Monthly Archives: November 2010

what i’ve learned since posting a proposal for a taxonomy of social reading

a little less than three weeks ago in conjunction with the Books-in-Browsers meeting at the Internet Archive, i posted a proposal for a taxonomy of social reading. here’s a brief summary of what i’ve learned from the discussion so far.
People are very resistant to leaving comments in a public space. There was a much more extensive discussion of this draft on the private Read 2.0 listserve than what you see in the public CommentPress version. i begged people on the listserve to post their comments on the public version, but with few exceptions no one was willing. The really sad thing from my pov is that by refusing to join the discussion in CommentPress, people deprived themselves of the opportunity to experience category 4 social reading first hand. I am very respectful of many of the people on the read 2.0 list and would have loved to have had their first-hand reactions to the experience of engaging in the close-reading of an online document with people whose views they value.
The resistance to public commenting isn’t surprising; it’s just not yet part of our culture. Intellectuals are understandably resistant to exposing half-baked thoughts and many of them earn their living by writing in one form or another, which makes the idea of public commenting a threat to their livelihood. [I’ve long proposed the inverse law of commenting on the open web — the more you’d like to read someone’s comments on a text, the less likely they are to participate in an open forum.]
Changing cultural norms and practices is a long haul.
The comments I did get, privately and on the CommentPress site, helped me realize that, the first draft needs lots of work.
Several people pointed out that the focus on “reading” obscured the fact that the flip side of “social reading” is “social writing.” Think of it this way. When i put the draft up in CommentPress i thought i was offering people a chance to experience “social reading.” It’s obvious to me now that the public comments people left are not only a permanent part of this draft — a part of the work itself — but also extremely helpful to me in terms of making version 2.0 stronger. this is indeed not just not just “social reading.” it is also collaborative thinking and writing.
This has interesting rights implications. In my speech at the recent Books-in-Browsers meeting i suggested that readers “own” their annotations and have to have the right to export and transport those annotations to other environments. I now realize that’s simplistic. if a reader has made comments in the margin AND specified that those comments should be public, the “ownership” of those comments has to be shared with the author or publisher. Since those comments become part of the public record, the author or publisher should have the right to include them forever as part of the work. However, the reader who made the comments must have the right, in perpetuity, to take those comments with them to other reading environments and places of conversation. if a reader specifies that comments are not to be made public, then it seems that the author/publisher has no right to do anything with them.
The second serious problem with version 1.0 is that its structure strongly implies that category 4 social reading, conversations that occur IN the margin, are the “highest form” of social reading. That’s just plain wrong. People read and write in order to play a role in their culture and time. Mysteries or romance novels have a cultural point of view that forms the background for the plot and communicates a world view. From this perspective, even reading “for pleasure” is in part a way of looking at an aspect of society through someone else’s eyes. If a central purpose of reading is to engage with the issues of the day, then a platform for close reading is best seen as a valuable tool, useful in helping readers join a broader discussion. put another way; if the comments and ideas someone writes in the margin never make it out, then it’s like a tree falling in the forest that no one hears. [note: yes i understand that the private thoughts someone has while reading, may show up later in public forums. i’m trying to make a point about how much more valuable the comments written in the margin become when they escape the private tributary and join the river of public discourse.]
A big thank you to everyone who has chimed in. it’s been a wonderful example of how social reading and writing can help elucidate complex problems.

lost book sales

Jane Litte recently launched, a site where readers tell the tale of how a publisher lost a sale because a book wasn’t available in a certain territory or format. While is a valiant effort to collect and codify examples of friction in the current supply chain, I think it’s important not to exaggerate how much of the problems facing publishers are a function of the mismatch between an outdated rights structure and the electronic distribution pipe which is technically geography agnostic and format flexible.
Jane explains that the motivation for the site came from a comment someone named Suze posted on her DearAuthor blog

If I had the time and computer savvy, I’d set up a site where people could submit each book they didn’t buy, and why. After the first three or four hundred stories about “I didn’t buy Book X because it’s not available in my country, so I got a pirate copy”, maybe somebody in publisher with the drive, imagination, and ability could prod the industry into action.

God knows publishers need to be prodded into action, but the action needs to be much more extensive than rationalizing rights. The shift from page to screen is taking place in a much broader context in which media consumption, in all it’s rapidly proliferating forms, is moving from atoms to bits. And those bits all swim in the same sea and move through the same pipe. All of them competing for our attention.
I’d be keen to see lostbooksales expanded so that people could say “i didn’t buy a book because i got the information i needed off a website, or because i figured i would rather watch Season 2 of The Wire, play World of Warcraft, or even read some of the classics which are now available free in almost every electronic format.