Last spring, when I was at Google, I threw out a sort of off-the-cuff idea that what we really needed was a Facebook for books, a more intentional, extensive and non-profit-driven version of Amazon’s tools for connecting books through search records.

The more I think about it, the more I really like the idea specifically for scholarly books. The author of a mass-market book is generally more interested in sales (nothing wrong with that), but scholars are more interested in how their book circulates within particular canons, historiographies and so on. Existing bibliographic control systems link a scholarly book with other scholarly books in various ways, as do the bibliographies and citations within those books.

But once a book is published, it doesn’t contain any citational connections to books published after (or often even near-simultaneously) with similar or related works. My views on most existing systems of bibliographic control are known: I don’t think they do a good job of capturing the actual intellectual conversations involving a given book or article.

So seriously, why not nearly the exact interface design of Facebook, only instead of people, books? LibraryThing sort of could do this, but what you really want is for each book to be personified by a single controlling presence, to be “owned” by its author.

So, for example, I’d own the FaceBOOK page for Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women. I would send out a “friend” invitation to Maureen O’Doughtery’s Consumption Intensified, published six years after Lifebuoy Men. You would have different kinds of “friends” tagged by the nature of their relation. I’d also send “friend” invitations to books on modern Zimbabwe, books on African material culture, histories of Unilever, histories of cosmetics or other body products. Maybe you’d have a category of “acquaintance” for books that are theoretically or generally related: general studies of globalization, “biographical” studies of commodities in general, comparative studies of the body and beauty in modern societies.

For this to be really useful, authors would have to be somewhat judicious in their use of book-friending, keeping in mind that it’s the book that’s friending, not the author. So I wouldn’t use Lifebuoy Men‘s page to friend any of the books by people I know who work on virtual worlds or digital games, much as I like those people.

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11 Responses to FaceBOOK

  1. Bob Rehak says:

    Shades of Vannevar Bush’s Memex and its associational traces!

  2. Rana says:

    Well, given the tagging on LibraryThing, the “works cited” links on Amazon, and things like the friend maps (I have one on my profile), I don’t see why this couldn’t work, even without the authors’ involvement. The data is already out there; it’s just a matter of inputting it into a usable form.

  3. The social bibliography.

  4. Bill McNeill says:

    I also think LibraryThing has most of what you need already. Maybe one additional feature that would be helpful for scholarly works would be “cites” and “cited by” fields. Many search interfaces for academic articles already have something like this, and it could be added to LibraryThing as part of the user-contributed “Common Knowledge” area.

  5. Bill McNeill says:

    You could also get some of this effect now by posting a review of your books on LibraryThing that says something like “Hello, I am the author of this book. Let me tell you how I think it fits in with the other literature in this area…” and include brief descriptions of other works along with links to their LibraryThing pages.

    As a non-author I already try to do something like this. Whenever appropriate I try to make my LibraryThing reviews a comparison of a few different books with lots of cross-linking. In particular I do this when there is a cluster of books all on the same technical subject. I think this is a good way to make use of the site’s interconnectedness.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    I think LibraryThing has all the right interface tools but I don’t think it has the right “culture of usage” to make this work. For this to work, I really think each book needs to be a person-like entity, to not just be something that is defined by ownership or linkage or distributed tagging. In a way, I’m thinking of combining the power of top-down expert-defined bibliographic control with social networking. This needs to be done by people who understand their own works and have a sense of how their work fits into the larger architecture of knowledge.

  7. Bill McNeill says:

    Interesting. A few thoughts.

    LibraryThing and Goodreads contain the same information, but LibraryThing presents it in a book-centric way, while Goodreads, by structuring itself as a social networking site, presents it in a reader-centric way. What you’re describing sounds like an author-centric spin on things. You keep the same basic 1:1 book-to-webpage correspondence that all these sites have, but here the author (or other expert) gets some additional say in how their books are interconnected. To distinguish itself from other sites, these extra author privileges would have to be built into the structure of the site; otherwise you don’t have anything different than you can get from posting an “I am the author” review on one of the existing sites. The hope would be that this different structure could help to engender the different culture of usage you’re looking for.

    Would there be other sources of “top-down” control on this site besides the author? Would other kinds of experts be able to contribute in some way more significant than posting a user comment? What are other ways expert opinion would be reflected on this site besides an author choosing to “friend” other books?

