The phenomenon of social reading is not new, but now in the era of Web 2.0 it is being discussed in a different way. Casual conversations about books are being moved to the Web (which requires difficult technical development to capture the way humans actually communicate with one another), where it could potentially blossom into something richer.
Nor is it lost on publishers with foresight that social reading may have important implications for monetization.
This is good news for the book business (good news for the book business? I must be crazy), which is now sleepless as it ponders the potential loss of bricks-and-mortar bookshops in the face of e-books and Amazon, the Tyrannosaurus Texts of the publishing industry.
Social reading refers to all the conversations and commentary that take place outside a text, but making reference to a text. Your reading group that meets over finger food and white wine to discuss Jodi Picoult or (it could happen) Montaigne or Gibbon is participating in a form of social reading. Online, social reading takes many forms, from reviews posted on Amazon to bona fide reading groups to comments placed alongside a work.
What is the best way to think about all these incarnations of social reading?
Bob Stein has proposed a taxonomy, which I will call The Stein Taxonomy, at his blog for the Institute for the Future of the Book. Stein has identified several categories of social reading, depending on whether they are online or off, synchronous or asynchronous, formal or informal. There is a thesis attached to this — social reading is as much a part of a work as the text of the work itself. Perhaps this is arguable — but to argue the point is to engage in a form of social reading, which perhaps serves to prove Stein’s point. Interestingly, Stein’s essay is published using software called CommentPress, which permits readers to place comments in the margins of the piece. So we have a taxonomy of social reading placed within a context of social reading on a platform designed for social reading. And, I suppose, the post I am writing right here is part of that social reading experience as well.
I don’t have any quarrel with the outline of the Stein Taxonomy, but I do wish to note that it defines social reading along a single axis, that of the social dimension of social reading itself. This is to say that the Stein Taxonomy is very much a social taxonomy. It is not hard to imagine social reading being viewed analytically along different lines. For example, what are the economic implications of each category of social reading? Or how about the technological implications; what would be the taxonomy for that? For every perspective, there potentially is a taxonomy. This doesn’t make the social approach to social reading any less important; it simply means that it has company.
A curious thing developed since the Stein Taxonomy was posted. A typical debate about it broke out on Peter Brantley’s Read 2.0 mailgroup (which is private and hence I am not providing a link). Bob Stein, a member of the Read 2.0 group, urged the list to post their comments to the blog at the Institute for the Future of the Book using the CommentPress software, but to no avail — the argument went on, without a direct link to the original text. This perhaps tells us something about another aspect of social reading — it must be anchored in a community first. How to create such communities is another, and much bigger, matter.