More Thoughts on Social Reading

Social reading is a topic worth thinking more about; primarily because we all engage in it, to varying degrees, every day. I discovered an excellent and thoughtful treatment of this topic over at BookSquare. BookSquare ruminates on a wide-ranging number of ideas and questions related to social reading which are worth further consideration (check out the post at: “Reading in the Digital Age, or, Reading How We’ve Always Read”).

In a very simple yet obvious way, we understand that “Social reading is normal reading.” In the broadest sense, stories and recorded information are acts of communication, and thus inherently social in nature. This remained so through the transition from an essentially oral to written word culture; reading was conceived as an inherently social act — “Some stories became institutionalized — myths, biblical stories, parables. Others, well, they never really gained market share.”

It wasn’t until the advent of the modern day mass market paperback* that reading truly became a solitary reading experience in the way that we commonly think of the act of reading as a transaction which occurs between a reader and the words on a printed page.

That interaction between reader and words takes on many forms. In particular, marginalia and annotations are parts of the reading experience which appear to be becoming increasingly more social:

“But we do not only engage in marginalia. We write reviews about the book. We write extended analyses about the book. Speeches are given about the words written by an author. Movies are made. Plays presented in the park. As people interact with the text, many transform the text.

For many of us, transforming the book is as important as reading the book.

As we have developed online tools, we’ve moved our natural tendency to comment and extend text online.”

The history of ‘user generated content’ that comes from the experience of reading a book is vast and diverse. And, perhaps this is simply a new way of phrasing an existing idea, but could ‘social reading’ actually be a part of ‘social publishing’? The relation between the two is still being defined:

“Social publishing requires a deep interest and study of what happens to a text after it is disseminated — how readers interact with it, how they share it, how they copy it, how they talk about it — and it requires action arising from that deep study.”

One of the virtues of reading in the Digital Age, in theory, should be the seamlessness with which we can move our information around to wherever we are. But in practice, this doesn’t always seem to be the case. And perhaps I’m an exception, but I do have mixed experiences when reading my ebooks on Kindle, and then using iBooks, and then Barnes & Noble, and then sometimes even Google eBooks. While ebooks are becoming slightly less tied to devices (good), the ebook content itself, along with notes and highlighting and such forth, more often than not, is still stuck in something of a silo approach (not good). From a business perspective that division of content may make sense, but not so much from the reader’s perspective. This almost forces one to be wedded to one ebook-type of platform, be it Kindle, or Barnes & Noble, and etc, when I have to believe that the company-agnostic approach is a book reader’s default approach: “It turns out people don’t need more destinations; they need destinations that work with how they use the internets. All of them.”

Could there be a solution that integrates all of these separate islands of bookish content in a more seamless fashion?

“This means allowing readers to engage in these activities where they live (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, reading applications [in particular]), while feeding the conversation into a more centralized location. This means allowing the social part of reading to reside with the work, which means consolidating editions/versions into a single item.

Lots of interesting food for further thought. I’d recommend reading the full post. Thanks, BookSquare!

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A couple more items worth thinking about —

“Digital Reading: Will “Social” Keep the Experience Value High?” shares this excellent way of thinking of social reading, as a form of ‘distributed memory’ during the experience of reading:

“the reading experience again, but as a souvenir of the book itself. During the act of reading, he says, “the books themselves are subliming, they’re going up into the air. They’re achieving what Walter Pater called the condition of music. But what will remain of them are our experiences; the absolutely central experience of reading.” Bridle says that sharing that experience is a form of distributed memory that could replace the paper book.”

In a related article, The New York Times “Social Books Hopes to Make E-Reading Communal” had some interesting news about a book app that was on the works called Social Books:

“It works like most e-reading software in that users download titles to their tablet or phone. The main difference here, however, is that users are able to leave public notes on a particular book, chapter or passage, and comment on the notes left by others. They can also share their digital bookshelves with friends on Facebook and Twitter.”

What drew my attention to this article was the following quote: “But if all they’re doing is replicating the experience of reading a physical book, they aren’t changing the experience of reading print.”

Here’s a link to the Social Classics app at the iTunes Store. It isn’t that this is a bad approach to take. Unfortunately for them, it seems like some of the bigger players in ebook apps have beaten them to the punch, though. Social network sharing seems to part of the new orthodoxy for ebook apps, at least from all of the ones I’ve encountered. But to tie this back to BookSquare’s thoughts on a unified approach to ebook content, I think there certainly is an opportunity for someone to create a solution for making all of the ‘user generated content’ of ebook reading more portable.

* As you might or might not know, the history of the mass market paperback is tied closely to the history of Penguin Books. You can visit this interesting entry on The History of Penguin Books for a brief history lesson.


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

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