Monthly Archives: November 2014

Social Reading: An Opportunity

I recently posted the following notes regarding the potential of social reading to a publishing listserv which focuses on the evolution of reading and writing as it moves from printed pages to networked screens.

Three years ago, a secondary school teacher in New York asked the students in her 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 wow half-way through the text the three students and their teacher have made more than 2,500 comments — helping each other understand difficult passages, discussing a wide range of historical and literary questions raised by this seminal novel, and even creating a rich glossary of terms and concepts that are unfamiliar to contemporary Spanish speakers.

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 readingJurassic 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 aboutthe 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.


The following is my response to the discussion the original post generated over the course of the day.

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.

In honor of Tim Cook’s coming out

In 1994 Apple agreed to bundle $500k worth of the Who Built America CD-rom with all computers purchased by schools and libraries. In January of 1995 we got a note from Apple saying they were discontinuing distribution in response to complaints from schools in Oklahoma and California about the CD-Rom’s open portrayal of homosexuality and abortion,. We wrote a press release accusing Apple of censorship. The release was picked up by Time and The Wall St. Journal among others. Apple stonewalled until something wonderful happened. They reversed their decision and resumed distribution. The reason for the change of heart — internal dissension. Apple employees all over the world, but particularly in Europe, were deeply disappointed by Apple’s cave-in to homophobic dissent and made it known throughout the company.

This is a 2-minute promo video. Remember, when you look at it, that the piece was created 23 years ago when 800×600 was the maximum resolution and quicktime windows were the size of post-it notes.

The following is a statement by the American Social History Project, the authors of Who Built America (originally published by Knopf) and now available as a text book from Macmillan.


As members of the board of directors of the American Social
History Project (ASHP) we want to bring to your attention the
recent attempt by Apple Computer to censor the Project’s WHO
GREAT WAR OF 1914 (WBA), a CD-ROM conceived and written by Roy
Rosenzweig, Steve Brier and Joshua Brown, and published by the
Voyager Company in 1993.

In January 1995, after distributing more than 12,000 copies
of WBA in the previous month as part of its “Apple Educational
Series: Elementary and Secondary Reference” bundle installed in
computers sold to schools, Apple informed the Voyager Company
about unspecified complaints regarding material in the disk
discussing homosexuality, birth control, and abortion between
1876 and 1914. Voyager refused Apple’s request to make the CD-
ROM “educationally appropriate” by removing all references to
these subjects. The material that Apple wanted censored
represents a small number of historical documents and oral-
history interviews, the equivalent of 40 pages and 15 minutes of
sound out of more than 5,000 pages of text and four and a half
hours of sound. The inclusion of the history of gay Americans
and birth control is part of a comprehensive social history of
the period that covers a wide range of experiences and
perspectives. On January 31, 1995, Apple notified the Voyager
Company that it would no longer distribute WBA to schools.

Ironically, Apple’s decision occurred only three weeks after
the American Historical Association awarded WBA the biennial
James Harvey Robinson Prize as “the most outstanding contribution
to the teaching and learning of history in any field for public
or educational purposes.” In addition, since its publication in
1993, WBA has been praised in major newspapers and in computer
trade and scholarly publications for its innovative application
of multimedia to education and rigorous scholarship. For
example, Walter S. Mossberg wrote in the WALL STREET JOURNAL:
“Once in a while . . . a truly exciting, high-quality electronic
book turns up to reveal the real potential of electronic
learning. My latest nomination to this CD-ROM Hall of Fame

Apple’s new restrictions threaten the intellectual and
educational efficacy of electronic information, from interactive
programs to the Internet, an arena that has been heralded for
providing greater opportunities for accessibility, expression,
and diversity.

In response to publicity being given to this case in various
media, Apple has apparently backed away from its initial stance
and now maintains it is re-evaluating the status of WHO BUILT
AMERICA? In that light and in the light of the company’s
previous reputation for respecting human and civil rights,
comments from scholars and educators might have an important
effect on Apple’s decision. We urge you to write Apple CEO
Michael Spindler to resist pressure from those who want to censor
the past (e-mail:; address: Apple
Computer, Inc., 20525 Mariani Avenue, Cupertino, California

Please send a copy of your correspondence to any of the
three authors: Roy Rosenzweig (, Steve Brier
(, or Josh Brown (

The Voyager Company can be reached via Braden Michaels,
Voyager, 578 Broadway, Suite 406, New York, N.Y. 10012, tel: 212-
431-5199, fax: 212-431-5799, e-mail:


Ira Berlin, Department of History, University of Maryland
Loni Ding, Department of Ethnic Studies, University of
California, Berkeley
Eric Foner, Department of History, Columbia University
Carol Groneman, Department of History, John Jay College, CUNY
Leon F. Litwack, Department of History, University of California,
Patricia Oldham, Social Science Faculty, Hostos Community
College, CUNY
Silvio Torres-Saillant, CUNY Dominican Studies Institute at the
City College of New York



* September-October 1994: Apple approaches Voyager about the
possibility of purchasing copies of WHO BUILT AMERICA? to give to
schools (K-12) buying certain Apple computers. Voyager and Apple
agree to terms.
* December 1994: Apple bundles more than 12,000 copies of WBA
with computers in the first month of a year-long program.
* January 1995: Apple calls Voyager to say that it has received
complaints about WBA because of the CD-ROM’s discussion of
homosexuality, abortion, and birth control at the turn of the
century. Apple asks Voyager to make available a version with
these subjects edited out. Voyager refuses but offers to send
schools that don’t like WBA any CD-ROM from the Voyager catalog
(school’s choice). Voyager also proposes that WBA be bundled
only with computers for high-schools, colleges, and libraries.
Apple rejects both of these suggestions.
* January 31, 1995: Apple informs Voyager that it will no longer
include WBA in the K-12 bundle, and asks Voyager to name a
replacement title. Apple makes clear that any replacement must
not mention homosexuality, abortion, or birth control.


WHO BUILT AMERICA? is a new “electronic book” on CD-ROM.
Conceived and written by Roy Rosenzweig, Steve Brier and Josh
Brown (visual editor) and published by the Voyager Company in
collaboration with the American Social History Project, it
includes more than four and a half hours of audio (oral history,
actuality sound, and music), 45 minutes of archival film, more
than 5,000 pages of historical documents, more than 700 pictures
as well as dozens of graphs, maps, and many other features.
Among the special features of the “book” are:

FILM: More than twenty film clips, including the early silent
film classic, “The Great Train Robbery,” immigrants arriving at
Ellis Island, candidates campaigning for the presidency in 1912,
women suffragists marching down Fifth Avenue, and more.

ORAL HISTORY: More than thirty interviews with immigrants,
sharecroppers, Native Americans, coal miners, and others. Hear
survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and eyewitnesses to the
1906 Atlanta Race Riot.

MUSIC: More than two dozen songs from the period, including
protest and labor songs, black spirituals and work songs, hits
from Tin Pan Alley, country music, and brass band tunes.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO: Rare recordings of Booker T. Washington, Andrew
Carnegie, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft,
and others as well as humor from early vaudeville stars.

DOCUMENTS: Thousands of pages of primary documents, including
letters home from immigrants, congressional testimony, newspaper
accounts, court decisions, famous essays, fiction, poetry, and
sociological studies.

IMAGES: Hundreds of exquisitely reproduced pictures include
cartoons and advertisements from newspapers, magazine
illustrations, paintings, and rare documentary photographs,
including the work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.