Is social reading the future?

reading future

Reading is a quiet and solitary experience for me. I open my book in print or on a screen and immediately immerse myself in that world. I might look up now and again to share a comment with my husband/friend/relative sitting nearby. But generally when I’m reading, I’m in a world of my own, so completely absorbed that I’m oblivious to the passage of time. 

Some academics however, are trying to get me — and you — to change and embrace the idea that our experience of texts can be enhanced if we became more social readers. Social reading can mean different things — to the manufacturers of the Kindle for example, it describes the function where 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. 

But for academics, this isn’t social reading. Nor does the term mean going on-line and chatting about a book via Twitter or Facebook or on sites like Goodreads. Nor do they mean the conversation you might have at the coffee machine or in a book club meeting because such casual discussions tend to peter out fairly quickly and rarely get beyond the superficial in their view. What the academics are interested in is a deeply immersive group–based collaborative process that happens on-line. It can involve several readers or even hundreds. All of them read the same text, post comments on it and respond to other people’s comments. Now you might think that’s what you’re doing when you join a ‘read-a-long’ and it’s true this is a fairly simple example of social reading. But for a more sophisticated approach — and the one the academics are most excited about — you’d need to get involved in a synchronous reading where people are reading and commenting on the same text simultaneously. 

I’d never heard of this concept of social reading until recently when I joined an online course run by Coursera about ‘Reading in a Digital Age’. Apparently social reading is one of six strategies we could employ to engage with a text (see  below for the list of strategies).

The Golden Notebook experiment is being held up as the leading example of this kind of social reading. This is where seven women all read the novel The Golden Notebook by the Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing and they made comments on the text as they made their progress over a period of six weeks. If you go to the Golden Notebook experiment website you’ll see that these readers engaged in what’s called ‘close reading’ and they used a dynamic margin where they added their reactions to the text  as they went along.

 Other platforms have developed that try to do something similar but not in such a closed group environment. Glose is another platform offering a place to engage with other readers – you choose from their selection of books (some free, some you have to buy), read them on any device and then you can highlight/comment etc. I’ve dipped into this but haven’t been that wowed by it – the choice of free books is limited to the classics (because they are out of copyright) and of the few texts I’ve added to my stream I can see a lot of people highlighting passages but hardly any comments. So how does this really let me ‘engage’ with other readers as the platform developers claim is the benefit? To me this is nothing more than the highlight function on my Kindle. There is no deep or extended conversation going on here as the proponents of social reading would have us believe is the future. 

CommentPress and DigressIt are plug-ins for WordPress sites that that lets your readers comment paragraph by paragraph in the margins of a text. Since I don’t have a self-hosted WordPress site I can’t get these to work so have no idea how useful these plug-ins are. ReadUps is a web-based  that lets  group of readers discuss a particular piece of text – for example if I wanted to get your reactions to this post i could create a new ReadUp, invite you to join (you use your Twitter account to do this) and then you’d be able to add reactions etc in the margin alongside the original text (rather than in the comments underneath). I can set a time limit of up to 2 months for the discussion.  The founder Travis Alber said in an interview that the idea was to provide a platform to enable readers to do what they love doing – discussing a book. If anyone fancies having a go at this, let me know and I’ll set one up as an experiment. 

Apparently this form of social interaction is getting traction. Some teachers have used the platforms as a way to extend the classroom discussion instead of bringing it to a halt at the door. At the University of North Carolina for example one class held a week-long discussion about An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce which resulted in more than 500 comments.  

The ability to carry out a conversation in the margin turns out to be particularly useful for scholars who are using it to conduct new forms of open peer review. MIT Press use it for example to get feedback on a book by Noah Wardrip–Fruin called Expressive Processing and MediaCommons did something similar with Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence. I can see how much more efficient it would be to get all comments and reactions stored in one place instead of sending out a document as an email attachment and getting individual reponses which then have to be collated. But you can already do that in a number of standard word-processing packages so I’m struggling to see the benefit of a another web-based platform other than its just easier to read comments in a margin. 

So I’m still not convinced that these examples really demonstrate that a collaborative practice of social reading truly enhances our understanding of literary texts. Maybe its too early to come to an opinion one way or another and more experimentation would need to be done but from what I’ve seen of the ‘commercial’ sites, there is a long way to go before this becomes a mainstream idea. 

What types of social reading are there?

If you’re interested in learning more about social reading take a look at an essay by Bob Stein, the founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book. The essay is called  ‘A Taxonomy of Social Reading: A Proposal’.

