November 24, 2023
An unexpected ally: how social media could revitalize reading culture
March 20, 2023. A TikTok commercial in Paris, France. The poster reads: 'Find your next book and take the time to read it.'
In an age dominated by bite-sized content and ever-dwindling attention spans, it may seem counterintuitive to argue that social media could ever be helpful for readers and books.
After all, reading rates have declined steadily, and the allure of instant gratification has led many to point the finger at TikTok or Instagram.
Yet, in our battle to address the changing literary landscape, we might be discounting an unexpected ally. With their vast user bases, social media apps can prove a potent antidote and encourage a new era of bookworms.
Traditional forms of book promotion, such as radio or TV interviews, often struggle to reach younger audiences, who increasingly turn to social media for content consumption. TikTok holds an impressive 1.7 billion monthly users, while Instagram boasts an astounding 2.35 billion.
These social media platforms have served as powerful tools that allow writers, publishers and other readers to reach a vast and diverse audience. Short-form videos on TikTok featuring book recommendations, reviews, and literary trends have gone viral.
The #BookTok tag on TikTok has reached 187.7 billion views as of 2023, leading Barnes & Noble to formulate its own collection based on books circulating on TikTok.
Similarly, Instagram’s visually appealing platform enables so-called ‘bookstagrammers’ to showcase aesthetically pleasing book photos, fostering interest and curiosity among potential readers.
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A poll conducted in October 2022 by the Publishers Association has found more than half of the surveyed 16-25 year-olds credit BookTok for helping them discover a passion for reading – almost 70% said BookTok inspired them to read a book they would have never considered.
According to Publishers Weekly, in the first six months of 2023, adult fiction sales were up by 4.2%. “The biggest driver of those gains, of course, has been books that have the backing of BookTok,” the publishing industry magazine explained.
However, some critics point to a lack of literary merit in the books promoted on social media.
Critics have argued that the short video or image-based nature of these platforms limits the ability to fully engage with the content of a book and lacks the depth of nuance found in traditional literary communities.
Plus, books on TikTok and Instagram are often associated with genres such as romance, young adult fiction, or thrillers, which have commonly been stigmatized as ‘lowbrow’ or ‘trashy’.
Yet one of the books that has gone viral on Instagram with over 32K posts is Yellowface by R.F. Kuang. Through its exploration of complex themes of racial diversity, cultural appropriation, and the publishing industry, Yellowface proves that books on social media (and thrillers in general) can be intellectually stimulating, thought-provoking, and deserving of recognition as valuable literary works.
Additionally, this gatekeeping and snobbery invalidates the diverse experiences and tastes of people worldwide.
The popularity of a book on social media has little to no bearing on its literary merit. Books in different genres can resonate personally with people’s experiences, and social media has given much exposure to marginalized literature.
LGBTQ+ literature and books by authors of color have gained a great deal of attention on TikTok, as with possibly the most famous BookTok novels, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
People assume that without BookTok and Bookstagram, tens of thousands would be well-read and have 'better' taste. In reality, tens of thousands just wouldn't read.
Why scorn the already small numbers of readers just because their preferences don’t fit your biases and opinions? The important thing is that social media can foster a long-term habit of reading, and any vehicle that spreads the joy of reading to large numbers of new readers is to be applauded.
Social media platforms can make literature more relevant and relatable to contemporary readers.
Books like Yellowface that tackle relevant social issues gain traction and spark discussions, bringing literature to the forefront of societal discourse. By intertwining books with trending topics, social media helps bridge the gap between highbrow literature and everyday life, making reading more accessible and inclusive.
It’s high time we put down the pitchforks and extinguish the torches we’ve been brandishing at TikTok and Instagram. As it turns out, amidst the sea of hashtags and memes, a world of literary innovation awaits.
By embracing social media as an unlikely ally in the fight against declining reading rates, the literary world can create a more vibrant and inclusive reading culture where literature thrives in the digital age.
Happy reading, and happy scrolling!