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Is making books social a good thing or a bad thing?

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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).

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Jeremy Mates and Marya

16 Responses to “Is making books social a good thing or a bad thing?”

  1. Writing a book is a form of art. One of the many purposes of art is to provoke something, to solicit emotions and to produce a reaction from the audience. Social agendas of e-books helps the reader express their opinions towards the book. I believe that social intuitiveness are one of the aspects that book a success.

  2. Jennifer R B

    I read both your article and the Findings interview, and have a question: though Thomson says that he personally considers himself a social reader and shares his thoughts on books as he reads them, has he gotten a good response from online “friends”? I’m quite active on GoodReads and also talk about my reading on facebook, but rarely do I get any kind of response. And I’m a bookish person with bookish friends! Is it just me, or do people still shy away from online conversations about books?
    P.S. I find it ironic that a post about social reading on a site about social reading (Findings) doesn’t allow you to leave comments!

  3. mattmchugh

    There is a huge difference between commentary around a work, and commentary that reshapes the work. The former is straight-forward enough and social media/forums/reviews, etc. are simply modern incarnations of the conversation of criticism (in the broad, literary sense). Book club writ large, if you will. Nothing revolutionary about it.

    The latter, however, where contributors can affect the body of a work via “crowdsourcing” (or whatever term is hip this week), is a wholly different animal. The difference is in content that is closed, immutable, a matter of record v. content that is perpetually re-written. Academically speaking, you can’t cite Wikipedia, since it changes constantly. You can cite Encyclopedia Britannica, 1985 Edition. Which is more accurate is irrelevant without a permanently verifiable reference.

    And herein lies the intellectual problem: crowdsourced material has no accountability. If something about it is wrong, or simply unpopular, it can be changed, its offending version sent down the memory hole. History becomes, literally, something that no longer exists because all documentation is current. Oceania is at war with East Asia. Oceania has always been at war with East Asia.

    You see where I’m going with this. We need fixed documents of record in order to trace the advance of knowledge and the progression of culture. I work for an academic publisher that has spent great energy on trying to figure out how to preserve the integrity of digital content when the easy temptation is to simply correct errors. If you publish a medical article with the dosage of 1000mg, and later — OOPS! — realize it should have read 10mg, deleting some zeroes and pretending it never happened can have huge consequences. You may think that scenario doesn’t apply to a manual for updating software or using Pinterest, but it does. Why be careful about what you say if you know you can always un-say it?

    — mm

  4. Corey Menscher

    Hello, Corey Menscher (@cmenscher) here from Findings. We loved the interview with Clive as he brought up some of the concepts that we grapple with as a product. (Thanks, Clive!)

    The one thing that differentiates Findings from other social reading applications is that the experience is decidedly post-reading…or rather, off-book. We enable readers to share their favorite passages, ideas, and annotations in a decontextualized space…just like the book clubs Clive mentioned. Capturing highlights and annotating is a common solitary reading behavior, and we try to respect that by presenting a space for sharing and discussion outside of the text itself.

    We also believe that books are not the only source of text readers can be passionate about, which is why we commingle book annotations with those from the web. It’s really great to hear the dialogue about this so we can create a better product, so we are eagerly reading thoughts on this subject!

  5. Derek Scruggs

    I haven’t taken advantage of the social aspects of ebooks, but I think I might like them. The truth is I often miss symbolism in fiction, so it might be helpful to hear others’ input.

    As an analog, I was glad to listen to Fresh Air’s interview with Matthew Weiner the day after Mad Men premiered. It gave me some insight into the characters and plotlines that I would otherwise have missed.

    It might even be better with nonfiction. I could imagine people linking to source data and counterarguments for a book on social policy. Even if you don’t read the links, knowing that others have done their own vetting adds credibility to the book.

    • Clive Thompson

      Hey Matthew! Thanks for the shout-out! These are super interesting issues, and very good comments here.

      In a way, I don’t entirely disagree with you. What wasn’t clear in in my Q&A is that probably only a minority of book readers will be excited by social reading.

      That’s already true of most social reading and sharing in other media. Participation in commentary online always falls a Pareto, 80/20 distribution. Most people want nothing to do with it, while a small number are *super* into it.

      For example, according to Pew, only about 12% of adults in the US use Twitter, but the ones that do are enthusiastic and get a lot of value out of it. The same pattern holds within Twitter: A small percentage of users are responsible for the large majority of tweets, and the vast majority are readers/surfers/lurkers. You see the same thing in newspaper and blog comments: A small percentage of readers are responsible for the great mass of comments. (Interestingly, and more to the point of “who’s gonna want to read comments *inside* a book?”, I’ve never seen any good data on how many folks who read newspaper articles online also read the comments. It wouldn’t surprise me if, again, it’s a minority.)

      So we’d likely see the same pattern with books. Only a relatively small number of people would want books to be heavily social, but the ones who do will be *all over it* — and of those, a relatively small slice of that subsection will be the ones making most of the comments.

      Still, even given these Pareto distributions, that vocal and enthusiastic minority can produce a towering amount of good commentary! That’s the story of culture throughout history: A small chunk of people who get very involved and are disproportionately productive.

