Bob Stein: Social reading -- an opportunity

Bob Stein: Social reading -- an opportunity

Editor's Note: We are delighted that Bob Stein, founder and co-director of The Voyager Company and consultant with the Institute for the Future of the Book, will be joining us at The FutureBook Conference en route from a speaking engagement with the French Publishers Association. Stein will be among our featured speakers who will appear in our Big Ideas session near day's end Friday (14th November) at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster. 

This year's conference -- hashtagged #FutureBook14 -- promises to have the widest scope and most inquisitive bent yet, in terms of signalling digital directions ahead. Bookings have been extended: Hurry to secure your seat

The following is a post i made to a publishing listserv and some follow-on thoughts in response to the discussion as it progressed. - Bob Stein, Paris, 11 November 2014

Three years ago this November, a New York high school teacher asked the students in her advanced Spanish literature classes to read their assignments in SocialBook, a reading platform that enables small groups to carry out threaded conversations in the margins of a text. The teacher retired last spring, but three students who started with her in 2011 and were about to enter their senior year persuaded her to keep a part-time position so they could read Don Quijote with her in SocialBook. The school agreed and they are now nearly halfway through the text, with more than 2,400 comments among the four of them. They are using the margins for many things — creating a rich glossary of terms and concepts that are unfamiliar to contemporary Spanish speakers, noting points for clarification, and discussing the wide range of historical and literary questions that this seminal novel raises. This adds up to an impressive example of collaborative reading and thinking.

Social reading skeptics, before you discount this anecdote — because it is just that, a singular example, not backed up by data — please consider the following:

A few years ago I showed SocialBook to the CEO of a major publishing house, who responded confidently that his customers weren’t interested in social reading. 

His certainty reminded me of conversations in 1992 when a well-known computer scientist who had seen Voyager’s Expanded Book Series called to suggest I try to raise a small fund from the publishing industry to develop what he called the dynabook, and would have been the first digital tablet. Alas, the unanimous response from every CEO was “Are you kidding, people will never choose to read on screens.”  

The thing is that they were right about how most people regarded the idea of reading on a screen. What they didn’t see, however, was that the prevailing opinion was going to change over time as hardware improved. And at that moment, the publishing industry gave up its opportunity to be in front of the shift from paper to screen.

Had you asked everyone who tried the first ebooks, the vast majority would have said they didn’t like the experience, confirming the industry-wide skepticism. However, if you focused on the few who liked reading Jurassic Park or The Hitchhiker’s Guide on their PowerBooks (Apple’s first notebook computer), the potential was apparent. Two early stories involved the wives of early adopters, who purchased their own first computers after seeing their husbands reading in bed with the lights off. One described a hilarious sight — both lying in bed with their laptops on their chests, turning the page by lowering their chins and pressing on the mousepad. Other people talked about the joy of hands-free reading and the ability to do full-text searches. The enthusiasm of the people who liked the experience was a much better indicator of potential than the disinterest of the people who didn’t. Why?  Because many of the stumbling blocks — e.g. awkward form factor, very poor resolution and brightness— were temporary problems that were overcome as the technology improved. And the things people liked were only going to get better.

Early reaction to social reading platforms has followed the same pattern. Most people dismiss it out of hand and don’t even deign to try it. Significantly, the people who try it, but dislike the experience, rarely complain about the idea in the abstract. Rather they talk about the many limitations — both technical and design-related — that are largely a function of a primitive platform that will improve dramatically.

When people like SocialBook, they talk about the value of collaboration. For example, Students at Hildesheim University read Clemens Setz’ Indigo, a difficult literary novel published by Suhrkamp, in SocialBook. At a symposium held to discuss the experience, students noted that the commentary in the margin became crucial to their reading experience, and that the notion of content expanded to include their discussion as well as the author’s words. We consistently hear that students work harder to understand what they are reading with SocialBook. Part of this is peer pressure, but it’s also that they quickly learn that thinking out loud is consistently rewarded as ideas are deepened and enriched by the interaction with others. 

Although these examples are in the realm of education, there’s every reason to believe that the value of social reading applies much more broadly. In this context, it may help to consider social reading as umbrella term, representing a continuum of behaviors. 

For example, Amazon’s underlining function, which identifies passages marked by a number of readers, is a form of social reading. As far as I know, very few people turn this feature off. Not only is it interesting to know which passages other people consider important, but we tend to read and reflect on those passages more carefully. Cookbooks and travel guides have already gone social, with huge amounts of reader commentary enriching each entry. Or consider the always-present comment stream on news articles. 

