A great essay by Steven Johnson in the Wall Street Journal this weekend “How the E-Book Will Change the Way we Read and Write” has me thinking hard once again about reading and writing skills and literacies as we move toward an even more digitally integrated world of texts and links. It immediately made me think of one of my other favorite essays on the topic, Kevin Kelly’s “Scan this Book” from the Times a couple of years ago, not necessarily because I agree with everything that both authors discuss but because each makes me take a look at my own reading and writing process through an adjusted lens.

But what was different in my reading of the Johnson essay as opposed to the Kelly essay was my ability to interact with it through Diigo. Over the last few months, I’ve become more and more enamored with Diigo as a tool for notetaking and bookmarking, sure, but as a platform for some interesting conversations. And, while I’m not sure Johnson even knows of its existence, it’s already bringing to fruition many of the social reading potentials we’ve been thinking of as futuristic. The idea that I can not just annotate a paragraph or a sentence or one idea on a webpage but that I can engage with others in sharing our thinking about that particular sentence or idea is at once powerful and daunting. I mean, imagine the meta conversations we might be able to have over different passages in the classics once they all get scanned and put online by Google (or someone else.) As Johnson writes:

As you read, you will know that at any given moment, a conversation is available about the paragraph or even sentence you are reading. Nobody will read alone anymore. Reading books will go from being a fundamentally private activity — a direct exchange between author and reader — to a community event, with every isolated paragraph the launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.

I’d say that is a pretty profound shift, wouldn’t you? One that is not so well understood and, in many cases, not even desired by many “traditional” book readers out there.

So when you compare the un-annotated Kelly essay to the marked up Johnson piece (this link lets you see all the notes), there is a vastly different feel, for me at least. And it would be even more different if you would add your own annotations to the piece. In my presentations, one of the most powerful examples of how this particular tool is a potential game changer is when I show this article, “Is Technology Producing a Decline in Critical Thinking and Analysis” in the un-annotated form and then turn the highlights and conversations on. There is nothing but critical thinking and analysis happening there as supported by, um, technology. The irony is palpable.

Is social reading and social writing in our kids’s futures? I don’t think there is much doubt about that. More and more I’m finding Diigo annotations and notes cropping up on the articles and essays that I read, and by and large I’ve found the commentors to be serious, thoughtful and articulate. In other words, while they do add volume, they also add value. Those of us who are mucking around in these new reading and writing spaces have no formal training in it, obviously, just a passion to connect and a willingness to experiment and engage in conversations around the the topics that interest us. But there are skills here that if developed with some intention (read: taught and modeled) can improve literacy in interacting with texts and people in these digital spaces. As always, however, we have to begin to see this shifts as natural progressions in the evolution of reading and writing and not simply tools that bring a temporary WOW! factor to the process.