No Snacking Between Books Please!

April 29, 2008

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a little weary of all the Amazon-generated hype about the Kindle, its proprietary eBook reader (described by Amazon as a “revolutionary wireless reading device [emphasis mine]). We’re told incessantly how “visionary,”exceptional,” and, yes, “revolutionary” this little device is, but we’re not told why (with regard to features that differentiate it meaningfully from its nine competitors). The Amazon site states: “Revolutionary electronic-paper display provides a sharp, high-resolution screen that looks and reads like real paper.” But all of its competitors use ePaper.

We’re told that it sold out 5-½ hours after release, but have never been told how many units had been produced. And now, when you go to Amazon’s home page, you’e greeted not by the usual smorgasbord of new product releases in various genres, but by a somber yet upbeat letter from C.E.O. Bezos himself, advising that this magical Kindle is once more in stock. Hallelujah!

The letter goes on to invite us to read president Bezos’ just released (April 14th) annual Letter to Shareholders. He goes on to explain that he doesn’ ordinarily link to this sort of communication from the Amazon home page (I’d hate to think what would happen to Amazon’s sales if he got in the habit of doing so), but, Bezos explains, “this letter is all about the Kindle,”mas if that would help us form some sort of logical connection in our minds about the appearance of this missive.

On behalf of my readers, and in the interest of Kindle-lovers everywhere, I clicked on the link and a 5-page PDF file slowly overwhelmed my browser window. The last three pages are the shareholder letter; the first page-and-a-half contain Bezos’ verbose paean to the Kindle.

It takes until page 2, paragraph 2 to get a sense of why the Kindle has turned Bezos into a born again eBooker. Here are his insights:

1. “We change our tools, and then our tools change us.” (A widely-accepted view of the impact of technology.)

2. Writing “changed us dramatically.” (Well, yes!)

3. Gutenberg made books cheaper, and “physical books ushered in a new way of collaborating and learning.” (Amongst many, many other things, Jeff. See Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, available on Amazon at an 11% discount, or for 25 cents less at Barnes and Noble.)

4. “Lately, networked tools such as desktop computers, laptops, cell phones and PDAs have changed us too.” (No problem there.)

5. “(Networked tools have) shifted us more toward information snacking (sic), and I would argue toward shorter attention spans.” (I recommend reading Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s famous and prescient 1997 column “How Users Read on the Web,” which begins with the memorable line: “They don’t.” Nielsen continues: “People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences.” So is the issue really shorter attention spans, or new techniques for coping with the vastly increased amount of textual information we’re asked to consume each day?)

6. “Kindle is purpose-built for long-form reading. We hope Kindle and its successors may gradually and incrementally move us over years into a world with longer spans of attention, providing a counterbalance to the recent proliferation of info-snacking tools.”

OK, I’ve got it. Without quoting any evidence, Bezos warns that new digital tools are inducing a form of ADD in the public at large. I’ll look into the research for you, Mr. Bezos, and report my findings shortly on this site in the Literacy section. In the meantime please peruse my updated section on eBooks: I am not without bias towards the supposed wonders of eBook technology.

Though the letter is evangelical in tone, Bezos forgets the apocryphal preacher’s advice on a successful sermon: “First, I tell them what I’m going to tell them, then I tell them, then I tell them what I just told them” Perhaps he was information snacking when he wrote the letter.

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Not a Cat

April 28, 2008

Given its stuffy name, The Economist, and its stuffy image as a turgid journal featuring dry analysis of economics and politics, I find this publication a remarkable source of data for many of the entries on this site. Being The Economist it is generally authoritative without being windy. Economist writers (never identified with a byline to an article) are the cream of the crop, and it soon becomes obvious that they combine the right balance of education, knowledge and judgment with well-researched facts and figures to produce timely articles often as short as a page, and sometimes as long as several. (I should mention that they can also surprise the reader with a very dry wit.)

Part of what makes The Economist seem standoffish is the price: the cheapest online-only one-year subscription is $80; print and online jumps the price past $100/year.

Apparently an excellent magazine, one that knows its audience and delivers consistently, can still be a roaring success. The latest figures I can find are for the six months ended September 30, 2007. Circulation increased 11% to over 1.2 million copies (and remember, this is a weekly!). Electronic advertising revenue increased 15%, as monthly users increased 39% (reaching 2.6 million), contributing to a 25% increase in operating profits.

How do you like them apples, Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report (each hit recently by troubling circulation and/or financial news)?

Today I stumbled on an online-only article (available to non-subscribers) called “Finding the right picture: Engineers are making progress with the old problem of getting computers to recognize what they are looking at.” In the lede the problem is explained: “To a microprocessor, a photograph of James Bond might as well depict a cat in a tree.” The article goes on to explain recent research underway designed to overcome this challenge.

Why I love The Economist is made clear in part from the accompanying illustration and caption:

Not-a-cat.jpg

Image and caption copyright 2008, The Economist.

A Tale of Two ’Pedia’s

April 25, 2008

I bet you didn’t observe it with a special ceremony at your company (nor, privately, at home), but April 23rd was UNESCO’s annual World Book Day (coinciding with Shakespeare’s birthday). I learned about this on the website of German media giant Bertelsmann. With sales approaching $30 billion annually, it is easily one of the largest publishers in the world (including in the U.S., through its Random House subsidiary).

