Theatre, cinema, concerts, works of art – these are all experiences that can be shared, unlike the solitude of escaping into a good book. And with the rise of social networks, this divide has been made far clearer. Whether it’s the comment section below a news article, the official hashtag for a TV show or a whole social network built around photography, social culture has got a lot more social. Reading, on the other hand, seems to have resisted this charge: it doesn’t fit this social model.
Or at least it didn’t use to. Today, a number of people are making a concerted effort to use technology to socialise reading. And it might change how we read forever.
You can see this in Medium, a burgeoning blogging platform created by one of the founders of Twitter as a place to put long-form stories with more depth than 140 characters can provide. Medium’s interface is clean, stylish, and open: it is, refreshingly, a place on the internet that values the quality of your reading experience. It also lets you comment on individual paragraphs. Articles (and it is mostly articles, though there is a hefty dose of fiction to be found here too), are filled up with comments in the margin like a publicly-accessible system of track changes. It doesn’t want to you read and then comment: it wants you to comment while you read.
This isn’t the preserve of journalism. eReading services like Kobo Reading Life now allow readers to add notes, read annotations, and share favourite lines to social networks while they’re reading. Because, as Kobo puts it, “the only thing better than reading something amazing, is sharing it with others”. Or, as a friend of mine put it, “the only thing better than reading, is stopping reading to tweet about it”.
Wattpad, a platform where writers can post fiction chapter-by-chapter, has a vibrant comment section on each page of each book, so users can comment while they read. And this isn’t some internet backwater: 100,000 new stories are published there every month, by authors including Margaret Atwood, being read by tens of millions of visitors. It was a platform like Wattpad where E.L. James began writing the fan fiction that would turn into Fifty Shades of Grey. Plenty more books will follow suit – though Wattpad itself is the main place many of its (mostly young) users get their reading material.
It would be very easy to complain about this. To talk about how cramming a comment section into the middle of Tess of the d’Urbervilles is some sort of modern depravity, that misunderstands the glorious and proud solitude of reading, that turns readers into ‘content users’, skimming text in a constant state of distraction. But let’s put that impulse on hold for a minute, and focus on the positives that this trend might bring.
For one thing, community. The social element of Wattpad is what makes it work – writers hear directly from their readers, getting feedback and encouragement, which helps them get better. For another, surely this is what books need to do to keep pace with the cultural conversation? If a bit of tech integration is what it’ll take to get more people talking about books, surely that’s a good thing? To say nothing of the fact that these conversations are able to transcend geography and social boundaries in a way the traditional closed-circle book club just can’t.
But of course, that’s not why any of this is happening. Amazon didn’t make the Kindle to be a force for social change. There’s a huge commercial imperative behind socialising reading, and someone’s going to very rich off of it. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be good stuff along the way, and it’s not like commercial interests would be a new thing for the book industry.
Books aren’t broken, and they don’t need to be fixed. But that’s not what’s happening here. We’re not seeing reading being replaced by eReading – any more than photography replaced painting. Rather, we’re seeing the possibilities of new technology give birth to a new kind of cultural consumption.
Social reading won’t look the same as the reading I did when I was a child, but it won’t be better or worse – it’ll be different. Maybe focused attention and a sense of solitude aren’t as crucial to the reading experience as we previously thought. I guess we’ll see. But if they’re not, we’ll start to see writers exploiting these new possibilities – and writing things designed to be experienced in this new way. We will see writing that’s different – that’s innovative, and challenging, and new. And I think that’s a good thing.