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Saturday, March 17, 2012

On Social Reading

With social this and social that being the latest thing on the internet, and e-books going very strong, it was only a matter of time until the big companies started to realized that you can combine the two. And indeed, I’ve recently read quite a good article (in German) about this. But what I did read made me cringe.

I’m an avid reader. Dear big bosses, let me tell you what social reading should be for people like me. Because you seem to miss the point.

The Error

New websites like Quote.fm and Readmill seem to focus on the idea that you can highlight passages in books, share them with your friends, and discuss them. Everything else is secondary.

Focusing on quotations is bad.

The social reading I do, which happens to be in real life, involves a few friends and myself sitting together in our living room, each reading a book. We do share a tea or similar. In this context, we do indeed share quotations from our books, but the quotations we share are only short, humorous ones. This is because first, good scenes from books that are not humorous need more context than you can put into a short excerpt, and second, when reading a book it’s important to try and avoid to spoil the plot to others.

The social aspect about reading happens outside of the actual reading act. You can discuss with friends about books you’ve read, what kind of books you liked, and what they liked. You exchange recommendations, and when you find out you both read the same book, you can discuss the scenes, characters and plots in more detail. None of this involves quotations as such.

So, while quotations can be nice to have, a site dedicated to Social Reading should not focus on that alone. Even if it’s the easiest thing you can do to your e-reader to make it unique.

It should be noted that this holds for fiction. Non-fiction would benefit a lot from the ability to post quotations and discuss them. Sadly, these Social Reading sites seem to focus entirely on fiction.

Social Reading Before it was Cool

Of course, the sites mentioned are not the first to do social reading. One of the most well-known sites would be Goodreads, and even before the internet, people met in book clubs to read together and share their favorite pastime.

Book clubs have managed to transfer to the net. On social networks like Google+, readers will decide on a book together, read it, and then meet together in the book club to talk about it.

Social Reading as it Should Be

So, what do I want social reading sites to be like.

First and foremost, I want to get recommendations for new books to look at and read. This is purely selfish, but it’s the goal for the whole endeavor. If my hobby is reading, I want a site that revolves around reading to help me read more and better books.

I also want to share stories on what I like about a book. Maybe that’s a quotation from the book, but more likely it’s a description of one of the characters, plots, scenes or settings which I liked a lot. The elaborate form of these stories would be book reviews, but it doesn’t have to be a full book review every time.

I want to discuss with others about books, authors and even genres. Hear what they like about them and what they dislike. Ideally, I can do this without being afraid of spoilers. This goes both ways. I want to be able to read discussions on books I want to read without being afraid of getting their plot spoiled. But I also want to be able to discuss books I have read somewhere without being afraid of spoiling the enjoyment of someone else. Organizing book clubs to read specific books and discuss them afterwards is just the most organized form of this.

And on a site dedicated to being social, I also do want to find people with a similar taste to mine. Finding people that share my interests is one of the great things about social media.

I can think of a few other ideas for the site. LibraryThing showed that a lot of readers have an almost unhealthy librarian focus and wish to organize and represent their libraries. Showing the books you are currently reading and when you finish one can also be interesting. Likewise, statistics about reading and reading progress can be fun. But these are all mostly for fun, and secondary to the main purposes above.


Quotations are the least important aspect of a book for readers to talk about with friends. While not unimportant, there are vastly more important things.

I love the idea of marrying two of my favorite pastimes, online socializing and book reading, but please, pretty please, do it well. The world has enough websites dedicated to bad ideas already.