    One way to do thing might be to create some kind of social networking site for authors (or other experts) that allows them to mange annotated links to LibraryThing pages. Essentially a standoff annotation scheme. I’m not sure how mashup-friendly LibraryThing, Goodreads, etc. are. Again, you could fake this up just by having a page on your personal website that does this annotation.

    One difficulty is that there are a lot more readers and books than there are authors, so you might not have the critical mass to support a social networking site. Whatever value-add you get from expert opinion would have to be good enough to make it worth people’s while to click away from (or click in addition to) the established sites.

    You also have a verification problem: if an author gets some extra control privileges on a book’s page you’d need some way of verifying that the author is who they say they are. (I think Amazon has “I am the author of this book” links, but I’m not sure how these work.)

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Interesting. You’d definitely need some kind of authentication. Just as Facebook occasionally has issues with someone who has created a page on behalf of an individual, you’d sometimes have someone take up a custodial role with a book whose author was uninvolved, and that would skew the whole thing if the custodial reader had a different perception than the author of the book’s “friends”. You’d also need a lot of different kind of friendings: there are works which are antecedents of a book and then works which are direct or nearly direct descendents of a book, as well as books that are in a similar theoretical or topical space to one another.

    The critical mass problem is also a huge one. There’s plenty of academic authors, but getting enough to participate at first to make the tool useful or interesting from the outset would be a real trick.

  9. Bill McNeill says:

    Here’s another angle that avoids the authentication and critical mass problem.

    What you want is a rich web of interconnection between books. On the current sites this interconnection only happens implicitly, via overlapping tag lists or owners. What you want is some way to make it explicit. So what if LibraryThing had a Suggestion field in which the user specified a related book along with a reason why it’s related? It wouldn’t have to be any more specific than that—the exact nature of the relationships would be left up to the user community. This would work particularly well on LibraryThing, since it already has an automatic suggester. The human-driven one would work in parallel.

    You don’t have a critical mass problem because the links between books would be open ended and amenable to aggregation. You don’t have officially-designated experts like authors, but you do have connections between books explicitly crafted by human beings instead of emerging from the cloud.

    Amazon lists give you this effect minus the aggregation. But the aggregation is potentially really interesting. I would want to see vote counts for most related pairs, and skim for patterns in the reasons.

    In fact, I wonder if link labels might be more interesting than the user reviews. Honestly, I rarely read the reviews. Often as not I think they’re more for the sake of the reviewer’s vanity than the reader’s assistance—you know, this is what I thought of Catcher in the Rye. (Not casting stones here: I wrote one of these too.) By emphasizing the relationship between two works, however, you move the focus off the reader and onto the universe of books as a whole. This might be a structural push in the direction of a new and more interesting culture of usage.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes. But I suppose I’m still thinking about the judiciousness of linkage. E.g., the more linkage you get, the more aggregation, the less the information is meaningful in a concentrated way to any particular book.

    Look at it this way: with Facebook, there’s a hugely dense amount of linking going on in general, but the vast majority of the links at the site mean nothing to me until I have some specific reason to look at a particular individual. Then the links become quite meaningful, because that individual is the custodian and interpreter of all links to their own profile. If you run into someone whose friending practice is indiscriminate, the links mean relatively little–they only tell you that you’re seeing someone who is trying to maximize their friending links. But if you run into someone whose friending practice is discriminate, the information conveyed by their network is significant. In any case, however, if I could add friending links to another individual that that individual wasn’t a custodian of and didn’t necessarily agree with, the informational value would go way down unless I knew that individual so well that I knew something about friends that they hadn’t recognized but ought to recognize. In a precious few cases, that might be so–maybe someone would look at my profile and say, “But he doesn’t know that Famous Africanist also has a profile: I will create a link between them.” That would be good. What would more likely happen: “But he doesn’t know that there is a professor of string theory at Stanford who is on Facebook, I will link them.” Or “He doesn’t know that there is a little old lady in Grand Rapids who is on Facebook, I think I should link them”, even more likely. That would not just degrade the general informational value of Facebook for reading my networks, it would degrade the network as a social tool for me and everyone I was connected to.

  11. I agree with you that the user interface utilizing the Facebook approach better accomplishes the goal – it uses a new media approach instead of a traditional approach applied to new media. While we understand the tools like LibraryThing, our students are less likely to be able to do so.

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