Saturday, January 28, 2012

I Think The Kindle Might Be Keeping Us From Finding New Dates

As I am noticing more and more Kindles on the Tube, I am also noticing I can't tell what people in general are reading any more. A few years ago when I first came to London I could tell you that The Millenium series was really quite popular, and not just the first Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but the whole thing. These days I can tell you beige or burgundy faux leather covers are very popular during the morning commute, but not whether we are getting collectively stupider or smarter or more hung up on vampires, child magicians, or gruesome murders, a genre publishers seem to particularly want to push here if the poster ads are an indicator.

So to explain my title, this also means that in cultures where people might strike up a conversation with a stranger in public (not London), the opener "Oh you're reading that? How is it?" is now gone, as is the signal that you may want to know this person in the first place. I remember, early in the millenium living in Boston, being snobbishly appalled at someone in the T who was dressed as an office worker practically spelling out 'Who Moved My Cheese' in enough rapture to miss their stop, as proclaimed just before the mad dash out at the next one. And feeling the same years later when suddenly 'The Secret' was the book of choice for my fellow travellers. If you live in a polarised culture it is useful to be able to quickly filter out people just by seeing they are reading something by either Glenn Beck or Dan Savage as an example, instead of just seeing their e-book reader. An opposing view is that we are not challenging or communicating across culture lines anyway and thus this new lack of broadcasting your stand is positive because it will make people talk who previously would not have. I would say nobody wants that kind of challenging conversation with the person you end up next to in an airplane for the next six hours; show me what you are reading and I will know how absorbed I need to seem to be in Sky Mall.

This disappearance of a communication channel is an actual hurdle in converting bibliophiles to e-book readers. Numerous times I have had the conversation where I was told some form of "Sure I could carry my ten thousand books with me in a tiny package, but I could not live in my house without my full shelves. In a way, these are my friends" while surrounded by book cases groaning with written media. It's very specific to books; I have never heard anyone complain about missing their VHS tapes, or pining for their CDs when switching to hard-disk or cloud equivalents (although vinyl does get that kind of reaction). In fact, I remember being told by a UX researcher who had done an ethnographic study that had brought him into dozens and dozens of living rooms of older people to ask them how they watched things on TV, that once they have on-demand video, standing up and putting a DVD in the player and switching the inputs is seen as too much work compared to fiddling with the remote to just watch anything remotely pleasant on cable. He saw stacks and stack of DVDs, many un-opened, of truly beloved films, gathering dust in a corner. Indeed, no cinephile has ever told me about how much they enjoyed the smell of a freshly opened DVD package, something book-lovers will extol about new books. At most they tell me they like what the DVD box sets communicates to visitors, but know film posters and action figurines say just as much.

We are social animals and we do want to broadcast who we are and what tribes we belong to, in almost everything we wear or carry. Nokia became huge allowing people to customise their mobile phone. The aftermarket of specialty cases is huge, but that aftermarket barely signals anything about our tastes and attitudes beyond color. Why is that? The most we will let our personal devices say about what we read or watch or play is Hello Kitty stickers, I never see any iPhones in the wild decked out equivalent to wearing an obscure band T-shirt.

Is there a market opportunity for here for e-book readers and mobile phones and game machines—often the same device—that playfully show what media is being consumed or game is being played, or will that seem too flashy and constructed? I can't say, I am on record after all as the tech blogger who thought nobody would want to be seen with a Bluetooth bug in their ear, so I should stay away from saying what outward fashion will actually become popular. I can easily imagine that the people who wear loud brands and labels really would want to broadcast what amazing new leaked track they are listening to right now that you are not, what specialised closed social network tribe they are checking out, and their supreme taste in making this playlist. And just as easy I can imagine that the group dressed in minimalist German anthracite clothes actually discretely wants to do exactly the same broadcasting with their 16th century music and vintage copy of Monocle.

I raise Monocle for a specific reason here. The following three paragraphs appeared in an article about the magazine and its editor in the NYT:
More than a throwaway periodical, Monocle is a status symbol, a prop poking out of a Jack Spade carry-on, announcing to the saps in the back of the plane that you’re a member of the international aesthete class. Trendy stores like J. Crew Liquor Store and Freemans Sporting Club display it as a chic accessory. 
Indeed, new inductees sometimes order the whole back catalog to show off on bookshelves, Mr. Brûlé said, like the Encyclopaedia Britannica for cool kids. (Never mind that few people ever seem to read an issue cover to cover.) 
This is one reason Mr. Brûlé has no plans for a Monocle magazine app yet: on an iPad, no one can see you reading Monocle.
It's not just me here then that notices a problem with this loss of broadcasting your tastes. I do think Mr Brulé, in this one very specific instance, is wrong, though. While indeed the back of a tablet will not broadcast what you are reading the way an opened magazine, even folded, does, of all mobile technology it is tablets like the iPad that broadcast what it is you are consuming the most. Tablets are still so heavy that people rest them on their laps, thus enabling shouldersurfing by bystanders. That visible front screen surface is far larger than any mobile phone, and brighter than any e-ink reader. That backlit rich color can't help but draw the gaze of everyone who can see it, especially if displaying angular yellow branding like Monocle's. I'd say that as long as that branding is on every page, on an iPad everyone will see you reading Monocle. And Monocle is a print and web property already, with every web page having the bright yellow accents, so going iPad should really be not a big deal. Tablets broadcast, phones and e-ink readers don't.

We tell our friends on Facebook what we are listening to on Spotify, but that's people we already know, don't we want to tell people about our obscure band on our headphone right now in a nicer way than the annoying sound leaking out? Wouldn't checking in be more fun if everyone around you could see you just became mayor and won a prize, not just your friends on Twitter miles away? Hey, you're playing Infinity Blade too, what do you think of it? You like it a lot? Wanna grab some coffee so I can show you this secret move I found?