Tuning my social network: a snow day project

Is there anything better than a snow day or two at home, surrounded by one's family and friends, buried under a couple feet of snow, to put one in mind of all those projects you've been really meaning to get to?  The ones you've been putting off? I didn't think so.

So to mix up a metaphor or three, I've been tuning my social network.  I've been pruning the shrub of my weak connections. I've been toiling in the garden of my online personality. I've been re-imagineering the enterprise.

So after the shoveling was done and my family's attention had wandered on to other projects of their own, these are a few of the projects that I took care of.

1. I dug into my subscription list on Google Reader.

I had too many folders and way too many subscriptions.  Since I primarily zip through my RSS feeds either in Google Reader prime on my laptop or in Reeder on iOS devices, I had gotten into the habit of subscribing to new feeds and throwing them ALL into a folder I'd created called Daily Reads. Nothing was NOT going into Daily Reads. 

Sure, I had a couple of other quasi-organized folders for other blogs that, at the time I set up the folders, I wasn't reading daily. But isn't the point of reading feeds that you're doing this or not at all? Feeds are a river of information – you either keep up with them or you let the news pass by. You don't put certain feeds up on a shelf to be read later.

So if a feed wasn't one I was interested in reading daily, or as often as I care to check in with them, I unsubscribed.

When I was done cleaning the old folders, and moving some feeds into Daily Reads, I deleted the Daily Reads folder and moved everything out of it into the general population.

2. I took a hard look at who I follow on Twitter.

I won't say that I've cut out a huge number of tweeters that I used to pay attention to, but I've got my People I Follow:People Following Me ratio down to 2:5, which seems pretty manageable and healthy.  On the other hand, I know that still following nearly 400 people on Twitter makes for another raging river of information, and I will continue to pay attention to that river only as I'm able.

Most of my Twitterstream is book-related and comprised almost entirely of actual book-loving humans – authors, book bloggers, publishing folks, friends and fellow travelers.  This means that I can dip into my Twitter timeline at any time and always come back having learned or read something interesting. 

I un-followed app developers, publishers who tweet only in press-release-ese, individuals who tweet and re-tweet like spambots, and the occasional twitterer who actually "follows" thousands of people. 

3. I renewed my interest in Tumblr and fine-tuned the connections.

Before I even started writing at my3books, I had a Tumblelog and used it as a sort of dry-run for what shenanigans I might get up to here.  I still have that account – it's primarily been used as a repository for my own tweets, the occasional link to some cool image, and a way to follow a few other people of interest to me who use Tumblr.

Laura asked me the other day about how she might start blogging about books & libraries.  I showed her my original Tumblr page and suggested that it might be a good low-impact way for her to try out something with a little more substance and flexibility and outward-facing accessibility than merely posting updates to her Facebook profile.

It got me thinking, again, about how Facebook is a walled garden (admittedly, the largest walled garden ever) and so part of my social network tuning this week has been to retrain my brain to click the just-as-easy-to-use "post to Tumblr" bookmarklet instead of the "post to Facebook" bookmarklet.

Tumblr took care of the next part for me, which is building in a tool to auto-post to your Facebook profile when you put something up on your Tumblr page. So now I'm posting more to the outward-facing world and my Facebook friends will also be clued in to new links.

Another handy integration is that I can post photos directly from Instagram to Tumblr.

And I found a cool new theme.  Love it.

4. Pieces of my social network that I'm essentially lopping off: Foursquare, Yelp, and other location-based games.  Linked In.

I'll still utilize Yelp for finding great places to eat, but (despite the essential egotism of being a social media consumer & creator) I just don't believe anyone (besides potential data-mining advertisers) cares or wants to know where I am on that level of detail.  So out they go.

Linked In - I don't know what to do with you! I'm not cutting you off completely, but how many people am I connected to on Linked In that I am not already connected to elsewhere? I have a feeling you're going to remain the weedy, not-very-sunny corner of my garden that I don't want to spend the time fixing up.

