On your marks, get set, (fill in the blank)

I joined GoodReads a couple of years ago and toyed with some other runner and fitness social networks and the whole thing got me started on thinking about the entire topic of ego-driven social networks and the strange range of behaviors they elicit from various people. I should have known from my experience in amateur radio that ego-driven social networks were going to let me down.

In 1994 I became a licensed amateur radio operator. I had always had an interest in listening to exotic broadcasts via shortwave or am radio (most of this is gone with the internet now), but I thought it might be fun to be able to actually talk on the radio, so to make a long story short I did all the things necessary and was issued an amateur radio license by the FCC in the good ol’ USA. Now I could get On The Air as they say. I wanted to talk to people all over the world about all sorts of interesting things. I was soon disabused of this fancy. All amateur radio operators wanted to talk about was their radio, or setup as it were, and how many different places they had briefly contacted. That was it. Most people just wanted to “log” me as a contact after a brief howdy-do and move on. Nobody wanted to talk about the historical aspects of Russian literature or even what the country they were in was like. Nothing. Nada. Dead boring. In my whole time when I was “active,” and this spanned years, I only had two interesting conversations and these were with missionaries in South America. Dudes that were way out in the real jungle. Joseph Conrad stuff. Cool. Needless to say I lost interest although I do renew my license every decade and could still rig up a set with a car battery and an antenna in an emergency.

So a few years later here comes the internet. Social networks. Cool places where people from all over the world could talk about stuff and really have a global society and a global conversation. Scratch that. All people wanted to talk about was recipes or how their dog just did something funny or they just got porked by their boyfriend. No Russian Literature, no sharing of the music of my country. Grandkids! Nothing interesting or mind expanding. Nada. Zilch.

Needless to say I “lost interest.” I still like seeing my nieces and nephews and how cute your cat is and how religious fanatics in Claptrap, Texas are persecuting United Way volunteers, really, but that only goes so far, and not very.

Now here comes ego-driven social networks, first mostly around fitness and running and other destructive compulsive behaviors like that. But a few start cropping up around music and video games and wow, books! Now finally I have found it, what I’m looking for, somebody who wants to converse globally about the historical development of Russian literature, and so forth: GoodReads. I put my modest reading accomplishments into the system in a flurry. I have up till now mostly kept track of this to avoid reading something twice (life is too short). I never cared about how many pages I read or how many books in a year. Sometimes I like to live more than I do read. I joined Groups I was interested in, got Friends with similar interests (from looking at their books), read the books my “Groups” were reading. Tried to start some conversations about say “the transcendent in Stephen King.” Guess what. Nada. Zilch. Almost nothing. So what did I find? The same thing I saw on Facebook: recipes, games, jokes, lists, nonsense, everything except a serious conversation about what was in a book. Even in Groups that were supposed to have topics I was exposed to things like “The Family Feud” game. Don’t you have anything better to do, like maybe read?

After a few months I figured out what the primary driver of these networks was: how many damn x’s you could do in y. In GR’s case essentially how fast you read. In my case, how much of my dreary life I devoted to reading. 85% of the population on GR only lists and rates their books. That’s it. Something you could accomplish on a spreadsheet. Few ever review anything. Fewer ever give input to any meaningful book discussion. This didn’t make reading more fun or interesting, now it seemed like a task. For the first six months I did learn a lot because I had fallen out of keeping up with my favorite genres and subjects, but after this time I had most of the primary sources locked into my search that I rarely used GR to find anything. I never read reviews before reading a book I know I want to read. I rarely look at one after I read a book. Think about it, why would you? Occasionally you can find someone who is seriously interested in a book but most of the in-depth reviewers are more interested in garnering their own shabby little accolades and not conveying any useful information. I do look at ratings sometimes but ratings are so manipulated and my tastes run so counter to the mainstream that I don’t trust the average GR rater especially if they don’t write a review.

In the end the ego-driven social network like GoodReads appeals to the compulsive introvert. Geeks you might say. People who think it is meaningful or something to be proud of when they simply finish a book. Compulsive list makers who measure their accomplishments in how long the list is or how many things they can tick off of it. This leads to the underlying problem: introverts are not going to open up with their feelings or ideas because they take any disagreement as a personal attack; even on a social network where you don’t have to look ’em in the eye. Hence, few reviews. Introverts lack the self-confidence to engage in conflict, even intellectual ones, and stating an opinion is opening a door to vulnerability.

So I only look at GR once a day maybe or more if I’m stuck in a queue. I do try to write reviews which as you can tell from this blog aren’t the most well written or insightful but I figure if I take the time to log a book I at least can dash off a 5-minute review.

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