What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “e-book?”
How many of you answered Kindle?
According to a recent report, 72 percent of people who own an e-reading device own a Kindle. Among readers who buy e-books, 85 percent of them buy through Amazon and read on a Kindle device or the Kindle app. Kindle has become so popular, in fact, that it’s now an eponym for digital books in general, like how you ask for a Kleenex when you want a tissue.
The rise of social media and Web 2.0 over the last two decades has fundamentally transformed how we talk, engage and connect with each other online. The pandemic has only accelerated this trend further. Yet e-books, curiously, have remained untouched. Many readers might be fine with this but for me, e-reading devices and apps are woefully inadequate in giving me what I want from books and reading.
Books are opportunities for research, civic engagement, self-improvement and understanding the world in new ways. For me, reading is also a form of social connection. I want to react to an author’s ideas, but I also want to hear what other people think and even engage in debate if I disagree.
What Is Social Reading?
E-reading technology hasn’t been built for people who read this way. The Kindle device and app are great for those who prefer to read by themselves but for those who want to discuss what they’re reading (and who feel the urge to share their thoughts and questions with other readers), Kindle falls short. If you’re reading primarily to engage rather than escape the world, Kindle is a dead end.
What Is Social Reading?
The more people I talk to, the more readers I find who want to go deeper into books but don’t have the tools to do it effectively. They end up hacking existing platforms to meet their needs. One popular approach is to take a photo of a physical page of a book, post it to Twitter, and then have a discussion there, all while trying to dodge everyone else’s vitriolic dunking.
The Kindle and other e-readers weren’t designed for this type of reading, nor were places like Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and Goodreads built for these types of discussions. Their biggest shortcoming is the fact that conversation is forced to happen off the pages of the book, decontextualized into the top-down, online message board format. Plus, book discussion is prone to get swept away with all the digital flotsam and jetsam that litters your feeds — cat memes, political rants and all the rest. Close reading on Twitter is like trying to hold a book club meeting at a Foo Fighters concert. Goodreads, meanwhile, looks like it’s still struggling to escape the early 2000s. So many people have written about its limitations and outdated interface, in fact, that “Alternatives to Goodreads” has now become a stock genre of online writing.
Close reading on Twitter is like trying to hold a book club meeting at a Foo Fighters concert.
The type of reading I’ve been describing so far is what we call “social reading.” This might sound like a new idea, but it’s in fact very old. During George Washington’s time, for example, fellow ministers would frequently solicit feedback on their sermons by handwriting comments in the margins and sending them around to each other by courier or post. Before the age of the telegraph, friends would use books as a form of correspondence by marking them up with their hot takes, then swapping them back and forth.
Despite this well-established way of reading, we have yet to find a way to replicate it in today’s digital world. The biggest barrier has been the problem of navigation and orientation. The book is one of the best-designed and most-enduring technologies in human history. When you move around in a physical book, you can easily put your fingers in between pages and feel where things are. If you want to leave a note, you just write directly on the page. But someone’s private notes are different than conversations with multiple people asynchronously.
Once you enter digital space, things get complicated. Moving between sections of an e-book is more cumbersome and harder to visualize. We’ve figured out how to leave a comment in an e-book but they’re still notoriously difficult to organize, search, save and export. They work, sure, but they’re not intuitive the way notes in a physical book are. Besides, what does a back-and-forth discussion in the margins of an e-book look like? How can you make it easy for someone to catch up on conversations they might have missed while they are away?
The book is one of the best-designed and most-enduring technologies in human history.
These are the types of questions I’m wrestling with at Threadable as we build a new social reading platform. With Threadable, our solution is to make the book itself the platform by anchoring discussions to the text. Our core feature is the ability to create private reading groups where you can highlight passages and have threaded discussions with others in the margins of your books.
Before I can do this, however, I first have to break the powerful association between “e-book” and “Kindle.” This means unlearning what an e-book is and re-thinking some big assumptions about the problem they were originally meant to solve (as well as the specific type of reader they were made for). Doing so clears a path to think more creatively about what digital reading can be.