Sent from my wireless device.

I've recently found myself typing "Sent from my wireless device" at the end of an email sent from my desktop. It's shorthand for "You know this is just email, right?"

Some people react to perceived tone in email, a medium in which we compose in a hurry, usually while distracted. Emails that are written for the optimal distribution of information can seem terse, almost dismissive; and can provoke emotional reactions that get in the way of actual work.

We all need to remind one another that emails are not letters. The best email writers are careful and reread before hitting 'send' – but if you're spending hours composing emails, with sensitivity for tone instead of clarity, selecting synonyms to avoid every possibility of slight, then you're probably doing it wrong. Instead, try this: include some cues that, hey, this is email: don't read too much into it. The occasionally spelling or grammatical error, provided that it does not obscure meaning, serves the same function.

Posted from my wireless device.

Not Books, but Doors: Why eReading is a More Immersive Experience

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

I've been reading electronically -- phone, desktop (I know), Kobo, Kobo Touch -- for perhaps two years now, and I've come to the following conclusion as my reading habits have changed. Electronic reading does a better job of engaging the reader's imagination than print books do.

eReaders.JPG


It's also, of course, a more physically pleasurable experience:

  • Lighter
  • Easier to operate (I'm talking about turning pages, and believe me no one is a better one-handed print page-turner than I am)
  • Less likely to wake you up when you drop it on your face when falling asleep reading
  • Not going to bedazzle you with glare when reading in bright sunlight (seriously, reading a good e-ink display beside a pool is a world-class experience)

But all of those are ultimately secondary. What eReading is really, really good at is letting you be a creative reader. Reading is the act of imaginatively interpreting -- reconstructing -- the work of an another person's imagination. That's subject to two sets of constraints: the range and ability of the author to express their imagination; and the range and ability of the reader to interpret it, which is to say, to creatively reimagine it on their own terms. Technology is not a neutral factor in that relationship. And electronic readers do a better job of relaxing the second set of those constraints.

Here's what I've noticed about my reading experience over the last couple dozen months.

1. I'm reading more.

Having a vast array of content to choose from means less reading time lost because I'm not quite in the mood for the book that I happened to bring with me. And that's exactly the point: I can read according to my mood -- not have to remember to bring a book strong enough to change my mood. Every time.

So, I'm better read -- but also have the ability to start reading something on a spur-of-the-moment suggestion. If I'm at a party and someone says, look, you have to read The Poisonwood Bible, I can start reading it on the bus on the way home instead of the Pretty Little Liars #9 that I was reading on the way there. This possibility, alone, makes me feel better read, because it's always within reach. The horizons of my imagination feel broader. (It doesn't hurt that the prices are usually lower.)

2. I'm far less tolerant of poorly written non-fiction.

Perhaps that's not quite fair: I'm far less tolerant of non-fiction that is written without a distinctive voice, or at the very least some concession to narrative structure. For all the improvements of scrolling and progress indicators, it remains much easier to skim a print book than an eBook. Which means I have to page through the eBook... and if it's boring I'd just as soon move onto something else. But on an eReader, the abandoned books aren't staring me in the face in some strange transfiguration of guilt and anxiety. In short: I'm in control of the reading experience -- unless the author is really, really good; unless they are actively contributing towards the mutual creative act.

Hanna from Pretty Little Liars

Hanna from Pretty Little Liars

Theodore Dreiser

Theodore Dreiser

Perhaps we do lose something in that. "Great books don't promise to hold your attention," I remember an English professor once telling a class utterly bored by one of the masters of American literature (probably Dreiser), "but they do promise to reward it." I suspect that, in a future when electronic reading is the dominant manner of reading, authors who can't write well will not be able to release ideas slowly. (And if we don't read Dreiser, we'll all miss out on some of the more amusing fender-benders of American prose.)

On the other hand:

3. I can concentrate better

Somehow the flexibility of the form -- yes, the font size, the typeface selection -- means that I can get better terms in the reading relationship. I can take my glasses off but still read without having to hold the device a couple of inches from my face. It's less about the conditions that I must arrange in order to read, and more about how I can manipulate the content to suit me.

4. I don't feel like I'm carrying a book around

Because I'm not. I'm not carrying hundreds of books either. At a certain point, having more books than I could list made my device something less like a book, or a compendium, than a portal: a door. That was one of the thrilling discoveries of the first Kobo reader: it came pre-loaded with a hundred free books, which made it clear that this technology was not simply a more efficient distribution mechanism, but a gateway to limitless content. Wi-fi devices have absolutely helped with that too -- but they have kept the connection to the wider Internet obscure enough that I'm not prone to jump on Twitter or the web. Reading remains immersive, yet feels connected.

