Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Reading is about to change too

The Futures Initiative hasn't much discussed future trends in media, largely because we have the positive attitude that, whatever comes, we'll still help users discover and access it. The medium is merely a container, and changing that doesn't change the essential role and value of libraries. However we ought not ignore trends in this area completely. This interview with YA author Amanda Harvard illuminated some significant developments in storytelling. Harvard's debut novel The Survivors was just published last month, but she and a friend have been Tweeting as two of the main characters since 2009. First they just conversed with each other, but now fans are interacting with the characters in real-time. The author is also collaborating with musicians to release songs based on the book.* Partly this is just novel marketing, but it's also, as Harvard says, allowing "readers to be able to connect to these characters as just what they are: people. In this way, The Survivors extends beyond the singular medium of the book. It is so much bigger than just the words on the page." Harvard also describes exclusively real locations and brands, both for verisimilitude and for potential cross-marketing. Perhaps its not so ridiculous if you consider the emergence of Forks, Washington as a tourist destination despite not having sights particularly tied to the Twilight series.

Reading is going to become largely digital. It's happened with music and it's happening now with movies. Moreover social media is refocusing technology on enabling humans to do what humans evolved to do best: talk with each other. What kind of trends will emerge as books take advantage of digital and social capabilities?

Certainly e-books will begin incorporating a lot more multimedia. We'll see more pictures and maps, even video. Features like these would be particularly useful for e-textbooks. Many current textbooks have review questions at the ends of chapters; what greater value if the book actually calculated students' scores and provided immediate feedback on their mastery of the material? But multimedia will enhance fiction as well. Imagine fantasy novels with flyover animations of the terrain, chick lit with links to buy the various fashions mentioned, or crypto-thrillers where readers have to solve puzzles to advance to the next chapter. (If all this seems abhorrent to you, remember; no one is going to be forcing you to read it. Linear storytelling won't go away, but it may become a niche product.)

Social technologies will also be integrated into reading. Successful e-reading devices will allow users to share passages and reactions with others. The pittance students make by selling their used textbooks might be supplanted by a thriving market for annotations and highlights done by high-performing scholars. The relationship between authors and readers will become more of a two-way street as consumer-created content and feedback becomes more incorporated and influential.

So those are just a few predictions. As a responsible futurist, I can't claim to be all-knowing or that I've covered more than a fraction of this topic. However it behooves the Futures Initiative to touch on these trends at least a little. What other ramifications can folks suggest?

*And shouldn't links to ancillary material like this be included in our catalog records?

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