Six reading strategies

  • Hypertext reading: essentially this is what we do whenever we look up some info on a web page and follow hyperlinks to move rapidly to other texts, to images and sounds.
  • Close reading: if you’ve ever followed any academic program on literature, you’ll be very familiar with this strategy. It’s where you ignore all historical, social, political, and biographical contexts and zoom in on the words on the page, teasing out all the subtleties of the literary forms, and devices and structures that make up a poem, a play, or a novel.
  • Distant reading: This is a relatively new concept introduced by an Italian scholar called Franco Moretti. It’s the direct opposite of close reading. Instead of focusing on individual literary texts, distant readers survey, analyse, and describe hundreds, even thousands of literary texts to identify general patterns and large scale historical developments across centuries and national borders.
  • Surface reading: Also a relatively new approach, surface reading

    don’t look at what is in the book – but at the stuff the book is made from; it’s physical format if you like. For surface readers, it not only makes a great difference, whether we’re reading a print book or an e-book. It also makes a great difference, whether we’re reading, say, a Shakespeare play in a folio edition, a leather bound first edition, a 21st century cheap reprint, a hardback, a paperback, whether we read any play, novel, or poetry collection in whatever kind of form. 

  • Historical contextualisation: Another standard element of the toolkit of literary analysis, this strategy looks outside of the text itself and to the historical context in which it was written. How does it draw on contemporary events, how does it fit into social debates at that time; how does it give expression to the zeitgeist at the moment of its creation?
  • Social reading: a collaborative way of reading and discussing texts on line

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on May 21, 2017, in Bookends, Sunday Salon and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 50 Comments.

  1. What a great post and resource, thank you! My company recently released a social reading app called Bookship that addresses some of the shortcomings you mention – it works on iPhone, Android and Kindle Fire, so most anyone can use it, and it doesn’t force each reader into the same format, i.e. one could read the ebook and another listen to the audiobook, yet still comment and chat about their reading…and because it’s an app you don’t even have to get together in person…

  2. What a fascinating subject! I am not an academic, so I am not a likely candidate for social reading, but I shall visit The Golden Notebook site. It is one of my favorite books so I’m curious to see what they’ve done with it.

  3. I’m not sure about the exact method you’ve noted here, but social reading in the form of discussion, talking about books, I love. (A given, really, for all of us here!) I’ve only been to one book club meeting but enjoyed it – it was almost completely about the book, though, so that definitely helped.

    But yes, reading online at the same time… definitely prefer the usual readalong idea. This new one sounds too much effort, as in you’d spend too much time wondering if you were reading at the right speed etc than really taking it in.

    • As the academics define it, general discussion wouldn’t fit within the concept of social reading – but it is infinitely more enjoyable to me than the approach they used with The Golden Notebook

  4. I love my reading group – but we are very structured. Half an hour for arrival, wine and chit chat, an hour for discussion, and then half an hour for supper. We’ve been going since 1988 and have never succumbed to the eat and drink with a book on the side mentality that some groups have.

    I loved being part of online reading groups which would discuss a book over a period of 2 to 4 weeks, depending on the book. It was often exhilarating when everyone got going.

    I love discussing books with friends.

    But anything more intense and structured as some of the ideas you’ve described here is not for me. I would start to feel suffocated, and pressured. I can, though, see that it could work for committed people doing difficult texts.

  5. I love talking about books with people. This idea excites me. I agree there are probably a lot of things to iron out to make it work smoothly, though. I participate in book discussions on Goodreads. Some groups are frustrating–“I didn’t like the main character”; “I didn’t like the name the author gave her”; “That made me mad.” So surface, no depth. My in person book club CAN be better, but it can also be worse–half the people show up not even having read the book sometimes, including the person who chose it, while I slogged through it out of a sense of duty. But others are more rewarding, there are a couple book clubs on Goodreads I’ve found that actually have meaty discussions. I love gaining other people’s insight, and usually when I finish a book I’ll go looking for other people’s review of it, and then wishing I could dialogue with them about it. Social reading seems to offer that possibility.

    I’m so starved for people to talk to about books that I’ll read books I don’t even want to read if I think I’ll get an intelligent discussion out of it. And I’ve been reading aloud to my partner for years, and it’s great because discussions come out of that and it’s a shared experience–but it’s much more time consuming than reading to myself, and there are things that I am uncomfortable reading aloud to him that I would still like to discuss with people (for instance, I don’t like reading aloud descriptions of graphic violence, and I won’t say the n-word, which makes it really hard to read aloud books like Kindred by Octavia Butler, even though I love it). I’ve been trying to enlist people into reading books with me and then podcasting about them–somewhat successful, I got two great conversations out of my dad, and two conversations out of my partner and a friend, but then I’m bad at actually following through and editing them, uploading them, etc. I wish this social reading thing would hurry up and

    • oops–I wish this social reading thing would hurry up and gain some momentum so I can see if it’s a good fit for me.

      • Try a few of the sites that already exist – I think you’ll come to a quick decision whether you like the experience even if the book you are reading with others isn’t one you particularly have an interest in. You’ll at least get to know how it works

  6. I think I would find this very stressful because it wouldn’t give enough time to think but the comment about Infinite Jest is interesting.

  7. Interesting post! I think that reading certain books at a different pace can be beneficial – Proust for example, and so I can see how a formalised on-line close reading, that enables comments from multiple contributors would be useful in certain circumstances. During my MA, a few of my group got together to study Derrida and Foucault, taking a line or two at a time to really get at the meat of the texts. I found it wonderfully illuminating, although I wouldn’t want to read everything that way, so I can see an on-line version of this would have its place.

