How social media changed the way I read novels
Words by Jasmine Wallis
Considering there are now more ways than ever to find and read books, why am I only reading what’s recommended to me on my Instagram feed?
In the last week, I’ve posted a picture of the books I’m reading to my Instagram Stories twice. When I see a friend reading a book with a cover I’ve seen on my feed I immediately ask if I can borrow it, even if I don’t know the synopsis. When I walk out of a bookstore, fresh novel under my arm, I post an aesthetically pleasing image before I’ve even left the street. And lately, I’ve been asking myself, why? Like many people, books and words have always been a major part of my life. While I used to get my book recommendations from the Scholastic book fair (the highlight of the year for a six-year-old bookworm) it’s now my Instagram bubble that really helps me decide — or rather, tells me — what I should be reading. A decade ago, as the digital age really ramped up, we were told that soon books would be a thing of the past. A relic of ancient times where we used to actually write with pen and paper and carry around these back breakers called textbooks. To an extent, it was true. Kindles were touted as the next big thing, especially for travellers. Why carry around multiple books when you can seamlessly read hundreds on a portable screen? Audiobooks on your smartphone have also infiltrated the book industry. Audible, an audiobook retailer and publisher saw revenue grow by 38% in the UK in 2018. Despite predictions about the end of books, in recent years physical book sales and stores have grown once again. They’re just marketed in different ways. The social categorising website Goodreads gives you recommendations and shares what your friends are reading and online stores such as Booktopia and Dymocks share thousands of different titles in seconds. Considering there are now more ways than ever to find and read books, why am I only reading what’s recommended to me on my Instagram feed? Before social media became a dystopian advertising board, its original aim was connection. A space to share your interests and hobbies with others. Think of the early days of MySpace and Facebook or even the new kid on the social media block, TikTok. It’s still a raw space of user-generated content that businesses and advertisers are yet to figure out how to monetise. It’s just people trying to share ideas and parts of their life. So, it makes sense to share what you’re listening to or reading in these spaces.
And in our modern lives, getting told what to read or purchase can be a sweet relief from the constant decision making.
We follow our friends and influencers because of their personalities and have actual trust in them to recommend us products. This creates an echo chamber, defined in “The spreading of misinformation online,” as “closed environments, inside of which users are not reached by contrasting information”. So, we’re following people similar to us, who re-enforce our belief systems or lifestyle. On top of that, the technology we use every day is becoming increasingly more tailored to our wants (or what the AI thinks we want). You can see it when you search up a product and find it as a sponsored ad on your Insta feed minutes later. Or when you purchase a book and Amazon gives you recommendations for 12 other novels you’d like. Great, right? It’s meant to streamline our lives and save us time when our to-do lists are as long as our arms. We don’t have to think about what hot new novel we should dive into next because the algorithm and social media circle is already telling us. This tailored algorithm holds up a mirror to ourselves and shows us exactly what it thinks we’d like without much room to explore new things or genres. Yes, of course we have the power to look up new ideas or books but, let’s be real, humans are inherently lazy. If we can get something quickly, easily, and without thinking about it too much then often, we’ll do it. And in our modern lives, getting told what to read or purchase can be a sweet relief from the constant decision making. However, it’s this social bubble coupled with the regeneration of the same content and ideas on our screens every day that can become dangerous. This point was highlighted most recently during the Black Lives Matter protests this year. How can we make meaningful change or do anti-racism work if we’re being shown the same ideas, hearing the same (usually White) voices, and reading only one type of content? A social media platform is just you and your data yelling into a cave, waiting for the echo to come back and affirm your beliefs. Other historical examples that spring to mind include the shock of the 2016 US Election or the Brexit result. It’s not all robots taking over and a social media company using propaganda to win an election, however. By just recognising that our digital lives are lived in a vacuum is helpful in its self. Being aware that the things shown to us online reflect our world views (not everyone else’s) is an important step into opening up to other books, products, and ideas. As the Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami said, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” So, I’m setting myself a challenge. I’ll still read (and probably post) about the hottest book of the season but also head to the library (when more restrictions are lifted) and pick out ones that I don’t recognise with characters different from me, written by authors who have lived another experience. While keeping up with your friends and engaging with what you know can be comforting, only good things can come out of reading from other people’s perspectives.
Jasmine Wallis is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. She's written for titles including Frankie, Fashion Journal and RUSSH as well as founding her own media site, Genzine. Jasmine is also a co-host of pop culture and current affairs podcast, Culture Club. When not writing or sharing her thoughts, you can find her constantly moving cities, op-shopping, or looking for the perfect cup of coffee. You can find her online at jasminewallis.squarespace.com or on Instagram at jasmineeskye.
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