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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Big Data? Big Questions — Reading Fast and Slow, Private and Public

I had the chance to attend a Tools of Change seminar on Big Data. The excellent main speaker was from bitly — and I learned a great deal just from who she is and what her company does. From time to time I provide links here, and those links are often in the form of a shortened url, not the long url from the original article or post. I do that through bitly, It turns out their game is to provide that neat free service, but then they can track every link thus provided — and since their tools are embedded in many other search tools, they harvest and can study vast amounts of immediate information. Their real business, then, is asking the questions that can make useful sense of the vast amounts of data they gather. What they do is a perfect example of the public private middle space — actions we think of as personal (and formerly private, such as deciding to read an article, click on an image, buy something, check out the time a movie shows, or, even, highlight a passage in a digital book, linger on a passage in a digital book, or put down that book), are now part of the public data stream.

This sticky middle space of personal (formerly individual and private) now collective, shared, public transaction data is itself creating new fields, such as social reading. Read social creates groups in which comments you make, whether underlining individual words or remarking on whole paragraphs, are shared socially. Some might see reading as the most private, interior, and personal act. In this new world software gives you the chance to make it an immediately social experience — and this can, via school classes, go down into teenage. I asked my 11 year old what he thought of all this. He liked knowing what other people were liking. He did not like others knowing what he found worthy of comment. The social personal — that is what Big Data gathers, since so many tools can map the choices on the net that we think of as private and free.

There are obviously privacy concerns here, concerns about how we are seeing reading (though reading has been collective at other times in its history, indeed one debate among historians of reading is exactly when reading shifted from being primarily oral to primarily silent), and concerns about overvaluing the now. I kept thinking that great books convince you to like them — you don’t know you will, so no trends will help publishers. Only the book itself wins you and changes/informs your taste. But I also question how useful up to the second trends are for books that cook slowly. Perhaps we need to talk about fast digital reading experiences and slow print reading experiences. Perhaps we need a slow reading movement to parallel slow food. Learning more about marketing is good — if it matches the markets for books.

Big data, big questions.