Online Quotation Culture: The Fragmentation of the Book in the Age of Social Media

This dissertation explores the fate of the book—our most important “old media”—in the age of new, digital media. On networks such as Pinterest, Instagram, and Tumblr, some of the most popular accounts are those that share quotations from TV shows, films, and books. In the context of online quotation culture, the words of authors such as Jane Austen, Søren Kierkegaard, and James Baldwin reach countless devoted readers, including school-aged ones. This culture represents a possible site of connection between academic literacies and the digital literacies that young people increasingly develop outside of school in online affinity groups. Still, educators might rightly wonder what young people gain from reading these authors not in their entirety but in fragments. This study begins by using ethnographic techniques to uncover participants’ reasons for circulating quotations from books on Tumblr, the competencies that they develop as they do so, and the connections that they forge between online quoting and non-digital literacy practices. Techniques of Natural Language Processing, some of them novel, are then used to analyze a large corpus of quotations shared on social media in order to better understand participants’ aesthetic values—i.e., what makes quotations quotable. Finally, a design intervention explores the ways that participation in online quotation culture can complement the traditional literacies of a college class. This multi-pronged study pushes back against popular narratives about the ways that social media use alienates young people from deep engagement with texts.

Supported by fellowships from NAEd/Spencer, UC Berkeley, and the Berkeley Center for New Media