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A Library of Fragments: Digital Quotations, New Literacies, and Attention on Social Media


From tweets to GIFs to memes, social media is awash in bite-sized texts that are perfect for quick, instantaneous consumption and viral sharing. Mixed up in the raucous frenzy of social media, however, are excerpts that originate from print media: quotations from novelists, poets, philosophers, and other authors. The book, far from extinct, has nevertheless become "fragmented," circulating in new ways on digital networks.

This study examines the phenomenon of quotations—especially those from books—on the social network Tumblr. Its fundamental question is whether the fragmentation of the book represents a threat to traditional forms of attentive, immersive engagement with long-form texts.

The study reports on three research phases, each with distinct methods and data. The first phase, relying on qualitative and quantitative discourse analysis, examined the role of books and traditionally print-based discourses within the context of Tumblr. The second employed ethnographic data techniques, questionnaires and interviews, to uncover Tumblr users' purposes for sharing quotes from books as well as the ways that quoting connects to these users' broader experiences of literacy. The third phase used computational linguistics to distinguish between different types of quotations and to illuminate the features that contribute to "quotability."

This study finds that quotation can be—though is not always—intertwined with traditional forms of reading and literate attention. Chapter 3 demonstrates that the quoting of books in particular is a fundamental part of the larger practice of quoting on Tumblr; it further illustrates some of the wide variety of quotations that circulate on this network, from misquotations attributed to famous authors to those quotes that are carefully annotated with bibliographic information, scholarly vocabulary, and other signs of deep familiarity with source texts. Chapter 4 reveals that, for those who quote from books on Tumblr, quoting is often not a form of distraction; rather it can deepen their experience of reading and lead them to discover new books. Yet quoting also serves more fundamental purposes of self-expression and self-care, functions that may be related to the fact that quoting is a starkly gendered (largely female) practice. Chapter 5 suggests that, while many quotations are indeed designed to be easily-decontextualized adages, others are specifically tailored to fulfill quoters' desires to express their intimate thoughts and feelings. Some quotes seem to be tailored to be appreciated by those with deep familiarity with the source text, though such quotations are less popular than easily-decontextualized ones.

The fragmentation of the book does not fundamentally threaten traditional forms of reading, though the very purposes of reading are increasingly bound up with self-expression and self-care made possible through social media. The conclusion chapter considers the ramifications of these findings for media studies, the history of the book, and educational practice.

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