Books as Conversations

Broadway South

Historically, scribbling in page margins has been a solitary practice—one reader, one book. Annotated copies are sometimes shared, and every so often notes are collated and published, but by and large the page margin has functioned as a private mental space for the reader.

If the book is digital, however, and resides on a network, new possibilities begin to open up. The page margin can become a public space. Authors and
readers can interact in close to real time. An entire classroom can operate inside a single text. Books can become conversations.

Over the past two years, the Institute for the Future of the Book has run a series of “networked book” experiments exploring the potential of blogs and other popular web apps to stimulate meaningful social interaction around and inside of long texts. In 2006 they published a web edition of a full rough draft of /Gamer Theory/, a monograph by renowned media studies scholar McKenzie Wark. To the right of each paragraph of the text were comment fields that were quickly populated by hundreds of postings from a diverse group of readers (including Wark himself)—a dynamic conversation alive in the margins of the book that ended up having significant impact on subsequent revisions.

Based on this success, and in order to make this functionality more
widely available, the Institute developed CommentPress as an extension
to the popular blogging software WordPress. Now anyone with a blog can
set up a social reading environment with paragraph-level commenting
around a text of their choosing. A number of fascinating projects are
already underway. This session will tell the story of CommentPress and
discuss its implications for education, academia, and publishing.

Photo of Ben Vershbow

Ben Vershbow

New York Public Library

Ben Vershbow works on digital publications and online reading
interfaces at the New York Public Library. Before coming to NYPL, Ben
spent over three years at the Institute for the Future of the Book, a
small Brooklyn-based think tank dedicated to exploring the future of
reading, writing and publishing in the digital age. At the Institute,
Ben collaborated with authors on a series of “networked book”
experiments investigating new methods for writing and building
community around web-based texts.


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