5. The books I have read feel closer to one another

And that sense of connection, crucially, extends to the books I have already read. Somehow the ability to have the complete works (well, not quite yet) of Faulkner, Didion, Murakami, and John McPhee in my bag, at all times, gives me a more holistic sense of my reading life than having them marooned, out of reach, on a bookshelf, where their valences are confined to the sequence in which I happen to have them shelved. The connections between these books are multiple and they continually expand as I -- by the sheer act of reading -- add to their company. Virtual shelves aren't the same as real shelves, and the books I have on my Kobo live in the same kind of unregulated relationships to one another than they do in my imagination.

John McPhee: The Non-Portable Version

By amalgamating possibility, your aggregate reading experience, the range of your reading and your interests, electronic readers offer a sort of physical external representation of your imagination. They are a sort of auxiliary imagination. My Kobo Touch, after only a few weeks, houses hundreds of books and hundreds of annotations and highlights; it has measured and marked my progress through novels and essays (and, yes, I earned the insomniac badges along the way). It hasn't just been a device: it's been a companion.

Reading merges the content of the page with everything else you have ever read, through the filter of your imagination. It is a cumulative, messy process: it disintegrates the boundaries between ideas, times, places, people, events. It is a process of unseaming the constraints of reality; of unspooling it into the collective and personal reaches of the imagination. And the eReading device is by definition a much better metaphor for that process than physical books. Ideas collide, aggregate, pile into one another. They are sunk within you. They do not remain distinct.

Perhaps this is how the listeners to epic poetry once felt, as the stories that are now The Iliad and The Odyssey were released into the collective ether. Perhaps physical books were a transitional media.

So that's where I'm at. Admittedly other things have conspired to bring me there. I'm not at a point in my life where I still strongly feel the need to display my books around me as an expression of my refinement and taste, and in any event it's rare that a book changes me in the way of a Slouching Towards Bethlehem or Light in August: my imagination is more robust than it was when I was 21, and I've already discovered many of the books most likely to change me. What's more, the limitations of urban living have somewhat necessarily curtailed my ability to endlessly collect books.

But still: I've fallen out of love with shelves of trade paperbacks, and back in love with something that feels closer to the experience of reading itself.

Reading a physical book still retains its pleasures: there is absolutely something thrilling about a gorgeous hardcover, something that feels like a communion close to the author's intent. But that's exactly the point: physical books make you read on the author's terms; reading electronically takes place more on the reader's terms. I think that's a good thing. It makes reading more personal, more democratic, more controversial.

But it's a huge change -- and it could be a generation before authors catch up to it.

Digital Distribution and the New Ecology of Customer Expectations

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

We've written previously about the possible impact of digital distribution on the impulse purchase, and will have more to say in the future. But something else in the equation occured to me after a handful of particularly frustrating attempts to buy music online recently. Something that's obvious but goes unstated in discussions about preserving traditional industry practices.

I was irritated a few months ago when I placed Hjaltalín's wonderful album Sleepdrunk Seasons in my iTunes wishlist playlist, only to discover when I went back to purchase it on payday that the territorial rights had changed and it was no longer available via the Canadian store. (I was eventually able to purchase it via the record label, Kimi).

This week I have tried and failed to purchase Cliff Martinez's beautiful score to Steven Soderbergh's remake of Solaris, and -- astonishingly -- The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld.

(And if you're looking for music which is not available on iTunes, discovering that the record label in question is a subsidiary of one of the majors is really, really bad news. Small labels appear to have discovered the benefits of having in-house mp3 stores. The majors? Not so much.)

A few years ago, this kind of thing would have been mildly irritating but not all that surprising. So your local record store was sold out or didn't carry that particular release. That's inconvenient -- but with those cumbersome industrial production processes and a physical supply chain to negotiate, it wasn't going to shake you up. You were used to it. You'd place a special order, order it yourself online and wait a few days, or just give up. Oh well. Nobody has a right to everything.

Nowadays, though, these oversights feel absolutely unforgivable -- not least because so many of the alternatives (the secondhand stores, the large independents like Sam's, the in depth assortment at large branches of HMV) have disappeared precisely because of the benefits promised by iTunes and its legal and illegal competitors.

This reminds me of something that Dustin Curtis wrote about recently on his amazingly attractive website. The customer experience is only as good as its weakest link. iTunes is an astonishingly good customer experience -- in the context of everything that preceded it -- and offers a breadth of selection unlike anything the average consumer has ever known. But when you can't get something that should be easy -- easy -- it feels as if they don't care.

And for the most part these things aren't the fault of iTunes, Amazon, or other digital retailers. Territorial rights are a massive barrier to the promise of universal availability. But there has been a sea change, I think, in customer's tolerance for a lack of product availability. In the past, it was possible that the retailer was trying but that they weren't very good. This still persists with traditional retailers (Metro, I'm looking at you). But where digital product is the norm, it doesn't feel like that's possible. Instead, it feels like the retailer isn't even trying -- that they just don't care. That's a terrible, terrible face for a major retailer to show to their customers.

