Thoughts on Social Reading

The evolution of the technology of the book changes the way that we read. But it’s useful for us now to consider what the nature of those changes are, exactly.

For one thing, what of the belief that reading is becoming more social? From the Institute for the Future of the Book, is a fascinating discussion “A Taxonomy of Social Reading” (use the gray menu bar at the top to browse from page to page … took me a few seconds to notice it at first) about social reading; particularly the fact that ‘social reading’ seems to mean many different things. Kindle readers enable the sharing of user favorite passages (anonymously); Kobo’s Reading Life app has emphasized a more nuanced social reading approach; even book recommendation engines are based upon a certain social reading premise.

In general though, we can assume that a range of behaviors comprise the range of what we understand to be social reading. “A Taxonomy of Social Reading” divides these into four broad categories:

  • Category 1 — Discussing a book in person
  • Category 2 — Discussing a book online
  • Category 3 — discussing a book in a classroom, book group
  • Category 4 — discussing a book in the margins

I wouldn’t get too caught up in the order of the categories; it’s not really meant to be a hierarchy, that one category is necessarily better or worse than another. Some thoughts:

  • Category 1 — Talking about books in an informal way is something we’re all familiar enough with. The book is not necessarily the point of the conversation, so much as it is a casual topic mentioned in passing: “their purpose at least as much social glue as intellectual back and forth.” For example, “Hey, speaking of new books, have you seen The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Philosophy?
  • Category 2 — Moving that same level of conversation online takes on many different forms of book-related interaction. Online book discussions, blog, and such forth, are some means by which bookish sorts can communicate ideas with each other. Social bookmarking such as Reddit or Digg or Google Reader are ways in which we can quickly and easily share reading content with others. Then there are the reading communities such as GoodReads, LibraryThing, Shelfari, or Wattpad that are more dedicated sorts of readerly interaction.*
  • Category 3 — Formal book discussions, the kinds we’d expect in a college English course, or a book club meeting, have the express purpose of dissecting a text. With this kind of real-time, face-to-face interaction with other book readers, there’s a level of interpersonal engagement (I’d argue) that is different in degree from online-oriented social reading.
  • Category 4 — This idea seems to be the crux of “The Taxonomy of Social Reading”; an idea of incorporating the discussion within the book itself: “As opposed to blogs, where comments appear beneath the author’s text, CommentPress and similar platforms place reader’s comments in the right–hand margin. This design makes the conversation an integral part of the text, in effect extending the notion of “content” to include the discussion it engenders.”

What this means, in other words: there are quite a few new and interesting readers to communicate with other readers, and to connect with larger communities of other readers. Will we see a rise or decline in some types of social reading? “As with a Wikipedia article, the truth isn’t on the surface as much as in the interstices where people collectively explore the fuzzy spaces between assumptions and arbitrarily drawn boundaries”

* Speaking of which, now there are dating websites based upon book tastes ..? Weird. ( was one I noticed. I’m sure there likely others). Well, Italo Calvino** certainly thought that Readers and Other Readers could be brought together from reading books, right?

** If on a winter’s night a traveler is brilliant good fun. Seriously, read it.


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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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