When you read something online and want to respond to it, there are many ways to do so: leave a comment on the article, post to Twitter or Facebook, or write a response on your blog. But a frequent refrain is that comments are toxic, or that social media is shrill and devoid of substance.
Responding in public used to be hard; if someone visited your house and spotted a particular book, you might show them some notes you’d left in the margins. Or you may write a letter to a newspaper with your thoughts on a piece, whether you enjoyed it, or found something inaccurate, or got disgusted by it.
Please don’t take this as misguided nostalgia for a past when everyone was wiser and more polite; I suspect that if we could see all those notes and letters at once today, we’d call it noisy, too. The slowness of what people in the past could say and the limits of the communities where those opinions travelled meant that any one person got only a small glimpse of what was thought, said, or written.
Living in a hyper-connected world means we need to pay attention to how the pieces are connected. And I see only the barest of connections between the way we read and the way we respond: comments set in small type are buried at the bottom of articles, back-and-forths happen across Twitter with a single shortened link back to the topic at hand, forums like Reddit and Hacker News contain entire ecosystems of posters camped under links with reworded titles. It’s easy to make sweeping generalizations, to misinterpret and misconstrue, to jump to the sides of people you know, and to get caught in spiraling discussions when what you’re talking about is kept all the way in the distance.
New reading services, by providing highlights and annotations and drawing readers together, bring an opportunity to make stronger and better connections. They can be places that collect conversation and offer easy ways to extend discussion on specific points or pieces as a whole. Writing notes and thoughts to yourself used to be easier than broadcasting them to the world – now they have the same amount of friction, and the line between reflection and broadcast blurs; it just depends on who sees them online.
There’s more than one way to see a book: we can start with the text as written by the author, or peer into what our friends think, or follow a debate between two readers, jumping from page to page. These books can grow or shrink – if I only want to see my highlights and the conversation around them, or reduce the book down to just the notes someone left behind.
And so the size of my library – containing all that I have read and reread and aspire to read – can grow and shrink and change even as the number of books on the shelves remain the same. The shelves hold not only the books of my choosing, but also the snippets and fragments that I have plucked or added or paraphrased or argued about. They sit between each other, between you and I, bound together by the strength of our connections.
Allen Tan is a web and interface designer based in New York. Allen loves pretty pixels, elegant markup, and truly thoughtful design. You can follow him on Twitter, and catch his highlights on Readmill.