Creating Social Books

By Haig on January 10, 2014 — 10 mins read

Written by Haig Armen and Lucinda Atwood

In this paper, we describe a new approach to digital textbooks: The textbook as a participatory and social experience. By meshing reader-generated commentary with the original text the textbook becomes a dynamic documentation of the course material and the discussion around it.
The author or teacher maintains control over the narrative by approving and promoting important comments to integrate into the original text, and by deciding the location and frequency of comment-enabled areas.


Social media is everywhere, yet books are still understood to be static, unidirectional documents, and reading them to be a solitary activity. This does not reflect current expectations of dynamic information and new approaches to collaboration, nor does it take into account the importance of discussion and group learning in education. This project explores the pedagogical potential of social books. We want to graduate students from being passive consumers of textbook content to socially engaged participants who create, collaborate and contribute.

The key points are:

  • The textbook as a participatory and social experience.
  • By meshing reader-generated commentary with the original text the textbook becomes a dynamic documentation of the course’s text material (multiple texts could be compiled into one textbook) and the discussion around it.
  • The author or teacher maintains control over the narrative by approving and promoting important comments to integrate into the original text.

Ebook formats have emerged that let users place comments in the book, but only relegated to a sidebar near the referenced text. The comments in these ebooks are either private or shared to external social channels and lack their original context. Additionally these marginalized comments clutter and limit the reader’s interface and impede an uninterrupted reading experience.

This article explores the possibility of integrating shared reader commenting directly within a textbook and discusses the design considerations made to accommodate presenting what the author or teacher considers important and relevant comments without
disrupting the reading experience.


While marginalia notes and comments are acknowledged as useful to readers and essential for learners (Wagstaff 2012), most current ebook formats don’t allow for shared comments, remaining essentially static, one-way documents. If the author wishes to develop a community around the book, they create online communities (Facebook and Twitter, for example) that the reader must locate, join, and sign into, in order to participate in the discussion. (Biňas, Štancel, Novák and Michalko 2012)

Once online, the problems don’t stop there. Current ebook formats make it difficult to cite the exact locations of passages (Richardson and Mahmood 2011), so comments are often untethered to the text they reference.

Annotations can be an essential part of an ebook textbook; the platform should be able to incorporate comments and additional content to the original content (Wilde and Glushko 2013). Ebook formats have emerged that can place comments in the book, but only relegated to a sidebar near the referenced text. This still separates comments from text, limits the interface design to boxed frames, and makes the book’s reading area smaller.


In order to clearly describe our ideas about the evolution of the digital textbook we’d like to present you with a case study. Our social book framework was originally created to hold a book called “50 Years of Life Online” by Alexandra Samuel. The book discusses the history of the Internet as juxtaposed to her own history, and is structured in articles on a timeline broken into decades and years. We present screen captures of interfaces from the “50 Years” book to illustrate a number of concepts throughout this article (see figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. “50 Years of Life Online”
Figure 2. “50 Years of Life Online” Table of Contents

This book’s central interactive metaphor is a continuous scrolling page that unfolds at key points to reveal a threaded social commentary relevant to that specific content. The unfolding is facilitated by the familiar reverse pinching gesture, which reveals a deeper layer. (Although almost ubiquitous, the reverse pinch has not yet been used in this context.) This reinforces the metaphor of digging deeper, creating an interaction where readers can find more information or become participants in the book itself.

We designed the platform to exploit tablet technology, specifically network-enabled tablets. They allow a mobile book application to communicate with its online comment repository via an Application Protocol Interface (API). The API seamlessly sends contributors’ comments back to the server and syncs the book app to include the latest comments (see figure 3).

This social book framework is ideal for school texts. The original authored text remains, while the book becomes a living learning network. Students can work at their own pace, self-evaluate (test) when they think they are ready, return and review as necessary, add to the class discussion, and support co-learners. Teachers can tell from the comments and questions in each lesson or pedagogical area where to apply clarifications, individual assistance, or further group teaching and/or exercises.

Students support each other’s learning and cement their own knowledge acquisition by adding examples and insights that helped them understand or retain concepts and facts. This supports the variety of learning acquisition types in group learning situations.

Right now, most ebooks support only highlights or private annotations. Social ebook platforms hide comments away in a sidebar. In our model, the most insightful or useful comments—as determined by the teacher or author—are promoted to the top of the list. (See figures 4 and 5.) A number assigned by the teacher determines whether the comment is displayed as a prominent pull quote or a concealed (folded away) comment. This provides extra value to the book, and offers an opportunity to engage with the discussion surrounding that portion of the text.

Readers are able to see both public comments and their own private comments in the same dedicated areas. The two types of comments are differentiated by colour. In the high fidelity wireframe (see figure 6), all the public comments are marked with the colour red while private comments are indicated with blue.

Figure 4. “50 Years of Life Online” showing promoted
Figure 5. “50 Years of Life Online” showing comments

After tapping on the comment in the previous slide, the comment has expanded and is shown in a list of all the comments on a particular section of the text. From there, the thread of replies can be viewed or a new comment can be added.

Original content is still the primary element of the book, so the majority of public comment areas are not presented like this. Instead, they are “collapsed” with the opportunity to visually and conceptually “dive in” to the discussion. This is done using the reverse-pinch “zoom in” gesture on touch enabled devices.

