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Kindle.Amazon.Com: Social Kindling

A little over a week ago, I received a curious message from Amazon.com.  I was confused at first because I had not placed an order, and unlike many other retailers, Amazon doesn’t send me random “sale-mail.”  My uncertainty grew when I opened the message to learn that one of my Twitter followers was now following me on Kindle.  Following me on Kindle? Huh?

Many of us at ProfHacker are fans of the e-reader. Kindles and Nooks have made appearances on both of our Holiday Gift Guides (2009 and 2010). Amy has written about Calibre, as have I).  I am a Kindle devotee and have been for years. In fact, over the two plus years that I have been “Kindling,” I have sworn allegiance to my electronic love both in ProfHacker (see “Kindling the Classroom ?” and elsewhere).  The device (I use a second generation Kindle 2) has changed my life for the better.  For example, despite the fact that I am a voracious reader–especially when I travel–I no longer need to fill my carry-on with books before I board a plane. Despite the more recent addition of an iPad to my electronic arsenal, I still prefer to read on my Kindle (and it is easy enough to travel with both, as Mark Sample recently discovered) because it doesn’t cause eye-strain and has much a longer battery-life, especially if you turn off the Wi-Fi or 3G.

I love my Kindle. And yet, learning that suddenly people could follow my Kindling made me instantly very uncomfortable for reasons I couldn’t articulate.  Much of my discomfort came from the way I learned about this new kind of networking.  Instead of announcing the service to its customers openly, Amazon quietly unveiled it sometime this past spring, according to this article at Read Write Web. Not only was there no announcement that the service was being offered, but there is also very little information about what the service actually entails.

While Kindle users have been able to post quotes from the ebooks they are reading to Twitter or Facebook for some time now, only recently has this feature been expanded to allow users to utilize their Kindle profiles in some potentially interesting ways. Before I get into what those ways might be, let me clarify that a Kindle profile and an Amazon profile are not one and the same (Please note: in this post I will not be discussing Kindle Cloud Reader—for more on it, check back in on Friday). They are similar and there is overlap, but there are also some important differences.  In a nutshell, Kindle profiles are focused on reading and Amazon profiles are focused on buying.  You can get to your Amazon profile by clicking a tab in the menu across the top of the Amazon homepage (“Your Profile”), and it features product reviews that you have written, items in your wishlist, and a photo (if you have provided one) as well as whatever information you have included in your self-description.

A Kindle profile, as mentioned, is centered upon the reading experience. Another major difference between an Amazon profile and a Kindle profile is that the Kindle profile is very hard to find unless you click through a link in one of the mysterious “X is following you on Kindle” emails or simply type: “kindle.amazon.com” into your browser window.  Otherwise, at the time of this posting, users must log in to their Account, scroll down to the Digital media section, and click on the “My Collection” link.  My Collection takes you to a page that features both ebooks and MP3s (and any other digital media that you might have purchased) but it also has a link to the elusive kindle.amazon.com.  Click on it, and you will land on a generic introductory page that features basic information about the service, links to highly followed users, and a list of the books with the most public notes, currently, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The New Oxford English Dictionary, Alice in Wonderland, and Pride and Prejudice (sans zombies).  To get to your own kindle.amazon.com page, you must login (again) with your Amazon account information.  Logging in again brings the now familiar Highly Followed Users and Books With the Most Public Notes, but it also lists your recent activity (passages that you have highlighted, annotated, or shared on Twitter or Facebook).

One of the new features of kindle.amazon.com allows users to follow people from their Facebook friends or Twitter lists.  If someone in your network activates this service, you may well find yourself getting an email from Amazon like the one I received.  In fact, if you use this service, it’s possible that you may have received a mysterious email informing you that I am now following you. The process of linking to Twitter was murky at best, however, as users cannot manually select who they are following.  Instead, if you already follow a user on Twitter and that user has activated the service, BAM, you are following them, like it or not. You can stop following them, but the default here is following everyone rather than allowing users to choose whom they wish to follow. Personally, I would prefer a system more in-line with Google+, which asks users to place individuals into circles.  While that system isn’t perfect either, for me it is preferable to the Amazonian alternative, which would have automatically had me following everyone in my Gmail account.

But what exactly is the point of following someone else’s Kindling?

In short, if that individual has elected to share their notes and highlights, followers have automatic access to them. The good news about this feature is that, at least for now, Amazon has set its defaults to protect users’ privacy.  That is, the books you have read or purchased for your Kindle are not made public unless you choose to make them public.  The same goes for the passages you have highlighted and your annotations.  Users must manually set both the reading and rating status and the note status to public (these are two different actions) for your followers to be able to see them.

For many readers, this might be a great new feature.  Fred Wilson, for example, argues on AVC.com that Amazon should “let me make that page public or at least let me make some of the highlights public and showcase them on a public page. They should let me domain map that page so it becomes part of my social media presence. And they should let me connect that page with Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.”  It seems that he has gotten his wish, or at least a version of it. Kindle readers have long been able to turn on a public highlights feature and see popular passages that have been highlighted by other readers (all of them).  Kindle.amazon.com allows for a more selective display.  Instead of seeing the most popular passages in a give e-book, users see passages highlighted by specific readers whom they have selected to follow.

The bad news about public notes and ratings is that there is no way to be selective about who sees what.  That is, if you choose to make your book lists or annotations public, anyone who wants to follow you has access.  You cannot select with whom you share your annotations.  In this sense, it is all or nothing.

As of now, I am ambivalent. I’ve never really gotten into the habit of highlighting my Kindle books—if I want to remember a passage, I’m far more likely to actually write it out by hand in one of my reading notebooks than I am to highlight it on the Kindle.  I have, on occasion, sent a sentence or short passage out over the Twitters, but I find that doing so is usually more trouble than it’s worth since it involves turning on the Wi-Fi/3G (my default is to have this feature turned off to preserve the battery-life), logging in to Twitter, and then highlighting the passage, which often turns out to be longer than 140 characters . . .

If I made my Kindle books known, I suppose the worst that would happen is that people would learn the extent of my love for the detective novel (it truly knows no bounds), but that’s not exactly a secret. More to the point is that fact that I tend to favor the Kindle for pleasure reading and turn to print copies for research and teaching.  I still favor old-fashioned ink over e-ink when it comes to taking notes and annotating a text for an essay or the classroom despite all the new ways to mark a digital book, whether on a Kindle, an iPad or a PDF file on a computer. Since I mainly use the Kindle for pleasure reading, I don’t make many notes or highlights, and those marks I do make tend to be of a personal rather than a professional nature.  But it is clear that kindle.amazon.com is still in its early stages of development, and I’d be surprised it doesn’t expand these features and their functionality in the future, particularly as Kindling becomes less located in the physical ebook device.  For more information on this development, see Friday’s post on Amazon’s Kindle Cloud-Based Reader.

What about you? Are you interested in following the reading of your Facebook Friends?  Would you consider sharing your own notes or highlights on your ebooks?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user °Florian].

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