Bob Stein, Institute for the Future of the Book


Permalink for this paragraph 3 When I grew up in the 50s, reading and writing were activities conducted alone and in silence. Twenty years from now, as my grandchildren come of age, I expect these formerly solitary behaviors will be perceived as highly social — something we do, more often than not, with others. This insight comes in large part from a series of experiments conducted over the past five years with my colleagues at The Institute for the Future of the Book. They strongly suggest that when we move texts from the printed page to a networked screen, the social aspect of reading and writing moves to the foreground.

Permalink for this paragraph 2 In recent months the phrase “social reading” has been showing up in conversation and seems well on its way to being a both a useful and increasingly used meme. While I find this very exciting, as with any newly minted phrase, it’s often used to express quite different things. For example, the Kindle reader keeps a record of your highlighted passages and aggregates them with those of anonymous others so that you can see which passages have generated the most interest. This is considered a social function. Or when RIM announced their entry in the tablet sweepstakes, Kobo posted a video touting the idea that their dedicated ebook reader for the Blackberry Playbook “makes reading social.” In making it possible to recommend books, send passages or chat in real time with friends “about a book,” the Kobo reader goes considerably further than the Kindle. But neither approaches the immersive group–based close reading central to our “networked book” experiments. In order to advance our understanding of how reading (and writing) are changing as they begin to shift decisively into the digital era, it occurred to me that we need a taxonomy to make sense of a range of behaviors all of which fit within the current “social reading” rubric.

Permalink for this paragraph 2 With a landscape that extends from face–to–face conversations around the proverbial water cooler to a dizzying array of web–based sites and tools, I’ve limited this proposal to books and (text–based) documents. There’s no conceptual obstacle however, to applying the same taxonomy of social reading to audio, video, even games. For example, video sites, like YouTube already allow users to leave a comment or create an annotation timed to appear at a specific moment in the video. Much of the gameplay in World of Warcraft consists of social interaction between players who effectively construct the details of the narrative as the game progresses.

Permalink for this paragraph 2 The boundaries drawn by taxonomies are by necessity arbitrary. If I considered all the possible variations for each category, we would end up with a matrix with virtually duplicate descriptors in each vertical cell; rendering the exercise close to useless. I’ve opted instead not to address subtle nuances in the hope that drawing sharper lines will encourage a more vigorous discussion. In the same vein, I chose to number the categories to make them easier to refer to. In no way, however do I mean to imply a “progression” of value from one to the next. Meaningful, possibly even life–changing interactions can take place at any point on the spectrum.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 I am hoping that this proposed taxonomy will jumpstart a much needed discussion that encourages us to question all our relevant assumptions. 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. The better our understanding of the affordances of different behaviors, the better our chance of designing a robust social reading environment which serves society well.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The nature of social reading will evolve in response to ever–changing hardware and software platforms and the new forms of expression and interaction they will inevitably give rise to. Not the least of these changes is likely to be a blurring of the boundary between reading and writing. This will occur as authors take on the added role of moderators of communities of inquiry (non–fiction) and of designers of complex worlds for readers to explore (fiction). In addition, readers will embrace a much more active role in the production of knowledge and the telling of stories. Over time, as these new behaviors become more sharply defined and grow in importance, the categories themselves will change as well.

page 1