Social Reading

Beginning in 2005 The Institute for the Future of the Book began a series of experiments under the rubric of ‘networked books.’ This was the moment of the blog and we were exploring what would happen if we applied the concept of ‘reader comments’ to essays and books. Our first attempt, McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory turned out to be a remarkably lucky choice. The book’s structure – numbered paragraphs rather than numbered pages – required my colleagues to come up with an innovative design allowing readers to make comments at the level of the paragraph rather than the page. Their solution to what at the time seemed like a simple graphical UI problem, was to put the comments to the right of each of Wark’s paragraphs rather than follow the standard practice of placing them underneath the author’s text.

Within a few hours of putting Gamer Theory online, a vibrant discussion emerged in the margins. We realized that moving comments from the bottom to the side, a change that at the time seemed minor, in fact had profound implications. Largely because Wark took a very active role in the unfolding discussion, our understanding at first focused on the ways in which this new format upends the traditional hierarchies of print which place the author on a pedestal and the reader at her adoring feet. With the side-by-side layout of Gamer Theory’s text and comments, author and reader were suddenly occupying the same visual space; which in turn shifted their relationship to one of much greater equality. As the days went by it became clear that author and reader were engaged in a collaborative effort to increase their collective understanding.

Later experiments in classrooms and reading groups were just as successful even though no author was involved, leading us to realize we were witnessing much more than a shift in the relationship between author and reader.

The reification of ideas into printed, persistent objects obscures the social aspect of both reading and writing, so much so, that our culture portrays them as among the most solitary of behaviours. This is because the social aspect traditionally takes place outside the pages – around the water cooler, at the dinner table, and on the pages of other publications in the form of reviews or references and bibliographies. In that light, moving texts from page to screen doesn’t make them social so much as it allows the social components to come forward and to multiply in value.

And once you’ve engaged in a social reading experience the value is obvious. Contemporary problems are sufficiently complex that individuals can rarely understand them on their own. More eyes, more minds collaborating on the task of understanding will perhaps yield better, more comprehensive answers.

The difficult thing however about predicting the future of reading is that everything I’ve said so far presumes that what is being read is an ‘n-page’ article or essay or an ‘n-page’, ‘n-chapter’ book, when realistically, the forms of expression will change dramatically as we learn to exploit the unique affordances of new electronic media. Ideally, the boundaries between reading and writing will become ever more porous as readers take a more active role in the production of knowledge and ideas.

And lest, you think this shift applies only to non-fiction, please consider huge multi-player games such as World of Warcraft as a strand of future-fiction where the author describes a world and the players/readers write the narrative as they play the game.

Our grandchildren will assume that reading with others, i.e. social reading, is the ‘natural’ way to read. They will be amazed to realize that in our day reading was something one did alone. Reading by one’s self will seem as antiquated as silent movies are to us.