      @Pasmith, it’s possible, as you note, that book reading is more fundamentally an isolated activity than reading newspapers or blog posts. It’s a great point about GoodReads: People read GoodReads comments and reviews *after* having read the book, not *while* they’re actually reading it. Book clubs have always been “social reading”, but they’re post-reading too — people don’t actually hang out and talk about the book while they’re reading it. So it may well be true that even the die-hard fans of social reading won’t want commentary built into a book.

      But over time, people who think they aren’t interested in hearing others’ views on a book might change their minds in the face of manifestly cool conversation. If you went back in time to 1992 and asked people, “so would you like each newspaper story to display what other readers thought about it?” they’d probably have said “not on your life!” And a bunch of those folks, 15 years later, would be avidly reading and commenting at blogs and papers.

      I suspect I’d be the type of person who’d read a book in “everybody shut up” mode, and then later on turn on commentary to see the best-rated stuff … or I’d only be interested in seeing what my friends and smart people I follow have to say.

      There is, as @steveh points out, the problem of sheerly wretched comments, trolling, and general stupidity. Youtube comments — and many newspapers — are the ultimate Exhibits A here, of course.

      But bad comments are, as Anil Dash has pointed out, usually the fault of the site owner — a product of bad design and bad community practices. At papers where they have staff devoted to moderation, the comments are often shockingly good. I’m frequently surprised by how nuanced the comments at the New York Times can be. It is clearly a solvable problem, because people have solved it.

      (Actually, I’d go further: I’d disagree that *all* comments online, or even a majority of them, are abusive and idiotic. Newspapers and celebrity-stalking sites tend to attract the most trollish stuff, but they’re troll magnets for a host of reasons. (Very large audiences — such as those cultivated by newspapers — lose cohesion; generalized dislike of mainstream media; generalized loathing of celebrities.) If you look at forums devoted to hobbies, communities of interest, sports — basically anywhere *but* the world of politics and celebrity gossip — you often find the opposite: A preponderance of polite comments, and a minority of trolling, particularly when someone is setting the tone and moderating. Our eyes and attention are drawn magnetically to horrid behavior online, so we overweight it and assume it’s endemic … but as Pew and other studies have found, bad behavior is in the minority.)

      Good commentary is a product of good design and good community management. I suspect that could work amazingly well in a book, for the subset of folks who want it!

  6. John Bergquist

    I am sure I fall in a minority here but I enjoy sharing with my community what I am reading both digitally or in hardcopy form. I do find it frustrating how limited it is even today to share from a Kindle or iBook. The hurdles are still in place to shun sharing. I usually jump past the hurdles by posting pictures of favorite passages and quotes via Instagram or Pinterest. I even go as far as choosing authors that engage with readers and encourage sharing over those that don’t. It just enriches the experience.

  7. When I read a book I’m having a conversation in thought with the author. A popular title may one day have tens of thousands of mostly ephemeral or trivial annotations – where’s the quality control or the volume button to filter the crap? Who needs that noise anyway? It’s the authors’ thoughts I’m tapping in to.

  8. steveh

    “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.”

    That must have been written on April 1, because it has to be a joke. Just look at the comments that appear after the articles on most major news sites. They’re almost all useless garbage, such as extremist political flame bait that contains no thoughtful discussion of the article.

  9. Agree that making e-books or e-magazines is intriguing, especially if they are things that can be expounded such as historical facts or articles. However, how do we prevent someone from leaving a spoiler comment in the middle of an e-book and ruining the ending?

    • Clive Thompson

      My suspicion is that book commenters would adopt the same rules that bloggers and reviewers and recappers have for TV shows, video games, and movies: A big “SPOILER ALERT” up front, followed by a coupe of lines of empty space so you a reader doesn’t accidentally scroll down to the spoiler.

      Granted, there are people who don’t obey those rules — they’re cultural, not legal or design-based. But the vast majority of folks are surprisingly sensitive about this!

      Me, if I were reading a heavily plot-driven novel that I didn’t want spoiled, I’d just make sure to read it in “everybody shut up” mode, heh. I chewed through the three Hunger Games books a few months ago, long after they’d been heavily discussed online … so I made sure to avoid any google searches about the books so I wouldn’t get spoiled!

      • Penumbra Publishing

        Visit Amazon. Find a book. Look at the reviews. These are 90% reader reviews. They leave comments, including spoiler alerts. Who says books aren’t already social?

  10. Dani Fankhauser

    I’ve loved books for a long time, specifically novels and classics – and nearly always share books with friends if I like them. I would argue books already are social. One friend, who studied lit in college, prefers to buy used books that look like they’ve been through a lot, and finding a highlighted passage or page that’s been bent a lot is sort of like finding hidden treasure – someone found something significant there. And borrowing books from friends – you can get a bit of their experience inside yours if they’ve left notes or underlines. I’m with Clive, I can’t wait til this becomes easier and more mainstream.

  11. I think it depends on what you mean by social. I enjoy Goodreads, for example, but I never access it WHILE I’m reading. I use it to talk about books when I’m not reading, or find something new to read.

    I can’t imagine being social while I’m actually reading. Y’know, read a page, tweet about it, read a page, tweet about it, read a page, go back and argue with the troll that disagreed with what I said about the last page… that isn’t at all appealing to me personally.

    But as you say… I can just turn it off.