Web 2.0 is changing the literary. We all know this, and we have emergent fields of study based upon this knowledge: electronic literature, game studies, cultural analytics, digital humanities. Yet, scholarship on how the contemporary digital environment is transforming literary criticism deserves more attention. Our cluster takes up this topic: in the individual essays, in their networked relationship, and in the pathway to its production and publication.

This cluster of essays began as a seminar at the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference, held at Georgetown University in March 2019. Aarthi and Jessica bonded over a shared sense that literary critics need to learn from, follow, and take seriously the trends in web 2.0 literature and literary culture even as we remained skeptical of web 2.0's rhetoric of newness and openness. Jessica had recently published a polemical piece, "Electronic Literature as Comparative Literature," a call for comparative literature scholars to take seriously media and digital translation as part of comparative studies; Aarthi had recently published on the transformative nature of collaborative writing platforms in "Amateur Creativity: Contemporary Literature and the Digital Publishing Scene." Both of these pieces were oriented to the changing media ecology of literary and critical writing, and we convened the seminar with the hopes of converging our individual lines of inquiry while inviting others to the table.

Our call-for-papers asked potential participants to explore the impact of information technologies on the making of contemporary literature and literary culture in a global context. The personal computer, mobile devices, the cloud, the server farm, the search engine, the algorithm, and the network are now indispensable parts of daily life; they are equally indispensable to the reading, writing, and distribution of literature. We wished to understand the consequences of their ubiquity on specific developments in the contemporary literary field its aesthetic forms, medial substrates, institutional sites of canonization, and informal sites of readership. Popular aspects of web 2.0 literariness elude our specialist methods of analysis and challenge the prevailing norms of selectivity guiding our profession. How might literary history and literary value look different if the discipline paid more heed to the collaborative reading and writing practices of social media, online reviewing culture, and self-publishing platforms? Where is a literary critic to focus her gaze when what counts as content, text, or poetics is inseparable from hardware, software, platform, social network?

The contributors to this cluster collectively examine the specific challenges and opportunities posed to literary critics approaching web 2.0 participatory culture. They present astute analyses of literature in medial translation, make social media platforms their objects of study, and take methodological cues from multiplayer collaborations of various kinds. Yet, even as the topic of our seminar sought to address the bleeding-edge of literary culture, its format (three days spent in close conversation around a table) reminded us of how much older than the internet participatory culture is and how much literary criticism depends upon it. Although the term gained popularity as a way of distinguishing web 2.0 and differentiating digital media from broadcast media, one could say participatory culture goes as far back as the ancient Greek practice of methexis in which audiences would participate and improvise in theatrical performances. To retain one's individual voice while also becoming enmeshed in a collective such as "the people" or "the hive mind" is a paradox of participatory culture that applies as much to theories of democratic politics and the state as it does to internet culture and literary tradition.

The seminar at Georgetown was so generative in part because we as members understood ourselves to be becoming a written collective even before we met in person. We knew from the start that we were going to turn the seminar into a published cluster for Post45, so we began our conversation at the conference with the intention of building something together for a digital venue. Though we each wrote and shared individual papers for the seminar, we used these short talks as building blocks for a conversation that combined and recombined over the space of the conference and the editorial process. The essays before you bear the spirit of our dialogue, and the current (we hesitate to say "final") form of the cluster reflects our editorial desire to bring the collaborative ethos of the live seminar into the more highly mediated and modular environment of WordPress.

One way in which we have approximated conversation is through hyperlinks, both conceptual and programmatic. We asked each of our contributors to consider their individual essay in relationship to the other contributions and to revise with the goal of referencing key streams of thought from the seminar. We also asked each contributor to denote in their essays where those connections occur and where we could include HTML hyperlinks to other essays so that the conceptual connections perform programmatically as a network. What we realized around that table in that room, and what any virtual meet-up misses, is the importance of live, in-person, embodied interaction. Residual liveness is, perhaps, why online participatory culture is so vibrant and addictive. Philip Auslander understood the importance of "liveness" the sense of being "live" even when that embodied presence is experienced through technological mediation (extended by microphones, screens, etc.) before web 2.0 emerged, and the concept of liveness seems ever more vital to understanding our contemporary literary condition.1 Many of the essays in this cluster attend to the liveness of contemporary literary culture, from emphasis on handwriting in Instagram poetry to the need for a literary theory driven by actual readers rather than the ideal reader of critical imagination.

Rather than thinking of the published cluster as a remediation of the seminar, we seek to present it as evidence of the iterative, even recursive nature of participatory culture. Participation at its most idealistic implies active membership in some community larger than ourselves, but as the emancipatory promises of web 2.0 lose their luster, so too do their notions of agency and self-fashioning. We are not only linked to other humans, objects, and data files, but we are also informed and, in machinic metaphors, even formatted by these relationships. Participation and conscription converge in online life as "opting in" has become the default setting.

If we consider how computational infrastructures inform our experiences as users, we face uneasy questions of how our objects of study find us online. Digital life is not only about using tools but also about being shaped and even circumscribed by them. Our past searches on Google inform what we find in future searches; our network of friends on Facebook shapes the content of our sidebars. What we see online is neither random nor unimportant, and it is determined by exactly what does not meet the eye. As cultural and literary critics, this fact should have profound implications on our approach to our work. Our seminar kept returning to questions of what we could not see and why that occlusion matters.

