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The changing signals of what we read

July 12, 2009

Vanity Fair‘s August issue ponders how — in an age when more and more of our books, music and videos are on hard drives instead of in our hands and on our shelves — we will preen our plumage to impress the culture snobs:

Books not only furnish a room, to paraphrase the title of an Anthony Powell novel, but also accessorize our outfits. They help brand our identities. At the rate technology is progressing, however, we may eventually be traipsing around culturally nude in an urban rain forest, androids seamlessly integrated with our devices.

It reminds me of this reader’s tip at Marginal Revolution from a few months ago:

Reading with a Kindle, the signal is relatively constant and, at the moment, is something like “I’m an early technology adopter and I like to read”. As the Kindle gets more commonplace the efficacy of this signal will, I think, diminish. Compare this with the signaling effects of reading a traditional book, where you signal to people not only that you like to read, but crucially what you are reading.

I wonder if Kindle advocates are underestimating how important it is for people to show those around them not just that they like to read, but also what they like to read?

I like to think that I am not ashamed of anything I do (I still firmly believe I shouldn’t be). But there are books I will only read in the privacy of my own home. There are Web sites I won’t visit at work in case someone happens to be glancing over my shoulder. There are books that I flaunt when I read them in public, and there are books that I feel like I should flaunt, but I feel like a pretentious show-off even reading them inconspicuously.

As those signals are diminished by Kindles and the like, will what we read more closely match our true interests most of the time?

But as some signals diminish, others grow stronger. Thanks to the Internet, we can choose to share the articles that we read and sites that we visit, be it through Google Reader, StumbleUpon, Digg, Twitter — we still filter those, and they still reflect our ideal selves. We have the ability to tell people what music we’re listening to, what movies we’re watching, what food we’re eating, even when we’re not in their direct lines of sight (Note: We can also choose not to share these things, and that’s often a wise move). They’re a different audience than that on the subway, but certainly not a smaller or less important one.

Signals may change, but they are alive and well. Thoughts?

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