As industrial production and distribution processes fade as intermediate factors between content producer and content consumer, the expectations for customer service are skyrocketing. Traditional retail spaces are being redesigned around exceptional customer service rather than stack-and-sell local warehousing. This is the wrong time to be hiding behind the walls of territorial copyright, which will only make customers feel justified in acquiring product in illegal ways. For these reasons it's encouraging to see New Zealand effectively scrap its existing copyright laws, and Australia begin to dismantle territorial copyright.

As the ebooks revolution gathers steam, this will be critical for Amazon, Shortcovers, and other contenders to bear in mind. It's all about availability and customer service. The customer will not forgive you for slamming the door in their face. They will not wait for copyright to catch up. They will sign out of the system.

Digital distribution won't level the playing field. It will tilt it in the customer's favour.

Against Experience

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

I've interviewed a large number of people over the last year or so for entry- and intermediate-level retail analyst positions. One of the most frustrating challenges is how to effectively screen applicants at the pre-interview stage. With only a resume to go on (usually with one of those bland and pointless "objective statements"), along with a cover letter and horribly formatted extended online profile courtesy of Monster.com, you inevitably fall back on experience: has this applicant performed a comparable role in a comparable institution in the past? If yes, bring them in for an interview. If no, move on. It's the only way to get through a large quantity of applications, not to mention the ungovernable ocean of prose that comes with them.

The trouble is that experience can be an incredibly poor predictor of performance. This is especially true for positions where the accumulation of 'soft skills' or a full Rolodex of professional contacts -- managerial positions, negotiating roles -- is not a prerequisite.

In fact, investing your labour resources in experience can carry a high degree of risk. The acceptable level of professional analytics in most businesses is incredibly low, and retraining somebody against a new set of expectations can be time-consuming and alienating for the employee ("this wasn't the job I signed up for"). Indeed, sometimes an apparently "underqualified" person who can vault through the initial screening process via a personal recommendation can be brought up to speed much faster and develop a much stronger voice in the business as a result.

So why, when we all rely on online screening services for our hiring processes, do we fall back on this mainstay of a paper-based economy? Why don't more companies take the opportunity to attach problems or assignments to their job postings, to encourage applicants to show their skills, approaches, and processes?

In fact, given everything I've had to say about social media of late, maybe I'd be better off just checking out their Twitter feed.

Push vs Pull, or, How I Need to Know About Your Product

[NOTE: this post originally appeared on Datachondria, a blog dedicated to technology, data, and modern life.]

Sharing some love for the extraordinarily attractive Harvard Business Review Classics series, which appears to be devoid of any presence on the web as an independent entity. This I don't understand. A series obviously aimed at capturing and retaining a consumer -- attractive design, brilliant product aimed at a specific market, consistency in both to encourage that 'collect them all' instinct. I will buy them all as they come out.

So why isn't there an RSS feed or Twitter account to inform me when each new volume comes out?

Contrast the blog maintained by 33 1/3, Continuum's series of books on classic albums. There are usually five or so posts per month (I know this, obviously, because I can look at the Google Reader stats), featuring news on new additions to the series, alongside events and media surrounding each publication. It's low volume -- but enough to alert me to things in which I have already indicated my interest. What's more, it's done with an openness and transparency -- for example taking readers step-by-step through the submission process for new titles -- that encourages me to think of it less as a marketing tool, but more of a dialogue on a subject (and with a product) with which I'm already engaged.

It's surprising how few companies are aware of the change in consumer mentality that is taking place with the increase in available data and the appearance of filters to help users better manage their inflow. RSS readers, Twitter, even Facebook -- these are content aggregators allowing incredibly supple management of inputs at a granular level. My Twitter account is a highly idiosyncratic mixture of friends, information pertinent to my job, and select entertainment/leisure news. It's unique to me, and it's something that I'm continually redesigning to meet my needs. Which means that I'm spending more time with it than I am in the presence of content distribution hubs -- magazines, websites, bookstores, TV, the transistor wireless machine -- over which I can exercise less control. So if you've made it onto my Twitter follow list, you're there because I want you to be. It's permission marketing in the purest sense.

Indeed, there is the possibility for the impact of your message to be amplified; as Matthew Forsythe points out, ReTweets are "socially targetted":

People usually only retweet things they’re interested in or they think their followers might be interested in. So as the tweet travels through the twitterverse (for lack of a better word), the message is finding people who are more and more likely to be interested in its content.

I'm not asking you to beg for my attention. That would get on my nerves. Just send me a little note every now and then when you have something new that I would like. Cost to your business = zero (well, thirty seconds each time you publish a new volume). Increased revenue to your business = more than zero.

Why not help your customers build their identification with your product? This is a recession, isn't it?

Update: More offenders from the world of publishing. Hesperus Press's striking On series: Stendhal On Love; Virginia Woolf On Not Knowing Greek, John Donne On Death... are there more? Who knows? Bloomsbury's indescribably elegant The Writer and the City series, so far only catalogued by enthusiasts on LibraryThing.