Amazon Kindle, the Sleeping Social Network

Since Amazon launched the Kindle, I’ve become a regular reader of something like 30 to 40 books at a time. It sounds terrible, I know, and I confess this with no small degree of sheepishness.

It works only because of that list, only 1 or 2 at the most are ever fiction. I tried to juggle more fiction books and kept forgetting who the characters were, and the Kindle X-Ray feature is not sufficiently advanced to solve that problem. Often the only X-Ray description of a character is a link to the first page in the book in which they’re mentioned, sometimes it’s a Wikipedia entry, sometimes not even the right one.

I wish the Kindle had something like TV’s “Previously, on Lost” recaps but for just one character, summarizing all that had happened to them, but just up until that point in the book. Actually, I need this feature for television, too, I often have to read recaps of Game of Thrones just to understand who some random bearded person was on that episode and how they’re related to some other person who I also don’t remember.

Anyhow, the reasons I read so many non-fiction books simultaneously:

  1. I have the promiscuous attention span of your typical modern information addict.
  2. I crave more novelty and diversity in my daily information diet than is offered by working through one book at a time.
  3. A lot of non-fiction books are written, packaged, and priced for an outdated age when physical books had to justify their shelf space with some minimum page count. Thus, many books are too long, padded with lots of extraneous anecdotes, and they lose my attention every time I run into a passage of fat. It’s like an attention speed bump. Business books are particularly egregious on this front. If Kindle singles had been a thing from the advent of publishing, maybe we wouldn’t turn up our noses at shorter books priced at a dollar or two. Some folks have done some experiments in selling short e-books (longer than a blog post, shorter than a book), and I hope it continues.
  4. The rise of blogs and Twitter have have acclimated me to flitting about from one article and topic to another. It sounds unproductive, and I do think I have to actively switch that mode off when doing deep dive work, but at other times it’s exhilarating, like standing my mind up from its desk to take a stroll around a dense metropolitan block.
  5. Many of my best ideas come from the interaction between concepts in different fields, and reading books about different topics simultaneously increases the number of such boundary collisions.

The problem with browsing my Kindle library from a thumbnail or list view is it confronts with a whole bunch of titles without any hint at where I’d left off in that book or what concept I was sitting on. This introduces micro-friction, first in the decision of which book to open, then in trying to regain flow within that book. I know, if I just read one book at a time this wouldn’t be a problem, but stay with me here.

What I’d love is for my Kindle to open into some type of home feed that sits on top of my entire Kindle library, serving up chunks from all the books I’m reading into small chunks, interweaving them into what would be something like a series of blog posts. It would replicate the way I catch up on articles across the internet every day. Instead of having to do this manually in my Kindle, dipping in and out of books by hand, the Kindle could use some simple algorithm to do this for me.

If you came to the end of one of the passages in your home feed and wanted to continue reading more from that book, you could just tap a Read More link at the end and it would unfold the next chunk. These passages would be short enough to read in one sitting, or perhaps you could dial in a rough range of how large a chunk of information you want served up at a time. If you weren’t sure of context on a passage, you could easily click a link at the top that would present a summary of what had gone before, perhaps chapter headings and all passages you’d highlighted, or chapter headings and some summary of each of them. Or maybe, to keep things simple in a first iteration, it would just pull back in the preceding section.

Amazon could build this themselves, or they could open up some API for other developers to build some such functionality on top of the Kindle ecosystem, a strategy they are quite familiar with. The Kindle ecosystem, already the market leader, would level up into a more powerful, useful, and sticky platform. That so much knowledge in books is still locked away behind an old copyright system is unfortunate, but I’m not suggesting that Amazon make books free. The publishers would never go for it. Instead, this feed would sit on top of just books readers had already purchased for the Kindle. I know that today I can access my own Kindle notes and highlights via the web, but it’s still a more cumbersome process than it should be.