    • I can see some situations where it could be beneficial – like the one you mention where a group read could help you understand a really difficult text. But this idea of social reading was presented in the course as a direction in which reading will go in the future and that makes me uncomfortable

  8. Really interesting. I did a buddy read of Infinite Jest and while not as intensive as some of what you described we did all read the same pages each week and used Litsy to post quotes, discuss reactions, and discuss each section. I loved it. I wouldn’t have made it through the book without the group and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience

  9. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Here is a great post from the Booker Talk blog on the phenomenon of social reading.

  10. I am not a very social person generally, and books usually are my escape from social chit-chat. I don’t really see myself reading socially along with a huge group.

  11. I had no idea that social reading was becoming such a big deal online! I like the idea of reading along with someone, but in my experience, in practice it’s a little trickier. People read faster or slower, and then there’s the problem of having to organise in order to make sure you’re reading the same thing at the same time. Plus juggling the text itself and people’s comments would be a little difficult, I imagine, and would make reading less immersive.

    I must admit, when I read the title of your post I thought this was going to be about people reviving the old practice of reading aloud together, which seems a bit more appealing to me. Not sure I’m completely sold on the Internet version. 🙂

    • Having seen a few of the examples I mentioned in the post, I am not convinced at all that this is a pleasurable experience. I’ve done one or two readalongs and found – as you say – it was had to keep to the same pace as other readers

  12. Oh my goodness! So much food for thought. I won’t say no to social reading just yet. I’m certainly not opposed to the idea of diversifying my reading experience. I’ll be clicking on all the links in this post – thank you! 🙂

  13. I’m with everyone else: this is a very interesting post, but social reading is not for me,
    I encountered something like it when I did a MOOC about the English Country House, and I hated it. I’m a very quick reader, very quick indeed, and wading through other people’s responses (which were so often variations on the same unoriginal idea) drove me mad when I was pages and pages ahead of them and thinking along totally different lines.
    Frankly, I think it’s a strategy for universities to force reading of the text, and who can blame them when we suspect that so many students read the Wikipedia summary or watch the film instead of reading the book…

    • Oh yes the commenting in the Mooc courses drives me crazy. I usually abandon them after the first few sessions. if it works in academia then I’m fine with it but based on (admittedly limited) experience i dont think this is something I will get excited about

  14. I don’t mind this idea – I’m always wanting to talk about my current book with someone. Which works when it’s a book club book, otherwise it’s my husband or an unsuspecting friend. Sometimes I feel sorry for them……
    I didn’t realise there were those WordPress plugins either. It makes sense as that’s how a lot of online media is heading (like Medium which was launched by Twitter).

  15. Not for me I’m afraid. My reading is an escape from real life and other people – I don’t want them muscling in on my down time.

    • Fair enough Jill. From some of the public sites I’ve visited it seems a lot of the participants are second language students trying to get to grips with the classics

      • I can see in that scenario it might be advantageous, especially as I’m studying Spanish, but I would define that as studying not reading. Like everything it’s horses for courses, and for some it will work and others prefer a different approach.

        • The way it was presented in the course made it sound as if this was a wonderful experience that really enhanced the reading. but unless the comment stream is meaningful I can’t see how that would be the case

  16. Not for me at all. The pressure of reading along with others at a set rate and sharing etc would ruin the whole process for me. Even the read-alongs on the LT Virago site are gentle with people going at their own pace and sharing when they want and offering thoughts and guidance when they think it’s needed. That I can see working, and I’d be happy with that. But that word synchronous – nooooooooo.

    • I tried it once but sometimes i was behind schedule so all the comments contained spoilers and sometimes I was ahead and couldn’t contribute for fear of spoiling things for the other readers. Am unlikely to become a social reader unless I was in an academic program where it might – just might – be of use

  17. I think I’d have to echo Guy here. Useful for academic study, perhaps, but not for the kind of reading I do. Very interesting post, though.

  18. Very interesting post and I had no idea about all of these. We already have a lot of studying together (they set up locations everywhere, even in fire stations) so why not reading together. I have done one ‘buddy read’ so far but I think lots of people like to really discuss books they are reading and sharing their thoughts so I do see some potential here!

    • I think its how/where the discussion takes place that would make the difference for me Inge. Chatting over coffee for example would be fine, but on line chatting could become a chore

      • True, it would always be nicer over coffee but sometimes you have to make do ;-). I don’t know any bookworms here who I could go for coffee and book chats with, but would love it if it would become ‘popular’.

  19. Very nice post with a lot of new information! Thanks for adding all the links, they’re worth checking out!

    I also see reading as a personal experience, not really network related … However, sometimes I feel the need of discussing intriguing ideas with someone, and most often I do it with my close ones. But it also happens that they’re not into the topic, so I just read online opinions of others who read that book. With this in mind, the digital solutions mentioned in your post seem to have a potential target audience 🙂

    Could you please tell me if the Coursera course you followed is still available? I’m interested in checking it out, and I haven’t managed to find it on their website 🙁


  20. Definitely not for me. I don’t think I could even tolerate a book club.

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