It seems appropriate that April 23rd is also the day that the press got wind of Bertelsmann’s plan to issue a book version of Wikipedia. According to the New York Times report, the book will be published in September in German only, based on the German version of Wikipedia, with a list price of 19.95 euros. While the online German Wikipedia has nearly three-quarters of a million entries, the book will contain only 20,000 of these, each verified by Bertelsmann’s editors.

Meanwhile, over at another encyclopedia company, Encyclopedia Britannica, a very different kind of announcement was making the rounds this week (although actually first announced on April 13): free access to the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica through a new program called Britannica Webshare.

PSH_print_solo.jpg

The Wired Campus blog in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that “Encyclopaedia Britannica…apparently fears being nudged into irrelevance by the proliferation of free online reference sources…

“Comscore analysis, also reported on TechCrunch, found that ‘[f]or every page viewed on Brittanica.com, 184 pages are viewed on Wikipedia,’ or 3.8 billion v. 21 million page views per month…

“Under a new program entitled Britannica WebShare, the encyclopedia publisher is allowing ‘people who publish with some regularity on the Internet, be they bloggers, webmasters, or writers,’ to read and link to the encyclopedia’s online articles. The company seems to hope that by offering its services free to Web publishers, links to Britannica articles will proliferate across the Internet and will persuade regular Web surfers to cough up $1,400 for the encyclopedia’s 32-volume set, or perhaps $70 for an annual online subscription.”

Hurry: Get your application in here.

The Beauty of Blogs

April 22, 2008

There are perhaps few readers of this blog who also read The New York Review of Books. That would be understandable, as the current issue features reviews of the first volume of a biography of Ezra Pound, then of a 615 page book that examines just the last year of the war in Japan (1944-1945), and also a review of a book called “Ten Tortured Words: How the Founding Fathers Tried to Protect Religion in America…and What’s Happened Since” by author Stephen Mansfield.

The February 14, 2008 issue, still online, has a wonderful feature just called “Blogs”, written by Sarah Mansfield, who confesses in the first sentence of her piece: “Two years ago, I was given a dreadful idea for a book: create an anthology of blogs.” As is often the case in The New York Review of Books, the reviewer covers multiple titles, in this case ten different books concerned with blogs and what they signify.

I’ve never read a more eloquent or revealing article about blogs: where they originated, what they signify, how they impact other media, and where they’re headed.

Her concluding paragraph gives a sense of the tone of the review: “Blog writing is id writing—grandiose, dreamy, private, free-associative, infantile, sexy, petty, dirty. Whether bloggers tell the truth or really are who they claim to be is another matter, but WTF. They are what they write. And you can’t fake that. ;-)”

A must read!

The Science of Blogs

April 18, 2008

On April 15th the Wall Street Journal, in its own Buzzwatch blog, offered a report and a background interview on what’s really going on when people read blogs, and what keeps them doing so. (The Wall Street Journal online is offered by subscription only, but the blogs don’t require a subscription, so the URL attached above should work — I’m having some trouble with it, but it will at least take you nearby.)

This blog was inspired by a learned journal article called “Exploring the Role of the Reader in the Activity of Blogging,” authored by three learned men at the University of California in Irvine, and presented the previous week “at a conference on human factors in computing.”

The intro to the WSJ blog states the author’s proposition on the importance of this research: “The question of what drives people to read blogs is a big one for traditional media losing time with their audiences to the Internet and companies looking to tap the Web for marketing,” author Tom Weber writes. Fair enough, although perhaps not very deep. The three authors of the article offer no more profound an explanation of the significance of their study. “Despite the medium’s interactive nature, most research on blogs focuses on either the blog itself or the blogger, rarely if at all focusing on the reader’s impact. In order to gain a better understanding of the social practice of blogging, we must take into account the role, contributions, and significance of the reader,” they write.

A quick proviso is in order: the study involved only fifteen participants, all under the age of 40, by all accounts a statistically-insignificant sample. At the same time Bill Tomlinson, one of the report’s authors, does not shy away from this question, and defends the decision. “In the early stages of research into a topic,” he states, “it’s often helpful to begin with small qualitative studies such as this one in order to figure out the key issues. Quantitative studies with larger sample sizes are then useful for refining the understanding of these issues and developing statistical analyses of specific phenomena,” he tells Tom Weber. I don’t disagree with the essential argument, but, come on, surely fifteen respondents falls far short of science. Oh well, let it be. What was discovered?

When I read a scientific paper as part of my research for this site, I often just skip to the conclusion, looking for the meat. I leave it to the reader of this blog to see if she or he can find any meat there. The Wall Street Journal interview is more pithy and direct.

The main points:

1. Blog reading is (or can be) habitual, somewhat akin to watching a TV series. However bloggers don’t seem to care if they miss an episode, and just move on to the next entry.

2. Nonetheless, the personal nature of blogs encourages a higher degree of interaction by the reader than does television.

3. The audience for a blog is highly varied (unlike television?), and this has some implications the bloggers should keep in mind.

4. The first comment to the Wall Street Journal blog is from someone named “Nicolas” who runs a site called “Managing IO: Ideas and Trends to Tackle Information Overload.” His site appears to offer both more ideas and better links than the whole WSJ blog and the referenced study.

Let scientists continue to study this thorny subject, perhaps applying a little more rigor than has been found here.