As the Praxis team has been discussing the values and drawbacks of anonymity (or pseudonymity) in crowd-sourced interpretation, I’ve been thinking about what it means to read socially — more specifically, what we rely on from other readers, and what we provide to other readers.
Like most everyone, I spend a significant portion of my time reading, in many different formats — from work-related research in the form of journal articles, news, blog posts, and popular media, to the professional/personal world of Twitter, to purely personal novels and side projects. The network of people around me has a strong effect on my reading patterns. I pick up book based on recommendations of friends with similar taste; I click countless links a day because someone I know or find interesting has mentioned them.
Unfiltered, the volume would be simply overwhelming, so I rely on a variety of cues to decide where to direct my attention. Part of this filtering process has to do with what I’m thinking about or looking for. Another factor is the expertise or particular qualifications of the person recommending something (depending on the context, “qualifications” can mean anything from general brilliance, to specific topic knowledge, to an ability to spot something funny).
So, the background of the person influences my desire to read something, and also affects how I read it. These pointers are incredibly useful. At the same time, some social reading features — I’m thinking particularly of the Kindle’s “Popular Highlights” — drive me completely crazy. Why do some aspects of social reading help me to read more effectively, while others distract me?
A lot of what matters seems to be the identity and role of the person influencing my reading, and what that cues me to look for in the text. The anonymity of Kindle’s Popular Highlights renders the annotation a meaningless distraction — much like picking up an overly-highlighted used book. On the other hand, annotations from a respected colleague can add a great deal of depth to my own reading experience.
Prism’s current iteration isn’t meant to guide the reader as she reads — but rather, to aggregate the reading experiences of many users to bring new meaning to the text. What would it look like if Prism could not only capture readers’ interpretations, but also enable readers to be guided toward different or deeper readings based on the interpretations of others? The team has been talking about how different ways of sorting the kinds of markings that people make might make participation more meaningful, and I’m looking forward to seeing where te discussion leads.