One of the main impacts technology has had on society and culture in general is breaking down boundaries, making it both easier and harder to find things that were previously obscure. And I think that’s as true with literature as it is with anything else.
In a lot of ways the Internet feels like one enormous dinner party conversation, with little pockets of conversation that someone can drop into or drop out of at will. So much has been written about how much easier it is to find information now, via than the Internet, than it ever was before. That one weird thing you’re super into? No one in your home town had ever heard of it, but with the Internet, you can find a whole community that’s into it. This is what happens when you have a flood of information.
But a flood isn’t necessarily a good thing, right? And I think that’s one way that literature has been impacted—there are so many books and stories and poems available, and it can be overwhelming sorting through them. We wind up with a tyranny of choice, as it has been called, where having too many choices just paralyzes us. I think this is one of the reasons why we wind up with Best Of book lists that consist of the same familiar names. As readers, all of those choices tend to blur together. It’s hard to know what is good, what’s worth reading, and so we stick with old favorites.
On the other hand, social media has made it easier for people to discuss books and literature. Book Twitter, book blogs, Booktube—all of these are previously unimaginable methods of sharing books we love (and hate; this is the Internet, after all). This ties in with the idea of the Internet breaking down boundaries—on a single website like Twitter, I can get book recommendations from people all over the world, rather than just from a small circle of friends I know in Houston. I’m introduced to books I wouldn’t otherwise have heard of, and because it comes with a recommendation from someone I at least sort of know, it doesn’t get swept up in the overwhelming rush of material out there.
Of course, like a flood, eroded boundaries aren’t always for the best. In addition to getting and giving recommendations, social media has allowed writers and readers to connect more easily than they ever could before. While this sounds great in theory—and actually is great in practice—it also blurs the distinction between reader and writer. A common refrain in literary criticism is that the author is dead—except the author isn’t dead, they’re vanity searching their name in Twitter to see what people are saying about them. Or a critic has tagged the writer in a particularly virulent review to get a rise out of them. And now that very-much-alive author feels the need to explain what they really meant, or to defend themselves, or whatever. While it’s always been true that writers can’t control how readers react to their work, the Internet has made the reader-writer relationship feel more like a back and forth conversation, when previously I think it had been more one-way.
Ian Tregillis is the son of a bearded mountebank and a discredited tarot card reader. He is the author of the Milkweed Triptych, Something More than Night, and the Alchemy Wars trilogy. His most current novel is The Rising (Alchemy Wars #2). His short fiction has appeared at numerous venues including Tor.com, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Popular Science. He lives in New Mexico, where he consorts with writers, scientists, and other disreputable types.
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