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?


* 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

Thoughts on Readability

So what do we mean when we say a book is “difficult”? The Atlantic (“Readability is a Myth“) had some interesting thoughts on the topic —

manet the reader painting“First, I think it’s more true to the experience of reading to see “difficult” as wrapped up in evaluation of “bad,” rather than as separate. Most people are willing to admit, even if grudgingly, that aesthetic quality is to some degree subjective. You may (as I do) find Art Spiegelman’s Maus a tedious, pompous slog, but that’s a judgment about which reasonable people may differ (even if, of course, all right-thinking people agree with me.) But “difficulty” seems to hold out the possibility of more objective standards—to assure us that these books, over here, by Joyce and Faulkner, are 1000 pounds of pure prose, while these books over there, by Stephenie Meyer or Tom Clancy, are sniveling 90-pound weaklings of meretriciousness. It’s as though “good” may be relative, but “tough” is always and everywhere the same.”

I think readability is a funny term to begin with, and we likely often tend to mean different things when we say Henry James is “difficult” or The Road is “difficult.” Sometimes it’s constructive  and refreshing to pause and think about what we mean when and how we come to arrive at those value judgments.

There is a virtue in difficult reading — by which I think of as challenging, long, complex, or outside of our usual reading norms — but I wonder about the line of argument that suggests a stoic moral obligation to finish reading a book, no matter what (Tim Parks had a great read on this, via The New York Review of Books: “Why Finish Books?“).

iPhone vs. Android Reading Habits

Well I just love random snippets of information on reading habits — and doubly so when it’s in infographic form! Oyster‘s post on reading habits (“Game of Phones: The Battle of iOS vs. Android“) piqued my curiosity.

The sociology of operating systems and user behavior is probably a whole topic of discussion unto itself, but some of the morsels of information about reading behavior unearthed by Oyster are fun: Android users appear to read at a quicker pace, and for longer durations of time, and are bigger comic book fans; iOS users prefer C.S. Lewis, books on happiness and read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (really?). None of this counts enough to draw any sweeping conclusions about Android user reading or iOS user reading, but wouldn’t it be interesting to know the reading preferences of Kindle users, or fiction/nonfiction reading preferences for phone vs. tablet users?

Observer (“Reading Habits Indicate Android Users Are Fun, iPhone Users Are Lifehacking Megalomanics“) also shares some tongue-in-cheek observations about what these reading behaviors might suggest about Android vs. iOS personalities.

iOS vs android reading habits

Book It — Books, and Pizza

book-it-pizza-hut-pinWith Book It! commemorating its 30th anniversary by way of a Book It! Alumni program aimed at nostalgic thirty-somethings, Mental Floss has a great rundown on what it fairly accurately calls “a clever way to get kids and parents into Pizza Hut franchises—with some reading thrown in” (via mental_floss, “Pizza for Reading: Pizza Hut’s “Book It!“). I love books, and I love pizza — and I can’t help but wonder how much the extrinsically motivating pizza rewards encouraged reading habits for elementary school students.

More interesting still is the controversy and discussion on reading motivation for students, along with the complicated tension between education and corporate sponsored programs —

“The Book It! program was the subject of a 1999 study and scholarly paper. Titled “Effects of extrinsic reinforcement for reading during childhood on reported reading habits of college students” (Psychological Record, 1999, by Flora, S. R., & Flora, D. B.; full text), the paper characterized pizza as an “extrinsic reward” for reading, and analyzed survey data collected from college students, trying to determine how the pizza rewards (and other extrinsic rewards like cash payments) affected students’ reading behavior”

Accurate numbers seem to be difficult to come by — but it’s unquestionable that the Book It! program has reached a very large number of students over three decades, with estimates claiming a total of 54 billion minutes of reading time (!), and one in five (!!) Americans having participated in the Book It! program since 1984  (via Mashable, “Were you a Pizza Hut BOOK-IT! Kid?“).

I wish grownups could get pizza for reading books. Actually, Book It! for grownups sounds like a great idea.

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?



* 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?”


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.”