5. Still to come: building a sidebar portal on my3books for my Tumblr posts.

I'd like to make it so that my3books is the one place that connects everything. I've built in a portal to pull in my feed from GoodReads, displaying the books that I've been reading lately. Nothing else really automates that quite as well. I've got a Twitter widget on the my3books home page, too, pulling in my recent tweets. I need to set up a similar feed from Tumblr next.

My goal is to have my social network well-connected and working smoothly, but not spattering repetitive posts and data all over the place. A person's social graph should just work, right?

Once you've decided to be one of those people who share things online, you shouldn't have to be thinking about each individual data point and which places it requires posting or checking in. For me, if it's book-related, or big-picture related, or written with more than a third of my attention span, I think, I'll post it directly to my3books. If it's a quick click, or written off the cuff, it goes to Tumblr.  If it's a comment or related to current news, it goes to Twitter.

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A final note.

This is the first long-ish post I've written since I read Farhad Manjoo's piece on Slate about the Great Single Space / Double Space controversy last month, and can I say, it's really messed with my head? How did I end up a habitual double-spacer? I'm trying to wean myself off the double-spaces, but it's hard, man, it's really hard. 

And do I need to go back and revise all the posts I've put up here on my3books before I saw the light? Maybe another snow day.

(A Little Bit) More about Amazon Mobile's Bar Code Scanning from MobyLives

Oh, I spent a goodly amount of time the other day trying to riff interestingly about Amazon.com and their retailer-gutting app and its new bar code scanning capabilities.  Naturally, I wasn't alone in this effort.  I'm not the only one who's seeing what it could do to independent bookstores, as well as brick'n'mortar retailers of all kinds.

But check out these two links to see the difference between an impassioned but semi-pro wordsmith like me and an experienced, professional publishing type like Dennis Johnson at Melville House's MobyLives blog, who's been blogging since the blog was invented.

My take.

MobyLives.

You're back?  Ok, here's the difference:  I run on and on for paragraphs.  Dennis nails it in a few sentences:

"... Or you could, you know, buy it at the store you’re in and not rip off their services and protect the local economy while you’re at it. Just an idea."

Same point, just sharper.  Kudos, guys.

Amazon.com's iPhone app redefines "comparison shopping" to a metaphor for "I'll buy it somewhere else." (And by "Somewhere else", of course, I meant Amazon.)

Bar code scanning.

As though our pudgy fingers were not able to peck out a search query in the Amazon Mobile iPhone app fast enough, the dark geniuses in Seattle have devised an even faster way for meatspace searching to be converted to Amazon-only-facilitated online shopping.

Update your iPhone Amazon.com app to version 1.2.8 and in the Search tab, you will now find an option to initiate a bar code scan.  The interface even gives you a first-person-shooter style targeting reticule to help you keep the image in the perfect zone for a speedy recognition.

I've tried a lot of the QR Code scanner apps that use the iPhone camera in the past and nothing matches up to this app's ease of use.  You don't even need to snap an actual picture – the app just grabs the barcode and runs the recognition out of the live image.

Comparison shopping?  Really?  Really?!

Though my main interest in this lies on the side of indie booksellers – who seem to take a hit no matter which side of the street Amazon is working – this kind of idiot-proof online-purchase-driving "comparison shopping" will affect any retailer who carries the same goods that Amazon does.

"Comparison shopping" used to mean the kind of pre-purchase research and thought processes that would enable a customer to find the best price, even if it meant multiple trips around town.  When you finally found the best price, you'd buy it.  It used to take some effort to comparison shop.

The kind of "comparison shopping" that the Amazon Mobile app enables is basically this:

  1. I'm in a bookstore, looking at a product in which I am interested, say, a book.
  2. I look at the price on the back of the book.  Perhaps the list price is $16.95
  3. I whip out my iPhone, boot up the app, and within 15 seconds, I know that Amazon.com will sell it to me for the discounted price of $11.53 (or, as the results page helpfully informs me, 32% off).
  4. Now my decision tree is this – do I let my handy device buy the book for me to be shipped in a couple of days and save $5.42? Or do I take the book that is already in my hands and pay for it in the local shop?

