Reading, which began as a solitary activity, is increasingly becoming a social experience. We share links constantly on Twitter and Facebook to the latest blog posts and articles we are reading, and electronic books such as Amazon’s Kindle allow you to share your highlights and notes with the world. A few days ago, betaworks soft-launched a new product called Findings, which is aimed at sharing passages from digital books and the web.
Findings is a pet project of Betaworks CEO John Borthwick and author Steven Johnson. The service lets you share your highlights from Kindle books as well as articles on the web via a bookmarklet. But it is not intended to be a web clipping service. It is really more about reading in the digital age, sharing quotations from books and other writings that resonate with you and making them your own by collecting them into a feed. In many ways it harkens back to an earlier form of reading hundreds of years ago when Englishmen would hand-assemble their own collections of quotations into a “commonplace book.” The notions of reading and writing were intertwined, borrowing passages from others and making them your own was part of the process, as Robert Danton notes in The Case For Books:
Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.
Findings allows you to share your readings and quotations in longer than 140 characters. Each quotation links back to the book on Amazon (affiliate link!) or the original webpage. You can discover what other people are reading by following them, and their highlights appear in your stream. (You can follow Steven Johnson or John Borthwick or me). And Findings shows you trending books and a public stream of the latest passages as well. It’s social discovery for books. And the search is excellent too. Type in “startups” and you get clips from books about startups as well as passages which include that keyword. For example, you might find all the collected quotes from The Lean Startup or from the Steve Jobs biography.
These function as “best of” collections of quotes from the books, although the findings are listed chronologically. The obvious next step is to let people vote up passages, or automatically rank them based on how many times they have been shared. You can share other people’s passages or your own both in your own stream—kind of like reblogging— and on Twitter or Tumblr.
Many of these features, of course, are built into the Kindle experience (sharing highlights and notes, following other readers, searching through highlights). But it is an afterthought for Amazon. Findings is a much cleaner experience. The Kindle integration could be cleaner. You have to periodically visit your Kindle highlights page and sync with Findings via the bookmarklet, but that is a limitation of the Kindle API. And of course, Findings will include much more than just Kindle books. Support for Instapper and other reading apps would broaden the appeal.
Ultimately, though, this is betaworks, so you know it is all about the data. Expect really interesting ways to search, sort, and recombine quotations in an endless loop of rewriting and rereading. For Findings to succeed, it will have to bring the marginalia to the center of you reading experience.