The fourth speaker of ‘The Unbound Book’ session is Bob Stein. Stein has been engaged with electronic publishing full time since 1980. He has been involved in many projects, like Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Voyager Company, Intellectual Tools of the Future, and the Institute for the Future of the Book. Currently Stein and his partners are building a comprehensive platform for social reading called SocialBooks.
First, he starts his presentation with answering some questions moderator Geert Lovink asked at the start of the session. He is very clear and short in his answers: “Do we herald the death of the individual author with the rise of collaborative writing?” “Yes”
Bob Stein @ the unbound book conference - photo cc by-sa Sebastiaan ter Burg
In 1992 Voyager Company published the first electronic books, including Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. With the rise of electronic books, he found it hard to have a clear definition of books: ‘We don’t have the words yet, it may take some years to make a good definition of books.’ In addition, he continues with a short overview of the definition of books in the last few decades. Stein starts in 1979 with the use of multi media. He shows a small video of a man with one of the first computers. On this computer the man has a kind of early version of an e-book: when he touches the screen, matching words appear. In 1981 the projects Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Intellectual Tools of the Future were started. He figured that we had to stop thinking about the physicality of the book, and start thinking about how books are used. It is more about the experience of reading than the material. From that moment on, Stein started calling books ‘user-driven media’. This is in contrast with 20th century media, which is producer-driven media and where ‘things just happen to you’. User-driven media is replacing this, and consequently the way we use media has changed. We treat media the way we read books: not random but linear.
Continually, in 1996 the web came along and the container definition of books suddenly disappeared. The urgency to define books again becomes more clear. In 2006, Network Books appeared. The first version was Gamer Theory by McKenzie Wark. Wark writes in paragraphs; this made it possible to present the book online as cards. Instead of placing comment space underneath the text, the comments were placed next to the cards. This small change was actually a very profound change. At first, McKenzie replied to every comment, but after a while he became comfortable with it and eventually he trusted the conversation as a whole. The hierarchy of print suddenly seemed a lot flatter when feedback and comments of readers were included. In 2008 The Golden Notebook was created. This is one of the variants of Game Theory by McKenzie. Next to this text there were comments of seven women. They haven’t met before the project, but that did not matter: a social layer was created.
Consequently Bob Stein states that a book is a place: a place where readers and sometimes authors congregate. This influences the way authors work: old fashion authors engage in a subject matter for future readers, new school authors engage with readers on particular subjects. Stein explains: ‘Suppose you write a piece, for example a biography of Obama, but instead of publishing it at once, you publish several parts every once in a while. Readers can pay a small amount of money for every post, instead of a larger amount for the complete work. This is more like MySpace or blogging, so it could be more natural for young researchers.’ Sounds like a good idea to me.
Stein continues with his project SocialBook.com. This is an online platform for social reading. With SocialBooks, he wants to build an ecosystem for publishing that assumes that books are places where people gather. Works will appear in the Browser, not in mobile apps or proprietary non browsers based readers. This is made possible with HTML5.
Moreover, he names four flavours of social reading. First, having conversations with people you know in the margin of the book. Second, having access to others’ comments in the book. Users can comment on the text, bring quotes forward that are highlighted, post comments to the group, tweet and Facebook it. They can also make comments to other readers of the same book, and can see a list of all the comments of all the readers of a certain page. In other words, the user can interact with the text. Third, reading and extracting comments and reading other people’s critiques. Social means being able to read an experts gloss on a book. For example, someone can extract their comments and export them. Stein explains: ‘think how important it is going to be when you have a guide through a book. In this case, when you get to a page that is interesting, you are in the book. ’Fourth, engage with authors asynchronously or in in real time “in the book”. There are lots of options of hiring authors or inviting them to your group. You can think of the relation between authors and readers differently. For example, some people would be willing to pay a small amount of money to ask questions to the author via SocialBook, or to have a tutor on math books.
To illustrate the four flavours, Stein shows us a small demonstration of SocialBooks. On stage he selects a part of a text and comments on it. A colleague in the back of the conference room responses with a comment: a successful experiment. Unfortunately, Stein could not spend a lot of time in examining reading and writing subjects. However, he thinks it will take a while before the boundary between reading and writing will disappear. By that, he is not thinking about two or three years, but more like a few decades.
Last, some questions were asked by the audience:
‘Could you turn the social layer off?’
‘Yes you can. But I think the value is in the social layer, perhaps the book should be free, and users have to pay for this social layer.’
‘Can you turn the book layer off?’
‘I do not think that is relevant since all the comments are about the book. Only when you know the text by heart, like a short poem, it could be possible but not with a book or essay. However, I think that the discussion is the most interesting part, like the discussion on Wikipedia. This is where the action happens. But SocialBooks in concerned with the fixed text.’