The Downfall of Social Reading

By: Jenna Savage

Social networking has evolved from the days of mere status-updates into a time where we can share just about everything — even automatically. Websites like Goodreads and applications like the Washington Post Social Reader can be linked with Facebook, which allows them to post what people are reading to their Facebook news feeds. It may seem like harmless fun — so what if all of your friends know that you’ve only read three pages of that novel in the last week? — but a recent essay written by privacy expert Neil M. Richards indicates that social reading may have some unwelcome consequences.

In “The Perils of Social Reading,” Richards cautions that social reading may not be as “frictionless” as one would hope. In fact, widespread sharing of what we read can lead to self-conscious decisions. Instead of feeling free to read whatever we please, knowing that our choices will be shared can lead to worry and concern over how our tastes will be perceived. Broadcasting our reading habits, Richards warns, can ruin our intellectual privacy.

Intellectual privacy is important, because it allows people to think for themselves, uninhibited by how they may be perceived by others. It gives people the freedom to read, listen to, explore, and otherwise entertain thoughts and ideas for which others might judge them.

Richards does think that sharing is important — and he’s right. Sharing welcomes discussion, debate, and the establishment of common interests among friends and acquaintances. It has a lot of benefits, and it can also be a lot of fun to see what others are reading. However, the psychological downfall of self-conscious selection based on how others might perceive us and our habits is an unfortunate consequence of social reading.

To counter this side effect, Richards recommends solitary reading habits and protection of reading records. He doesn’t, however, recommend against all sharing. Instead, he believes that sharing should only occur after the reader has made a conscious decision to share. Rather than automatically broadcasting how far ahead the reader is in a novel, or which article the reader has just explored, applications should wait for the reader to make a meaningful and selective decision to share.

According to Richards, “Choices we make now about the boundaries between our individual and social selves, between consumers and companies, between citizens and the state, will have unforeseeable ramifications for the societies our children and grandchildren inherit.” He advocates that we should be working to protect intellectual privacy, rather than striving to do away with the barriers between our private and social lives.