Amazon Popular Highlights, the “Hawking Index”, and Attention Spans

There’s so much more information about our reading habits online now, it’s tantalizing to think about the possibilities. Jordan Ellenberg (Wall Street Journal: “The Summer’s Most Popular Book is …”) had a clever use for Amazon’s Popular Highlights feature, while coining the phrase, “the Hawking Index*” about what Kindle users are — and aren’t reading:

“How can we find today’s greatest non-reads? Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.

Thus, the Hawking Index (HI): Take the page numbers of a book’s five top highlights, average them, and divide by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the more of the book we’re guessing most people are likely to have read. (Disclaimer: This is not remotely scientific and is for entertainment purposes only!)”

The results: 775-page The Goldfinch (surprisingly to me) was one of the most-finished reads, while 696-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century was the least finished on the list. It makes some sense that fiction — and perhaps especially serial fiction with their built-in cliffhangers and delayed narrative gratification — would see greater completion rates than nonfiction. What does all of this mean? Probably nothing without a bigger sample size of books, but it’s still neat to think about. I wonder if in the not-distant future, that kind of data about reading habits could influence the decision-making process of book publishers.

On a related note, check out The Atlantic’s compilation of The Most Popular Passages in Books, According to Kindle Data:

like any big business, publishing must always center on the mass: What do the most people want? What will the most people buy? What do people respond to? Between these two, there is a strange relationship. Companies collect and analyze this data, but rarely do readers get to see it.

From a social perspective, I do find interesting what passages carry resonance with a large number of readers. But in my own Kindle reading, I usually opt for turning Popular Highlights off because of the potential for distraction. It’s more than a little possible that there is a mirror neurons kind of effect going on; perhaps our eye is drawn towards those passages that others have highlighted because it feels more significant because of that appearance of social importance. On some level, we probably can’t help but look more closely at the passage that says “4000 other people highlighted this part of the book” as opposed to “11 other people highlighted this part of the book.”

Trivia: attention span of goldfish is 9 seconds

I do wonder about our collective attention spans, and how our reading habits are being shaped by the various forms in which we are now reading our books.

Science Fracture (The Rise of Short Fiction) also has some observations on Kindle Singles and the role it might contribute in shaping our reading habits — but if in fact our attention spans are gravitating towards shorter forms of content, why do longer form books (think: the Game of Thrones series and a combined 4000-plus pages and counting) remain so popular?

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* Because apparently, A Brief of History of Time is the book everyone says they’re going to read but never do.**

** note to self: finish reading A Brief History of Time

The Social Experiment of Social Media

Social media has become so ubiquitous a part of our everyday lives (depending of course on what we define as “social media”), it might sometimes be helpful for us to take a step back and think about just how much has changed in terms of the ways in which we now interact with one another.

And let’s be honest: we don’t really know, because we’re too busy being immersed in an online, hyper-connected world of apps and websites and alerts that is constantly changing (remember when The Facebook used to look like this?).

In some ways, social media is one giant, grand experiment*, which is constantly being tested every single day, by every single one of us. To that end, The New York Times (“Social Networks Can Affect Voter Turnout, Study Says“) wrote about an important study — one of the most substantial of its kind — involving researchers at Facebook and University of California, San Diego published in Nature: “A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization.”

In looking at Election Day 2010, the research team showed the ways both subtle and direct, that social cues affect our decision-making process. This in itself may not be news, but the ways in which we take those social cues has certainly changed. Could a simple nudge such as a Vote badge on Facebook be enough to generate additional votes? Do we use social media as a means to broaden our understanding of others and other viewpoints, or do we hear only what we want to hear, and block out the rest?

 

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* Of course, the actual experiments that Facebook has already been up to is another, separate topic we may want to revisit!

 

Twitter Insights on Scotland and #IndyRef

The role that social media is playing in the potentially historic September 18 Scottish Independence referendum is becoming quite a story in itself. How is social media (specifically, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook) helping to shape and promote the kind of discourse and debate surrounding the independence referendum?

The Twitter UK blog (“How the first #IndyRef debate played out on Twitter“) shared some thoroughly fascinating data from the first live televised debate:

“There were 186,267 Tweets about the Scotland #IndyRef debate tonight, with a peak of 2,019 Tweets per minute (TPM)”

 

My favorite part was the live interactive map which shows the Yes/No Twitter activity unfold in real time. It’s an unique look into what a massive, rapid, shared experience social media can create (click on the image below to view the full, and very cool interactive map):

 

Also worth a mention is the work over at the University of Glasgow’s Policy Scotland team, where they have been very actively following the usage of Twitter in the referendum debate.

