Social e-books as online communities, for AOIR 2011

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Tomorrow I’m off to the conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, an event I’ve always wanted to attend and this time actually get to present to! I’m part of a session on Books and Publishing, where I will be talking about the e-book research I am now undertaking at Emily Carr in collaboration with Jonathan Aitken, Ron Burnett, Celeste Martin and other colleagues.

Our research has morphed a little in the many months since I submitted my session proposal, so here’s a slightly updated version of what I’ll be discussing in this talk.

Would you friend a novel? Social e-books as online communities

Social e-books are now emerging as a new form of participatory culture. The iPad and other tablet devices have ushered in a new generation of books that blur the line between text and performance, book and app, e-publishing and online community. These e-books that are now appearing on tablet devices differ from their modestly enhanced predecessors by incorporating not only text, image and video but also features like collaborative annotation, game mechanics, interactive animation and socially generated content. This paper argues for the incorporation of social e-books into the study of online community and participatory culture, introducing a model for analyzing social e-books as online communities. It provides a preliminary test of that model through the case of a social e-book now under development.

To date, the literature on electronic books has largely fallen in the fields of information science, publishing and education addressing topics like reader perceptions of electronic books (often by analyzing library usage) (Hurst et al. 2009); examining implications for the book industry; or the assessing impact of electronic textbooks on student learning (Chau 2008) and reading habits (Simon 2001). This emphasis on the fundamental experience of reading made sense as long as PDFs and black-and-white virtual ink readers like the first Kindle represented the technical frontier of e-books of mainstream readers.

The advent of the iPad created a critical mass of consumers who now have access to a tablet with the technical capability to support much richer forms of media interactivity. In the ten months since the arrival of the iPad, social e-books have begun to enter the mainstream discourse on electronic book publishing, although rudimentary speculation on its potential features goes back at least as far as 2002 (Henke 2002). Social and interactive iPad titles, mostly aimed at children, have dovetailed with the predictions of industry observers who anticipated e-books that support sharing reading notes (Johnston 2010); the exchange of voice annotations, book lending and socially-based reading time estimates (Rose 2010); and “crowdsourced wikis linked within the book” (Wolf 2010).

By reviewing a selection of leading-edge social e-books that represent the range of functionality now being incorporated into electronic publications, this paper creates a taxonomy of these emergent features. These include the e-book’s incorporation of video (as per a wide range of Vook titles); interactive animation (for example in Alice in Wonderland and The Heart and the Bottle); animated illustration (The Pedlar Lady); game mechanics (Dusk World); social sharing of book highlights (Copia, and the latest Kindle update) and user-generated content (on the recently announced SocialBooks platform).

The e-publishing literature is not well-equipped to predict, analyze and elicit user engagement with books that include these kinds of participatory features. In contrast, research into online community and participatory culture provides a rich source of inspiration and insight for e-book creators; the field may also be enriched by incorporating the study of newly social e-books. This follows the path of other emergent forms of online community that have been successively recognized and incorporated as appropriate subjects of inquiry, such as photo-sharing communities (Nov, Naaman, and Ye 2009), social networks (Boyd and Ellison 2008), YouTube (Rotman and J. Preece 2010) and mobile/SMS-based communities) list-making systems (Krüpl 2010), and Wikipedia (Gleave et al. 2009)

To assess the value of online community research in analyzing social e-books, the paper draws on the reader-to-leader framework (J Preece and B Shneiderman 2009), a relatively recent contribution that has already informed research and experiments as diverse as an online community to address climate change (Malone et al. 2009), an investigation of distributed participation in scientific research (Nov, Anderson, and Arazy 2010), and an analysis of geocaching communities (Clough 2010). This framework articulates the user’s experience of deepening social participation in terms of successive levels: “reading, contributing, collaborating, and leading.” (J Preece and B Shneiderman 2009) By mapping the taxonomy of social e-book features onto the levels in the reader-to-leader framework, the paper establishes both the utility of this framework for analyzing reader participation in existing social e-books, and suggests some of the framework’s limitations.

It then demonstrates how the framework has been used in planning a specific e-book project by demonstrating how it has been applied to the e-book projects now underway at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. The relevance and gaps of the reader-to-leader framework in structuring the design choices for this project will inform the paper’s conclusion, which identifies the implications for the research agenda in the fields of online community and online participation as well as e-publishing.

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