In the ebook world the term Social Reading is all the rage these days. Social reading makes reading fun again, productive and social. At least that’s what social reading platforms keep telling us. But is this true? And what do they mean by social?
If there is one activity that is by it’s nature completely anti-social then it is the act of reading. Reading means closing yourself off from the real world, from your friends and loved ones and diving into the thoughts and fictions of a book. If reading is social in any way it is socializing with the author, his or her thoughts and it is a way of socializing with fictional characters in a book. I’ve become good friends with Frodo, Billy Pilgrim and all the lovely people of the Seven Kingdoms.
The classic social place for reading is the library and we all know how social they are. They’re not. Libraries are places where everybody goes to be alone with his or her book. Everywhere you’ll see signs to remind you not to be social. Be quiet! Don’t talk in the reading room! Silence! Socializing is not allowed in the reading room. If you want to socialize, please go to a café with your book and cappucino and pretend to read there.
There is a good reason why libraries insist on silence. Distraction in the form of noise or chatter is a killer of concentration. Only when reading with full concentration can one immerse oneself completely in a book. Too many distractions means you will only experience a shallow reading experience.
One of the often heard complaints about reading ebooks, especially on smartphones, is that there are too many distractions. You’re reading an ebook, but in fact you’re constantly checking Twitter and Facebook, or you’re interrupted by all kinds of useless notifications. Oh wait, there’s a new email, likes from Instagram, calendar notifications, WhatsApp messages, game notifications, etc. etc. For many people it is a reason to switch back to paper books. No distractions at last! Thank God! So, in the light of all these distractions, is it a good idea to make reading social? Make it fun again? Hell no! It is a terrible idea. Social reading is the best way to totally kill reading productivity and it will surely kill the fun of reading, because after a while you won’t be reading your book at all, but you’ll be scanning annotations, typing comments and sending messages with smileys. You’ll still have fun, but it has nothing to do with reading ebooks.
Now let’s take a close look at the social part of social reading. What is social about most social reading apps. It is mainly about sharing annotations with people you don’t know. Right now, in most social reading apps, that’s about it. It’s not a real conversation, it’s sharing written text of others. That’s okay. I’m not against it and in an ideal world it would all be fabulous. In practice it is not. Social reading right now feels like drowning in a sea of shallowness. With most annotations you don’t exactly know why someone else marked it. No idea at all. I sometimes see it as a guessing game. Why on earth would someone mark these lines? What’s so special about it? Hmm. Other marked sections you recognize because you marked them too. But what does that add to your reading experience? That someone else had the same idea about marking this text. It’s nice to know, but nothing more.
It’s different when people can have conversations, add comments, like here on Medium. But how often are these comments really worth while? Sometimes they are, but many times, I’m sorry to say, they are not. This is the reason why so many sites are closing down the comments section. In an ideal world we would all be reading literature and philosophy and history books and we would have conversations with all the brilliant minds in the world. We would all be following our favorite writers and thinkers while they are reading the best books in the world, following their annotations and comments, having discussions with them, disagreeing with them and diving into each and every book deeper than we did ever before. Yes, I would probably sign on for such a social reading service! But even then, not all the time, because it still feels too much like a distraction, keeping me from doing the work myself, reading and thinking hard about what I’m actually reading. I don’t want reading to become too easy where it is tempting to just scan the comments of bright people, instead of reading the book myself.
Therefore I would like to make a plea for keeping reading anti-social for now. I’m terribly sorry, but I just want to be left alone with my book. When I finish mybook I will again join the conversation.