Monday, October 21, 2013

An Algorithm for Reading a Book in the Digital Age

Books are changing. Reading is changing. Research is changing. It's time to think about how to read a book in the digital age. Serious students and the academic of the 21st century need new strategies for dealing with books. I'm going to propose an algorithm -- a recipe for reading and research, if you will. It is not suitable for all genres or purposes. Consider it a way of exploring the alternatives of how books can be experienced in today's information environment.

  1. Use social media to announce your intention of researching a topic by way of reading a book.
    Example: On Twitter, Facebook, and/or Google+, I could post something like "What's going on with copyright today? Starting James Boyle's The Public Domain to figure it out. #amreading #copyright
    Note the use of hashtags (metadata) that identify both what I'm doing and what topic I'm researching.
  2. Start a blog post even before reading your book. In the title, identify that book as an anchor point for researching your topic. Write just a sentence or two in which you introduce why you are reading this and where you hope it will take you.
    Example title: "Exploring Copyright's Confusion with Jame's Boyle's The Public Domain."
    Example first paragraph: "I'm told Boyle is the expert in copyright. I'm also told his book is both very important and somewhat dry. I'm going to see for myself because I am not happy that my wife got one of those take-down notices for singing a cover of a K.T. Tunstall song on her blog. What's the world coming to?