As a prototype our Social Book System was built using some existing open source software tools. Here’s a breakdown of how one would build a social book.

  • Install WordPress on a web server—a relatively simple task if you’re web savvy.
  • Install the JSON-API plugin for WordPress (
  • Determine the Book’s information structure and build sections accordingly.
  • Input text from the book into WordPress, broken down into comment-able segments.
  • Specify Social Book App’s configuration file to include API address and WordPress segmentation labels.
  • Save original JSON file from WordPress and include into Phonegap package with SocialBook files.
  • Style your book using CSS and images.
  • Compile Phonegap software into desired mobile platform: iOS, Android, Windows or Blackberry.

3.1 Benefit One

Ease of use by the reader. “50 Years of Life Online” complies with the invocation that navigation should be simple and effortless(Mod 2012). We followed basic information architecture principles of breaking content down into understandable categories with clear ways of visually communicating the content structure. Because comments remain inline with the associated content, navigation is simple and intuitive, creating books that are easier to use.

3.2 Benefit Two

Granularity of commenting. In our Social Book Framework we use WordPress as the content management system for a book. This allows the author to determine which passages of text can be commented on. The big innovation here is the granularity of commenting—the author or teacher has the ability to control exactly where in the text comments can be added, whether it is at a sentence, paragraph, section or article level. Each commenting area can be individually set; there is no global setting that must be conformed to.

3.3 Benefit Three

The ability to promote comments that the author/teacher sees as especially valuable, insightful or useful, and give them prominent status within the original text, for example as pull quotes.

3.4 Benefit Four

Ease of administration. At the end of the course, semester, or school year, the instructor is able to wipe the slate clean, if desired, for the next batch of students. This can all be done without much technical knowledge on the part of the author/teacher/administrator.

3.5 Benefit Five

The book as a micro network. As opposed to crowdsourcing textbooks, the author or teacher controls who can participate and contribute, and can invite readers to participate in the book in early stages of development.

3.6 Benefit Six

The book can be output to multiple formats. When a book is contained within an online digital repository (WordPress as a content management system) there is the opportunity for the content to be distributed in a number of formats. From WordPress we can output to the web as a “Book in a Browser,” a Social Book application, a standard eBook format, and even a printed document via PDF that is output and sent to a print-on-demand system. (see Figure 5).

3.7 Benefit Seven

Ease of bookmaking. Building a social book will require only a basic understanding of WordPress and standard web technology like HTML/CSS. The flexible structure of the platform allows authors to easily add tiers (chapters or sections—the author chooses the label), to choose where comments are included, and where the promoted comments are placed.



The final project will include documentation for building a social book using a number of open source software tools. Creating a social book using these tools will require only a basic understanding of WordPress and standard web technology like HTML/CSS. Once set up, an author/teacher can use the same framework for a number of books without any coding skills at all.

There are a number of aspects of the Social Book project that can be developed further and were only touched upon within the project yet were taken out of our goals for this phase of the project and this paper. Here are the components that could be refined:

  • A clear navigation system—The gestural folding navigation points to a new way to interact with a book, yet in its current iteration needs refinement to make it more intuitive and easier to use.
  • Place-holding and bookmarks—Helping readers understand where they are in a digital book has become a challenge for digital book design. Many of the ways of understanding where in a book someone is are based on the physicality of a book—new visual affordances must be established to help communicate this important aspect of book reading.


We are just beginning to think of a book in terms of a larger ecology of content, authors and audiences. This project represents the first step in engaging the audience of a book through their participation as commenting contributors. The idea could be taken much further by having a book’s audience contribute other kinds of relevant content, for example maps, images, audio or video. Additionally, audiences could be asked to participate in activities within a book, and their results presented back to the larger book’s audience. Teachers will be able to see and manage students’ participation and contributions. As textbooks become able to incorporate the discussions and contributions of select collaborators, learners will be able to participate more fully in their education.


Our thanks to: Jonathan Aitken, Celeste Martin, Alexandra Samuel, Kenneth Ormandy, Katherine Pihl


[1] Seton Hill University. Discover, Create, Communicate: Learning Transformed. 2012.

[2] Giunta, C. iPad and Web 2.0 Pedagogic Innovations In Marketing: Utilization of Entrepreneurial Skills. Journal of Marketing Development and Competitiveness vol. 6(5). 2012.

[3] Biňas, Štancel, Novák, and Michalko. Interactive eBook as a Supporting Tool for Education Process.
ICETA 2012 10th IEEE International Conference on Emerging eLearning Technologies and Applications. November 2012.

[4] Richardson, John V. Jr., and Mahmood, Khalid. eBook Readers: User Satisfaction and Usability Issues. October 2011.

[5] Wilde, Erik and Glushko, Robert J. Bridging the Gap between eBook Readers and Browsers. Position Paper for W3C’s eBooks Workshop. February 2013.

[6] Wagstaff, Kiri L. The Evolution of Marginalia. November 2012.

[7] Mod, Craig. Subcompact Publishing: Simple Tools And Systems For Digital Publishing. November 2012.

[8] McGuire, Hugh. Book as API. Feb 2013.

[9] Maxwell, John W. Dynabook: The Once and Future
Platform. 2013.

Posted in: Papers, Research

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