By Anne Kostick, Partner, Foxpath IND
One thing about writing on digital reading and user experience: it’s so personal. Usability experts can deploy statistics and eye-tracking programs to reveal how we digital readers really behave. But for every pie chart or percentage, there’s a human reader telling us precisely what is most important to him or her.
Dan Anderson’s essay in the revamped New York Times Magazine is, as billed, a “riff” on what he really wants in a book: everyone’s marginal notes (and don’t leave out the highlights, marks, and doodles), and he means everyone, from his own circle of friends to long-dead literary critics and even the book’s author. He said, of e-readers: “they disable the thing that, to me, defines reading itself.” For Anderson, then, the value of reading lies in what he adds to the experience. And, in the “more is better” spirit of the century, social reading offers him the value of everyone’s experience—all in one place, all at the same time.
But for communication trainer and usability consultant Carolyn Gale, e-readers allowed her to annotate books precisely because the notes seemed semi-permanent: “Kindle actually forced me to read books and to highlight! I used to just flip through books without absorbing the text. I resisted highlighting and annotating, especially in school because I wanted to resell the textbooks. Now I have the freedom to do what I always wanted to do.”
Trying to Preserve the Activity Itself
James Bridle (also mentioned by Anderson), in his recent presentation at Tools of Change in New York, eloquently described his most valued aspect of the book—the reading experience again, but as a souvenir of the book itself. During the act of reading, he says, “the books themselves are subliming, they’re going up into the air. They’re achieving what Walter Pater called the condition of music. But what will remain of them are our experiences; the absolutely central experience of reading.” Bridle says that sharing that experience is a form of distributed memory that could replace the paper book.
Both Bridle and Anderson feel that in order to step away from the physical, paper book they must embrace some nonphysical aspect of the experience—and they choose social sharing, or what Bridle calls “distributed memory” of reading, in its place. They are not talking about sharing or loaning a book, digital or otherwise; they want to share a reading experience.
Distributing Experience Won’t Be Easy
Of course, not every reader wants to share marginal notes or comments, or wants to read those of others. For many readers, especially of fiction, the idea of reading as “immersive” is also “private.” But “social” is the trend of the decade, and social is what publishers and e-book sellers will try to provide as an option.
How will this work? Like so many other items on the e-book wish list, the ideal is still well out of reach. Although Kindle and Nook have early programs of book-and-note sharing, each program’s restrictions prevent it from being a true social-reading experiment.
The Web, once again has a head start in experimentation. The social bookmarking company Diigo, for one example, has evolved over the years to support real collaboration, targeting a broad base of educators, who have used it for social reading among classrooms of students and among subject teachers for curriculum development. Its latest version incorporates mobile into its Web-based system, and e-reader access is no doubt in the works.
In social reading the next step forward may be a mash-up of text readers, social bookmarking sites and RSS-style feeds that allow readers to pull text from the Web (or purchase and download it), mark it up, and send it out to friends and groups. If this sounds like an end run around publisher-imposed restrictions on e-book sharing … it just might be.
NOTE: DBW has launched an Editorial Forum on LinkedIn, a sub-group for editors and others working in trade publishing. The Forum is moderated by Anne Kostick and David B. Schlosser. Anne’s weekly column, Digital Reading, discusses the field of User Experience and explores what it offers to trade publishers.
Anne Kostick is a partner in Foxpath IND, a digital-print-web consulting and services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content development, management and publishing. She is also the editor in chief of Dulcinea Media, an online publisher in the educational market, and is the current president of Women’s Media Group.