And as social reading platforms evolve, we’ll start to see exciting new elements — expert glosses that can be swapped in and out, live author readings taking place in the book itself, stories that depend on user-collaboration in the margin. Books are well on their way to becoming places where things happen when people meet up in the margins.

As someone who published the first “enhanced books” and appreciates the value of expanding the notion of the page to include audio and video, I believe the future of the book will be defined by its evolving social component. It’s not that audio/video enhancements and interactivity aren’t of value. They are. But, realistically, human interaction in the margins will over time provide a much broader range of valuable “enhancements” than ones that authors/editors/publishers could ever provide on their own.

Keep in mind that notes in the margin can include audio, video, and graphics as well as text, and eventually should be able to run complete interactive simulations. 

If I had access to the Genie’s lamp, I would rub it vigorously in the hope that the publishing industry might grasp the potential of social reading and use it to transform the landscape. Putting social front-and-center provides the basis for a publishing ecosystem which would be out from under Amazon (and Apple’s) thumbs.  Building a publisher/author/editor/reader-centric platform is not an overnight proposition. It will take five to 10 years to grow and gain dominance. But it’s possible and needn’t be hugely expensive to build. Conceptually all the pieces are there, and technically many are in place. They just need to be knitted together intelligently and strategically. 

I’ll follow this up soon with a discussion of what the ecosystem I’m proposing looks like and how it might be developed.

Commentary and responses

 1. The comments in the listserv thread that emerged tend to confuse two different forms of social reading — conversations about a book and conversations inside a book.

The first is similar to a water cooler discussion which ranges all at once around any aspect of a book. These conversations tend to veer off quickly into subsets and tangents. Examples of this category are the interactions on Goodreads or on listservs fall into this category. The second are conversations which take place inside the book, allowing readers to focus and go deeply into issues raised by specific bits of content. Both of these have value, but they are different. By the way, SocialBook allows for both, as readers can make general comments to address broad themes or raise important new and related ideas generated in the course of the read. 

Another important issue is whether the discussion is open or closed. In the main, conversations among people who know and trust each other have a much higher signal-to-noise ratio than those that occur among strangers. There is wisdom in the crowd, however, so the tricky thing is to give people access to the broader conversation without compromising the small group discussion. 

2. A common concern raised in regard to social reading is the potential for distraction. This is important, and good social reading implementations need to enable readers to change their preferred “view” at any time.  Here’s a link to screen shots showing how SocialBook resolves this

Significantly someone suggested that blog-style commenting which puts comments below the main text might be preferable to using the margins. The problem with comments below is that it restricts the discussion to the water cooler type as you can’t associate comments with specific bits of text. Also, comments below tend to reinforce the hierarchy of print with the author on high and the reader down below. With the conversation taking place in the margin, the author and reader are much closer to occupying the same space which tends to emphasize the collaborative nature of the effort. 

Several people suggested that you might build a social reading platform using Twitter. Maybe but, again, Twitter lends itself to second-screen type general discussions, not the deep discussions that are possible with threaded conversations tied to specific bits of text. 

3. One of the most interesting questions raised was whether to classify social reading as intrinsic to consumption. My answer is an unqualified yes. In the digital era media consumption is shifting from private to social. Full stop. That doesn’t mean that there needn’t be opportunity and space for private reflection, good social platforms will allow readers to adjust their view as needed. 

4. There were several comments decrying the comment stream accompanying YouTube clips. But rather than use this failure as ammunition against social reading, it might be more useful to try to understand the reasons why comments in YouTube don’t work. One reason is that YouTube doesn’t enable small group discussions and the other is that you can’t easily focus on specific parts of the video. In other words you’re stuck in a water coolor discussion with people you don’t know. When implemented properly, people can have wonderful conversations in the margins of films. SocialBook works as well with full-length films as it does with novels. Here’s a link to an example

5. In answer to the several people who questioned whether social reading might work outside of education or within the novel, here is a link to a vigorous discussion which took place among seven readers in the margins of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook in a precursor of SocialBook.

Images from The Voyager Company CD-ROM productions: Robert Winter's CD Companion to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, 1990, and Stephen Jay Gould on Evolution, 1995. 

Main image - Shutterstock: Eugenio Marongiu