Kobo, Nook, and Social Reading

Barnes and Noble’s recently announced NOOK Friends, a “social network for people who love to read,” had me thinking about how ebooks and e-reading devices are causing increased instances of this thing called “social reading.” What is social reading?

The easy answer is that social reading, very loosely speaking, is a kind of reading that entails some kind of interaction with other people. But, Bob Stein, at the Institute for the Future of the Book, notes in his well-thought out proposal (“A Taxonomy of Social Reading”) that this isn’t as simple a question as it may at first seem. In fact, the more I think about it, the more “social reading” seems to refer to many different — but related — things. I think this topic warrants revisiting, but for now, let’s start with social reading as it relates specifically to online behavior (for example, sharing favorite book passages on Twitter, etc.) and e-reading devices (as in, what Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and to a lesser extent, Amazon, are doing).

I can’t help but wonder how this social reading approach by ebook companies will effect the popularity of ebook lending websites. Will they coexist as different means to the same end, or will they compete (some thoughts on the latter possibility: “Nook Friends is a Shot Across the Bow of eBook Lending Sites”)? Seems like this will depend largely on just how open such reading networks are going to be — a walled garden, for-Nook-users-only thing seems like a tough sell (how many different reading network need there be?). And of course, the idea of Nook Friends is powered by not only social reading, but social shopping. From BarnesandNoble.com: “Let your NOOK Friends™ help you find that next great read.”

More interesting to me is Kobo’s Reading Life and some of their newly rolled out features on the mobile apps. I think it’s actually a very clever approach Kobo has taken here. Along with the usual sharing passages on Facebook and Twitter functionality, there are some new twists. Readers can unlock awards, achievements, or Kobo coupon deals, which has led some to wonder if this is another tell-tale sign of the increasing trend of the “gamification” of everything (The Telegraph: “Kobo Reading Life makes reading ‘gamified’ and social”). If it means making reading more fun to people who would be otherwise reluctant, I don’t see a problem with it, really. There’s also a Foursquare-like feature to “check-in” to a spot in the book you’re reading. It’s kind of amusing, to check into the Rabbit Hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I’m not overly worried that these sort of things would detract from the reading experience. Reading is going to be whatever people make of it anyway.

My favorite thing by far is Reading Stats:

“Statistics: Users can track their reading life with interesting statistics, including how many books they’ve read, pages turned, how fast they read, and times of day they read. Statistics help users track their progress, earn awards, as well as discover and learn about their own reading styles and preferences.”

I love stuff like this, and Reading Stats was reason enough to give the Kobo app a try. Reading Life has some features that could provide some potentially useful reader-to-reader interactions. And for those less interested in social reading stuff (like me, probably), Reading Stats is awesome. Early reports seem to indicates the approach has struck a chord with Kobo readers: “Kobo has also seen a dramatic increase — over 50% — in users’ reading time since the launch of Reading Life in December.” Hmm.

eBooks do seem to provide positive additions to the experience of social reading — or more specifically, the experience of social reading online. Is this a good or a bad thing? Maybe it’s neither — just different. My only real reservation at the moment is that I do wonder if this is a trend that could be too device-centric, which would be a shame. If social reading is undertaken in the spirit of extending and working within the kinds of reading people are already doing — instead of trying to change or create new reading behaviors, which is a losing proposition — this could be an idea rich with possibilities. Social reading should be something that can happen in any sort of reading environment, I’d hope. Whether or not social reading turns out to be the new hotness, reading is still and always will be an inherently solitary activity. Which is why this New York Times article (“E-Books Make Readers Less Isolated”) on the so-called stigma of reading in public places was kind of funny. From a new iPad owner: “Strangers constantly ask about it. It’s almost like having a new baby. People approach me and ask to see it, to touch it, how much I like it,” he said. “That rarely happens with dead-tree books.” I don’t necessarily disagree — that iPad sure can be a conversation-starter — but the article is still unintentionally funny because of the underlying tone of hey-did-you-know-that-reading-could-be-cool?? You’re way off, New York Times Fashion & Style section. Reading was always cool.

Lots of food for thought. And perhaps the more significant question here: should reading be more social?


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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