The Anti-Social Nature of the Kindle

Over the last two and a half months I have had the pleasure of using the Kindle DX as my primary means of reading fiction and non-fiction books, newspapers (NY Times and Wall Street Journal), academic papers (in PDF format) and the very essential InstaPaper service.  My excuse to get the Kindle was to eliminate the 1.5 meter – at least 10 kilogram tower of academic papers that I had to read over the Christmas break while travelling overseas to visit family in Dubai.  I instantly fell in love with the device.  Reading on the Kindle is a joy.  The device actually disappears and I find my self completely engrossed in the story or the arcania of untangling endogeneity in econometric studies of innovation contests.  The built in dictionary and Wikipedia access is simply divine.  The Kindle DX truly foreshadows how the experience of reading will change in the future and to me its pretty exciting and amazing.

But there is a very major downside to the Kindle, at least in the way it works now, which is making my enthusiasm for the device bitter-sweet.  Fundamentally, the Kindle is very anti-social.  Reading, at least for me, is a very social activity.  Social in the sense that I want to share passages, excerpts, citations, equations etc that I read with family, friends and colleagues.  I want to convey the excitement of finding a cool new author to my followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook – I want to highlight passages that make them standout to my Tweeps, I want to share citations of interesting new articles to my academic colleagues, I want to share news stories and my joy and anger at the human condition with everyone.  Unfortunately I cannot do any of this.  Instead the Kindle makes reading a lonely exercise.  Worse it makes discovery of new books impossible.

My favorite activity when visiting other academics is to stare at their bookshelves.  I want to know what they care about – by looking at the books they have assembled and most importantly which books and articles they are currently reading.  Discovery of new relevant knowledge through bookshelves is critical.  Most recently one of my graduate students was perusing my bookshelf and discovered two books that he felt were going to be essential to a paper we are developing.  Those books were right under my nose – but by looking at the bookshelf – by having access to my bookshelf – he was able to make the connection and bring them out.  With the Kindle – my books get locked into a thin white plastic and aluminum container.  Never to be seen by others.  I will say nothing about sharing books here via the Kindle.

Needless to say its surprising that Amazon – which made book buying social by enabling user reviews – did not design in social features for the Kindle.  Or over the couple of years add features that would make the reading experience more social.  Were they simply locked into a DRM paradigm that ensured that sharing knowledge would construe copyright infringement?  Were the developers not readers themselves?  I simply don’t get how a company whose value proposition emerged from socializing commerce – missed the boat so big on the Kindle.

There maybe hope with the iPad coming to market that Amazon may get more creative.  Or that the iPad (I will have to find a way to justify that purchase!) will have built in social features for readers.  I hope that both Bezos and Jobs will set a higher bar for their product designers so that they understand readers and create devices and services that augment and extend the quintessential social experience of reading

4 Responses to “The Anti-Social Nature of the Kindle”

  1. Alex Bain says:

    Couldn’t agree more.

    This shouldn’t be difficult, either. As it is, all my notes and highlights are stored at Kindle.Amazon.com. Why wouldn’t Amazon, using Facebook Connect, allow me to see the notes and highlights of my social graph as I read books they’ve already read? Why wouldn’t they also allow me to scan their library based on what books have had the most activity in my social graph. If FB got affiliate revenue for those sales it’d be the easiest money they ever made.

    If you’ve ever borrowed a book from a friend that had scribbles in the margins and sections underlined, it can be really fun to see what sections really reached him/her in real time. This should be SO much easier in the digital world.

  2. [...] your likely to manage it there. Yesterday Karim came at this from another side, writing on “The Anti-Social Nature of the Kindle.”  He complains about how his Kindle denies him the ability to present a public face. [...]

  3. Ben Hyde says:

    A comment on my post points out that you could synthesize a book shelf from the easily fetched digital cover art and project it on your office wall. I’m reminded of the rule to be sure that the visitor’s wedding present is visible when they drop by.

  4. Greg Harris says:

    If the Kindle is the future of reading, the future of reading seems rather bleak. Might as well bring my laptop to bed with me every night.

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