Full circle

Last month, Jennifer Howard of the Chronicle of Higher Education profiled Open Utopia, an online version of Thomas More’s 1516 work, Utopia. Developed by NYU professor Stephen Duncombe, the site was built using SocialBook, an approach to social reading that Bob Stein and the Institute for the Future of the Book have developed and championed.

SocialBook makes "it very easy to annotate a text and to follow a conversation in the margins." A project like Open Utopia is a natural fit, as it combines contributions from multiple sources as well as discussion and debate about the ideas in the text.

Howard’s article points to other higher-education projects that are making use of commenting tools, but the idea is not limited to higher education. Some time ago, Stein proposed “A taxonomy of social reading” that includes several use cases, presented here verbatim:

  • Discussing a book in person with friends or acquaintances
  • Discussing a book online (online, informal, synchronous or asynchronous, persistent)
  • Discussing a book in a classroom or living-room book group (offline, formal, synchronous, ephemeral)
  • Engaging in a discussion in the margins (online, formal, synchronous or asynchronous, persistent)

At the end of her coverage, Howard notes:

“A conventional book invites readers to shut out the world while they read. Social reading asks them to connect with others as they encounter the text. Whether that sounds like a more perfect world depends on the reader.”

It’s natural to think of social reading as a choice between something traditional (immersive) and connected (social), but that's not really the dynamic. The SocialBook platform offers simple, non-intrusive flags that point to comments, and users have options to minimize their visibility. You can be immersed and also decide to be social, depending on which of the use cases apply when you encounter the text.

As well, reading has long been social. We dog-ear pages, underline text, write notes in the margins of physical books, share copies of books and talk with our friends about what we like (and don't like). Tools like SocialBook extend our activities, but they don't replace them.

In fact, Stein’s taxonomy points to something unique afforded by a move to online discussions: persistence. As Duncombe pointed out, “The discussion becomes part of the text.” This new feature allows untapped opportunities for reflection, synthesis and engagement. In that sense, we've come full circle.

Edited Dec 18 to add: A tweet from Ian Barker (Symtext) spurred me to add a link to his chapter, "Now is the time for experiments", that appeared in Book: A Futurist's Manifesto. There, Barker explains how Symtext approaches the higher-education market with their "Liquid Textbook" product.

Edited Dec 19 to address an error picked up from the CHE article. Open Utopia uses SocialBook, not CommentPress.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.