Analysis

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

Narrated by William H. Whyte in 1980.

Classic, and strangely familiar if you work in product, or skateboard.

Booksmooch

BookMooch

I mean BookMooch—have you tried it? It’s enough to send a book hoarder past the point of no return. You go and list the books you have that you no longer want and if they’re good ones, you’ll receive email alerts within minutes from people who have those same books on their wishlists and would love for you to send yours to them. Do that quickly and you’ll earn good feedback, which will build up points which allow you to acquire the books you want from other souls. No money is exchanged. It’s book wealth redistribution and it’s lovely.

There are other services like this, namely PaperBackSwap, but they feel more corporate. PaperBackSwap is gearing up to start charging, as they repeatedly tell you when you sign up, and rather than get out of the way of the book-love fest like BookMooch they seem bent on complicating things. First they pair you up with a veteran user who has volunteered to be your Tour Guide, which is a little awkward, then they introduce money into the equation—you can buy book-credits as well as “PBS Money,” which is used to pay for their branded delivery confirmation feature: a printable barcode scanned by the postal service for tracking purposes that ties into your PBS account and streamlines book-credit management. You can also buy printable postage with your PBS Money, or pay $8 for the privilege of exchanging boxes of books with someone (Box-o-Books™).

On the other hand, PaperBackSwap’s traffic is higher than that of BookMooch and they have more books available. They’re also out to become the Oprah of modern book exchange and could care less about the whiny book blogger demographic.

BookMooch is non-profit, has a bang-up API, hangs out with some great charities, plays well with LibraryThing and was created by John Buckman, Renaissance lutenist and founder of Magnatune among other good things. It’s also enabled some unexpected acquisitions like the early signed edition of a book by Thomas Flanagan (who shares my birthday and whose daughter‘s work is a good conversation starter on the internet). In sum: BookMooch good.

Google Searching Your Bookshelf

Photo: Flickr user gregw

Back in February, I reviewed all the book-oriented social networks I could find and concluded that what I really wanted was a more personalized version of Google Books. The rich related content with which Google surrounds many books is what makes it so valuable. Compare the book information pages for A History of Underground Comics (for example) side-by-side Mahalo-style on Google Books, LibraryThing and Shelfari.

Today Google Books launched My Library, effectively ending my whining.

Now LibraryThing has a lot of great features and is rolling out new ones constantly—and when it comes to socializing around books, LT and Shelfari are apparently where it’s at—but the one thing none of these bookish social networks offer is full-text search of the books in your collection. Google’s got that and suddenly, for the first time, I’m thinking it might actually be worthwhile to start cataloging my books online. Put in a little entry time and you’ll be able to search the contents of your entire book collection in under a second. They call that a value proposition.

Only problem now is most of the books I’ve been reading lately were published before 1930 by obscure publishing concerns and are as impossible to find in Google Book Search as they are in the real world. But Google’s new embeddable public-domain book-clipping feature pretty much makes up for that.

Nervous Information Theory

Books organized by Tom Bendtsen.

This business of “sensory input” is another old McLuhan theme. He once predicted that the advent of colour television would lead to an increased appetite for spicy foods. Call him a nutcase, but we got our colour television and then suddenly we were all eating Szechuan.

Canadian columnist Philip Marchand’s report on literal-media-observer N. Katherine Hayles’ presentation at a recent Media Ecology Association conference underscores an observation I’ve been selectively making lately: web-centric media theorists are the biggest book lovers around. “Book fetishists” might be a better term, as the book-love I mean has more to do with adoration of the book object than an active interest in author brawls real or staged. After a full day dealing with the unstable, “nervous information” of the computer screen, books are reassuring for their solid physical presence, their smell and their spatial dimension. The words in them are older than the ones we read on screens. Their unique qualities become apparent when contrasted with the digital. Who understands this better than the rigorously trained media theorist, carefully attuned to subtle deviations in sensory input? No one.

Mahalopedia

MahalopediaListen to this March 20 CalacanisCast interview with Andrew Lih, author of a forthcoming book (the first, surprisingly) about Wikipedia. Then go check out Mahalo again, Jason Calacanis’s new well-funded “human-powered search” project that currently has the blog world perplexed. Suddenly it becomes clear: Jason’s building his own for-profit mini-Wikipedia lite.

Wikipedia articles are in a sense “human-curated SERPs” (search engine results pages, for those who don’t speak acronym) that happen to show up very high for a plethora of Google searches. Mahalo wants to join them for the top 10,000 search terms, and sell ads.

Mahalo is not so much a search engine or a directory or an “expert guide” site, it’s a mini-Wikipedia run by paid editors (Mahalopedians?) designed to be accessed the way the majority of internet users come into contact with Wikipedia: through Google searches. Eventually a few people may actually start their search at Mahalo, if they hear the “we offer Google results for stuff we don’t have, so what do you lose?” selling proposition enough times.

Note that if Wikipedia was a private company, it would be worth billions.

I still prefer Wikipedia. But Mahalo’s not going away.

The Big List of Bookish Social Networks

Trinity College Library, Dublin

As I mentioned when I discovered Wordie and Coastr, I’ve yet to find a book-oriented social network that’s inspired me to register. And it’s not like there’s any shortage of them. Here’s an alphabetical list of all the players I know of, annotated with deconstructive criticism. The bold-face names are serious contenders.

