The Blurring Line Between Reader and Writer


When I consider how reading will change in the near term, two questions immediately come to mind:

  • To what extent is the future of reading social?
  • How much involvement will readers have in the writing process and final product (to the extent there is a “final” book)? Or: how much of reading will become part of an interactive process with the author or other readers?

Let’s start with the question of social reading. Some of the most interesting work in this area has been pioneered by Bob Stein, at the Institute for the Future of the Book. His argument is that reading has always been a social activity, and that our idea of reading as a solitary activity is fairly recent, something that arrived with widespread literacy. Furthermore, he says, as we move from the printed page to the screen – and networked environments – the social aspect of reading and writing moves to the foreground. Once this shift happens, the lines blur between reader and writer. Stein writes:

Authors [will] take on the added role of moderators of communities of inquiry (non–fiction) and of designers of complex worlds for readers to explore (fiction). In addition, readers will embrace a much more active role in the production of knowledge and the telling of stories.

Going a step further, it has even been suggested by Stein (and others) that the future of reading might look like gaming. One can see an example of this in the Black Crown project, a work of interactive fiction produced by Random House UK. The story begins with a series of questions, then the reader is put into a number of predicaments, as in a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel. There is an author behind it, Rob Sherman, who said in an interview, “It’s a scary thing because you need to relinquish control and allow for readers to have an experience different from the one you’re expecting. […] I think pretty much all authors have to accept now that readers are going to take things and manipulate them and make them their own. Whether you give them permission to or not. And they’re going to share them with other people.”

One area where this phenomenon is strongly apparent is in the genre of fan fiction, which represents one of the earliest social reading communities. The bestselling novel 50 Shades of Grey was fan fiction based on Twilight, and written in progress on a public fan-fiction website; it gathered fans and feedback over time before being formally published. Amazon, recognizing the potential in fan fiction – which is not readily monetizable due to rights issues – launched Kindle Worlds to allow fan fiction writers to start publishing and earning money from their fan works through formalized licensing deals.

This begs the question: How many readers really want to be involved in the writing of the story, and how many would just like to be passively entertained? It’s true that the digital era has changed the nature of passive entertainment—we no longer have to accept what media corporations produce for us, we can create our own media, we can engage in active consumption (e.g., live-tweeting a TV show). But sometimes it’s nice to simply escape into a story, without any further obligation.

This reality has been illustrated by Ross Mayfield through his excellent diagram, “The Power Law of Participation.” Reading without interaction is classified as a “low threshold activity,” which engages the highest number of users. Social reading, on the other hand, involves writing, moderating, collaborating and possibly leading (depending on the context), and represents high engagement. Yet only a very small percentage of the community will have that level of engagement; most users will remain on the low threshold side. Mayfield’s point isn’t that one mode is more valuable than the other, but that these two forms of intelligence co-exist in some of the best communities we see online, such as Wikipedia.

Power Law of Participation line graph

But even for readers who don’t wish to be involved in creation, there are ways for them to be unintentionally involved. Amazon collects untold data through their Kindle reading platform, and probably now calculates exactly how people read a particular book: how fast, how slow and the exact paragraph where readers abandon the story. Kevin Kelly described what he thinks the future holds in a blog post “What Books Will Become”:

Prototype face tracking software can already recognize your mood, and whether you are paying attention, and more importantly where on the screen you are paying attention. It can map whether you are confused by a passage, or delighted, or bored. That means that the text could adapt to how it is perceived. Perhaps it expands into more detail, or shrinks during speed reading, or changes vocabulary when you struggle, or reacts in a hundred possible ways.  […]

Such flexibility recalls the long expected, but never realized, dream of forking stories. Books that have multiple endings, or alternative storylines. Previous attempts at hyper literature have met dismal failure among readers. Readers seemed uninterested in deciding the plot; they wanted the author to decide. But in recent years complex stories with alternative pathways have been wildly successful in videogames. … Some of the techniques pioneered in taming the complexity of user-driven stories in games could migrate to books.

If not already apparent, it’s important to differentiate between the evolution of narrative-driven books and information-driven books. We have already seen information-driven materials flourish and make more sense in online environments. It is now highly unusual to refer to a book when researching basic facts or making travel plans, for instance. Most information is superior when presented in hyperlinked, interactive forms that can be continually updated, as well as customized and modified by the reader for her specific purpose.

When we seek to be entertained, however, how much do we want to customize and modify to our satisfaction? Fan fiction indicates that some percentage of readers enjoy this, but that has so far remained a fringe activity when considering the universe of readers out there.

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