Is it about more than just price?

Now, I'm not knocking the idea of saving $5.42 for that sample book – in these days, that's not insignificant.  Although there are other factors that might affect my decision.

  • Am I a member of Amazon Prime and receive free shipping no matter what?  Or do I need to factor in a shipping charge? 
  • How much is it worth to me to have the book right now?
  • Since I try to be a relatively ethical member of society, I might also factor in the question of whether a kindly bookseller is standing nearby, having helped me find the book, or perhaps even recommended it to me.
  • Completely aside from the possible question of "Did I just insult the kindly bookseller by price-checking on Amazon in front of him?", there is also the question of "Do I live in the town where this bookstore is located?" and "Will my purchase of this book locally also contribute in some small way to keeping this bookstore in business in my town?"

There's even a chance that while I was completing my bar-code-scan enabled search, the store's owner or manager was making their way toward me to ask me to not do that in their store.  As one commenter on Gotta Be Mobile's post about the Amazon Mobile update put it

"No business should be allowed to ban someone comprising shopping. The more information that the consumer has the better off the consumer is and it will force companies to be better."

I think that appealing to Basic Economic Theory 101 will only take us so far.  Those kind of bald statements work great in the classroom, but out here in the real, modern world, we need to think a little deeper.

I know that some of the people who are reading this post right now are probably thinking that my quibbles about the ethics of shopping locally are completely utopian when compared with a good old Cost Benefit Analysis.

We can talk more about the multiple sides to that story later.  

But for now, can we simply agree that, while you might end up saving some money by using this app, it's just not cool to take advantage of the expertise and efforts of local retailers to help you locate or discover a book, or any other product, and then buy it from an online retailer while you're still standing right there in their store?

Can we agree that, at a minimum, that kind of behavior is insulting & unbecoming a modern citizen of our time & place?  Can we get a ruling on that, Miss Manners?

Who really benefits from this kind of comparison shopping?

For people who live in remote areas, or people for whom their selection is limited, online shopping is a huge win.  It gives every customer the option to choose exactly the product they want.  And that's not the side of the Internet Economy I'm talking about.

A bar code scanner in a mobile app doesn't necessarily serve those groups of isolated and/or underserved customers.  A bar code scanner presumes that you have the product there in front of you.   So if you are not isolated and underserved by retail options, then the question really comes down to one of price.

And because the Amazon app gives you only one alternate price and source to the product you just scanned – their own – it's not really the same kind of mobile-enabled comparison shopping that you get with an app like Red Laser.  

You can tell that Red Laser is interested in more than just serving you up to Amazon because the first question you're asked when you run it is if you'd like to be directed to local stores who have the scanned products for sale.

The Amazon Mobile app doesn't really enable the freely moving, frictionless kind of economy that economists aspire to.  It's not what you might call "fair" comparison shopping.  It doesn't create or sustain a level playing field.  It enables a greased slide downhill toward Amazon's checkout page. 

 

[image & first tip via TUAW]

It's okay to be ambidextrous, but don't let either hand do all the work: On Jaron Lanier and book buying

Jaron Lanier (author of You Are Not A Gadget) wrote this past Sunday in the New York Times Magazine about technology and education, while touching briefly on the pains of letting algorithms choose your music, and even defining what your musical tastes might be.  

It struck me that his key point could also be used in how we think about book browsing – online searching and shopping vs. the somewhat aimless yet frequently serendipitous browsing discoveries in a "real" brick'n'mortar bookstore.  

Lanier wrote:

While it has its glorious moments, the computational perspective can at times be uniquely unromantic.

