Facing the crowded future of reading

French telecommunications firm Bouygues Telecom settled on a different kind of Facebook app. Flashback, conceived as a promotion for the launch of the company’s new profile, offered a novel way for users to turn material from their own profiles into books. The company offered one thousand books; the entire run was reportedly gone in an hour.

I’m reminded of UK-based publishing impresario James Bridle’s brilliant Wikipedia Historiography of the Iraq War, which documents every edit made to the Iraq War Wikipedia entry in multi-volume, encyclopedic form.

Bridle’s project was a brilliant demonstration of one of the traditional book’s great strengths: its ability to embody time. The codex format, and the sheer physicality of pages bound into books, conveys the quality of accumulation in tangible form. The computer is better at managing the residue of time, better at filing it away, marking and calling back state upon state from the layers of the past. But stacked leaves of paper do an admirable job of instantiating time’s passage.

In a way, Flashback commodifies the bibliographical embodiment of time. I’m struck by the possibility that this is not a bad thing�that perhaps the translation of wall posts and comments into durable form might help to furnish a kind of perspective on the social networking experience that many feel it lacks. Facebook as book: it might help to unsettle and estrange us from ourselves a little bit, to consider the impact our fleeting pings and blips have on friends and followers.

Meanwhile, Copia, the new social network for bibliophiles, has launched. Combining a suite of ebook readers for desktop and mobile devices with chat, library-building, and bookselling functions, Copia’s designs on the “space” of social reading are ambitious indeed.

I’ve joined Copia, and I’m eager to learn more about how it works. But some of the language in the promotional video give me pause.

“Collective thoughts and ideas of the community live on every page.” Sounds great�except when it isn’t. Even (and maybe especially) in a networked age, reading sometimes wants to go dark. “Keep track of all the books you’ve read or want to read.” I’ve read thousands of books; this sounds like a lot of work. “Every book is a connection to new people. And the more people you follow, the better it gets. Luckily, Copia helps you keep track of them all.” It’s great to chat, and about books above all�until “chat” becomes compulsory, at any rate.

But I’m not condemning Copia, or the broad impulse to bring social networking to reading experiences. Copia isn’t the first such attempt; in fact, its competition is likely to be stiff�especially from LibraryThing, which claims one million users, and has made itself useful to a diverse community of networked bibliophiles. Literary academics, meanwhile, have their own occult forms of social reading, which include Twitter (enormously popular among a certain cohort of professors and the peri- and quasi-academic), and the sharing of citations and resources via the Zotero Firefox extension. The Kindle’s highlighting feature has social components as well, although many users find it more vexing than enlightening. And finally, Wikipedia is a form of collaborative editing and collective authority-building which presents so many similarities�and challenges�to prior modes of producing knowledge that we forget it’s also a social reading experience.

Copia seems patterned on the “curl-up-with-a-good-book” pattern language: literature as epicurean experience, reading as a leisure pursuit to be savored. The Kindle, too, is focused on this kind of reading, shoving everything literary into the procrustean bed of the bourgeois novel. Whether Copia�or indeed any social network that addresses reading as its rubric�will prove more flexible remains to be seen. But success isn’t dependent on flexibility; Facebook, after all, rode a narrow model of sociability to dominance.

But why am I talking about Flashback and Copia in the same post? They’re two very different implementations of bookishness and the reading experience, sketching two very different sets of assumptions about what books are and what reading them in a networked age should be like.

And they hardly exhaust the possibilities�indeed, they don’t even sketch the “known unknowns,” in Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous formulation. We’ll get the shared reading of novels and the private skimming of once-shared thoughts, darknets of printed words and pulse-quickening moments of reading in crowds, and who knows what else besides�novels that tailor their prose to our buying habits, stories that follow us out of the bookstore and onto the subway. Divining the future of technologies, we easily fall into dichotomies and rivalries; but in fact the book will take on mongrel shapes in times to come. And it’s the “unknown unknowns”�which are glimpsed neither in Flashback nor in Copia�that will filter and pattern the coming world of reading.

[Flashback app via ViralBlog; more information about Copia here.]

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