New trends in eHumanities - Online literary discussion as a source in literary studies

Peter Boot, Huygens ING (KNAW)


November 13, 2014. 15.00-17.00 at the eHumanities group


Online literary discussion as a source in literary studies

Online literary discussions present valuable evidence in a field where evidence is hard to come by. Response to literature used to be very hard to investigate, as only limited numbers of professional reviewers had a chance to publish views about new books. In the internet era this is rapidly changing, both because of the large numbers of book reviews published online and because of the many online writing communities where people respond to the stories and poems written by fellow community members.

In my talk I will discuss Verhalensite, a now defunct Dutch-language writing community where members contributed ca. 60,000 poems and stories, which drew about 350,000 comments. These large numbers facilitate statistical analysis that used to be pointless in most analyses of literary exchanges. I will talk about nature and contents of the comments on the site, and I will show that the number of comments exchanged between members of the site is related to these members’ networking efforts and to similarities between their vocabularies. This suggests that people that are linguistically similar may have similar tastes.

The second part of my talk will be devoted to book discussion sites, including forums, book-based social networking sites, genre-based discussion platforms, online magazines and reviews in online bookshops. Replicating the effect shown on Verhalensite, I will show that on book discussion sites similarities in vocabulary are related to similarities in preferred books.

The discussions that we use in these investigations sit somewhere between the traditional data of literary scholarship (mostly individual texts) and the data of social science (measurements resulting from experimental manipulation). Both of these approaches have important limitations. I will argue that online discussions can help us fill holes in our knowledge of how literature is received and appreciated.



Peter Boot is a senior researcher at the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands. He studied mathematics and Dutch literature and worked as a programmer and database consultant. His PhD thesis is about annotation facilities in digital editions and their potential implications for humanities scholarship. At Huygens ING he researches processes of online repertoire formation. He also works as a consultant on a number of digital editions.