Perspective and orientation are never just about vision but also about politics, as Sara Ahmed has shown; and, following Franco Moretti, a visualization can change the way we see and the questions we ask.2 It is not clear whether such concepts have the capacity to explain our lack of access to user data or the invisibility of the algorithms guiding what we see, but it seems right to say that too provincial a notion of literary value is its own form of blindness. Why do we roll our eyes at Instagram poetry? Why do we blow off amateur reviewers and critics? Why do we trivialize the platforms that process and promote literariness to wider audiences than we as scholars will ever reach (e.g. Amazon Vine, social media teasers, the genre of listicles)? Our seminar served as a reminder that literary critics need to think reflexively and critically about why and how we proceed with our values and assertions, close readings and citations, in a climate of both information overload and opacity. Our cluster now gives you a taste of those conversations as they take networked form.

Sarah Wasserman offers an account of "multiplayer crit" to illustrate how literary criticism has changed with the web-enabled times and should continue to become a more collaborative endeavor. Her inspiration for "multiplayer crit" is the multiplayer novel, which formally and thematically embeds the strategies of contemporary videogames. Multiplayer crit goes further than the singly-authored novel or monograph by modelling scenes of collective reading and writing that recall gamers building worlds together. A degree of autonomous world-building also plays into the rise of online literary journals curating African science-fiction, as Matt Eatough explains. A focus on new African literary journals that publish online, especially the Nigerian science fiction magazine Omenana, which serves as Matt's case study, reveals a younger generation of writers more interested in cultivating common tastes than in assuming the social missions of an Achebe or Ngũgĩ. In adopting the perspectives and vocabularies of web 2.0, and fan culture in particular, these magazines set out to release African literature from its historical obligations to educate the public and satisfy a Euro-American market. Kinohi Nishikawa takes us to the polar opposite of the digital publishing scene with Amazon Vine: a platform for Amazon.com users to write online reviews and form community while increasing company revenue. Nishikawa considers the implications of Vine on and for literature, especially literature by writers outside of the United States and for literature in translation.

If literary criticism, little magazines, and reviewing culture are proving adaptable and even reinvigorated by the participatory cultures of web 2.0, the fate of literary theory remains less sure. Priya Joshi asks the million dollar question: Can literary theory be participatory? Turning away from the abstracted concepts of author, reader, and text, she bring book history's methods of analysis to bear on the communication circuits of contemporary literature. If "Theory" with a capital T remains a category intent on policing the boundaries of the literary, she argues, then it will be unable to account for the popular movements endogenous to contemporary literary culture. Seth Perlow and Christian Howard spotlight such popular (even viral) movements by taking Instapoetry and Twitterature as their objects of study. While both concede the distance of these corporate-branded genres from the sanctified space of the literary, they use that distance to reconsider the metaphysics of authorial presence and the critic's duty to specify inherited criteria of value when writing about such texts.

Finally, Tess McNulty and Leah Price take us from the zone of popular culture to the paraliterary where reading resides not in the hands of critics but in those of marketers, scientists, and doctors. Tess asks what counts as "content" in web 2.0, prompting us to recognize and shift our critical gaze towards the stuff that demands our attention but does not reward it. She counterintuitively finds the strategies of clickbait permeating the aesthetics of writers we can confidently call literary, foremost George Saunders. Leah in turn makes a distinction between reading literature and literary reading as she follows the newly minted profession of bibliotherapy through its neuroscientific rationales and its own participatory networks. When reading recommendations morph into medical prescriptions and concierge services, the consolations of literature soften the critical edge of disciplinary literary studies.

As is evident from each of these synopses, a major objective of this cluster is to conduct a self-assessment of our own processes, methods, and perspectives as literary critics. To that end, we have turned the tables on ourselves and made our contributions into a combined object of study for two new participants: Tina Lumbis and Jared Zeiders. Both graduate students in English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University with a focus on digital humanities, Tina and Jared synthesize the ideas from our essayistic arguments into two different types of data visualizations that together add another layer of interpretation and collectivization.

Our editorial vision is to create a microcosm of the participatory cultures we study. We employ an array of digital tools and digitally-informed strategies to chart the changing contours of the literary field. As our cluster demonstrates, contemporary literary criticism need not be segregated into qualitative and quantitative camps. The criticism for which we advocate ranges between methods, modes, and objects of study. The literary is alive and well within web 2.0 participatory cultures and presents ample opportunity for creative, even heterodox, approaches to it.

Aarthi Vadde is associate professor of English at Duke University. She is the author of Chimeras of Form: Modernist Internationalism beyond Europe, 1914-2016 (Columbia UP, 2016; winner of 2018 Harry Levin Prize) and the co-editor of The Critic as Amateur (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

Jessica Pressman is associate professor of English at San Diego State University. She is the author of Digital Modernism: Making It New in New Media (Oxford UP, 2014), co-author,with Mark C. Marino and Jeremy Douglass, of Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone's Project for Tachistocope {Bottomless Pit} (Iowa UP, 2015), and co-editor, with N. Katherine Hayles, of Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in a Postprint Era (Minnesota UP, 2013).

Keywords: Web 2.0, literary criticism, participatory culture, liveness


  1. Philip Auslander, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (New York: Routledge, 1999).[]
  2. See Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006) and Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees (New York: Verso, 2005).[]