Social Reading and the Social Book

How often do you find yourself half-reading, half-skimming something, getting through it as quickly as possible just so you can find the juicy tidbits to clip and share via a post on Google+, Twitter or Facebook?

What I’m talking about here is reading as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I’m talking about an aspect of social media that compels and accelerates the flow of content beyond our current cognitive capacity. I’m talking about the emergence of “social reading.

This phenomenon is not something everyone will recognize, but for those of you who spend a lot of time with social media, this will probably ring a bell.

Reading for Sharing and Social Capital

I started thinking about this problem while on vacation recently. I was reading stuff on the web using an iPad and my Android phone, and though I could still share content via these mobile devices, it just wasn’t as easy as doing so from my Mac at home. And so, I didn’t share as much content that week.

That experience made me notice something. It was small, and subtle at first; a little pang of desire; an ache to share what I was reading… to share it, even before I’d fully digested it myself. Not being able to share while on vacation enabled me to better tune into this sensation.

What I’m talking about is a drive to read that comes not so much from the joy of reading or pursuit of knowledge, but from a desire to share as a means to building social capital on social networks.

This kind of reading to connect information with others as a means of building our influence online is an outgrowth of “information networking“, or what most others call “content curation.” It’s not something that’s very easy to talk about either. That’s because most of us don’t like talking explicitly about our efforts to build social capital. We don’t readily admit to being proud of having lots of friends on Facebook, and though we may throw a lot of time and energy at growing our followers on Twitter and our circles on Google+, we just don’t tend to like calling attention to it.

Again, if you’re not into social media, this probably won’t make that much sense. Even for those who are, I’m sure there are some of you who are above what I’m describing. What I’m talking about here won’t resonate at all, but I’ll keep going – just for the rest of us mere mortals.

A New and Subtle Pressure

When reading becomes a means to any end, there are incentives for becoming more efficient at it. That’s why we have speed reading, skimming and other techniques. In the world of social media though, the “end” our reading serves is much less separated in time. It’s not about cramming for a test tomorrow, but about taking the material before our eyes, and processing it – as efficiently as possible – so that we can package it up and share it with maximum impact right now.

The result, I believe, is a relatively new kind of pressure to share content prematurely, to share it before we’ve fully digested it – and in some cases, before we’ve even fully finished reading it!

Speaking of sharing – I shared a rough draft of this article with my contacts on Google+, as I’m now starting to do before reworking it and publishing it here on Alchemy of Change. The feedback I received from people on Google+ made me realize I wasn’t alone in my obsession with sharing content or in how it was subtly affecting how I read online. There were others who were feeling it too. It wasn’t everyone, mind you, but it there was enough resonance that I think this phenomenon may growing – which is why I bring it up.

Sharing Books with E-Readers

And this gets me to an interesting interview with Clay Shirky, brought to my attention by Thom Kennon. In it, Clay talks about the future of books and the future of reading. He covers a lot of interesting ground in this interview, but let’s focus on his take on “social reading”:

“Social reading,” the way I’ve always interpreted the phrase, is reading that recognizes that you’re not just a consumer, you’re a user. You’re going to do something with this, and that something is going to involve a group of other people.

Clay notes that with Amazon’s Kindle Fire, and its improved annotation abilities, we are changing the way we use books. By making it super easy to highlight a passage in a book and instantly share it through our social networks, we are now atomizing “long-form” content in ways that break down the boundaries that once separated books from other forms of long-form textual media.

Think about it. We very frequently pull excerpts from online articles we read as part of our sharing process on Facebook and Google+, but how often do we do that with books today?

According to a recent Pew Internet study, one-out-of-five US adults report having read an e-book in the last year. This figure is growing quite rapidly, and as more and more of us read our books and other long-form content electronically, we will more regularly share bits and pieces of it via our social networks.

The e-book isn’t just electronic, it’s also now online, which is making it easier and easier to grab little pieces of it and share them with others, just as we already do with articles, blog entries and posts on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. This makes the content of a book more modular and more atom-like. What was once an inseparable whole, can now be split into small pieces and shared, stripped of its surrounding context.

“Social Books”

So where does this all lead us in terms of our once cozy relationship with books? Books are for cozying up in bed and reading at night, or sitting by a fire or in a local coffee shop, latte-in-hand. Right? Reading books is supposed to be relaxing, and I’m sure it will remain relaxing, at least when it comes to fiction.

But what will the “social book” do to our reading experience with non-fiction?

I think you see where this semi-rhetorical question is headed. For those of us who are heavily into sharing stuff on social networks, it’s going to lead to a much more distracted reading experience and a tendency to try to consume books more rapidly and less thoroughly. We will read them at higher velocity, pick their insides out and cast them to the winds of the Internet.

Sounds kind of bad, right? Yes, I guess, but if you’re an author, you actually kind of like having pieces of your writing floating around out there on the web – just as long as the chunks aren’t so big that people no longer buy your book. Having great quotes and passages floating around on the social web provides great hooks for getting attention for your writing. In the not-too-distant future, publishing a book that isn’t social, will severely handicap it, by robbing it of all those social hooks (not to mention search hooks). So for non-fiction writers at least, the social book will become increasingly synonymous with the successful book. In other words, there is going to be a strong incentive for authors and publishers to encourage social sharing of books (as long as it’s restricted to quotes and passages – and not the whole thing).

Where Does This Leave Us?

The bottom line is that the social book is going to be a mixed bag.

