Everything New is Old Again

For as far as we’ve come, are we just evolving back to where we started? As part a panel for The HappyCorp‘s publishing workshop for New York’s Design Week recently, I helped field questions from an audience of online publishers. Their primary questions were about “RSS,” focused on ways they can improve the reading experience of their content through feed readers.

As I listened to my co-panelists answer, I heard them describing not new ways to design for reading in social environments, not new strategies for user engagement, but something pretty pedestrian: how to improve the isolated reading experience.

Designers are becoming more masterful at creating social experiences, yet reading with most feed readers is still much like reading a magazine or a book: isolated but portable, modular yet somewhat sequential. While that timing and sequence is controlled by the reader, it is still a solo experience.

A Good Return to Isolation?
Despite all our social tools, feed readers themselves are really pretty isolating, unsocial experiences. This now-well-quoted passage from Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You reveals just how unsocial the reading experience can be by imagining video games were invented before books:

“Books are tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children.”

Feed readers are isolating too, encouraging readers away from where pre-meditated interaction can take place — comments, ratings, reviews, purchases. But at least feed readers aren’t sequential. Because users can control the complexity themselves, they do inspire some of the engaged action that is missing from a sequential reading experience.

The Right Retreat
Retreating into one’s reader might on the surface seem like a disengagement rather than a continued engagement — just like books to Johnson seem like a step back compared to video games. Books require quiet isolation to read; likewise feed readers require a step away from the original source of the content.

But while the experience of feed-reading may be isolating, it’s more akin to reading your magazine on a New York subway than it is like reading that same magazine in quiet isolation. You’re alone, but your people are never very far away.

Even still, I wonder: with all due respect to solitary reading time and reflection, are our behaviors in danger of returning to the isolated experience of reading?