Sep 24 2009

A tech steward looking at reading

Last May’s CHIFOO presentation was a great talk about reading by Cathy Marshall. Here are Marshall’s slides from which I’ve borrowed some images to talk about her work in this post.

Marshall read (out loud, from the slide on the screen) that:

“Nothing is more commonplace than the experience of reading, and yet nothing is more unknown.   Reading is such a matter of course that at first glance, it seems there is nothing to say about it.”

Todorov, quoted by Howe

She went on to argue that many of our commonplace assumptions about reading are wrong.  As an activity, we may think that reading is:

  • stationary
  • information-centric
  • passive
  • immersive
  • individual

Instead, Marshall argued that and illustrated how reading is really:

  • mobile – where we chose to read something matters hugely and we tend to take our reading with us from place to place.
  • material – our physical circumstances contribute to the experience of pleasure or attention.
  • interactive – we annotate pages and act upon them.
  • interrupted & variable – we skip, skim, circle around, re-read and act upon reading material according to the circumstances.
  • social – we share, forward, save, refer, discard and burn books and magazines in our invisible but very real social context.

There’s no problem having naïve assumptions about reading unless we’re intending to design an electronic replacement for the printed page, in which case we have to look a lot more carefully at what’s going.  That’s exactly what technology stewards need to do because, whether we’re configuring technology or planning to add a tool to a community’s overall configuration or even just supporting it on a day to day basis, we need to understand the experience of use, not just “how to use the tool.”

So we can learn a lot from the different ways that Marshall and other ethnographers have devised for getting at these commonplace experiences.  We take the ordinary as strange.  Nothing is more common than participating in a community, but a community’s configuration has a significant effect on the experience of community.

“It is also worth noting that solitary reading always was, and still is, inherently social: how we read is ultimately determined by social conventions and community membership”

-David Levy in Scrolling Forward

You can learn a lot by observing. One piece of research that Marshall reported on examined just how complicated it is when someone reading an article in The New Yorker turns a page.  They peek forward, check an advertisement, read the cartoon, go back to verify what they last read, etc., and then continue.  There’s a lot happening that we may not bother noticing on a day-to-day level but which matters a lot when we’re thinking about designing a new electronic device.

Use a framework. One point we try to make in Digital Habitats is that it’s useful to have some framework to organize our observations. Marshall uses the CSCW matrix (that we call a polarity in the book) to look at some different instances of reading:

Same Place Different place
“I’m trying to
get us all on
the same page…”

“I’m sending you
this clipping
that I thought was cute.”

One interesting point she made was that people often feel like it’s creepy when they are observed doing something so simple (and personal) as reading.  As technology stewards we often have to enlist people’s cooperation, sometimes as fellow-researchers and observers of their own experience.

Compare (lots of) individual instances. In one of her studies Marshall bought multiple copies of a popular textbook and compared how students had annotated the text.  Turned out there was a lot of variation in what was important to different readers, but also convergence on the main point.  But the key idea is: how can we find ways of seeing how different people see?

This is similar to a tech steward’s practice of observing how different communities use the same software, or how they might configure it differently, or how they might even decide upon using it for quite different reasons.

One interesting thing about Cathy Marshall as she spoke to a group that’s mostly concerned with design was that she always spoke as a researcher — not venturing to speculate widely, but reporting on her own rigorous research.  Even though she committed apparent faux pas such as reading her slides aloud and there was very little (if any) “how to” in Marshall’s talk, the CHIFOO folks hung on her every word. It reminded me that professional, hands-on communities like CHIFOO are very sophisticated when it comes right down to it.

Tech stewards as ethnographers. Of course there are big differences between tech stewards and ethnographers.  Front loaded education is the norm for people who call themselves ethnographers, whereas most tech stewards come to their craft almost by accident – pressed into service and learning as they go.  Having Microsoft and other companies fund your observations like Marshall has enables a great deal of care and depth; most tech stewards are in a hurry and have to act on their hunches. And yet, the opportunity for observing change in human experience and contributing to its evolution (over shorter- or longer-terms) is common to both.  What tech stewards have lacked is a common literacy to talk with each other and the community context where their conversations can add up.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “A tech steward looking at reading”

  1. Really interesting. I hadn't thought so deeply about reading in these terms. But as someone who 3 years ago undertook to read more, and have blogged often about what I read, I am very aware of the fact that while, in general, I read when I am alone it is a very social activity.

    As an aside it is morning in the UK I am catching up on the virtual world of emails, blogs and microblogs on my eeePC. Before reading this I had exchanged tweets about a novel I read in 2007 and one of my contacts is just starting. The contact I have known for a while but only met him in person yesterday when we were at the same meeting.

    • smithjd8 says:

      One thing I've noticed about myself is several different reading genres. The book-reading genre requires me to to start at the beginning and read it all word for word. And I need to have a book "going" most of the time. And I hate hurrying, too.

      But other kinds of reading allow skimming. Twitter being the most skimable. 🙂