Since I started my new postdoc position at the Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Basel, my colleagues and I have been writing grant applications furiously! We want to become a hub for empirical literary studies in Europe and for that we need money, and cool new projects and enthusiastic new colleagues! Last week, we got lucky; enormously lucky! Or actually, let me rephrase that: last week our hard work finally paid off: all three of the proposals that we had written and submitted to the SNSF (the Swiss National Science Foundation) Digital Lives funding scheme got accepted! At the start of December we will kick off three projects on online social reading and writing. I am – naturally – very excited about this prospect!

The project that I will be focused on is a collaborative project with my colleagues Simone Rebora from the University of Verona and Piroska Lendvai from the University of Göttingen, revolving around the website Goodreads.

Social media platforms like Goodreads are online environments where millions of people come to share their love for the written word. Thus, in the digital age the act of reading, has started to involve a social component that goes far beyond that of a real-life book club or public poetry reading. This exploratory project focuses on the growing phenomenon of online social reading, by exploiting the data source that is Goodreads and developing new methodologies to study the wealth of qualitative data about (social) reading and text evaluations that it offers.

So far, the treasure trove of data available on Goodreads has not been empirically investigated, and this is partly due to the fact that new methodologies have to be developed to extract the data from the website in a meaningful way. This is exactly the gap that our project aims to fill. By analyzing reader reviews on Goodreads using textual entailment and text reuse detection (methods from computational linguistics) and comparing them to statements on the Story World Absorption Scale (SWAS; Kuijpers, Hakemulder, Tan & Doicaru, 2014), we will investigate: (1) the potential of converting Goodreads into an extensive qualitative corpus for the computational analyses of reader responses; (2) the validation of the SWAS through comparison with reviews on Goodreads; and (3) the comparison of readers’ absorption across different genres.

It is important to study these online social reading phenomena, as they are becoming exceedingly popular and provide new ways for people of all ages to acquire storytelling and literacy skills (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, & Leu, 2014). The potential impact of this project is widespread as it will construct a new corpus of interest to researchers from different fields and develop methodologies that can be fine-tuned to be used on various other online corpora that are made up of natural language.

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