Interesting: Twitter UK’s New Visualization Tool

Twitter UK recently launched a beta of an interactive visualization tool, that sounds even potentially even more interesting than they are giving it credit for. From the Twitter UK blog: “Be inspired by Everyday Moments with Twitter’s interactive tool.”

While the announcement comes in the context of always-on branding and marketing opportunities (which does make a whole lot of sense) geared towards social media managers, I think this could have much broader implications for the ways in which we observe how social interactions unfold on a large scale.

[click on the image below to go to an interactive demo of the visualization tool]”

From the Twitter UK blog: “We hope you’ll be fascinated by the scale and predictability of conversation patterns across Britain. Be it how chatter about coffee as it lights up the map between 8-10 a.m. during the week, or how much we all seem to like talking about the weather, the patterns of discussion give a unique insight into the rhythm of everyday life in the UK and Ireland.”

Aside from the national obsession with weather (silly British people), the ebb and flow of a simultaneous, shared conversation between millions of Twitter users could give us great insight into the ways in which information flows from place to place and form person to person.

The Limits of Social Media Advocacy?

The “Kony 2012″ documentary about the Ugandan warlord not only reached millions upon millions of social media users on an emotional level (while generating A LOT of hype), it only served as a cautionary tale about what kinds of messages social media campaigns promulgate.

Dr. Sarah Steele and I have researched the subject of social media advocacy in-depth (with the final article coming soon in 2015):

“Admirably, Kony2012 sought to raise awareness about the urgency of the manhunt for Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony and his exploitation of child soldiers in Uganda. The film promoted a key awareness of the issues around bringing warlords to justice. However, the film generated much controversy.

You can read the full blog post here.

And for some additional context, The Guardian has a useful overview of the social media activity surrounding the Kony 2012 campaign:

The Economist: “Stanford creating a new Florence?”

stanford_quad

Liberal arts: useful in Silicon Valley? It’s not an entirely new debate, although it does seem to be picking up slightly more steam in the past year or two. The Economist has a quick blog post, on Stanford University’s role in such a possible Tech Age Renaissance: “A Florence for the 21st Century

‘The Palo Alto-based university is trying to help answer one of the questions that haunts our “knowledge society”: where will new ideas come from? Many successful start-ups are the result of their founders spotting gaps in their own lives. But what if their thinking stretched far beyond their daily horizon? “The labour market is a rat race, so you’re in a permanent state of distraction,” notes Wiley Hausam, the executive director of Stanford’s new Bing Concert Hall (pictured). “Art stops all of that and allows creative ideas to emerge almost on their own.”’

It’s a somewhat romantic, but not entirely farfetched idea: “Stanford has been the catalyst of the Silicon Valley revolution, and we want to have the same effect on the arts … The Bay Area has the human and material resources needed to become the Florence of the 21st century.” Palo Alto: artistic community? And what kind of artists can afford Palo Alto rent prices anyways?

For more background on the are-liberal-arts-useful-in-tech debate, here’s an interesting article that Vivek Wadhwa wrote over at TechCrunch,Engineering vs. Liberal Arts: Who’s Right—Bill or Steve?

New Book: Toronto World Film Locations

toronto world film locationsHere’s a new book that I worked on: World Film Locations, Toronto (ed. Tom Ue).

This was a fun project — combining brief film essays, local Toronto history, and some fascinating side-by-side photo comparisons of familiar movie scenes with their real-life locations. As it turns out, Toronto has quite the long history with Hollywood projects (just take a quick glance at this long list of films shot in Toronto).

The book covers quite a range of movies –from 1980s classics like A Christmas Story and Police Academy, to superhero genres like X-Men and The Incredible Hulk, award-winning dramas like Good Will Hunting and cool Indie flicks like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (one of my personal favorites from the book).

scottpilgrimvstheworld7For Toronto film location fans, the Reel Toronto series from Torontoist is an indispensable resource, which sums things up nicely:

Toronto’s extensive work on the silver screen reveals that, while we have the chameleonic ability to look like anywhere from New York City to Moscow, the disguise doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny. Reel Toronto revels in digging up and displaying the films that attempt to mask, hide, or—in rare cases—proudly display our city.” 

