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Hundreds of thousands of people read novels on Instagram. They may be the future

Last year, the New York Public Library released an experiment to put the full text of novels in its Instagram Stories. Today, an estimated 300,000 people are reading books this way.

Hundreds of thousands of people read novels on Instagram. They may be the future
[Image: courtesy Mother New York]

In August 2018, Instagram followers of the New York Public Library were tapping through their Insta Stories when something unexpected showed up: the full text of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, designed for a small screen, with small animations that brought the story to life as you flipped.

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The project, known as Insta Novels, is part of the NYPL’s goal to reach beyond its walls and convince more people to read books. In pursuit of this mission, the institution has turned to one of the largest social media platforms in the world, bringing classic literature to Instagram’s 400 million daily active users.

[Image: courtesy Mother New York]

Designed by the design agency Mother New York, Insta Novels is the winner of Fast Company‘s 2019 Innovation by Design Awards in the Apps & Games category. Since launching in August 2018, more than 300,000 people have read the NYPL’s Insta Novels, and the NYPL’s Instagram account has gained 130,000 followers. While gaining more followers was definitely part of the project’s aim, the NYPL is more excited—and surprised—that people actually read the books that it published on Instagram.

There have been many attempts to update books for the digital age: Beyond e-readers like the Kindle and Nook, designers have tried to take advantage of the visual, context-aware nature of the internet to make reading more interactive. A project called Ambient Literature publishes stories that pull in details about your location, the time of day, and the weather for a story you can read only on a smartphone. Others have redesigned the digital reading experience for the browser, making it more pleasant to read a book on your computer.

For NYPL, anything that helps people find stories is a great idea—so why not put them in the library’s Stories?

[Image: courtesy Mother New York]

“Anywhere people want to read is fine by us,” says Richert Schnorr, the director of digital media at the NYPL. “We’re happy to meet people where they are.” Schnorr tapped the NYPL’s librarians to decide which public domain titles to include. Along with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the library’s Instagram page’s highlights section also has Story versions of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which slowly became available over the last six months of 2018.

But Instagram is an unlikely platform for reading full novels. As Mother partner and chief creative officer Corinna Falusi puts it: “Instagram is a platform built to share visuals, and we are sharing words.”

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So Falusi and her team focused on ensuring that each story was highly legible in terms of text size (not too small, but not so big that each story would take too many screens to complete), background color (a warmer cream to make reading easier on the eyes), and font (the team picked Georgia). They also took advantage of the unique nature of the platform by sprinkling small animations on chapter pages and throughout the books to continually pique the reader’s interest, since they likely expect sleek visuals on Instagram. Finally, they commissioned a different designer to illustrate the equivalent of a book cover that a reader first sees when they open up the Story, taking advantage of Instagram’s focus on visuals to create compelling animations that would convince people to give the story a shot.

[Image: courtesy Mother New York]

To move between pages, the designers realized they could take advantage of Instagram’s interface, where users tap on the right side of the screen to go to the next image or video, to mimic the act of flipping pages. To help guide people, each story has a little animated icon where users are meant to rest their thumb. Then, they can tap every time they want to turn the page. For A Christmas Carol, the icon is a burning candle that slowly burns down as you tap, almost like a digital flip book.

“Every single part of the design was tailored to make the story the most entertaining, to make it the most simple to use, and make it the most natural within the environment of Instagram,” Falusi says.

Ultimately, both Mother and the NYPL hope that this is an ongoing project, whether the library itself publishes more books via Instagram or others take up the mantle and start experimenting themselves. “This is just the beginning of using a platform in a way that hasn’t been used before,” Falusi says.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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