My Evolving Feelings With E-Books or Content Begets More Content (or: I Want My Content to Be a Social Butterfly)

March 6, 2012, 6:58 pm

[I started this post during lunch with the intent of writing 600 concise words about my recent ebook experience, but that grew to double the length and became a stream-of-conscious vision statement about how I want to use digital content. In short: you’ve been warned!]

I’m a big fan of print. As much as I love the web I’m still very print oriented in my personal reading life. But that might be changing…


I’ve been enjoying Where Good Ideas Come From — it’s page after page of epiphanies. As I was reading it I kept taking notes or bending pages… and I then realized it would be so much easier to highlight and annotate content in a digital format. So I purchased a digital version of the book. (The book is that good! I mean come on– his chapter on Adjacent Possible is all about the kernel of library science and discovery.)


Anyway, in my case functionality trumped familiarity. Another telling sign was navigation. As I was reading the print version I found myself making a swiping gesture to turn the pages instead of actually turning the pages. I pretty much use my iPad or iPhone for most of my web experience and so gesturing has just become natural. I want to touch every screen I encounter.


Ok, so big picture: I’ve been very skeptical about the full on migration to digital content—but perhaps I’m joining the late majority now. I’ve read ebooks before but it was much more about being a novel experience while the difference now is that it’s becoming a preferred experience. As the ebook ecosystem improves as well as the hardware, I think we’ll see more and more people ready to make the shift… not because they are forced to but because they want to. Value moves us toward adoption.


Why write a book by hand when you can use a printing press to reach a mass audience? Why read one book at a time when you can connect the content to several other media streams simultaneously?


What I would love to do next is to search across all of my books. As my personal ebook library grows I want to look for terms, phrases, or notes across this material.


Compare this to the print version. Here is a shelf in my office with some books I’ve read or I’m currently reading








If I’m looking for content on managing customer relationships I have to go through each of these individuality. However, it would be great to search across them collectively as well as the articles, blog posts, videos, podcasts and other media created by these authors or by the works they cite. I want the books I “own” to talk with each other.


And not only that but I want to have an alert system based on my library of books and articles. So for example, if Guy Kawasaki has a new TED Talk – I am notified – it is simply linked to my knowledge-bank. Or if the Heath Brothers are giving a talk in my region I can find out before tickets go on sale. Or if one of them recommends a new book via twitter, I alerted and invited to obtain it based on probability of interest.


I don’t just want a sizeable collection of digital materials, but rather, a smart collection that extends beyond content and feeds the steam based on context. Maybe I could set up various threads such as entrepreneurialism, learning environments, and the psychology of marketing. Based on my core collection of books, along with what I borrow or have access to digitally from my library, and based on the articles or other media I have absorbed– I have a growing span of highly specialized content. Based on what I gather and find useful, I can find more useful content. It’s like a personal recommendation service on steroids. And it just happens. It reacts to my behaviors and preferences.


An example: I’m re-reading The Great Good Place for probably the fifth time and so maybe frequency triggers something in the system. Are there certain sections, passages, or pages that I spend a lot of time on? How does that particular content interact with other content out there? Beyond the formal “who else has cited it” maybe it also links to my social network. I see that Gardner Campbell is reading a lot about MIT’s Building 20, which is also related content that I’m reading or maybe I have downloaded and queued but have not read yet. It let’s me know what I “should” be reading. Or rather suggests some items of priority based upon my calendar (who I’m meeting with) or upcoming projects or some other criteria. Right now I have over 50 articles in a Drop Box folder titled “Good Articles To Read”– it would be great if the system could connect to Char Booth’s library and suggest a few articles that she has read, is reading, or wants to read so that when we hangout next month I’m on the same page as her, so to speak. A system that could help me make sense/set priorities of all the possible things I have to read.

Back to Gardner. We’re working on some projects together but it’s pretty loose. My  library could inform me about shared interests or content with him or with my staff or my regular collaborators. I don’t just want to know that Gardner is reading the same book as I am or the one I just finished… I want to tap into his content streams. What are the books, papers, articles, and images related to learning environments that overlap with my interest. Instead of him saying “you should read Steven Johnson” the book just appears in my steam. And likewise, I don’t have to tell him to read “The Zappo’s Experience” because it simply connects with our mutual interests.

How can our personal libraries cross-pollinate with each other in a natural way? How do my books and articles talk with his books and podcasts and hence suggests a new white paper or blog post that neither of use have discovered yet but that would likely be of mutual interest?


Ah yes privacy. I knew someone would go there. If I carry around my brand new print copy of Turing’s Cathedral I’m broadcasting my taste in a very visible way. But if I’m reading Hunger Games on my iPad I might not want people to know. I might not want that text to link to my “serious work” network. Obviously some books or content would need to be turned off or hidden—I’ll punt that problem for right now. That’s something to figure out after all the theoretical stuff. I’m just trying to express how digital content could evolve beyond being just a library of PDFs. How can it breed?


Another point:

There is often talk about the loss of serendipity due to libraries moving more to closed stacks but I’m starting to disagree. It’s not about losing what’s in the stacks– it’s about greater access to content that is linked together more effectively. We’re in the growing pains stage right now, but imagine what it could become. It could be another new information revolution. This isn’t about just migrating print to a digital platform, but building an integrated and immersive experience. Building personal collections that talk with each other and then add more to that collection.


Hypothetically, if enough mass of content is linked together then it magnifies serendipity. If I’m seeking books on a topic and go the shelf I will undoubtedly stumble upon other interesting books. Happens to me every time. But the problem is that this process is limited by scope and scale. I’m limited by the amount of books I can see and touch. I’m limited by what’s in my building right now, today.


If discovery and serendipity are really the desired outcomes then you should prefer access to such an interlinked digital knowledge universe. This would ensure that you stumble upon books and other content from other disciplines– not just the ones at eye level the next shelf over.


Right now I am studying marketplaces—this takes me on a journey to ancient  Sumer, to retail theory, to impulse purchasing, to habit formation, to Good Places, to persona and archetypes, to restaurant design, to the structure of scientific revolutions, to bartering, to currency, to technology of transactions, to information on color, texture, and mood– basically across a wide spectrum of disciplines: business, science, art, psychology, design, history, etc. I don’t want to limit myself to “traditional marketplace literature” but rather, I want to glance and dabble with adjacent themes. The larger construct is that it’s about how people interact rather than the art or act of commerce. For me serendipity is about pushing into different interlocking domains, rather than physical correlations mapped to a shelf location. As has been said before—It’s about content not containers. And I want to put that content to work for me, not just have it sitting on my shelf or even just sitting in my eReader. I want my content to be a social butterfly.


In terms of framing the discussion. It’s not about ebooks vs. print books… it about how knowledge interacts with itself providing the reader with a much more eye-opening and potentially collaborative experience. As we continue this conversation about the future of libraries we need to be clear that it’s not about books becoming digital, but about how content begets more content on a personal and global scale.


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