Well! We read this morning in a post tweeted by Joe Esposito that “E-Books Could Be The Future Of Social Media.” In that post, technology journalist Michael Grothaus, after a paragraph or two declaring his ostensibly neo-Luddite preference for print books over electronic, spends his remaining on-screen inches in fulsome praise of Readmill, a “small but growing app . . . that seems to have its pulse on the future of reading.” Readmill, explains Henrik Berggren, the app’s CEO (and I was not aware until now that apps had CEOs), aims to turn e-books into “niche social networks” brimming with real-time interactions among readers — and, of course, piping all of the data on those interactions back to authors and publishers to help them “make more informed decisions.”
I’ll let you read the post for yourself; suffice to say, a number of things in it struck me as unintentionally funny. Start with the big banner image at the top: It shows a line of five people, sitting on a couch in an old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar bookstore, each immersed in a print book. There is not an e-book in sight. All of them look thoroughly absorbed in what they’re doing, and while none of them is smiling, a sense of vast contentment radiates from the photo.
Note that although this is, at least in the broadest sense, a group of people, they are engaged in a fundamentally solitary activity. And nothing is “broken” here — the print format’s support of sustained concentration, its momentary banishment of distraction, is a feature, not a bug.
It seems to me that this is likely to be true irrespective of the platform. In a moment of pure hubris, Berggren, in his interview with Grothaus, asserts that e-reader platforms like Amazon’s Kindle are “doing it in the wrong way,” kind of a remarkable statement given that Amazon owns 45% of the e-book market and the Kindle is what got them there. While there are many reasons for that success, I think you could make an argument that part of it of lies simply in the characteristics of the device itself, which (except perhaps in the case of the Kindle Fire) seems designed to be as book-like and distraction-free as possible. That, at least, is a big reason it’s worked for me. With my Kindle Paperwhite, I don’t just skim, I read.
There are larger social issues here than Amazon’s bottom line or the promise of apps like Readmill, when we think about what the rise of screen media has already done to our ability to engage with books as intellectual objects. Cory Doctorow memorably referred to the Internet as “an ecosystem of distraction technologies”; what happens when we start to embed them into activities, like reading, for which a lack of distraction is an essential part of the experience? We already have some idea, given the differing ways we interact with HTML pages versus PDFs versus print material. And an interesting survey earlier this year, focusing on the reading habits of children in the U.K. found that, yes, more children are now reading on electronic devices than in print, and they prefer it that way — but that “those who read only on screen are . . . three times less likely to enjoy reading (12% compared to 51%)” than those who read in print.
Certainly the world is changing, but it does seem worth thinking about these data and their implications for what the thing that we call “reading” actually is, and is becoming.
Also unintentionally funny in Grothaus’s article is his bout of hand-wringing over the implications of Readmill’s proposed business model. That model, like so many we are seeing these days, seems to revolve around selling data on user interactions back to interested parties — in this case, book publishers. Grothaus is worried: Won’t this mean that publishers will start to use these data to lean on authors and dictate their writing styles to boost sales? Berggren offers this glib response: “You can paint a very dystopian future where publishers say, ‘Oh, people are just skipping this chapter. You can’t write like this anymore.’ However, I think that’s unlikely to happen.”
Well, that’s a relief.