I am no longer blogging here at Little Nuances, but I would love for you to join me on my author website www.leewarren.info.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Problem with Popular Highlights

Photo: liveandrock
When I was in college, students had a theory about buying used text books in the campus bookstore. Not only were they cheaper, but many of them also contained huge sections of fluorescent yellow highlighted text, which obviously meant you wanted to buy those books because some other poor sap already spent her Saturday evenings in the campus library, studying. By purchasing her book, you were purchasing her study efforts.

Part of me wanted to believe that – because, what college student is looking for a shortcut? – but I always wondered what would happen if the former owner highlighted the “wrong” passages? Or what if the previous owner was a poor student? Or what if this book had been sold more than once and the multiple owners added their own highlights, turning entire pages into one fluorescent yellow blur, which would mean you’d have to read the entire book anyway?

I bought a couple of these books, even though I was skeptical. The highlights ended up distracting and annoying me more than anything else. I had a running monologue going on in my mind: Why in the world would a person highlight that? Holy cow, why not just highlight the entire page? Eventually I learned to look for used books in the campus bookstore that were as clean as possible.

That was 25 years ago.

Recently, I was reading a book on my Kindle and that old familiar feeling swept over me. For some reason, parts of the book I was reading were underlined on the screen and each underlined section listed a number of highlights (e.g. “109 highlights.”). What in the world? I had never even opened this e-book before. Who was highlighting my e-book?

One day it hit me. These were the underlined passages of other Kindle users who had already read this book – ah, the wonders, and irritations, of modern technology. A quick trip to Google confirmed my suspicions. Amazon calls this feature “Popular Highlights.”

Beyond being big brother-ish and therefore automatically suspect in my mind, seeing what others had highlighted robbed me of the joy of highlighting/underlining the text for myself. In fact, the contrarian in me avoided underlining text that the masses had underlined. And then it sent me searching for a way to turn off this feature, which I was able to do. Why the default is set to “on” is a mystery.

Here’s something Amazon needs to learn. Reading is highly personal. I like to record dates next to passages that speaks to me. I like to record questions or thoughts about specific passages. I like to connect passages. Neither Amazon, nor anybody else, has a right to view those dates, questions, thoughts, or connections without my consent. If Amazon tries to pull something like this again, Nook here I come.


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