western society. It’s like the club was deemed a bad influence…

Stories like this are saddening, but not surprising.

They note, in fact, that the social aspects of these clubs disprove the popular misconception that OBC members are “anti-social because they prefer online to face-to-face interactions”. Socialisation does take place, they say, with “intricate networks of friendships” being created across “national borders, time zones, and cultural barriers”. Here I’ll share a quote from the book that I’m sure another survey participant wrote about me:

I met another gal from Australia when she and her hubby were visiting here. We went to a great museum in Los Angeles.

Mr Gums and I did indeed meet two OBC friends of mine, and we had a lovely day at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. My OBC experience has had a significant and ongoing influence on my life, even though I am no longer active.

The book is logically structured, with the main body comprising chapters focusing on specific questions, such as Who’s in charge? (on the role of moderators) and Who’s anchoring the club? (on the role of core members). Other chapters explore social connection in OBCs, how they create virtual safe havens, their role in exposing members to new ideas, and the way they are able to create a sense of belonging among members. Chao and Shapiro support these discussions with evidence from their field research and from relevant academic writings by anthropologists, sociologists, information scientists, and others. The chapters are carefully footnoted and there is an extensive list of references at the end.

I’m not sure whether what they found can be extrapolated to other online communities and the book ends with advice about OBCs rather than making such extrapolations, but they do make some cogent points about the way OBC’s support and promote diversity and inclusivity, and they identify the main factors that make these sorts of communities work (or not). For these reasons, Bookclub social is a worthwhile read, as well as, for me at least, an enjoyable one.

Grace L. Chao and Amanda Ambinder Shapiro
Bookclub social: A reader’s guide to online book clubs
BookBaby, 2019
ISBN (ebook): 9781543947526

24 thoughts on “Grace L. Chao and Amanda Ambinder Shapiro, Bookclub social: A reader’s guide to online book clubs (#BookReview)

  1. Fascinating stuff! I might have been one of the 22% responding too, though I can remember responding to quite a few surveys and research projects about OBCs, I can’t now remember who the researchers were at all.
    The interesting thing here, is that we were both at one time very active, and now we are not. I don’t even belong to an OBC any more, I abandoned them all when Yahoo had that major data breach and didn’t ‘fess up about it. (Not that I have anything much to hide but I’ve always protected myself against identity theft and expect the organisations I deal with to do the same).
    But for me the main reason was that I just got tired of other people choosing books that I really didn’t want to read. How about you? Do you think the blogging and the networks it shapes has anything to do with it?

    • Thanks Lisa … I remember these particular researchers because they came back to me, and we had a fun Skype call. Otherwise I would not have remembered the names.

      A major enjoyment in reading this book is all the little case studies, and comments. I think there’s one of mine there. It was a situation I and another co-moderator had when the main moderator suddenly disappeared and we were really worried about her – so either I or the other co-moderator told the story.

      As for OBCs I basically gave up when I started blogging. I put off starting a blog for a couple of years because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep them both going. But in some ways, I miss the groups. I was in so many OBCs by the end that there was always one doing a book I was interested in. I did get to read some books I would never have read otherwise, books I still remember now. I like blogging because I can write something meaty, and I like all the bloggers I comment on and with, but I don’t think we get the same depth of discussion, on a regular basis, because we are all reading different books, or reading the same books at wildly different times. I do miss that immediate engagement of discussing a book in depth with others for 2-4 weeks.

      I vaguely remember the Yahoo thing, but I can’t recollect whether it was before or after I became a lapsed member. While I try to be careful about my information, my sense is that so many big organisations have had breaches that I feel it’s pretty much impossible to avoid if we are going to do anything electronically!

  2. This is truly interesting. I would never be interested in joining up with a book reading face-to-face group – because I do not like/do not want a timetabled regular meeting schedule. I could never commit to it – so why belong – my wife and I travel a lot – I accept house-sits for friends and relatives in places ranging from Tamworth and Coffs Harbour, Newcastle/the Hunter, parts of Sydney – Canberra, too. I read my own selection of books – and at my own pace – (Lisa seems to be of that order of reader, I note) and from you, WG and from Jonathan S – inspiration to follow up if I have not already read the books you are both reviewing on-line. I think I have said to you before that the thing I so admire about you – and indeed most/all of those who respond – is your positivity – you always reply. And you always add something insightful – or at least you highlight with praise something the other person has pointed out. On-line Book Clubs – no. But literary (classics) blogs – fine – the two mentioned above – yours and JS – though occasionally, too, others within the threads here whose comments I enjoy and who likewise have blogs. My own responses are not the usual – I acknowledge that – there are other “hooks” to my reading interest. History. Personal experience. Other writers… As I seem to say every time – thank-you WG, for this.

