In a recent interview, Clay Shirky shared his views on social reading which he defines not as the community underlining feature on your Kindle, but the ability to find people who have read the same works and engage them in a conversation about ideas.

The number of people who’ve read, say, The Coming Insurrection is tiny. But it used to be impossible for us to find each other, and now it’s easy. So — if you go to Occupy, and if I go to Occupy, and we’ve both read David Graeber… that sensibility suffuses the crowd, and that crowd is better able to act than it would have been previously. And that synchronizing effect, not so much of time but of shared awareness, that’s a big part of the present change, and one that’s going to be amplified in the future.

I read most books on my iPad. The books are downloaded immediately. The app remembers my pages. I can annotate my thoughts and search through them later for use on this blog or elsewhere. It’s much more convenient than a book.

But I haven’t tried to find people who have read similar works or have conversations with them about new ideas. The right places don’t exist yet. Communities like GoodReads might seem to be the right places for those kinds of conversations. But user comments are similar to Amazon reviews, answering the question of whether one should justify the effort to read a book rather than a discussion on the main precepts.

Social media has exposed us to more content and more varied content than a newspaper would. But  “deep” conversations today occur in forums and on blogs and Hacker News, which are either products of the 1990s or look like they were invented in the 1990s.

I’m not sure how deep thought and conversation will evolve in the next 2 or 3 years. But some of the elements that will enable these conversations are already in view. eBooks allow annotation. Trust graphs from social networks enable intelligent filtering. Social networks distribute news of these conversations. And the internet allows almost anyone to participate.

Finding the people who buck the trend and focus on these conversations and changing the behavior of sound bites and link bait is the harder cultural challenge. But to fulfill Shirky’s vision, we will have to use the technology that bred scanning and short attention spans to reach the right audience.


3 thoughts on “Clay Shirky on Social Reading

  1. This is such an important question. While it’s true that Twitter and other social media have expanded exponentially the avenues for exchange and sharing of ideas, “deep” conversations are hardly the norm. Hit and run exchanges or, more likely, no real reading occurring at all, just the desire to stay distracted and to build up your Twitter stats. Perhaps we will see a countermovement, e.g., a rise in reading groups, more informal coffee shop “seminars,” or just finding more time for substantive conversation with the people we already know and who have good minds and interesting ideas. Perhaps not.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    • I think you’re exactly right when you say, “or just finding more time for substantive conversation with the people we already know and who have good minds and interesting ideas.” There are some things technology has a hard time scaling and I think these conversations are one of them.

      • Thanks for the reply. I’m following your blog and will look forward to future posts. The business world needs a better understanding of these ideas, I believe.


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