Nothing kills music for me as much as having some algorithm calculate what music I will want to hear. That seems to miss the whole point. Inventing your musical taste is the point, isn’t it? Bringing computers into the middle of that is like paying someone to program a robot to have sex on your behalf so you don’t have to.

And yet it seems we benefit from shining an objectifying digital light to disinfect our funky, lying selves once in a while. It’s heartless to have music chosen by digital algorithms. But at least there are fewer people held hostage to the tastes of bad radio D.J.’s than there once were. The trick is being ambidextrous, holding one hand to the heart while counting on the digits of the other.

How can you be ambidextrous in the matter of technology and education? Education — in the broadest sense — does what genes can’t do. It forever filters and bequeaths memories, ideas, identities, cultures and technologies. Humans compute and transfer nongenetic information between generations, creating a longitudinal intelligence that is unlike anything else on Earth. The data links that hold the structure together in time swell rhythmically to the frequency of human regeneration. This is education.

Online book shopping shows up the flaws as well as the virtues of our increasingly digital, connected world: we have instant access to any book we might think of.  If we already know of the book we're looking for, then finding it online is the work of seconds and buying a physical copy can be accomplished in a few more seconds, thanks to "One Click."  If we wish to have an ebook, a minute more and it's on our device.

But what if we don't already know what book we're looking for?  A great read?  Something that we once heard about on NPR, but have forgotten the title, author, air date?  What if we're just looking for something new but need some guidance?

Online search & shop can only take us so far.  A savvy Googler will likely be able to solve the mystery of that lost book from NPR.  But I think that the book suggestion algorithms in online stores can only go so far to replicate the human interactions between wandering customer and experienced bookseller.  And please remember that those "If You Bought This, You'll Probably Like This" links are usually paid-for promotions by one publisher or another.  They may seem like magic, but it's not that different from seeing a promotional poster of a book in a store and saying, "Yep, that's the book for me because I saw the poster near a book I once liked."

And the "browsing" experience in every online store I've ever tried just doesn't serve any customer well for serendipity.  Your options are essentially limited to keyword searches, or browsing lists of books, sorted by title, author, release date or "popularity".  This is great if the book was just published, or if you're looking for something that's currently a best-seller.

But what if you want something off the beaten track?  Or by an author whose name starts with "M"?  Or a book published six years ago?  Or all three of those criteria?  I'm thinking of a book I spotted over on my bookshelf, Joe Meno's Hairstyles of the Damned, published six years ago by Akashic Books, one of the publishers I represent.

If you already knew you wanted that particular book, or even a book by Joe Meno, your online searching would be easy.  You'd have a link to click in seconds.

But if you didn't know that you wanted THAT book, but were merely clicking through the Fiction pages at Amazon.com or Borders.com or the iBookstore, looking for something interesting, how many pages would you have to click through until you got to Joe Meno?  Hundreds?  Thousands?  

In fact, you might end up taking a chance on some other book long before you got to Joe.  And that, I guess, would also be some kind of serendipity.  But not one that answers your need for Joe Meno's particular brand of edgy All-American fiction.

Indie bricks and mortar bookstores may not be able to satisfy that desire for "search-find-click-done" instantaneity, but they do have an edge in browseability.  And I would give a physical bookstore the edge in what I might describe in parallel terms as "wander-browse-sample-done".

Algorithms and Google's almost magical ability to deliver search results may be a fast route to finding a specific book, and that must satisfy many of our modern tastes for speed and efficiency.  

But our human nature must also sometimes treasure what Lanier calls "longitudinal intelligence" – which I imagine might include a bookselling equivalent to his stories in the linked article about his father's intuitive teaching skills.  

Instead of trying to provide exactly a copy of every single, specific book you might want out of the universe of all available books (which doesn't really scale well for bookstores that have a physical limit to their store's square footage), actual bookstores focus on teaching their bookselling staff some key skills in locating books that do exist in the store, learning how to match customer's requests with books that might be on hand, how to recommend books that will satisfy a customer's desires, and how to locate books that might be orderable.

