Friday, December 3, 2010

Biblio-Social Objects: Copia, Mendeley, LibraryThing and Mongoliad

The long awaited Copia e-reading platform finally launched, and the big surprise is that the previously announced devices have disappeared. Copia's innovation is that it smushes together a bookstore, reading environments that live across devices, and a social network. As such, it's interesting to look at.

Another recent arrival is the App for Mongoliad, the ambitious collaboration between Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear "and friends". It's a serial work built on a custom platform (including both website and apps) that supports multimedia and user-generated content, and it aspires to be a community inside a fictional world containing multiple narratives rather than a novel.

It's undeniable that books belong in our social networks, but it's far from obvious how social aspects should fit into the reading experience. Copia is designed with the point of view that the integration should be tight- it allows the sharing of annotations right within the reader application. Mongoliad does that, and more, it invites and rewards reader contributions, even to the point of letting the community influence the narrative. In thinking about how books should fit in to a social network, it's useful to look at two thriving social networks built around bibliographic objects, LibraryThing and Mendeley.

LibraryThing describes itself as a "social cataloging website". It helps you catalog your book collection, but it derives its vitality from the way it lets members use your personal catalog to connect with other LibraryThing members. A typical "Thingish" activity going on now is SantaThing, a sort of Secret Santa for Book Lovers. (Sorry it's too late to join for this year!)

Mendeley is surprisingly similar in function to LibraryThing, but it concentrates on a different set of bibliographic objects- journal articles. Like Copia, it includes a stand-along application, but its core utility is managing references for scientists and scholars. If that's all it did, it wouldn't create much excitement- services such as RefWorks, EndNote, Zotero and many others do that job. It's the emerging community that makes Mendeley special, which has a look and feel reminiscent of Facebook. Mendeley has recently added a public groups feature that helps researchers coalesce around topics defined by articles of interest. Very soon, they'll be rolling out a feature that connects users with other users based on their reference libraries.

It's a bit early to judge either Copia or Mongoliad- both shows lots of rough edges and awkwardness, but you expect that in things so new and ambitious. (Random examples- At first, Copia didn't remember where I was in a book; now it does, and I'm not sure what changed. You have to log in twice because of DRM- once to Copia, and a second time to Adobe. This is soon to be fixed, according to Copia representatives. Mongoliad's web version has an annoying border trim that made the edges of the page rather hard to read, and the navigation is at times mystifying.) Instead, I'd like to point out two architectural issues that these products raise, and which aren't likely to change easily. The answers to these questions are likely to determine their ultimate success or failure.

1. Should reading environments and social activity be tightly coupled or loosely coupled?

Copia is betting that a better user experience will result from the tight-coupling philosophy. Comments and annotations live in the social graph of Copia members and are fed right into the Copia reading applications. It's the same philosophy that Apple has used for its Ping network with no great success - yet. YouTube's social networking features could be characterized as being tightly coupled to their video content, and if Copia achieved a fraction of YouTube's success I'm sure they'll be quite happy.

The alternative to tight coupling would be loose coupling. There's no technical reason that users of Kindle, iBooks, Nook, Sony and Kobo reading environments couldn't all share comments and annotations via Twitter, Facebook and Buzz messaging backbones. Technical frameworks for open annotation are beginning to emerge.

Loose coupling is the way MLB has added social activity to their baseball Apps, and it works well there. Watching baseball is very much a social activity, but that doesn't mean that people want to build their social network around baseball games. My guess is that reading a book is more like watching a game in terms of the social interactions that work well around it.

Loose coupling to social features would allow users to combine their favorite reading device or application for example, Stanza or Ibis on iPad, their favorite social network, say LibraryThing or GetGlue, and their favorite shopping environment, which might be Amazon or Kobo. Loose coupling makes for more competition, resulting in a more challenging business environment for the provider of the social network. The types of web services present in both LibraryThing and Mendeley (and Facebook and Twitter, for that matter) allow coupling to other services, greatly increasing the footprint of the social network.

Mongoliad, by contrast, is content with extreme coupling to its social network, to the extent that you worry about scaling. While the Mongoliad platform supports only one narrative work (not sure if I should call it a book!) the company behind it, Subutai, intend it to be a platform for many different works. How will the community formed by one work interact with other communities on the same platform? will there be narrative leakage?