Lastly, and most importantly, I’d like Amazon to build a true social network around books and readers. I’ve tried Goodreads, and then later I tried it again. That’s not the answer. The site is a bit of a confusing ghost town, and it seems oriented around finding a book to read, which the Amazon site and other resources already do a good enough job solving.

The reading social network I want is around discussing ideas in the text itself. I want the ability to see the notes and highlights of my friends on books we’ve both purchased, and I want the ability to respond to their notes, or at least to like them. I want them to see my public highlights and notes, and I want them to be able to respond to those. My initial graph could be based on Facebook or Twitter or other social networks I connect, but users could establish their own accounts/usernames so I could find them manually as well.

I would love the ability to follow certain notable folks and see their public notes and highlights. I’ve long wanted to travel to Texas to see David Foster Wallace’s archive, to see what notes he jotted in the margins of books he read. What if those were just published on his books by the keepers of his archive through an account they opened? Imagine seeing Malcolm Gladwell’s notes on Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball, or Mick Jagger’s notes on passages about him in Keith Richards’ biography Life. What if every time a person was mentioned in a book, they’d receive a notification, like a notification that they’d been tagged in a Facebook photo? At a basic level, we’d have a lot more crowd-sourcing of fact-checking, but at a higher level the book becomes an opening to a dialogue.

Perhaps some notes could come at a fee, but I see most of the being free. Imagine being able to pose questions to authors directly in their texts by posting them as a public note. Just as authors started frequenting Amazon to see what their Sales Rank was when that feature launched, now authors would be constantly revisiting their own books to participate in a dialogue with their readers. Books would go from two dimensional to having a z-axis composed of an infinite number of onion paper layers available to scribble on.

Such a platform transforms the purchase of a book into the beginning of a lifelong relationship and dialogue around its ideas. A copyrighted text become not just paywalled content, a locked fortress, but an open platform for contextual conversation. Over time, each book would become richer and richer, a living tome.

Real and virtual book clubs could use Amazon Kindle books as the platform for discussion. You could easily do this by defining and saving a group of readers. Different people read at different speeds, but as each member caught up to a discussion they could jump in and participate. If you weren’t a member of a book club, you’d still be part of the book group defined by all the other readers you were following, so everyone would be in a book club on every book in their Kindle library if they wanted to. If they didn’t, a setting would allow them to turn off the feature easily, just as you can turn off group highlighting in the Kindle today.

I’d allow users to post links to excerpts or passages or specific page locations in other texts in their Kindle library. If another reader came across that pointer and didn’t own the other book being referenced, they’d just see a truncated excerpt (assuming it exceeded some fair use word count limit), with the ability to 1-click purchase that book to unlock the full reference.

This would be a new form of book cross-merchandising for Amazon. I envision that my home feed could include highlights and notes from other readers I was following, and again, if I didn’t own the book they were referencing I’d see a truncated excerpt with a buy button to unlock the whole text.

This may sound a lot like the basics of modern social networks and hypertext. And it should. No need to reinvent such elegant ideas, refined over so many years. The real benefit here is unleashing the virtues of networks and hypertext on the massive corpus of text locked up inside books. There’s real gold inside those books which have been vetted by publishers and refined by editors and authors over numerous drafts.

That these tools are largely applied just to articles and blog posts that have been written since the invention of the internet is a shame. So many books are still read decades or centuries after they’ve been published, a decent sign they contain much timeless wisdom.

I suggest Amazon as the best company to launch such a social network because most people I know buy ebooks for the Kindle so the cold start problem for this network isn’t as severe. If Amazon for some reason runs with this idea, then I have one more feature request. Please make the Kindle hardware touch screens more responsive. I largely use my iPad to read my Kindle books because typing on a Kindle hardware device is for masochists. The severe latency leads to all sorts of typos and missed keystrokes, I’ve largely given up trying to highlight or jot notes on Kindle devices. I use my Paperwhite only when I travel, only for books I expect to read without doing much highlighting or annotating, and especially in sunlight where my iPad screen is primarily good for reflecting sun onto my face and evening out my tan.

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