Batman, or Shakespeare?

who said it shakespeare or batmanHere’s a fun way to spend a couple of minutes: “Who Said It: Shakespeare or Batman?

(I can’t believe I missed the two that I did … clearly I haven’t been reading enough Batman).

batman shakespeare bustDid you know you can buy the Batman Shakespeare bust? (You know, the next to the Bat-Phone). Probably just as well that I don’t have $3oo.o0 for impulse eBay purchases.

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Tangentially related: Greg Hurwitz studied Shakespearean tragedy at Oxford, and gets to write Batman comics!

Amazon’s “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime”

100 books to read in a lifetimeOk, I’m kind of a sucker for book lists. Have you seen Amazon’s “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime“?

It’s actually a fairly interesting mix. And here’s a link to the GoodReads version — I wonder what the list composition would look like if it were a crowd-sourced list.

Some tidbits from their press release:

  • Oldest book on the list: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
  • Most recently published book on the list: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)
  • Book on the list that inspired the most internal debate: 1984 by George Orwell
  • A few books that were unanimous across the team: Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Really, Portnoy’s Complaint? Maybe I’m just not a liver fan.

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And for those that don’t want to scroll through the Amazon website to see the full title list (like me), here’s the list:

1984 by George Orwell

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning: The Short-Lived Edition by Lemony Snicket

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Alice Munro: Selected Stories by Alice Munro

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt

Are You There, God? It’s me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Born To Run – A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown

Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Book 1 by Jeff Kinney

Dune by Frank Herbert

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared M. Diamond

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Color of Water by James McBride

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The House At Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Liars’ Club: A Memoir by Mary Karr

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) by Rick Riordan

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Shining by Stephen King

The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel by Haruki Murakami

The World According to Garp by John Irving

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

 

Thoughts on Reading, iPads, and Tablets

ipad air reading booksWhen the iPad Air came out, GalleyCat asked what some people were probably wondering: “Will the 1-Pound iPad Air Be Better for Reading Books?” After all, it’s half a pound lighter than the previous iteration.

1.5 lbs may not sound like much, but I hope I’m not the only person who has fallen asleep while reading on a tablet, only to be waken up by the tablet smashing me in the face. Then, it actually does feel rather heavy.

The point of this post is to think about what exactly we mean by “better” for reading, and what kinds of reading we have in mind.

For example: MacWorld (“Why and when the iPad is the best e-reader“) points out the useful distinction between studious reading (“The iPad facilitates note-taking and skimming—the kind of reading done by college students. But at the end of a book, it’s so much easier to go back, find your notes, and give yourself a Cliff’s Notes overview of what you just read. If you’re in information-processing mode, the iPad is usually the way to go. Making and navigating these sorts of notes on an e-ink Kindle is painful“) on the one hand; leisure reading; and old-fashioned immersive reading, giving the slight overall edge to the iPad mini.

Also worth a reading, from The Guardian (“Which is the best tablet for reading?“) which favors the new Nexus 10 for its impressive 2560 x 1600 pixels high resolution screen, while keeping in mind:

paperwhite is still best for reading“There is no “best” tablet for all kinds of reading in all kinds of situations, which can range from sitting out in the midday sun to reading in bed. Also, people have different responses to different types and sizes of screen, especially when reading for long periods. … The Kindle Paperwhite e-reader is better than tablets at handling a wide range of lighting situations. Tablets are hard or sometimes impossible to read in bright sunlight, and their glossy screens can pick up annoying reflections.

Gizmodo weighs in on ereaders (“5 Ways Ereaders Are Still Better Than Tablets“). Yeah, the article is over a year old, but I think the first three reasons are legitimate, and it certainly seems as if ereaders can get away with a longer product lifecycle than a tablet (iPad 2? Are you kidding? That’s so 2011).

If you think “better” means serving the function of reading books, an ereader is probably the way to go: “ Let’s face it, as much as you love Middlemarch, you love checking your email more. Notifications, tweets, messages, even a handy digital clock; these are the things that make tablets great multitasking machines and terrible reading devices.”

kobo glo pride and prejudiceSpeaking of e-reading devices, CNET’s “Best e-book readers” is a useful primer. Having had experience with all of them, I would have to agree with the Kindle Paperwhite as the best pure e-reading device, and the Kobo Glo does present a legitimately interesting Kindle/Nook alternative.

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