    • What a lovely thing to say Jim. I try to add something insightful, but am not sure I always do. I’m really glad though that you notice the effort.

      I of course enjoy having you as one of my readers. Who wants all their commenters to be the same? Reading IS about so many things – something I learnt in those OBCs in particular – including the ones you contribute in your comments. So, thank you too!

  3. Online book clubs sound like such interesting things to participate in. I have not actually heard a lot about them. Most folks who I interact with online seem to talks mostly about book blogs. I think that if I did not have my blog, I would try and participate in some book clubs.

    • The can be wonderful Brian. I joiniped my first one in January 1997 I think. May have been 1996, but I think 1997 was it. And it was so invigorating. And I’m still in touch with some of the friends I made, mostly in the US because they were the greatest number of members. I gave personally met several now on trips over to your country.

  4. Hi Sue, I did enjoy the Yahoo OBC, but as Lisa said when Yahoo changed their format, I too decided to drop out. I didn’t want to especially from the Non Fiction club, as it introduced me to some great reading. Now I tend to read your and Lisa’s blogs and the Australian, The Age and the New York Times for books to read. I will look out for the Bookclub Social. I belong to a face to face book club which is fun, but other topics do get in the way of our book discussions.

    • Of V purse Meg, that’s how you and I met isn’t it? I have fond memories of the non-fiction one too. My favourites were the original bookgrouplist, that one, the 20th century one, and the AusLit one though the latter never got enough action did it. I still get the emails, but almost never check them out because of time.

      My f2f is disciplined about discussing books but it’s still just an hour or so.

  5. Hi Sue, I forgot to add, that I have joined a U3A group called the Joy of Literature. It is a class I look forward to each week. We don’t read a book each week, but we will discuss classic literature from the Greeks to Shakespeare, Russian Authors, American Authors, Australian Authors, post modern authors, and other authors, along with poetry. We even discussed the question if the Harry Potter books will be regarded as a classic collection in the future!

    • That sounds like a great group Meg. I can’t face a U3A that would give me more set books to read but one like that would be perfect. Are there set topics each week or is it a free for all?

  6. Hi Sue, no set topics each week. This week we will discuss The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men. I think the idea will be the connection of the titles of the book with Robert Burns. Las week was about Kafka (which was very good), and Conrad. Great discussions and learning. Yes, I think that is how we did meet, or was it the OBC – Australian Lit Group? Anyway whatever way we met, it was very rewarding for me.

  7. I had my own software business up till 1996 and never heard of on line discussion groups for books or anything else. I’m very envious of you guys who got in at the beginning, though it was probably another ten years of study before I was competent to talk about anything except science fiction.

    • Well you could have joined the sci-fi groups Bill! I remember exactly how I started. A fellow in my work team used to send out every week an email containing a list of interesting things on the internet. I rarely read it. Life was busy with work and two lads, but for some reason I read this one, and there was something called bookgrouplist, a listserv group. (Makes you wonder about all the great things you miss, actually!) I just loved it. Mostly women, but some memorable men too. A couple of long term romantic relationships came from it too!

  8. I’m struggling to think of any OBCs. There may be on on Linked In though it’s not very active and there of course discussion groups in Goodreads but are they the same thing. Not sure.

    The researchers make a good point about the limited time available in F2F groups for discussion. That’s one disadvantage, the other is that some people tend to dominate and the quieter folks hardly get a look in. Online, you don’t have to wait for someone to invite you to comment….

    • They do include GoodReads discussion groups Karen. I’ve never joined them, I much prefer the email discussions because I can sort the emails, for a start.

      Fair point about F2F and quiet people though you could also argue that a good F2F convenor can make space for quiet people. It’s also hard sometimes for people who WANT to be quiet to be quiet without feeling as though they are failing in some way? OBCs have various relationship issues to manage too, and they also have a lot of lurkers who include quiet ones who want to contribute but lack confidence, feeling that their contributions won’t be as clever or as interesting as those they are reading. Both types -and blogging too! – require quite a leap of faith I think.

      • Fair point about the role of the convenor. Managing a discussion is a skill that isn’t always in evidence sadly. People who are very quiet or shy might still be nervous about contributing on line but at least there they can avoid the feeling that everyone is looking at them when they speak.

        • Yes, that was my point, that shy or quiet people in reading groups sometimes don’t want a look in, they like hearing more than contributing. The challenge is to work out who wants what, to make the right sort of space for those who’d like to contribute but are nervous, and to recognise that some really don’t want to say much and not try to force them.

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