fredag 23 september 2011

Social reading

Friday last week I did something I seldom do. I went to listen to a master's thesis presentation where I was neither the advisor nor the examiner. I just saw the title of the thesis/presentation and thought it sounded interesting, and as it fit my schedule neatly I went to listen to Johannes Koch (previous student in a course of mine) present his master's thesis; "Social reading: A study of computer-supported literature-discussions". I haven't read the thesis, so this blog post is exclusively based on his presentation and the topic is the assumptions and ideas behind the thesis.

The history of e-books can be said to have started 1971, when Project Gutenberg kicked off. Many different devices and document formats (.pdf, .epub) have come (and some have gone), but the breakthrough came with the Amazon Kindle in 2007.

Johannes has worked at/for a small Danish company, riidr, and his task was to design a "social e-book reader" What he actually did was to design and build a prototype (pre-study of user needs --> design --> build prototype --> evaluate). I don't know if he has built a "social e-book reader" as much as a tool to share text annotations within a group. I have used a shared annotation tool myself (Diigo) for the specific purpose of sharing comments on evolving thesis drafts with a group of students.

Johannes reasoning went something like this; today everything moves to the web and becomes "social", so why not build a social e-book reader? Many activities that we formerly did alone, have now moved to the web and have become activities that we do together, so why not read books "socially"? It could be construed that while the act of reading is something we do in private, reading has at the same time always been a social activity; we have always discussed the books we read with our friends, so it is only natural to build a computer system that supports such an activity. What is great now (with e-books and e-book readers) is that both the text/book itself as well as the comments can inhabit the same space. We don't need to refer to things that are elsewhere in cumbersome ways (see page 293), but can link to them directly - "you can share your thoughts on the book as you read it" (Johannes). Johannes referred to Readmill - started by some of our (KTH/Media technology) students - but I don't enough to be able to tell how Johannes' ideas and Readmill's differ from each other.

In practice, Johannes had had his share of problems. He found informants at the site [book circles], but most people there were a little older and not necessarily very technologically sophisticated. He apparently had to spend a lot of time initially performing tech support for his informants... Up until this point in the presentation, I had wondered who is supposed to use this software tool and for what purposes and in what context. Only at this (late) point did I understand that the genre he had worked on was fiction. It would have been better had he clearly stated what specific problem he was trying to solve earlier in his presentation. Instead we got information about how a specific technical feature had been implemented (highlighting a sentence of text in an e-book) - a not uninteresting, but still rather minor detail in the larger whole.

I had the opportunity to ask questions after the presentation and they mostly concerned who was supposed to use the tool, in what context and how it's use was imagined. Is the idea that you will comments "whenever" - just after you've read a sentence of a paragraph, or is commenting something you are "supposed" to do after you have read a chapter?). I very much tried to understand the context of use as I think that reading and discussing a book/text differs a lot depending on what kind of text you read (course literature or fiction?), where and why you read it (to pass an exam or for your own pleasure?) and who you read it together with (people with which you have stable relationships or "anyone" on the Internet)? These issues were not very clear in the presentations, at least not initially, and had to be inferred.

My initial reaction when I heard the presentation was that my willingness to leave comments and the effort I would invest in these comments is not independent of, but rather embedded in the kind of relationship I have with those who will read the comments and my expectations of they reciprocating by providing comments of their own (and my belief in the first place that these are interesting people who will leave interesting comments that will "extend" my experience of the book in question - i.e. that there will be a net benefit for me to participate in this activity). Can it be satisfactory (or how satisfactory is it) to discuss a book independently of the social relations you have with those you discuss the book with?

If I was part of a tight-knit group that met once per month and we felt a "social e-book reader" was a good way to exchange comments in-between our meetings or to "extend" our conversations to an online space, I would probably have a go at it. But if the social e-book reader was rather a way to comment books and share these comments with "everyone", I probably would not bother. This is also the reason why I "tormented" Johannes with these kinds of questions several times. In the first kind of group, half the benefit of discussing books would be the heightened understanding of the text itself, and the other half would be the emerging common understanding not only of particular books, but also of (those specific) particular persons. Discussing books together, we might grow together in more than one sense. My concern is that decontextualized discussions about books on the Internet might turn into war-like arguments (not initially, but some time after the usage of such a tool would take off).

Another concern I have is that the possibility of leaving comments at any single moment might detract the reader from the process of reading itself. You need to concentrate and shut out the world when you read a text. But what will you concentrate on? The text, or, the comments you might write about the text you are reading right now? If you concentrate on the latter, won't that detract you from your reading experience, and won't your understanding of the book be impacted negatively - as well as the quality of your comments (like with any kind of multitasking)? This is a question that of course merits a study of its own of the actual habits of people who do social reading. But perhaps I worry too much, or even think to much.

Another related question has to do with the quality of the comments. I would presume that the more time, care and effort that goes into any endeavor, the better the resulting quality. So would hastily jotted down comments lack quality? I would presume so, but you could argue that it's better to have more comments from more people (albeit of a lower average quality) than to have fewer comments (or reviews only from bona fide literature critics). I would on the other hand not read 100 comments if only a handful would add something at all to my understanding of the text in question. For me it's a straightforward matter of comparing costs (time) and benefits (deepened understanding). Sometimes there's something to be said for exclusivity. KTH wouldn't be KTH if positively anyone could come here, rather than only the better-than-average students.

These musings make me think of the fact that everything that is technically possible is not necessarily desirable, and sometimes the simplest solutions (i.e. make reading "social" in the old-fashioned pre-computerized way) might the best. Johannes did however know from reading the log files that people didn't really interrupt their reading to leave a comment, but rather seemed to wait until they finished reading (perhaps waiting for the chapter or their reading session to end).

In the end I can think of different types of books (fiction - non-fiction - textbooks) and I can imagine that a social e-book reader would be more suitable for some types of texts and some contexts than for others. I think non-fiction, for example self-help books of different kinds would be a good genre to start with. No matter if you read a book about child upbringing, how to deal with you cocaine-snorting spouse, how to successfully negotiate a better salary or how to survive a psychopathic boss, the option to discuss these books and add your own comments and stories could truly extend the value of the book and heighten the (collective) reading experience.

The thesis itself seems to be solid but I haven't read it and this is not a text about the thesis, but rather about the very ideas behind the thesis. After the thesis has been published on the web, I will link to it.

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