Reading has always been a solitary activity. While “literature” becomes such through communal reaction and dialectic, reading itself is quiet, individual, and isolated. Text is what Marshall McLuhan calls “hot media”: less participatory and more contemplative, as in how it is consumed — in this case, reading. In the digital age, defined by the user’s participation, reading arguably has become too cool for skool. Ask any of my faculty colleagues, and most will lament that students just don’t read these days. How can reading complete with all that networked, trigger-finger, social “cool media” out there? Well, the new social media app Readmill might just make reading a bit more cool.
Readmill touts itself as an “ebook reader” for EPUBs, PDFs, ACSM files (Adobe’s proprietary DRM-infected format which works essentially like an EPUB). However, it’s much more than that. Unlike Apple’s iBooks or Amazon’s Kindle reader, an integral component of Readmill is its social side. Like Twitter, you can “follow” other users to see what they’re reading, what they have read, what they thought about it, whether they recommend it, and what particular passages in the text that they found interesting. Readmill suggests that you follow your friends from Twitter and Facebook, assuming that these are the folks that you might have the most in common with, perhaps erronously in my case. Like other social media platforms, Readmill allows user to fill out a profile, complete with description and photo. Readmill lets you follow anyone, but the apparatus for finding those who are not in your other social networks seems to be lacking, even though each user has a profile. I was unable to find my friend Walter who uses Readmill — but not Twitter or Facebook — via the web site’s search field. Maybe a fix is in order: something that lets you search users by interests, genre, location, institution, or profession? A cool feature might be reading groups: where I could have each class join a public or private group for reading and discussion.
Readmill’s real magic comes from its social functions. Like other ebook readers, Readmill allows users to highlight and to annotate any texts it can read — a distinct advantage over Apple’s app which cannot annotate PDFs. However, instead of keeping those annotations private, the app posts them to the ebook’s public page. Readmill does offer the option to keep your annotation private, but if you want to do that, why use Readmill? The page, then, provides a précis of the text and allows users to scroll through all the comments, annotations, and reviews left by other readers of the text. For example, see Readmill’s page on Brian Christian’s The Most Human Human — a text my Digital Humanities Seminar read this fall. Each comment, then, has its own comment box, allowing anyone to add additional commentary or analysis under any posted annotation. In fact, whole additional conversations may be had about a section of a text that has been annotated — potentially very useful for education.
My interest in social media usually emphasizes what it can do for higher education — specifically in the liberal arts and Digital Humanities. As my academic background is in literature and my current focus is on digital media studies, I have a keen interest in ebooks. However, one of my issues has always been using ebooks for teaching. In the literature classroom, I make ample use of the primary text: the novel or epic or whatever it happens to be. In class, I refer to passages for analysis and discussion, and each student having the same edition of the text makes it easy for them to follow long. With ebooks, not so much, since “pages” — and therefore “page numbers” — are remnants of a print culture that do not translate well to the digital — at least to the EPUB, if still part of the PDF.
One way around this is by using Readmill’s built-in search function, a much-needed feature that was recently added to the iOS app. I will have students search for a string of words which will usually bring them right to the passage I’d like to discuss. Another way to address this issue is by having students view my annotations. If students follow me, Readmill allows them to view my highlights within their text. Their highlights will be yellow, while mine (and everyone else’s) will appear as a greenish-gray highlight (see photo above). With search and community highlights turned on, Readmill becomes easily used in the face-to-face classroom. Perhaps another area for improvement would be different types of annotations, like “note,” “theme,” or “key idea,” the ability to change highlight colors, perhaps signifying their importance.
A good classroom use of this feature is the two-minute response. Have students find a highlighted passage and spend a couple of minutes discussing it. Then, have students respond to the passage and discussion as a comment to the annotation. This activity gets everyone participating, even those reticent ones, and allows me to judge the class’ understanding of the particular passage when I review their comments. I have often asked questions in my highlights, so students who encounter them as they read have an idea about what to consider and focus on as they continue. Many students have remarked that practice has helped them, especially in more difficult texts. I have often assigned a similar task for homework, often asking students to comment on each others’ highlights.
