One of the great things about attending O’Reilly’s Tools of Change, or any good conference for that matter, is that you get the chance to kick different ideas around with really, really, I-​mean-​really bright people. In talking with folks from BookGlutton, Harlequin (yes that Harlequin… you know, the progressive publishing company – see previous post on their reading experiments), and others, I’m more convinced than ever that social reading is the next killer app, especially as tablet computing goes mainstream.

By social reading, I mean platforms that allow people to interact with each other through reading. In a perfect world, it connects authors with readers, and readers with each other.

Sounds simple enough, right? But how do you make the experience so compelling that people want to join, return to, and participate in the community? And equally important, how do you find a way to make it into a sustainable business?

Rather than pondering “how do we create a “Facebook” for readers?”, I think we can find answers to the first question by looking at a “parallel” experience: social music sites. In particular, I’m going to use one in particular, The Sixtyone, as possible model for a social reading experience.

Brief disclaimer: In January of this year, The Sixtyone went through a site redesign that was not particularly well received by members of the community (both artist and listeners). For the purposes of this write up, I’m choosing to not engage with that debate. You can read a brief summary of it here.

The Sixtyone

[The Sixtyone]The Sixtyone, named after the US highway, wants “to enable the creative middle class, providing talented artists the opportunity to make a living making music.” Artists upload their music to the site, along with supporting information such as lyrics, band pictures, and tour information. Users can browse, listen to, and comment on songs, create playlists that other members can view, share their music of choice via social networking sites, and purchase MP3 downloads.

[The Sixtyone Interface]

What differentiates The Sixtyone (or “t61” for short) is the fact that it also builds gaming into the experience. Listeners and artists are able to earn “reputation” by completing different tasks. The more reputation you have, the more you are capable of influencing aspects of the website, such as which songs are promoted to the homepage.

Let me give you an example: each time you return to the site you gain a certain number of reputation points. You also gain a number of hearts. Hearts are used to mark songs that you like. The more hearts a song acquires, the higher it’s rank on the site, the more chances that the song will be seen by people and receive more hearts. Plus, if a song performs well after you heart it, you’ll earn reputation points for picking a winner. Players can also earn additional reputation and hearts by completing quests such as the following one:[Sample Quest]

At the time I wrote this, I’d tallied up some 555 reputation points, playing over 50 songs, and completing a number of quests. That ranks me as a level 3 user, on the way to level 4. Right now, I’m not able to do much more than heart a song once. After I reach level 5 I’ll be able to go back and give those songs an additional hearts, letting me get even more reputation from those songs if they get popular.

BTW, to prevent gaming, you need to listen to a song for at least a minute before hearting it. This prompts the listener to spend time learning about the artist, checking out other songs that they have, and getting recommendations on similar artists.

Once I have enough reputation, I can start spending it to influence the site. The primary way is by promoting a song to the home page. Every three hours there’s a reputation “auction”, where people make bids to “revive” a song. For example, at this moment, 724photography (level 10) is willing to pay 14,652 reputation points to move Iron and Wine’s Boy with a Coin to the homepage.

Artists also have to play the reputation game. The number of songs that they can post is tied to their amount of reputation. So rather than dumping one’s entire catalog onto the site, artists have to pick and choose (and promote) songs that they thing are strong enough to build up their reputation. Otherwise, they can’t add more material.

Lessons to Learn (aka the Whuffie Model)

The first is to make sure you are focusing on the right verb. It’s easier to explain this by example. t61 is about music. So rather than focusing the experience on discussing music, it builds everything around listening to music. I don’t think the importance of this can be overstated. There are limited discussion capabilities built into the site, but they are not forefronted.

If you’ve read Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, the rest of the lessons that can be learned from the site should be more than a little reminiscent of the Whuffie System described in the novel:

  • Give participation value—Ok, so in the post Farmville world, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that gaming can drive participation. However, what differentiates t61, is that by playing, I get the chance to influence the site by paying to promote music (which may, in turn, can help me gain more reputation). Likewise, for artists reputation has a direct influence on how many songs they can have on the site.
  • Influence/​Reputation only has value if you can lose it— Paying means paying. If I bid 14K of reputation to move a song to the homepage and I win, I lose that hard earned reputation. I may gain it back if a lot more people heart that song while it’s on the homepage, but there’s no guarantee.
  • Finding the right quests— Align the goals of users and the site. Part of what makes t61 work is that it pays me to do what I already like (listen to music). Most of the quests revolve around listening to new songs or ones with low heart counts. This lets me get more reputation through completing the quest and by helping promote good songs before they get big. Both actions reward me for sharing music I like.
  • Don’t make it too easy—I need to listen to a song for at least one minute before you can heart it. A minute is a long time to sit through a song that you don’t like. Likewise, you only get X number of hearts to dole out during a 24 hour session. Once they are gone, they’re gone. You either have to earn more through a quest or wait for them to refresh.

So how to apply this to Social Reading?

Building on t61’s example, I think that a Social Reading site has to be a reading experience first and a discussing reading experience second (an some are already doing this). This is a the model lends itself to poetry, short and episodic stories, and other content that can be read in a single sitting.

In terms of quests & reputation, I think those translate easily enough that I don’t need to go into detail.

What particularly jazzes me about this model, in terms of reading, is the playlist. I think that this has a lot of potential, especially in economic terms. I have to admit that I haven’t bought anything from t61 yet. Part of the reason for this is that I can easily access the song on the site, and while I’m logged in I can listen to it as much as I want. Reading is a little different. When it comes to reading, I want to be able to have the content at my fingertips (either electronically or physically). And while this may say more about my relative interest in books versus music more so than the market, I’m willing to pay to take my books with me.

So where does the playlist come in? Imagine what happens when we change the nomenclature from “playlist” to “edited edition.” I think there is a real possibility that people would be willing to buy collections of stories assembled by other individuals within the community who they trust. Authors could even get involved – remember that the iTunes store has been using this model for years. And, provided that the content is well tagged/​structured, it’s entirely possible to have both an electronic distribution model and a print-​on-​demand model as well.

Admittedly, there’s a lot that needs to be worked out here. For example, if one’s collection gets bought, should she get reputation points or a financial cut? Based on some research I did years ago on YouTube revenue sharing, a financial cut may not be necessary, especially if the site is attentive to responding to user’s desires. Likewise there are questions about ownership and licensing of the content.

All that said, there’s a lot of potential to use this type of model to create a really compelling (and profitable) user reading experience. The real question is whose going to give it a shot?