The Promise of Social Reading
At the recent Books in Browsers conference (Oct 26–28, San Francisco), “social reading” was a key theme. This isn’t a complicated concept, but it often takes some explanation.
Social reading is not an add-on. It’s not like an optional topping on a pizza. Social reading is a foundational cornerstone of the new media ecology which the Internet is enabling. It is not a choice, it is at the core of where we are going. – Bob Stein, BiB11
And even deeper:
We like to think of reading as a solitary experience of deep concentration and focus.
This is a common, romantic notion of what reading is. But scratch the surface of this idea, and you find that this is only a small slice of what reading is about. Think about some common reading practices:
- studying from a textbook
- looking things up in a reference book
- researching for a paper (following references)
- reading to a child
- reading a poem
- reading the newspaper
- looking through a new magazine
- cracking open Harry Potter #7
- reading through the last part of Harry Potter #7
Many of these reading practices involve major engagement with things other than the text itself: focusing on “paratextual” elements, locating things, navigating, searching, scanning, and so on. Many of these are explicitly social, too, or at least have closely tied social bahaviours.
We don’t just read books; we talk about them too. We share them, and trade them, and recommend them. We give them as gifts, collect them, show them off. Bookshelves are important furniture in many homes; magazines displayed on the coffee table serve a similar communicative purpose.
…the thread started out asking about the ethics of going through other people’s stuff. But it moved on to the subject of snooping on others’ bookshelves. The question then became: if you were left alone in someone else’s house the morning after a date, would you make a judgement about their suitability for future dates from their book collection? The answer was an overwhelming yes. (from if:book)
There is growing awareness that most of the dominant ebook platforms today are pretty poor on the social side; they are in some cases worse than their paper counterparts in terms of facilitating the universe of social behaviours around reading. Much of the movement toward Social Reading is an attempt to fix this.
James Bridle’s Open Bookmarks
Bridle’s Open Bookmarks project is more a manifesto than a development effort, but he’s done a better job than most of scoping out the kinds of things that are needed.
A nice bit of James Bridle, from BiB11:
The core piece of functionality seems to be bookmarks and annotations, and the ability to do this in a standard way, and share them among readers, devices, platforms. Most e-reading platforms allow you to mark a place in the text; some allow annotations, but there is very little ability to share or move these contributions beyond the e-text itself. Why can’t an e-reader work more like the kind of functionality we’re used to on our computers?
Part of this is about ownership of ebooks and the freedoms that come with true ownership. A trend among e-retailers has been to construct this more like an extended loan: you don’t own it, you just have access to it. This works very well in the interests of rightsholders’ continued control (as in DRM), but it is detrimental to the reader’s freedom.
Bridle has also noted the idea of being “selfishly social.” That is, social reading doesn’t necessarily mean sharing with other people. Many of the key social reading functions are personal: how we manage our own reading experiences. Bridle points to the social (web) bookmarking tool Delicious (or PinBoard) as a good example: it is a platform that facilitates sharing, but the key use is people’s personal management of links and notes.
Kobo’s “Reading Life” platform has gone further than most in making the data about reading patterns visible.
Kobo makes this visible, but you can be certain that Amazon and other e-reader platforms gather this data as well. Why should your reading patterns be corporate property? Shouldn’t you have access to this, and to be able to use it as you see fit?
Part of the trouble with the “Social Reading” idea is our long-held notion that reading is an activity unto itself: the experience of a reader with a pre-existing text. If we deconstruct that a bit—as literary scholars have done for decades—we begin to see the practices of reading and writing as “deeply intertwingled.”
The Internet is nothing if not a platform for writing and reading, and it brings these two practices closer together than they ever have been before.
Richard Nash’s Red Lemonade is an attempt to build a publisher around a writing community: crowd-sourcing the reading and review among a whole group. (Poets have done this forever).
Local company protagonize is a writing social network, a massive, ongoing writing workshop.
The idea of “social writing” can’t help being influenced by software development, which has become massively collaborative in the past decade or two, originally as a way of cope with scale but more recently as a way of writing better code.
This messes violently with romantic modernist notions of the author, the author seen as the semi-divine conduit of creative inspiration, or creative genius.
Crowdsourcing is not necessarily something that one needs to defend, in this particular room; but if you go to the conference of the Associated Writing Programs, which is the conference of all the MFA Writing programs in the United States, you damn well need to defend it. It is a highly toxic term.. a euphemism effectively for the end of Western civilization. – Richard Nash, BiB11
That said, post-structuralist theory in the 1960s has seriously undermined this idea of the author: Roland Barthes spoke of the “Death of the Author,” survived by the living text. Michel Foucault analyzed the “author function,” historically situating authorship amid social and legal ideas about property and accountability. So if digital media begins to challenge the idea of the solitary author, working away in their garret, we shouldn’t be too surprised.
The ultimate contemporary example of “social writing” is Wikipedia. Written by hundreds of thousands of contributors and largely unattributed, it has destroyed an entire publishing category, simply because it works so well. Wikipedia demolishes the idea of the author, succeeds despite it and indeed pretty much because it leaves it behind. It is, perhaps, a prototype for a new era of deeply collaborative media.