April 3, 2012

Is social media making reading a better or worse experience?


Writer Clive Thompson — a regular contributor to Wired and the New York Times Magazine and one of those people generally treated like a guru when it comes to the future of the book business — has given an interview to Findings.com in which he says some provocative things. For example, he claims that he found his cell phone the ideal device on which to read War and Peace.

Well, anyone who reads War and Peace on a cell phone is someone determined to prove something, but something else Thompson says seems like a more meaningful observation:

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. It’s happening with newspapers, but it has yet to happen with books. But 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. If you think about it, so much of how people who love books have dealt with their love is by trying to put together social environments where people can talk about books, like book clubs. Universities are essentially institutions designed to let people talk about books. We do this over and over and over again.

But Matthew Ingram, in a column at Gigaom.com, takes issue with Thompson on the idea that reading is all that social, and questions the true popularity of commentary or interactions that interrupt the reading experience. “Is that what readers want?” he asks.

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.

While Ingram notes there are many younger readers raised on social media that aren’t comfortable processing the world without social media, still, he says, “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.”

What do you think? Is the ability to interact with other readers in or around the text of a book all that desirable? Or is Ingram right in saying that reading is primarily a solitary, passive act?



Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.