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.

4 thoughts on “Social Reading and Writing: The Long View

  1. Anouk Lang Anouk Lang

    The whole “reading is social!” vs “no, reading is individual!” binary is one that I think owes at least some of its virulence to disciplinary differences. When I read scholarship from the social sciences, it is predicated on the assumption that of course reading is social – it is embedded in a network of social relations, and even just coming to the point of holding a book in your hand involves a host of social transactions. But when you go over to scholarship from literary studies, the same assumption does not necessarily hold. Leah Price, in her excellent essay in Book History “Reading: The State of the Discipline opens with a lovely image from Williams James that epitomises this beautifully: the reader sitting engrossed in a book, observed by his dog who cannot fathom why his master is silent & apparently senseless.

  2. I completely agree with this assessment. Thus, we’ve started readfy, a German based Start Up specializing in ad-based streaming content with social reading features. It’s necessary to implement a post-amazon reading experience in which ‘book’ no longer denotes a physical object. Instead, we should take seriously ways to concretize the virutal properties governing books. A book isn’t merely a book. Rather, theories and hypothesis about the books, our thoughts, arguments and opinions, historical context, etc. Each of these are properties of the books themselves and creating a social space within an eBook app to capture these properties serves a purpose in our business model.

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