When I was younger, having a movie marathon was one of my favorite things to do with my sisters. We would bake chocolate chip cookies, slip into our pjs and spend the afternoon in front of the television, watching back-to-back Meg Ryan romantic comedies. It’s true that watching movies can be a solitary activity, but we always found it more enjoyable with company.
Reading, on the other hand, was harder—though not impossible—to make social. My sisters and I would have “Reading Parties,” where we grabbed a book and a seat on the couch, or chair, or floor, and spent the day lounging about, reading our individual books, but doing it together. Only on long car rides did we read aloud (but, undoubtedly, whoever was reading would look up from chapter five to find nearly all of us—save the driver—asleep). Literature is a special medium in the way that it allows for an intimacy between reader and author. Making reading social can mean losing that intimacy. For the most part, my sisters and I preferred to be alone with the author’s voice in our heads.
But the internet has changed a lot of things, including how we read. Without a doubt, ebook reading devices and online bookstores have had an effect on the dissemination of literature, but what I’m curious about is effect the internet has had on the solitary nature of reading.
New websites such as readups.com and readmill.com offer services to make reading more social. The ReadUps website invites you to “create a ReadUp event and invite friends to read with you for a limited amount of time, sharing comments on paragraphs.” If you’ve ever borrowed a friend’s book and stopped to focus on a passage they’d highlighted or taken the time to read their notes in the margins, then you can understand the service this website provides. But unlike reading a borrowed book, with ReadUps, you are able to see your friend’s comments as they make them, while sharing your own at the same time. Similarly, the site has a chat feature allowing real-time interaction—so that in the middle of The Great Gatsby, for instance, you can ask your friend about the dichotomy between Daisy Buchanan’s white dress and Jay Gatsby’s colorful collared shirts. At the end of your set timeframe, the comments and highlights disappear along with the text as well.
Readmill is a site that offers similar services, only it markets itself to be used on smartphones and tablets. While ReadUps invites you to highlight and note at a set time and place with a set person or group of people, Readmill encourages you to comment anywhere, anytime and to anyone. In an essay by Clive Thompson called “Public Thinking” that was adapted from his book Smarter Than You Think, the author discusses these sites and brings up a lot of interesting questions about how technology will change not only the way we communicate, but the way we organize our thoughts. But what’s most interesting about Thompson is his online presence and how he uses the tools that Readmill provides to promote his ideas. The vast majority of the users who highlight or comment on a passage in “Public Thinking” receive a response from the author himself. It appears Readmill can not only affect a reader’s relationship to a text, but also, if an author is a willing participant, a reader’s relationship with an author (and visa versa).
But do these sites offer something that booklovers are interested in? Now, when you visit readmill.com, you’re taken to a letter from the creators, explaining that Dropbox has acquired Readmill, and as a result, the site will be shutting down on the first of July. They end their note with: “It has been a privilege to read together, and we look forward to meeting again, in new ways, in the margins.” Bound for a career at Dropbox, the creators of Readmill succeeded in creating new, valuable technology, but failed in their mission to create a space where people can read together. Maybe Readmill—in the same way Myspace paved the way for Facebook, Yahoo made way for Google, and Napster was an initial model for iTunes—is just a prototype, building a foundation for future, more robust, social reading websites. It seems very possible, considering the ReadUps site shows no sign of shutting down anytime soon and declares that 1,627 ReadUps have been created so far—1,627 and counting.
Did You Know?
A recent study administered by S. Craig Watkins, PhD, and H. Erin Lee at the University of Texas at Austin argues that Facebook has made people more social. The study determined that 47 percent of young Facebook users say that staying in touch with friends is very important, and 35 percent say the same about staying in close communication with family.
Facebook may have had an impact on the value people place on communication, but what kind of communication are we talking about? A “Happy Birthday“ post on your great-aunt’s wall or a face-to-face get-together with your best friend from high school?
Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, argues that the study redefines what it means to be social. She says that these social media sites have damaged young people’s ability to communicate in person—what being truly social means to her—and disagrees with the study’s conclusion.