Social Reading Logs

How do you jumpstart the life of the mind when you aren’t physically located in one of those rare places bubbling over with Mind? In an earlier post I discussed using Wunderkit to increase reading capacity and ‘surveil’ colleagues as one way to get something going, intellectually speaking. Since writing that post my thought have changes a bit and I wanted to talk in more detail about my thinking behind my social network use lately. First, although ‘surveil’ sounds good and is probably accurate, the branding is all wrong and it doesn’t really capture what I am trying to get at: a vital and productive community of ‘social reading logs’. Second, Wunderkit has not shaped up into a platform that can accommodate what I’m looking for (at least not so far).

Most books on ‘how to be a graduate student’ stress the importance of keeping some sort of ‘reading log’ where you record what you’ve read and what you think about it — something that knits all of the notes you’ve taken together into a coherent and developing narrative of your intellectual activity. In the past, sharing these thoughts has occurred in a variety of forms: unstructured ones like talking with friends, semi-structured ones like writing a blog pot about what’s been bothering you lately, and all the way up to conference papers and finally publications.

Academic have gotten good at sharing the highly formalized, finished products of our thinking on the Internet — that’s what the open access movement and the PDF file format is for. We haven’t done quite so well using the Internet to make our reading logs ‘social’ in the ‘social media’ sense of social. There are some good reasons for this: in my experience, few of us actually keep notes the way we should, so it’s not surprising that we can’t put them on the Internet. But there are bad reasons as well: many anthropologists try to keep secret what they’ve been reading, since it is a sort of cultural capital which they can use to position themselves in the avant-garde. And if you share what you know, you can’t be ahead of those who haven’t read the newest latest yet. Luckily there is strong evidence that anthropology has embraced a model of transparency and openness: Cultural Anthropology and JRAI are both running columns asking people what they’ve been reading recently, and of course our online discussions have long swirled around shared readings and concerns.

Making our reading lists social not only furthers this trend, but it has additional benefits. As any writer of fanfic will tell you, knowing that people are reading makes you write more and write better, and this holds true for reading logs as well: it makes you read more and read better. Moreover, social reading logs could be a way to discover new material. At a macro level, seeing what we’re all reading might reveal to us that anthropology does have a canon and a consensus that we just haven’t seen. And if it turns out it didn’t, it might be that social reading logs would be a way to help create it, or at least clarify which approaches are struggling for hegemony.

So it’s a good idea. But how best to accomplish it? No one wants to join another social network, and many of us don’t have time to check more than one or two a day. Twitter might work, but the character limit is just too restrictive. Facebook is evil, and at any rate my family wants updates about me, not what I think about the new book on Exxon-Mobil. Google+ is super evil. No way I’m giving them another morsel of data. Despite what I’ve said, privacy is something to look for: I’d like my students and others pressed into service on the site to have a place to collaborate with me without having to show the Internet what they are doing. looks like a good place to start but I’m not sure they have the feature set we’d need because no one ever actually posts anything substantive there (and is it just me or is the lag sometimes tremendous over there?). I still can’t figure out OAC but a quick look seems to suggest they’ve thought this over and there isn’t a perfect way for them to do it either.

In sum, I think social reading logs have a lot advantages, but I’m not sure which platform is the best to pursue this idea on. If anyone has ideas on how best they can complete discipline by disciplining themselves online, let me know!


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

8 thoughts on “Social Reading Logs

  1. Do you have any books you recommand ‘how to be a graduate student’, perhaps with a focus in anthropology/social sciences? Did my BA in anthropology, currently doing a professional masters in an other field (international development and aid, not too far off but no research) and considering the possibility of going back to anthropology for a phd in a few years.

  2. Oh, and more on the subject, heard of Mendeley? An online platform to share articles, collaborate on reviews and share on public/private groups. Never used it so I can’t say how good it is.

  3. I was maintaining an academic reading Tumblr for a while, but frankly – it was just to much work to write up my notes in such detail.

    Sites like GoodReads and Anobii are good for books, but there isn’t something so nice at the level of academic article. I did use Mendeley for a while, but found that it suffered from a number of usability problems which led me to abandon it.

  4. I think this is one of the problems that Glassboard was meant to solve. It creates a single-topic private online forum

    I set up an Anthropology Glassboard, but it hasn’t been used much: invitation code: nhspq

    More about Glassboard here:

    Perhaps we should try setting up one for social reading?

  5. I’ve taken a quick look around and it looks like Mendeley might be the best choice. It follows the facebook model (where you request friend status and people give it to you) rather than the twitter-like model of or the hybrid model of Wunderkit. Some people will want only their friends to see their updates. Some people (like me) do want to be world-readable, but maybe we can try that and see how it goes. If you’re interested, shoot me a friend request on Mendeley.

    Man, the problem with being a veteran Internaut is that things like Mendeley that weren’t that impressive when you first saw them keep on getting developed while you’re not looking and four years later — wham! SNS.

  6. Res, thanks for the nudge to reconsider Mendeley. I’ve just given it a try, and it looks pretty good. I remember Kerim recommending Sente. Any thoughts on how one stacks up against the other?

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