Is Hardbound “horrible for society”?
A letter to those who think we’re making the world dumber
Yesterday we launched a big update to Hardbound, an app we’ve been working on for some time now. We create 5-minute, illustrated stories based on the most fascinating books in business, history, and science. The really special part, though, is our format. (You can see an example here.)
Most of the feedback was pretty incredible:
…but one commenter on Product Hunt was not a fan:
I want to respond to this thoroughly, because our goal with Hardbound is to create a product that helps people become more curious, loving, and brave. If we accidentally created something that made the world dumber, then it would be a terrible thing. So I have thought about this a lot.
Let’s unpack his argument. The gist is basically…
- Hardbound stories will make people read fewer books
- Book-length stories are intellectually superior to article-length stories
- Text-only stories are intellectually superior to visual stories
I disagree with each of these assertions. Here’s why:
1. Hardbound stories get people to read *more* books — not less.
When authors do podcast interviews, or give TED talks, or make YouTube videos, they are increasing the number of people who read their books. Hardbound serves the exact same function.
Authors love smaller nuggets of content based on their books because it’s a great way to build trust. Nobody is going to commit to spending 5+ hours with a book unless they are really confident that it’s going to be worth their time, energy, and money. Hardbound is a great way to warm people up.
Also, we have data. We link people to the Amazon page of books and can tell that since yesterday, dozens of people have already bought books directly after reading the Hardbound story. And that’s just what we can directly measure on the first day!
Lastly, the book world seems to love it so far. We’ve gotten inbound interest from plenty of editors, authors, marketers, literary agents, and publishers. Nobody has complained so far. The opposite has happened:
Sure, not everyone who reads a Hardbound story will go on to read the book. But I’d bet that those people were never going to read the book in the first place. And I think it’s a net positive for both the author and the reader that there is a cool, visual story that teaches the big idea in five minutes.
2. Book-length stories are *not* always better
If people stopped reading books, and always just skimmed the shallows of information, then that would definitely be a bad thing. But it would be a much bigger problem if the only sources of learning were book-length.
As I mentioned earlier, it takes a lot to convince someone to read a book. You have to be really confident that it will be worth your time. If books were all that existed, it would be much harder to expand your intellectual horizons and take risks with topics you’re not sure you’re ready for, or are interested in.
One of the most wonderful things about the internet is that it enables anyone to follow their curiosity and learn about a wide variety of fascinating things. Some people obviously use this extremely well, but many choose to hang out on social networks all the time.
This leads me to point #3…
3. Text-only content is intellectually *inferior* to visual content—not superior.
When we’re kids, we all start out reading picture books, and then we’re expected to grow out of it at a certain point. So we get this notion in our heads that images are for amateurs, and serious thinkers should not need them.
This is a load of bullshit.
The reason that books traditionally don’t contain pictures has nothing to do with the intellectual seriousness of the content, and everything to do with economics. In the old days, if you wanted to include an image you had to create a custom metal plate and have an illustrator etch an image into it. That was super expensive. These days, to print images you need higher quality paper and ink. Not to mention the fact that, until recently, capturing images and creating illustrations was a rare and expensive process.
So publishers give authors an “image budget” and don’t let them exceed it. It’s a question of profit, not intellect.
But now that we’re consuming stories on touchscreens, the LCD doesn’t care if it’s displaying images or text. And the creation of images and graphics has become dramatically easier and cheaper. The only thing that’s lagging is the behavior of the content creator.
In truth, visuals help almost everyone learn more quickly and efficiently than decoding a bunch of text. Ten years from now, people will look back on our weird aversion to visual storytelling like we now look back on our parents’ weird aversion to text messaging in the early 2000’s.
Side note about how this blog post is not a visual story:
I know, I know. I’m extolling the virtues of visual storytelling via a plain text blog post. The thing is, those are hard to make. And as important as I think this argument is, it’s not worth it (right now) to make a visual tap story to refute. Visual tap stories are kind of like gourmet meals: difficult to create, wonderful to consume.
I hope this convinced you that our short, visual summaries of books are actually good for the world. But if you have reasons that I haven’t thought of, I would love to hear them. Because I actually don’t care about being right. I just want to sit at the intersection of technology and storytelling and learn as much as I can, and make the biggest positive impact possible.
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