Changemakers: The digital reading rooms where strangers share stories

Rob Paul's first-of-its-kind tech project is helping people make unlikely friendships by simply reading aloud together

There was a time when stories read aloud bound communities together. Now Rob Paul has looked to technology to reinvent the practice of sharing stories. Enter Audrey, the North Londoner’s pioneering app that uses reading out loud to prove that even strangers can find common ground. People signed up for the service from more than 20 countries as Paul’s simple idea uses the internet to bring people together where social media falls short.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint a lightbulb moment,” Paul says of developing the Audrey idea. The 42-year-old was a high-school psychology teacher until Audrey took off; seeing how beneficial peer-to-peer learning was to pupils in his class was what planted the seed that grew into his reading revolution. 

“It was borne out of seeing students meeting as equals and being able to share knowledge,” he says. “My interest in psychology meant I was fascinated by different elements of a bond created between two people, like encouraging empathy, compassion, better listening. And I had been very keen to work on something which had some good about it.”

Paul also felt passionate about the power of a good story to bring people together. “Before you even consider the other benefits, for people who like books just chatting about books is such a soulful experience. There’s something really nourishing about it.”

The former teacher tested his idea by matching family and friends who didn’t know each other to read aloud over the phone. Paul sent emails with photocopied extracts of books and short stories, introduced them to one another and facilitated a time when they could have a chat, then “let them get on with it”.

The feedback was so positive that the creator sought the expertise of developers and designers to help finesse a self-funded web app that would later become a reading room for people around the world.

The Audrey process is simple. “Sign-ups are asked if they want to be a reader, whether they prefer to read fiction or non-fiction, and they write a short bio about themselves,” Paul says. “Once we receive that information we try to match people as readers and listeners.

“There’s no sophisticated algorithm at the moment, it’s human touch. I look for overlapping experience which may spark a connection, but at the same time it’s important for me to match people who might have really different life journeys.”

The pair are then introduced and create a private reading room in the app. With live peer-to-peer audio streaming, they read to one another (typically 10 minutes once a week for five weeks) and have a conversation after each session.

Chatting about books is such a soulful experience

If Paul has done his job properly, he says, the material the pair read will spark a conversation about something meaningful. “The stories are carefully selected so that they contain universal themes. They should encourage people to talk about family, education, upbringing. 

“This often lasts longer than the reading itself. It’s a moment of shared humanity,” he says.

Audrey matched an engineer with a history student and recommended they read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; the app paired a playwright and a retired nurse who read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle; and it put a filmmaker in touch with a furniture restorer. They read a series of short stories by Anton Chekhov.

There are around 100 stories available in the Audrey library at present, a mix of copyright-free stories compiled by Paul and book excerpts donated by authors who are enthusiastic about the project.

“People have all sorts of needs, whether it’s someone who’s lost the capacity to read because they’ve experienced a stroke or have a disability that means they can only be read to,” he says. “Someone might want to read with someone about a particular lived experience that they both had, and we can make that happen.” 

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When putting the Audrey library together Paul consulted with community groups, like those for older adults or for people dealing with grief, to make sure there would be material that spoke to all experiences. Users have reported that Audrey has reduced their sense of isolation and boosted their mental wellbeing. 

Building technology, spreading the word, securing content for the platform and building community all at once has been “a steep learning curve”, the creator says. But he is determined to keep up Audrey’s momentum, continually developing the web app and tailoring the experience for his fast-growing global community of story lovers. 

Reading together is consoling and uplifting. It’s invigorating

Paul has developed a love for short stories since the launch of Audrey. To read aloud, he recommends The Race of the Patient Motorcyclists by Lydia Davis. “It’s a blend of thought-provoking humour and tragedy. It looks at the importance of patience, and why it can be valuable to stick at something for the long haul.”

He’s also a fan of Guava by Etgar Keret. “This is a 600-word story which addresses, life, death and peace on earth. It’s a perplexing parable-like story about a man who becomes a piece of fruit. It makes you laugh, it makes you sad, it’s a bit absurd and a bit dark.”