2. Which comes first,  objects connecting you to friends, or friends connecting you to objects?

This is a chicken and egg question, of course, but the interactions enabled by a social network are of one type or another. In a network like Facebook, the friends come first, and the stream of social interactions can bring along connections to many types of entities, books included. In networks like LibraryThing and Mendeley, it's the other way around- the books and articles create connections between you and other members of the network.

The reason this question is architecturally important for book- and article- -oriented networks is that it determines whether the objects in your network are works or whether they are products. Products can live in a friend-first network, but they stick out like a sore thumb in book-first social networks, where they really need to be "works".

To understand what I mean, consider a book I mentioned in a previous post, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History. Copia has a product catalog, not a work catalog, and so there are two separate entries for this work, one an ebook, the other a hardcover. When a paperback comes out, there will be a third entry. It makes very little sense for my social interactions surrounding the hardcover to be separated from similar interactions surrounding the ebook. Other works are much worse. Try loading "Moby Dick" into a Copia library. Although it's a public domain work, free from Project Gutenberg, you have to pay for the versions available for download in the Copia store. It's not as bad as Kindle but it's not as good as Apple's iBooks; I WAS able to import my iBooks file of Moby Dick into the Copia Reader.

The "thing" that really separates LibraryThing from other book oriented social networks is the emphasis it has put on the grouping of different book editions. (Full disclosure- one of my achievements at OCLC was managing the productization of OCLC's book-grouping web service, xISBN, which competes with a similar service from LibraryThing). Similarly, Mendeley expends a huge computational effort determining which article instantiations are the same as other article instantiations in its network.

Retailers naturally work at the product level, and the current version of Copia exposes the weaknesses of using product data as the basis of a social network. They'll eventually clean this up (as has Amazon) but it will be a slow and difficult process for them to re-engineer their backbone to address the complexities that libraries have long needed to deal with.

Mongoliad, though I'm sure it will cause the ISBN agency all sorts of headaches, is crystal clear about its status as a single, sprawling work. It will be interesting to watch its development as users begin to interact around the objects inside the work- characters, maps, places, etc, each of which is associated with a "'pedia" page.

Now what?

Once you've collected a network of people around a book, what happens next? Social networks are not unlike coffee shops or bars. If the business model for the network owner is to sell books (beer, coffee), the point is to get the network to buy their books (beer, coffee) through the network. Thus Copia's network will inevitably be slanted towards discovery of new things to read. If the business model for a social network is to collect some sort of membership fee, the point is to make the members so cozy they recruit more members. Hence the vibrant communities at LibraryThing and Mendeley, both of which use "freemium" business models. If the business model is to sell a subscription, the point is to get the reader hooked on characters and continuing narrative narrative. Hence Mongoliad is likely to include a lot of cliffhangers.

There's one more thing a book-mob will be able do, and that's evangelize the book. Large, evangelical groups of readers are exactly what Gluejar will need to gather the financial muscle to "unglue" books. Cooperation with all sorts of social networks will be a key to the success of this venture.

Even though its very much a self contained system, I'm really starting to get into Mongoliad, however. Thinking back on other Stephenson works, I'm realizing how ill-fitting they are in book form. The Subutai platform has unglued the narrative from the pages in a rather unexpected way.

I'd like to acknowledge invaluable conversations related to this article with Copia's Sol Rosenberg, LibraryThing's Tim Spalding, Ian Mulvany and Jan Reichelt of Mendeley (and all of Neal Stephenson's novels!)

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  1. Right on, Eric. I presented my progress on a proof-of-concept "loose coupling" approach relying on the integration of Activity Streams (one of the emerging standards used by Google Buzz, Facebook, Microsoft) into the Evergreen library system at the Access 2010 conference in October.

    If you're interested, see for the slides and audio, and a link to the Evergreen mailing list discussion about some of the possible directions to pursue. It would be a pretty simple standard for all library and biblio oriented software to implement and would certainly benefit from that network effect...

  2. Interesting stuff. I have to admit I find all this a bit intimidating -- it seems to demand much more of me than just reading a book. The challenge for services like these, then (at least if they want readers like me) is to make themselves unobtrusive enough that I can use them without thinking about them. Can they make money from that? I don't know.

    By the way, I think Gluejar will need large, evangeliSTIC groups of readers, not necessarily large evangeliCAL groups!