Highlights can also be tweeted and posted to Facebook from directly within the app. If I tweet them, I use the hashtag I assign to my students for the particular reading. This handy social feature gives students another opportunity to see my annotations and me theirs. My class makes heavy use of Twitter, so often searching for student participation via Twitter is more convenient than looking at Readmill, particularly if I’m the first to read the text, which is usually the case. Asking students to tweet crucial highlights allows me to easily find them on Twitter by searching the hashtag. I could see this approach also working well if a large community of users who are not my students happens to be reading the same text.
This is not to suggest that I’m only interested in my students’ highlights and not those of a greater community. In fact, I have argued that one of the benefits of using social media in teaching is the fact that these platforms explode the medium of the classroom, opening it up to the world at large. The classroom tends to cloister students, encouraging them to behave as students — not something that I find very useful. If students know that their ideas are seen by more than just their professor, most will tend to be more careful about how they express them. Social media brings learning into a new forum in most cases for the better.
Another crucial aspect of teaching in the digital age is access. I have argued that the smartphone has finally allowed us to begin taking real advantage of what the digital world has to offer. Since more students have smartphones than don’t, using them as an integral part of the classroom is now feasible. Reamill works on iOS and Android, arguably the only two viable mobile platforms. It is now possible to expect students to have a device that they can use for class, especially now with the price of tablets dropping below $300. Whereas just three years ago, I don’t think I would have been enthusiastic about the potential for any social media in the classroom. Readmill has even just announced support for traditional desktop PCs via third-party applications as well.
Readmill’s interface is also noteworthy. It looks good on both my iPad (my default etext reader) and my iPhone, if I need to read in a pinch. It’s default margins and fonts are comfortable and attractive, both a bit larger than Apple’s defaults in iBooks. Of course, Readmill gives users the ability to expand and shrink fonts, use a night mode, and easily adjust the app’s brightness either through a menu or by touching in the middle of the screen and swiping your finger down for dimmer, and up for brighter. Readmill also keeps track of your reading time and progress — not necessarily a good thing. However, having a list of unfinished books in your library might shame some users into being more efficient with their reading, since the community can see just what progress you have or haven’t been making. Something to note: you can read via Readmill without a network connection, but its social functions will be unavailable.
Adding books to your library is easy, as Readmill gives users several ways of uploading texts. The web interface allows users to drag-and-drop EPUBs and PDFs right onto their library. With PDFs, be sure your title and author properties are filled in before uploading, since Readmill uses this metadata to organize and identify etexts. Google Drive and Dropbox both allow users to open etexts in Readmill — very convenient for me, as I often share a folder on the former with students that contain a number of their assigned texts. I have even had luck opening both EPUBs and PDFs in Readmill directly from Safari on my iPad. According to To Be Read, several ebook retailers have even added a “Send to Readmill” button to their checkouts. Through Readmill, I discovered Kobobooks, a place I’ve been sending my students for their digital copies. I have several hundred megabytes worth of books already in my library. I’m not sure if Readmill has put a quota on library size, but if they have, I have not encountered it. Also, it can handle pretty big PDFs.
Readmill is made for ebooks. This is fine, but much of what my students read throughout the semester are not books, but essays and shorter prose. I’d like to see Readmill adopt a classification system, so I can designate etexts as books, essays, short stories, poems, or whatever else I might assign. Readmill’s bookcentrism does not preclude us reading any type of etext we want, but my English Professor OCD really would like to see a more accurate cataloging system, especially since webapps like Readlists let users send web content directly to Readmill as EPUBs.
I have been using Readmill for just over a semester now for both my personal and professional reading, and I plan to continue to use it in the foreseeable future. In fact, digital editions are becoming a must. If a publisher does not have an etext version of a textbook, I will not even look at it. Readmill has pushed me more toward the digital, but I’ve always leaned a bit that way.
Even in the short time I’ve been using Readmill, it has improved, adding search, the ability to see community highlights, and even an Andorid app. The Readmill developers are friendly and accessible, responding quickly to students on Twitter and inviting my feedback. It even feels like they have taken my suggestions a time or two for features. I like that. I like Readmill. As a professional reader, I hope that means something.
Give Readmill a try; you can even follow me. Reading needn’t only be solitary. Maybe those insights we gleen in our most quiet and thoughtful moments can make us all better human beings. Readmill can help us teach and learn better. It’s helping me make reading cool again.