Email: A Case Study Leads to Unexpected Conclusions


While teens and 20-somethings opt for the short and ephemeral—text messaging, tweeting, and sharing Instagrams, Snapchats, and Vines—the digital textual community where many of the rest of us spend too much of our time is within the confines of our email client. God knows we don’t do this by choice, but due to the exigencies of work, it’s how we communicate and interact on a broad range of topics from the mundane (setting times for meetings) to the substantive.

Two years ago I got an email from a designer in my company. Although short, only four paragraphs, the email comprised a number of discrete issues and I realized how complicated the discussion would become. Yes, I could respond interstitially, placing each comment below the text it referred to. But my colleagues might or might not respond in kind. Some of them prefer to make their comments at the beginning, some at the end. And of course there is the problem of timing. If two of us make relatively simultaneous comments, things rapidly get out of hand in terms of keeping track of who said what, in response to what, when. By the end of the day we would be spending as much or more time and brain power unpacking the thread than dealing with the subject matter at hand.  Or to put it another way, the structure of the communication in email has a way of unintentionally becoming the primary subject.

So, I tried an experiment. I put the four paragraphs into a SocialBook document. The advantages were immediately obvious:

  • Since there was only one instance of the document (not multiple as there is in email), everyone’s contribution was represented in a very clear time order. There was no doubt as to what had been said when.
  • Because SocialBook allowed us to respond to specific text strings, it was very easy to focus the conversation at exactly the right nodes.
  • SocialBook gives equal weight to the original text and the conversation that emerges around it, making it much easier to consider the responses in context.

The improvement in efficiency was palpable and we haven’t used email for any substantive discussion since that day.

The success of this experiment surprised me since when we started designing SocialBook, supplanting email was decidedly not a target. So I started wondering how we ended up with a viable alternative. As a further experiment I took the same four paragraphs plus our commentary and tried to recreate it in Google Docs. Ugh! While Google Docs allows everyone to make changes to a document, it does a terrible job of capturing the conversation that might explain the reasons for the changes. From the other direction, I also looked at some of the other social reading platforms which, while better than Google Docs or email, did a relatively poor job of exposing the conversational thread in the context of the original text.

After speaking at length to SocialBook’s technical team, I began to understand the source of its strength. Google Docs likely started with a word processor to which they added a primitive social layer. Other social reading schemes probably grafted social onto a basic e-reader. SocialBook on the other hand built its architecture from the ground up, basing its architecture on the core principle that people are going to gather around the text.

The result is one of emerging class of what I call collaborative thinking processors. If you draw a Venn diagram with two ovals, one being reading and the other writing, the overlapping bit is where thinking takes place. SocialBook’s strength stems from its ability to create a space optimized for thinking and reflection. Even if I’m reading by myself, just by providing an expanded margin I’m encouraged to annotate. The act of annotating encourages me to think more deeply about the text. Add other people to the mix and two things happen: Because others may read my comments, I think all the harder about the subject and how to express my thoughts, and more importantly I’ve got collaborators to help me think through all the interesting bits.

Social Reading and Writing: The Long View


Reading and Writing have always been profoundly social experiences. It’s the reification of ideas into printed, persistent objects that obscures the social aspect so much so, that our culture portrays them as among the most solitary of behaviors. This is because in the print era, what we characterize as social takes place outside the pages—around the water cooler, at the dinner table, and on the pages of other publications in the form of reviews, citations, and bibliographies. From that perspective, moving texts from page to screen doesn’t make them social so much as it allows the social aspects to come forward and to multiply in value.

That said, the transition will take time. Not only do we need new reading and writing platforms which capitalize on the social affordances of digital networks, but the fundamental value proposition of our educational institutions—which rewards solely on the basis of individual effort—needs to change as well. “Plays well with others” may appear as a marker on primary school report cards but is rapidly discarded as children move up and out of the educational system.

So it’s not just that we need new tools: we need a culture which rewards collaboration. Realistically, the breadth of knowledge in any one area is so huge today that individuals can’t be expected to possess a comprehensive grasp of a field or even a question within it. There’s a wonderful phrase from computer pioneer Alan Kay, that “point of view is worth 80 IQ points.” Bringing different perspectives to bear on a problem is likely to yield better answers, syntheses that no individual is likely to get to on her own.

Three Short Meditations on Interface



In a generation or two we will realize that the perception of reading as a solo activity had a short-life, lasting for no more than a few hundred years. And nothing tracks the changes better than the size of margins.

Well before Gutenberg perfected printing, scholarly books functioned as mnemonic devices. Professors and students stood around a table containing the one available copy and used the text as a jumping off point for discussion. They used the copious margins to record their commentary. As reading evolved  into a solitary experience, the margins diminished accordingly. For example, look at these two versions of Copernicus’ de Revolutionibus, a first edition (1543) and a current example.

The first edition has lots of room for annotation, the recent, almost none.

De_Revolutionibus_manuscript_024r     Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 1.37.17 PM

It’s not surprising, therefore, that as we see a return to social forms of reading, we also see a significant shift in the size of the margin. For example, here is a screen from the NY Times online with a very wide margin designed to accommodate an evolving culture of public discussion.




Comments Below, Comments Beside

In the early days of blogging and web commenting, the commentary ended up in a space below the text. This arrangement replicated and reinforced the hierarchy of print, with the author sending wisdom to the crowd below.

Beginning in 2006, however, we start seeing experiments placing reader comments in a margin to the right of the author’s text. One of the first was an early draft of McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory (now published by Harvard University Press).

gamer theory

Designed in this way to accommodate Wark’s innovative non-linear writing style, many people realized immediately that the hierarchy of print had been subtly but importantly subverted as the author and the reader now occupied the same vertical space. Interestingly, you can see this in the discussion that unfolds as Wark and the readers increasingly interact as relative equals, working collaboratively to deepen their understanding of a complex topic.


The Difference Between the Water Cooler Discussion and Close Reading: 

The inherent value in enabling commentary to emerge inside of rather than around a text.

Goodreads and other online sites devoted to books enable what might be called asynchronous water cooler discussions. Someone makes a general comment about a book and the next person either responds or starts a new thread. There is value in such discussions but it’s not the same as being able to zero in on specific bits of text. In the first case you are essentially doing everything from memory, making it difficult to cite and go deep into the text. One thing that seems to happen when you enable readers to tie the discussion to specific bits is that the conversation tends to keep focus, allowing people to make syntheses which are not as easy to come to in generalized water cooler discussions. Here are two screen shots, the first showing a commentary in Goodreads ABOUT Huxley’s Brave New World, the second a discussion INSIDE of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko. Without commenting on the value of the commentary in either, one immediately sees that the discussion in Brave New World is not particularly cohesive, with successive comments not necessarily building on one another. In the second we see concerted effort on the part of readers to work through a problem together.