Making sense of the Kindle’s highlighting feature

Why bother reading the whole book if you can skip to the end and find out what others thought was most important?

Topics: Amazon.com,

Making sense of the Kindle's highlighting feature

This originally appeared at The Monkey Cage

Recently back in the United States after an extended time abroad, I saw Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short” for the first time in an airport bookstore a couple days ago. Not wanting to add to my luggage — I apparently missed the fact that Delta has turned into a European discount airline and charges for checking even a single bag now — I downloaded the book onto my Kindle once I sat down on my plane (which was very fun from a modern technological standpoint) and began to read during my flight. (As a side note, does anyone know whether a Kindle counts as an electronic device you need to turn off while flying?)

A few pages into the book, I was quite surprised to see a highlighted passage of the book, along with a small note with the number of people who had highlighted that passage! Sure enough, the book I downloaded now contains the most popular highlights from other readers of the book. A little poking around discovered two other features: 1) I could turn off this feature (thanks Amazon!); and 2) You could link to a collection of the most popular highlights. Somewhat disturbingly, I did not find either an opt in or an opt for sharing my own highlights.

I’m trying to figure out what to make of this new feature. On the one hand, as a social scientist, I am always curious as to what other people are thinking and doing, so voilà: Now I get to see what my fellow readers think is important in the book I’m reading. In a nutshell, intellectual voyeurism (at least at the aggregate level). Also thinking as a social scientist, my next thought was: DATA. Are we far away from an analysis of whether Glenn Beck readers highlight more passages than Paul Krugman readers? And will Amazon give me this data disaggregated by age, region, or — dare I dream? — party affiliation?



On the other hand, the obvious concern is the one I just raised, which is the issue of privacy. Now not only does Amazon know what books I downloaded, they also know what passages of those books I find most interesting. I can see it now: “We see you highlighted ‘economic voting in Eastern Europe,’ perhaps you would be interested in “Regional Economic Voting” (available for purchase here, also available for the Kindle!).”

But I have to say, it was the collection of social highlights at the end that most troubled me as a professor. I mean, why bother reading the book if you can just skip to the end and figure out what everyone else thought were the most important parts? I remember taking books out of the library when I was in college (for today’s undergraduates, the library is that big building where they keep books) and finding out that someone else had scribbled notes in the margin previously; you could get the same effect by buying used books. There was always the temptation to just skim the book by reading what the previous person had highlighted, especially in the more tedious sections. I always thought one of the nice side benefits of moving to electronic versions of books and articles was the removal of this temptation; when the work is in electronic format, everyone gets a clean copy. But alas, no more; now it is worse. You not only get what a couple people have scribbled in the margins, you can get what everyone (collectively, at least) has decided is important! Again, another excuse not to actually read.

As an author, though, the opportunity for feedback is kind of enticing; I do write for a blog, after all. It would be interesting to be able to watch on your electronic copy of your own book what it is that readers are highlighting. I imagine as this technology improves, we might also get the opportunity to see what notes people are putting in the margins, and ultimately, perhaps, even be able to answer them with our own comments. In this world, books would start to look a little more like blogs. Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it would be pretty wild to scribble some question down in the margins in your Kindle or the like, only to come back an hour later and find that the author had answered it. On the downside, would anyone ever want to write a statistics textbook ever again in that sort of a world?

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.

    Domino's

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.

    Arby's/Facebook

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.

    KFC

    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    Pizzagamechangers.com

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.

    7-Eleven

    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>