Reader-augmented Writing

Words gave us the ability to effectively share ideas and knowledge, and writing allowed those words to spread further and be carried across time. The printing press accelerated that spread, and electronic mediums allowed even more people to share ideas more quickly.

Yet articles and books — even e-books — are still largely static and one-way. We read only what the author knows at the time of writing. Technology will change these from one-way, static content into the basis for conversation, bringing out more ideas and critical discussion, magnifying what we get out of them.

I’m looking forward to that day.

Mechanism Direction and Magnitude of Knowledge and Idea Sharing
Spoken Language One-to-many and many-to-many on a small scale, ephemeral
Written Language One-to-many on a small scale and across time
Printing Press One-to-many on a large scale (as well as across time)
Web and e-books Some-to-many on a large scale and more rapidly
Augmented & Collaborative Books and Articles Books and articles as a seed for many-to-many, rapid conversations, magnifying what we get out of a book or article.

I think we’re close, but not there yet

Here are a couple of examples and how they differ from what I’m looking forward to:

  • Reddit: There are often good discussion and information about articles on Reddit, and Reddit can do a pretty good job at surfacing the good stuff. What could be better:
    • Consolidation: There can be many Reddit posts about a single article, so the discussion and information are often fragmented.
    • Integrated: The discussion and information are separate from the article (a browser extension like Reddit Wherever can bring it a bit closer to the article).
    • Granular: Discussion and information are at the article level (not on particular passages of the article).
  • Google Docs: Commenting on Google Docs is a pretty good example of the user experience I have in mind: highlighting a passage (granular) and adding a comment, and everyone who opens the doc can see them and participate (integrated). The real-time, unmoderated, unfiltered discussion of Google Docs wouldn’t work at scale (articles with more than a dozen people interacting with it). Perhaps a bit of a blend of Google Docs-like UX with Reddit-like moderation?
  • Kindle Notes & Highlights: Also a pretty good example of the user experience, you can highlight a passage and add a comment (granular), and others can comment (here’s an example), but you can only view notes and highlights (and the discussions on those) by one person at a time, and only on Goodreads. It’s also only for books.


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