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As virtually every form of media from newspapers to television shows becomes more socially aware, the book remains stubbornly anti-social. Despite the rapid growth in e-books and the launch of a number of services designed to add social features to books, the act of reading is still a fairly solitary thing. Author and tech blogger Clive Thompson says he sees a future in which books become just as social as other forms of writing, with comments and conversations integrated into them or revolving around them — but is that what readers want?
Thompson, who contributes to both Wired and the New York Times magazine, is one of the most thoughtful writers around when it comes to how technology affects us as a society, so it’s worth paying attention to what he has to say about the future of books (Disclosure: Thompson is also a friend). Although as a technophile he may be more of an outlier than a mainstream user, the Wired writer says that he full expects books to become more social, just as every other form of media has thanks to the web:
Every form of media has migrated online and benefited from conversation. The newspaper is broken into articles that get blogged and get turned into conversations. We’re at the point where the most interesting thing you can find on the Internet is the conversation in the comments on a blog after someone excerpts an article. I will read an article in the Times in paper, because I’m old-fashioned, and then I will go online to see what people blogged about it.
Not everyone is going to agree with this view of the value of newspaper or blog comments — especially those who have decided to shut them down, or hand them off to Facebook because they see them as a magnet for trolls and other internet low-lifes. But Thompson (who is currently working on his first book, about the future of thought) says that he believes books can attract a higher quality of conversation:
Books are going to provoke the best conversations because people think really deeply about them. And people bring a certain level of intellectual seriousness to them that they don’t even necessarily bring to newspapers. I am absolutely convinced that being able to see what other people have said about a book and to talk about it and respond to it is going to be a freakishly huge boon for books.
We’ve written before at GigaOM and PaidContent about startups that want to add social features to the reading experience, including Findings (a service for sharing highlighted passages in books, where the interview with Thompson appeared), as well as Readmill and Goodreads. And Amazon has made some attempts to add social elements to its e-reader, such as the @author program that allows participating writers — such as Tim Ferriss and J.A. Konrath — to take comments or questions from writers directly through the Kindle platform. But none of these have really taken off so far, it seems.
Is that because most people still see reading as a fundamentally solitary activity? Whenever social features come up, I hear friends say that they have no interest in making their books more social, and some even say they prefer reading on a Kindle or Nook because it just has text, and therefore they don’t get distracted by other things while they are trying to read. But surveys of younger users show that many don’t like reading on e-readers precisely because they *aren’t* social, and social media has become a way of life for them.
In any case, just because social features exist for e-books doesn’t mean that everyone has to use them — even Thompson says he foresees them as having an on-off switch for when a reader doesn’t want to see comments, etc. But given the success that some authors have had with social ventures such as the 1book140 project and other ways of making their books more social, I’m surprised we are still so far away from the future that Thompson envisions (the rest of his interview is worth reading as well).