  • aNobii: Multilingual Hong Kong-based book-lister with a clean design.
  • Bibliophil.org: Personable. Feature-rich. Unfortunate design.
  • Booktribes: Bookish social network with extremely busy pages.
  • BooksWellRead: Way too many ellipses…
  • Buchpfade.de: Bookish community site for German speakers.
  • ChainReading: Aimed at reading addicts, but site activity doesn’t suggest an addicted user base.
  • ConnectViaBooks: Socializing, rather than cataloging, is the main focus of this London-based booklover site. Some real potential here.
  • Douban: Bookish community site aimed at some of the world’s 1.1 billion Chinese speakers.
  • Goodreads: Simple bookish social network that emphasizes book recommendations from other users.
  • GuruLib: For readers with a compulsive desire to catalog everything they own. Not pretty.
  • Lib.rario.us: Media collection organizer in a precarious position.
  • LibraryThing: The most established bookish community site of the bunch, with active developers. They just hired Wordie’s John McGrath and they’re encouraging people to make Chuck Close-style mosaics of themselves out of book covers. One to watch.
  • Listal: Taggerific media-cataloging site with rich profiles, a surplus of content and widgets galore.
  • Mediachest.com: Established media-cataloging site whose best feature may be groups.
  • Reader2: As in “reader squared.” I found it difficult to browse.
  • Reliwa.de: German book and music social network. Seems pretty active.
  • Squirl.info: John McGrath, who created Wordie, is the co-founder of this social collection organizer, so I want to like it, but I don’t.
  • Shelfari: Nicely designed bookish social network out to take out LibraryThing. They’ve got big widgets.
  • ShelfCentered.com: Lists are called shelves here but you can’t begin browsing them until you register.

I guess what I really want is a combination of Wordie, Flickr and Amazon, with the book information pages of Google Book Search (maps included!) and highly customizable widgets. Is that too much to ask?

Novelty Social Network Reviews

I’ve been collecting novelty social networks lately because I’ve been tinkering with one of my own. Since I have a passion for both interesting words and fine beer, Wordie and Coastr have received most of my affections.

WordieWordie is surprisingly fun. Like many people, I heard about this “Flickr for words” last month and thought it was silly. Then I spent two hours adding and discovering words and started eyeing my bookshelf for verbiage. This site is addictive. And unlike some other linguaphile sites (a word I learned on Wordie), not remotely pretentious. Words I’m proud to say I was first to Wordie so far: netop, bialy, Joycean. What do you have?

CoastrCoastr is Wordie for beer nerds. You add the beers you like and the places you like to drink them, then find other users who share your tastes and see what other beers they like. You can review beers and beer establishments and the more you contribute, the higher your Coastr score becomes and presumably your clout.

I’ve been having fun listing my snobby beer preferences but I can already tell that the user base is lacking. I was the first person to add Brooklyn’s beer-nerd palace Spuyten Duyvil as a venue, for example. And if you’re used to Beer Advocate-style beer reviews, you may be disappointed with the content. Still, it’s a fun, well-executed site that I identify with and am interested in helping grow, and inspiring that feeling is basically the goal of a novelty social network.

In addition to words and beer, I’m big into books, and there are lot of bookish community sites out there: LibraryThing, BookMooch, FrugalReader, What’s On My Bookshelf?, Shelfari, for example.

Key to the success of these sites is a place for people to curate: a homebase with a short URL. The more customizable you can make it the better; it’s up to you whether or not you want to let your site tip over into the anarchic MySpace direction.

Simplicity is also important. Neither Wordie nor Coastr have “take a tour!” links or “how it works” pages. You can easily figure out how they work by clicking around, because what they do isn’t that complicated.

Sneaky Links

1913 advertisement. Source: Wikipedia.
Source: Wikipedia

Dale “The Son of Human Knowledge” Hoiberg went head-to-head with Jimmy “Wikipedia” Wales in an exploitative Wall Street Journal boxing match today. It was a pretty fair fight until Jimmy went below the belt with some some sneaky links.

hoiberg_dale.jpgMr. Hoiberg: I must point out that Mr. Wales’s inclusion of two links in his question to me, one to Wikipedia itself, is sneaky. I have had neither the time nor space to respond to them properly in this format. I could corral any number of links to articles alleging errors in Wikipedia and weave them into my posts, but it seems to me that our time and space are better spent here on issues of substance.

wales_jimmy.jpgMr. Wales: Sneaky? I beg to differ. On the Internet it is possible and desirable to enhance the understanding of the reader by linking directly to resources to enhance and further understanding.

You wrote: “I have had neither the time nor space to respond to them properly in this format. I could corral any number of links to articles alleging errors in Wikipedia and weave them into my posts, but it seems to me that our time and space are better spent here on issues of substance.”

No problem! Wikipedia to the rescue with a fine article on the topic.

Fortunately, there is a vast army of volunteers eager to help good people like you and me who don’t quite have enough time and space to do everything from scratch ourselves, and they are writing a comprehensive encyclopedic catalog of all human knowledge. They have quite eagerly amassed a fantastic list and discussion of dozens of links to such articles.

We are open and transparent and eager to help people find criticisms of us. Disconcerting and unusual, I know. But, well, welcome to the Internet.

And yes, this is an issue of substance and a fine demonstration of the strength of the new model.

Like any good American I usually root for the underdog, but this is too embarassing. Stop the fight.