For readers, the social book will make it easier to share the insights we gain from our books. It will also be easier to look smart because of the books we read (hey, don’t discount that as a major motivator in people’s book purchases). For authors, it will help disseminate their work and give them better exposure.

On the other hand, the social book will also probably make our reading experience a bit less relaxing than it is today. Again, this won’t be true for all of us, but I predict it will be true for a growing number of us. For authors and publishers, the social book also starts to chip into copyright and general rights management issues, and will likely raise interesting issues around questions of fair use.

As a fitting close, allow me to share a passage from Sven Birkerts in his essay “The Owl has Flown” from his book The Gutenberg Elegies, brought to my attention by Kristl Huffman – on Google+:

“Awed and intimidated by the availability of texts, faced with the all but impossible task of discriminating among them, the reader tends to move across surfaces, skimming, hastening from one site to the next without allowing the words to resonate inwardly”.



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  1. Great article Gid. I have been bumping up to the limits of the technology that supports social reading for the last year since I have had an iPad and switched to reading most books electronically. What I most want is to purposefully share highlights and notes with colleagues and see theirs. A sort of group mind around our reading. I don’t feel the need to read the latest business book if Steve Andersen has already read it and highlighted what he felt was most relevant. I want a new kind of book club where I have my audience and purpose in mind while I read it and I am reading and highlighting with them in mind and vice-versa. This is of course not for all reading but for key texts that are relevant to my network of colleagues.I use the Kindle app for iPad with the Kindle Amazon functionality — but it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to sharing.

    • Thanks Jodie. That’s focusing more on the upside, huh? And a cool idea – reinvigorated, virtual book club. It would be cool to think about a virtual book club app; kind of a collaboration space for sharing key passages and notes with other people in the book club. The club could be made up of pre-defined members (like book clubs work today), or be more open, as a way to meet like-minded individuals. 

  2. Very interesting, and I daresay true. It leaves me in a quandary. For my part, I’m choosy in the non-fiction that I buy, and I there’s any suggestion that I might like a book enough to share it around, I’ll buy the paper copy. Once I’m done I can then easily share with it others. No one can tell me that ebook sharing is as easy as paper book sharing, at least not yet.

    During the reading of such books though, I’m stuck with the burning desire to share parts of it, as you describe. I suppose I’d love to see ebook sharing become a lot easier.

    • Thanks for the comment. That kind of sharing – passing the whole book on for others to enjoy – is something that I didn’t even really think to touch on – as an aspect of “social-ness”. But I think you’re right. It’s probably what first comes to mind when people think today about sharing a book. 

      What e-reader are you using now? Have you played with the Kindle Fire yet?

      • I’m using the Kindle 3. I love the device and the experience. I’d like to try a Kindle Fire some time, but lacking being in the US, I’m a little stuck for now.

  3. Yes. “The result, I believe, is a relatively new kind of pressure to share content prematurely, to share it before we’ve fully digested it – and in some cases, before we’ve even fully finished reading it!”

    At this point I tweeted this article. Hours later came back to comment. Realizing when I started taking twitter serious I had it as a habit, “to keep being interesting for followers”. Soon I noticed we all were generating an exciting phenomenon: news find me. But the noise level rose, so I scaled it back and shared only what I found  truly interesting and worth being seen coming from me. And with links checked.

    Open sharing is already great in that it relieves me of the old (paper and e-mail) habit trying to guess who might need this information, now? That said, I aim to share to improve upon the silence.

  4. Cynthia Morris

    Fascinating, Gideon. I love this discussion. You make several huge points here that I’d like to respond to. 

    Books have always been a social object. When I was a bookseller, I saw how much books allow us to talk about meaningful things. A book is an object that we use to engage in conversation that would perhaps be too intimate without the ‘chaperone’ of a book. 

    We become known for what we read and what we say about it. 

    Whether for personal or professional reasons, reading is always a means to an end. We read to enjoy, escape, learn, travel…so many reasons. 

    I appreciate and agree with your point about this greedy gobbling and sharing of information. This scanning reading doesn’t challenge us to dig in with the material and develop our own thoughts about it. 

    I’m guilty of this. I consume a lot of books and am among the people for whom the thought of not being able to read everything is devastating. So I rush, and I share what I’m reading. It’s the bookseller in me, whose world revolved around what I was reading, what my friends were reading, and what we had to say about it. 

    Perhaps a ‘Slow Reading’ movement is in order? 

    Clearly, this is an incredibly fascinating time for all of us, especially those in writing and publishing. I am very excited about it and curious about how we think of reading now as ‘consuming’. 

    The fact that the available technology has driven reading and books to the top of the discussion across several industries is something to celebrate. There’s a lot of fallout as the publishing industry simultaneously collapses and rebuilds. But at the end of the day I see a lot of opportunities for creativity with books and I am glad I get to play. 

    Thanks for this post, Gideon. I’ll come back and digest it more later.

    • Thank you for the very thoughtful comments, Cynthia. You bring up so many excellent points. I think the two that pop most for me are the “slow reading” and the “chaperone” ideas. 

      The idea of using the book as a social object that acts as a chaperone is very interesting…almost like a talisman, that brings greater forces into play, unleashing and given permission to thoughts and emotions we wouldn’t normally expose in a group. Nice. 

      And the slow reading movement idea is interesting too. I would probably be later in that adoption curve, even though I badly need it. The mind is willing but old habits die hard, I guess. 

      Thanks for connecting. What kinds of work were you doing in book selling?