    This post will not be a book review. It will be an in-process post recording early discoveries about your chosen topic by way of a book addressing that topic. You will add to this blog post during the next few steps.
  3. Preview the book. Do this by browsing its table of contents, index, bibliography, and skimming its contents for illustrations, headings, or other clues to the general ideas and approach to the topic. This can be done electronically using Google Books or Amazon. Make a heading in your blog post: "Preview" and compose a very short paragraph.
    Example: After spending 10 minutes previewing Boyle's book, I see that he's going to be taking both an historical and a legal approach to intellectual property. I'm intrigued by his metaphor of the commons and how he's going to be using the idea of the enclosure movement (which I learned about in a history course). Also, he pretty much gives snapshot summaries of each chapter in his Notes/Further reading section at the end. Bonus!
    Note the brevity of this preview, both in doing it and writing it up.
  4. Get early social proof. Check to see if anyone responded to your announcement over social media about intending to read the book or explore the topic. If no one has, coerce one of your homies into listening to you explain the topic you're exploring and the book you've just previewed. Don't drive away your friends with this. Give it to them very briefly and see what they have to say. Make another heading in your blog post: "Early Social Proof" and write a couple of sentences.
    Example: "Nobody seemed to care among my Twitter followers that I'm reading this book or researching this topic. Cretins! But when I asked one of my wife's blog followers about how she felt when my wife had to take down all of the songs she'd posted on her blog because of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notice, she encouraged me to do whatever I could to help amateurs be creative online. It was encouraging, actually. I have a cause.
    Note how making the topic relevant to a friend increases my own interest in pursuing the subject.
  5. Find the book's friends. Let the semantic web and recommendation engines do their work. Use Amazon and Google Books to look up your book, then check to see what books they recommend based on your search. Try this on both services and see what's repeated. Look to see if there are books that are more current than the one you are starting with. Take time to click through and read the publisher summaries of a few of those books. Then, make a new heading in your blog post, "Similar Books" and list what you find along with any brief observations. You are curating a very short list: 3-5 books. Consider including the covers of those books as images in the blog post.
    Example: "In searching Google and Amazon for books related to Boyle's, I'm noticing certain authors repeated, including Lawrence Lessig and Yochai Benkler. Plus, I recognized book covers from our digital culture bookshelf (Makers by Chris Anderson and The Master Switch by Tim Wu). After looking at the summaries of four books, it appears the topic of copyright is connected to DIY and maker culture, and to concerns about big media companies, and to issues of creativity and remix culture. I remember seeing remix as a big term in the index to Boyle's book, so I plan to pay attention to that. 
  6. Find the book's social context. Do a social search on your book. This will in part help you learn about the topic and the book's content, but at this stage you are looking for who cares about the book. What are the types of people or organizations that review or reference this book? Search on Twitter, on Google+, on Facebook, and on Diigo. Consider using the book's author or a topical hashtag as part of your search. Then, make another heading in your blog post draft, "Who Cares?" and give a short paragraph that reports on the book's social context.
    Example: "I tried to find people reading Boyle's book on Twitter but found nothing. So I tried the hashtag #publicdomain and it led me to tweets from educators showing great enthusiasm about audiobooks that are in the public domain at librivox, and to news about Getty Images making a lot of their photo archives freely available. I also noticed some other hashtags people used along with #publicdomain, such as #openculture and #dailypublicdomain. Now I want to follow up on those. Since I want to find people who are into public domain issues, I made a Twitter list and added several people (and organizations) to the list that had interesting tweets about public domain. I don't know if they have read Boyle's book, but they are obviously actively discussing the idea of the public domain. Now I'm following @publicdomain, as well as @publicdomainfootage. It's clear people are very excited to have lots of content to play with in their visualizations, videos, and other creative things. When I searched for Boyle's book on diigo, it led me to bookmarks that include Boyle's own website called It looks like he also maintains an intellectual property page at Duke University. Looks like I can follow the author's most current thinking on things through his blog. On Diigo I also looked up some of the people that had curated bookmarks referring to Boyle's book. So, now I'm following Claire Brooks and Phillip Long (chosen in part by the list of tags that these users have commonly used).
  7. Find formal reviews. Find and read a couple of formal published reviews of your book. Use the search term "review" plus the book title and author -- either on Google or via a library catalog. Use these formal reviews as another way of previewing the book before reading it. Take notes, make another heading for your draft blog post, "Formal Reviews," and make a short paragraph.
    Example: Using BYU's library, I found a 2011 review essay that included not only Boyle's book, but a couple other books that I'd seen in Boyle's bibliography and in the recommended books from my Amazon and Google searches, including Tim Wu's The Master Switch (The review is by Lucas Graves in a publication called Global Media and Communication, and luckily the full text was online). Wow, this was helpful, since the reviewer covers Boyle's book succinctly and refers to other major experts in the field. Since I'm looking for people connected to topics, I wrote the list of "scholar-advocates" that Graves mentions: Lawrence Lessig, Jessica Litman, and Siva Vaidnayayathan. I'm going to have to check them out. Graves boiled down the book to a single claim, "that the reigning 'maximalist' conception of intellectual property -- in which enhancing property rights always produces more innovation - systematically undervalues something the constitutional authors of copyright and patent understood quite well: the need to preserve a flourishing cultural and scientific common....Second...that maximalist consensus has only been sharpened by widespread fears of apocalyptic digital piracy, at precisely the technological moment when global computer networks have rendered the intellectual commons more valuable."
  8. Find informal reviews. Use Google Blog Search and Goodreads to find informal reviews of the book you are reading. Create a new heading, "Informal Reviews," and comment.
    Example: I found a review of Boyle's The Public Domain on a blog called Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Through it, I found out that Boyle is a founding board member of Creative Commons. That's an organization that I keep running into references about when researching the public domain. The review also included a two-paragraph quote that sums up the book (useful!) that includes his claim "We have to 'invent' the public domain before we can save it." This intrigued me. Is knowledge really under threat in the digital age? Is this just alarmism? When I searched for reviews of this book on Goodreads, I came across a review from "Bettie" that had a rather blunt statement: "The web was created for science and it works for porn, shoes, twits, farce and books but really stymies science information because of bizarre intelligence bars." Ouch, how can this be? Are we really deciding as a society to let the worst or most superficial stuff circulate online while restricting learned communication? Is the web a threat to science, rather than aid, due to copyright laws?? I liked another Goodreads review from someone named Bruce Sanders, so I clicked through and saw what books he's been reading and reviewing. One of them is called Open Access by Peter Suber. Looks very relevant to my topic. I looked up Suber and he runs an open access blog and is a big authority on all of this.
  9. Find courses using your book. Do a Google search restricted to .edu domains (educational institutions) and include the word "syllabus" plus the title of your book (like this: james boyle public domain See if any courses are using that book in order to find more context for the book.
    Example: "I found a wiki associated with a course called 'Open Source Culture" from Spring 2012 at Brown University. Just the list of weekly topics looked awesome. I want to learn more about "found footage," "hack studio," and remix. 
  10. Find audio, video, or images related to your book. Search YouTube, Vimeo, Flickr, and other media sources to find references to your topic. View or listen to some of this material, then making a new heading for your blog post, "Multimedia," and report on your findings.
    Example: I found James Boyle's book on Audible and decided to go ahead and buy it (after all, I saved money from having to buy the book since he put it up for free in the public domain!). In listening to the accounts of popular culture and how it has thrived through a constant reuse of past material, it made me realize how much companies are locking down creativity that has always been there -- because now they can do so through some sophisticated and automated ways.
  11. Read your book for one hour. Based on all the previewing you have done of the book through these ways, now go back to the book itself and read it -- intelligently and selectively. Look for passages that seem representative of the author's overall point(s), and seek out subtopics of interest to you. You should have a more informed first experience with the book in this way. Copy out key passages that you can then include in yet another section of your blog post, "First Impressions of the Book."
    Example: After all that I read so far, I found myself most drawn to chapters 3 and 8 in Boyle's book (about "The Second Enclosure Movement" and about "A Creative Commons" so I have been reading those more closely. This has made me realize how much market forces are at work in constraining what circulates online and whether people have a right to reuse it. I never appreciated how strong the business aspect of this is, as well as the legal aspect. 
  12. Post and Notify. Review what you've found in the previous steps, reflect and comment on this in a "My Thinking So Far" section to conclude this blog post. State what you intend to do next in your reading of the book and in your researching of the topic. Post your finished post (with appropriate labels, of course), and be sure to notify your social graph (on Google+ etc.) that you have done so. Ask for feedback.
  13. Give Feedback. Read two other students' in-progress posts and give feedback through comments.