I noticed it awhile ago, but only while reading Mr. Peanut by Alex Ross (another post for another day) did I begin to feel its presence acutely. Kindle has a feature that allows you to see how many others have highlighted a certain passage within the text you are reading. An example of this, from Mr. Peanut, is below. You can see that "10 highlighters" have used the Kindle feature "Add a Note or Highlight" to underline this passage on their own Kindle or in the Kindle app on iPad:
My initial reaction when I heard about this feature before seeing it in action? Kind of cool. I love used books for exactly this reason. Other people's highlights are my secret shame. They're electronic ephemera minus the receipts and scribbled phone numbers and funky sticky pages. I also thought (rather snarkily, if I'm honest) that finally all the eBook naysayers would begin to see that perhaps there is something to this eBooking after all. That perhaps some of the features that are soon to roll out may ultimately get more people excited about reading and, well, that's a personal quest of mine so I was amped up to see this new feature for myself.
I can't remember precisely when I first noticed the feature (somewhere back in the LAT Book Awards haze of reading like a madwoman mid-May?), but I did think it was kind of cool at first. As in, oh look at that, someone else thought this passage -- this very passage that I'm highlighting -- was worth highlighting too. Kind of cosmically cool, as if we are all connected. Sort of. If you squint. For whatever reason, though, the books I've been reading since that first flirtation with the collective highlight feature didn't have very many of them so I didn't think much about the feature until I began reading Mr. Peanut. Oh Mr. Peanut and your many, many highlights.
Just as I was about to mark my first highlight in the fascinating pages of Mr. Peanut, I noted that several others had already done so. While I'm all for a collective head nod at an excellent turn of phrase, it turns out I'm not thrilled to learn that the same passages I like are not as unique to my own tastes as I had once believed. If ten or sixteen or more people also liked a particular passage, what does that say about my own tastes? Run of the mill? Expected? And here I thought these phrases were speaking to me and only me, in that unique way that Alex Ross was understanding me and not you. Whole scenarios played out in my mind and I began, quite quickly, to resent the collective highlight feature. Soon after, my eyes were reflexively scanning each new page for highlights before I began reading the page. I even found myself scanning the page for other areas to highlight that had not yet been marked by others. Was I looking to simply conquer unclaimed territory or was the passage in question worthy of a Note or Highlight action? All this, while trying to read the novel (a novel that one need pay particular attention to and which I somewhat did not, as future posts will bear out) and stay in the world the author created.
But that's just me. I'm neurotic and these sorts of things become fascinating rabbit holes I feel compelled to explore. For you, this may just be a cool feature that is useful and aids in your reading experience. If so, I'd like to hear more.
I know that eBook bashers may read all this eBook feature consternation with glee (I almost capitalized that, OMG, bigger problems are afoot) but that isn't the point. What I'm really after here is a better understanding of how this feature could work, should work, what it might do for us that is good and what it may be doing for us that is downright distracting.
I'll be exploring this a bit more in the coming weeks, but wanted to open up the dialogue about it now. You may disagree with me on every point, you may love it all or fall somewhere in between. Whatever your thoughts on all this, I invite you to share. Here are just a few of the ideas I'd like to tease apart in greater detail and that have come up in online/offline conversations about this feature in the past month:
- Accuracy of # of Highlights - Though I may not enjoy learning that my tastes are less eclectic than I'd like to believe, I'm still curious about the true # of highlights that Amazon shares. It doesn't seem possible, for example, that only a few people have highlighted some very famous passages, or even that only ten people highlighted the Mr. Peanut passage listed above. When I highlighted the very same passage, it still showed only ten highlights. So, um, what's up with that? Kirk Biglione, on the other hand, mentioned via Twitter (@KirkBiglione) he's seen several passages which don't seem to warrant a highlight that were highlighted anyway. He speculated that if not marked by unknown collective highlighters, are they marked by Amazon? If so, why? I've also noted that a few passages quoted in recent book reviews seem to be pre-highlighted in just-released books mere hours after they become available. Double what-up with that?
- Nature of Highlights - I'm a font and design geek to the core. What this means in practice is that I often highlight formatting or spelling mistakes using this collective highlight feature. Yet, I've never seen ANY notations of this kind highlighted by anyone else. Is it possible that no one else does this? No, it's not. I've spoken to several people who make the same notations I make. Why aren't we seeing these? And if there is no need to show them to us (because, really, is there?), it would be fantastic if our notes could make their way up into the big copyediting/eBook formatting desk in the sky and get these edits made pronto. I'm participating in a little experiment on this point in particular and hope to share more findings/thoughts on this soon.
- What happens when it's all highlighted? - At the other end of the spectrum, how valuable is this kind of notation if eventually there are so many highlights that much of the book becomes underlined? What is the value of a marked passage then? Does it render the whole thing moot? Ed Renehan noted this in a Twitter discussion (@Ed_Renehan) and he makes a good point. What then, indeed.
- Is this a baby step into social reading? - Can this feature evolve into something that, when combined with notes, becomes a way to connect with the anonymous "highlighters" and evolve into something else entirely? Can I "opt-in" to share my identity with other highlighters so that we can discuss the book at greater length either in the platform or out of it in say, Twitter, Facebook or on our blogs? Several platforms like this exist already - Copia and BookGlutton come to mind - yet I'm not sold on those ideas because I don't, in real-time, want to stop what I'm reading and have a chat about the passage I've just marked. I'm not convinced social reading in that particular way will ever become a natural enough part of our behavior to make it successful. It's very possible I'm wrong here and that I need to spend more time immersed in these tools, but the jury's still out for me. What I am absolutely convinced of, though, is that I like to talk to like-minded folks about books. It'd be nice to at least know who those other highlighters are so I can follow them on Twitter and strike up a conversation.
- Relevance to textbooks & learning environments - The potential power of this tool in a classroom - even virtual classroom - is exciting. What's possible if teachers and students can collaborate and share notes back and forth on a particular passage in a textbook? A passage that may be part of a test in the near future? A section that is complicated and needs further clarification? I'm not an educator, but I suspect some brilliant minds are on fire with the possibilities here.
- Distraction vs. Enhancement factor - Much has been made of what the internet is doing to our brains and I won't rehash it all here. Can highlights distract in the same way hyperlinks do? I'd argue no simply because I'm not taken elsewhere in Kindle while I'm reading a book (yet), but clearly for me at least there was some level of distraction in just thinking about who these other highlighters are and what it all might mean.
There is much more here and I'm skimming the surface at best with this initial list of ideas. I'm not convinced a basic collective highlight feature on Kindle is going to change lives and magically get children the world over to read. What I am suggesting, though, is that we talk about it a bit and see what's possible for future applications and the ways in which we read.
What has your experience been with the collective highlight feature? Good? Bad? Indifferent? If you don't read on a Kindle, what does this all sound like to you? Have you participated in other social reading environments that allow you to tag passages and interact? Would love to know what you think about all this.
Update: Found more "Popular Highlights" from Mr. Peanut on the Kindle Beta site. So far, still only ten anonymous highlighters liked my passage above. Fishy? Or accurate? Also, Joshua Tucker examined the Kindle highlight feature at Salon a month ago. His main concern was privacy about his highlights. I will tell you, there was a brief moment upon discovering the Kindle beta site moments ago when I feared anyone could enter my name to see all the passages I'd highlighted over the past year. For now, that looks to be limited only to authors with books available for purchase on Amazon. Whew. Does it raise questions about what Amazon may eventually do with this data? Certainly. But if I was worried about people finding out what book passages I've taken a fancy to, I probably wouldn't be a book blogger that shares that stuff willy-nilly-like.