Reading? In a browser!?


Kim Krause Berg recently wrote about the pleasure of reading a book (a tree-book!) compared to reading online (i.e., in a web browser, at a laptop). She is “not ready to let go of  [the printed book], yet,” she says. I’m with her so far. But I am surprised by the following passage:

Reading online is something I find difficult to do. For such a devoted reader, I think it’s surprising that no web based article or magazine holds the same magic for me as the printed word. Sometimes I’ll even print out a white paper, article or case study because I want to curl up on the couch to read it. I want to scribble notes on it. I like to use highlighters and write reminders for things that may come in handy later. I can’t take a highlighter to a web page. I can’t jot down notes on the screen.

She clearly has a sense of the possibilities when interacting with a document on paper. Why the surprise then that reading on the web is so unpleasant? Skimming, OK; but deep reading, active reading? It seems obvious that a tool that offers none of physical versatility, none of the annotation capability and poor contrast to boot does not make for a positive experience. Current ebook devices aren’t much better, either, as Karen Frenkel points out.

In another quote telling of our impoverished interaction age, Kim says:

Interestingly, as web designers and marketers, we create content in the hopes that readers will do something. We want them to read and click to go somewhere. We hope they read and make a purchase.

The range of possible online interaction is reduced to clicking on a link or buying something. We should aspire to more! Why are we content with such limitations? Why shouldn’t we be able to annotate, highlight, scribble on, search from, compare, skim, summarize, and analyze the documents we read online?

The technology to help us read better has been around for more than ten years. We had demonstrated some of these capabilities in XLibris, and there has been good work in this space at Microsoft Research as well. Wouldn’t it be great to see some products in this space?

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  1. One solution to the highlighting and annotating part (and sharing these with others) is a firefox plugin called Diigo

  2. Very much in agreement here. I really don’t think they are going to truly replace paper for some time yet.

    I blogged about this recently (“In Praise of Paper”) here:

    Another big problem which I do not really get into is that because of the search engines’ insistence on a top ten or top twenty “hits”, it becomes easier and easier for a few documents to dominate the conversation whether it is due to actual merit or good advertising. As I do more and more research on the web, I’m starting to see its limitations as a research tool more clearly.

  3. […] and iPads”). I expect that most of the interaction with the books will consist of clicking on links in a browser, without the benefit of interfaces for active […]

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