2013-09-13

Co.Labs

Keep Your Social Networking Out Of My Book

The era of social books is upon us. This means exciting things for the evolution of the written word, but what will it do to our already-frayed attention spans?



These days there's something extra revitalizing about cracking open a book. I don't just mean in a strictly geektastic, hooray-for-reading kind of way. I mean, it's actually mentally refreshing. For those of us who live online, there's no better way to wrap up a hyper-connected day of status updates, tweets, and pageview-thirsty headlines than by diving into a single, focused, long-form story or work of nonfiction. Well, it'll be nice as long as it lasts, anyway.

If it wasn't already obvious, the era of social books is right on the horizon. One of the companies leading us there is Readmill, the purveyor of a social reading app that takes Amazon's crowdsourced highlighting concept to the next level and makes e-books more interactive than ever. Not to be outdone by some scrappy startup, Amazon will integrate the next version of its Kindle Paperwhite e-reader with Goodreads, the book-centric social network Amazon acquired in late March. Neither of these new social reading environments amounts to a full-blown, Facebook-inside-your-book type of experience. But the line between social networks and books is only now beginning to blur. Prepare to get even more distracted.

As my colleague Michael Grothaus—himself a paper-loving e-reader holdout—wrote recently, "e-books are going to explode beyond just containing stories, becoming niche social networks where we discuss our favorite passages with other readers and even authors and publishers buy our data to make more informed decisions."

Sounds awesome! Damien Walter, writing for the Guardian, fleshes out the picture in enticingly forward-looking detail:

Imagine reading a book published in 2013 in the year 2063. In the 50 years between now and then, dozens of critical texts, hundreds of articles, thousands of reviews and hundreds of thousands of comments will have been made on the text. In a fully networked reading experience, all of those will be available to the reader of the book from within the text… Authors are able to shape the discussion on their books, moderating comments in a system similar to a blogpost… And perhaps most interesting of all, readers can find each other through the books they read.

Normally, the prospect of a more networked, collaborative form of mass media is something I find very exciting. And indeed, the potential here is enormous, especially for academic and nonfiction works. Yet I can't help but cringe a little at the thought of classic novels morphing into mini-Facebooks.

Longform Reading In An Age Of Digital Distractions

My attention span is already stretched thin. The deluge of new things to read is relentless, kicking off mere minutes after I wake up in the morning. It starts with the day's tech news headlines (required reading in my line of work) and stories in Flipboard, Feedly, and Reddit. After a hefty round of work-related reading and mining for story ideas, Twitter incessantly projectile-vomits headlines my way. I don't dare check Facebook during peak hours, lest I get roped into another nostalgic BuzzFeed listicle. The stories and blog posts that do pique my attention (but aren't germane to me doing my job) get corralled into Instapaper using the "Read Later" button. Of course, every saved article is another item in the bedtime reading queue, which has a way of piling up faster than I can keep up with. When I do finish an Instapaper reading session, I close my iPad's cover and place it down atop a stack of print magazines, through which I'll eventually plow. Hopefully.

This massive, permanent backlog of must-read material has made it more and more difficult to carve out time to read anything longer than a few thousand words. In the last few years, I've found myself reading fewer books and those that I start take longer to get through. There's just too much other stuff to read.

I am, of course, not the only one to feel somewhat overwhelmed by the Internet's firehose of insights, imagery, and information. Taking some sort of "digital detox" as Baratunde Thurston recounted in a recent Fast Company cover story is now a common practice among the uber-connected. Indeed, the very phrase "digital detox"—which was added to the Oxford dictionary in May—effectively compares our reliance on the Internet to a junkie's desperate need for a fix. Meanwhile, a growing stack of journal articles, magazine cover stories, and books have weighed in on the subject of whether or not the Internet is literally driving us all insane. At least, I'm pretty sure that's what those books are about. I got a few press copies in the mail, but I haven't had a chance to page through any of them yet. Maybe someday.

How I Forced Myself To Read More Books

Lately, I've started reading more books. That's because I've been more deliberate about shutting off the Internet and setting aside time solely dedicated to reading. Much of the time, I'm paging through good, old-fashioned paper books. When you've conditioned your brain to expect to switch tasks at any moment (even as I write this, there's a nagging feeling that an editor or source sent me a really important email), going back to reading things on paper feels that much more focused and relaxing.

It also helps that I recently bought my first Kindle, which allows me to breeze through digital books much more effortlessly than the distraction-riddled, notification-dinging iPad (on which I do the vast majority of my blog, news, and magazine reading). Without email, apps, aggregators, and notifications, my Kindle serves as a much more focused reading environment. I enjoy the limited amount of social networking intrinsic in the platform, which amounts to Kindle calling out areas that are frequently highlighted by other Kindle readers.

As it turns out, each class of device lends itself well to a different type of consumption (or creation, for that matter). Phones are great for "chunking" information—there's a reason Circa is designed the way it is. Tablets are better for medium-length articles, PDFs, and mini-books. Paired with an external keyboard, they can also make delightful writing tools. If all I want to do is read one long item at a time—not check email or browse headlines or anything else—the Kindle is perfect. There will always be a place for analog, paper-based reading (I hope), but as reading and book discovery become an increasingly digital experience, single-purpose devices appear to be the best way to maintain prolonged focus on a single text. Which makes me all the more ambivalent about social networking creeping into this device.

But what happens when that John Grisham novel starts dinging with new status updates? And sure, the Steve Jobs biography would be even more informative with links to related reading, multimedia, and collective wisdom infused right into the text. But the damn thing is long enough as it is without endless tributaries branching out all over the place.

Having just settled into a new, more focused digital reading environment, the last thing I'm clamoring for is another social network. I certainly don't need one inside my book.

[Image: Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski]






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