It's this duality that gets to the heart of what I think Jaron Lanier is writing about: Some days, you feel like getting exactly the right book right now.  And some days, you feel like wandering through a real store with your real body and interacting with other humans to see what life might put in your path.  

It's perfectly fine to be ambidextrous.  But as with all skills, you need to keep working both sides of the duality.  If all your book-buying is done online, you might find that your local physical bookstore is no longer there when you have one of those "I wonder what life will put in my path" sort of days.  And that would be a shame.

(Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.)

Editorial: "The market is even bigger than we thought." Maybe.

In today's PWxyz post about Kindle 3 being announced, the Amazon VP of Kindle Content (ie, the guy who holds the publishers' hands) was quoted.

“The market is even bigger than we thought,” said Russ Grandinetti, v-p of Kindle content about the size of the e-reader audience. He reiterated statements made by Amazon last week that since the company lowered the price of the Kindle to $189 sales have accelerated.

This feels a bit to me like Dave Bowman's famous last line from 2001, "... and oh my God – it's full of stars!"

Amazon has seemingly discovered the hollow star of the eBook market: get the price low enough and you discover a vast pocket universe of people who wouldn't have bought an eBook reader at twice the price.  But really, if you get it down low enough, you'll discover that even people who wouldn't have paid full price for a paperback screed by Glenn Beck with a blurb from George W. Bush and a metallic-embossed American flag on the cover at the checkout at Wal-mart will buy an ereader.  But then what?

The question is really not just about vast numbers of people buying low-priced ereaders equating to vast numbers of people buying books and buying more books after that.  Because at a super low price, the ereader isn't the same as buying a lot of books.  It's like buying a super-low-priced book cover that you can then put other books into.  You still have to go ahead and buy the books to put on the Kindle (or other gadget).

Will all those super-low-price buyers go nuts with their credit cards and become rabid ebook-edition buyers?  Have we really discovered a magical world full of customers who were just waiting for the GADGET that would enable them to start buying books? A magical world full of customers who seem to have been unaware of the wonder of books when they were merely printed on paper?  

Or have we just found a world of people who will buy the next hot gadget made in China, no matter what it is, so long as it's super-low-priced?  ("Dude - it's like a Nintendo DS for words!!")

It seems more likely that the universe of dedicated readers of books – no matter what the format might be – is a finite one.  There are only so many of us out there.  That's why the book business has been cheering so hard for young fans of JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer.  THOSE new readers who got hooked on books are the future generation of book readers and we certainly want them to keep on buying and loving books.  But for the rest of us?  Our habits are set in stone.  We're already book buyers or we aren't.

A shiny new Kindle or iPad or Kobo or Nook won't convert a non-book buyer into a rabid book buyer.  It might give us some incremental growth.  But not revolutionary growth.   The market isn't bigger than we thought.  It's exactly the size we were afraid it might be.  eBook readers aren't a panacea for our business.  They're a bandaid.  A shiny new bandaid.

Publishing folks like to point at the music industry and say, "We saw what happened with the death of CDs and the rise of the mp3 and we don't want to make that mistake.  Look how hard we're working to make ebook purchasing friendly and simple.  We're not going to lose business to piracy."

But, to judge from the quote I opened with, we've forgotten the lesson the music business learned BEFORE the death of CDs: the death of the LP.  The music business hopped onto CDs with both feet and surfed a happy wave of massive sales as customers started replacing one format of recorded music with another.  But soon enough, even that wave petered out.

This massive acquisition of ebook readers in 2010 may make for a bright and shiny holiday season for ebook retailers.  And it might even contribute to a gloomy holiday season for bookstores that still specialize in the "books printed on paper" category.  But I'll be waiting and watching for statistics that come out in the next months that report on just how many actual paid ebooks are bought by all those owners of new ebook readers.  Then we'll see just how big this market really is.