Copy-cat Highlighting on Kindle

A Flamingo Shade of Grey

A Flamingo Shade of Grey

Dear Reader:

Just going to write a quick post about a certain human behavior I found myself noticing while reading books and articles on a Kindle. You know how you are skimming along on your electronic device, your mind filling with images and ideas, caught up in a story-line or argument, and all of a sudden there is a dotted, lighter-gray line underscoring a particular sentence or paragraph?

Well, this line indicates a “highlight.” Not YOUR highlight. Someone else’s highlight. And all the copy-cats who followed suit. Somehow Kindle keeps track of these highlights and reports directly to each reader a helpful note telling her just how many fellow-readers have highlighted that particular sentence, phrase, or paragraph.

Now here’s my question: Why do so many people end up highlighting the very same phrases? Is it because these thoughts are so obviously important that everyone decides, on their own initiative, to highlight them? Or do many people highlight a passage simply because OTHER people have already highlighted it? I suspect the latter answer falls closer to the truth, and it is just another weird indication of the sheeple-like behavior of most humans.

Memes–an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person through a culture–have always been an aspect of being human. We used to spread ideas via storytelling and then via letters and books and magazines and newspapers. Even as we moved to the written story versus the oral, we were still able to experience the story in our own private heads, think our own private thoughts, and draw our own private conclusions about what we thought was important. Maybe we’d talk about what we read. Maybe we’d jot a private note in the margin. Maybe we’d share that book with a friend who happened upon those margin notes. But did that person underline your underline in his own pen and then pass it along to yet another friend who underlined it in her pen and so forth? Um, no.

What we are talking about here goes so far beyond your college roommate’s yellow highlighter in last semester’s American Literature textbook that you bought from her because you’d like not to spend $500 on something that will be obsolete by spring semester the following year. Now that we have technologies that allow us to share everything with everyone electronically, so that even the once-private reading experience has become hive-like, herd-like, the question arises once again. Are we people, or are we sheeple?

This morning, for example, I began reading short story by Jennifer Weiner entitled Swim. It’s a good short story, well-crafted, interesting characters, great internal conflict. I’m reading along, minding my own mind when, POW! A phrase with 68 (not much compared to some books I’ve read, but I’ll get to that) highlights. This must be a rip-roaring great sentence, I thought.

So I read it.

“…making my heart beat like a little girl who’s gotten just what she wanted for her birthday.”

I blinked. Really? Sixty-eight people thought that phrase was highlight-worthy on their own initiative? I growled at my Kindle and startled the dog. “No stinkin’ way!”

Here’s what I think happened. One person highlighted it, someone else saw someone highlighted it and so highlighted it as well, and then a third followed, then a fourth, and then twenty. I actually found myself compelled to drag my finger across the words and click “highlight” in the pop-up box myself, as if some weird internal synoptic hard-wiring connected a vestigial sheeple-lobe in my brain to my right index finger with nary a stop in the actual thought-processing centers in the frontal lobes.

And then I DID highlight it, just to see if the number of highlighters changed from 68 to 69. It has now. Experiment complete. Let’s see if I can un-highlight it. Yup. Just drag finger and hit delete. Voila!

Have I highlighted other books and articles I’ve read in Kindle? Yes, particularly for non-fiction stuff I want to go back and read again or wish to quote. These are my own highlights, though, irrespective of whether or not anyone else got a tingle of “aha!” while reading the passage. Do I hope other people see my highlights and chose to highlight it, too? Should I go back and look and see what kind of influence I’ve made in the world with my fancy-smancy highlighting skills? Shudder. That the thought even occurred to me sets off warning lights and danger sirens.

This is all beginning to feel a little bit too much like Facebook and how some people actually analyze how many “likes” their friends get on posted photos and shares–as if that is some indication of that person’s popularity or likeableness or something. Not to mention Klout–social media that calculates your influence on the social-media culture. I signed up for that for about a week, just to see what it was all about. Then I got outa’ there. What, exactly, was the point?

(This post is turning out to be anything but “quick.” Sorry about that! I didn’t realize I had this much to say on the topic, which is kinda part of the fun of writing, isn’t it? It’s a new discovery each and every time.)

But back to the egregious example of copy-cat highlighting. After resisting for as long as I could, I gave in and bought Fifty Shades of Grey on Kindle. I really didn’t think it would be any good, and it wasn’t great. However, I readily admit that I was curious about why this erotic novel sold so spectacularly well, spawned a slew of copy-cat novels, re-invented a genre which now fills entire shelf-displays in bookstores, and has even been picked up for a movie adaptation. Pretty good stuff for the author, I have to admit. She must have done something right. I wanted to see if I could find out how she did it.

So, yes, the writing was pedestrian, the sex scenes were so-so and there were way too many of them for my taste, and now I have my own theory about why women like this book (which I may or may not share in a later post), but there was one aspect of reading this on Kindle that really amused me. I knew the story wasn’t exactly gripping my attention (no matter WHERE Christian Grey was gripping Anastasia at the particular moment) when I began paying more attention to the highlighting.

“My belief is to achieve success in any scheme one has to make oneself master of that scheme, know it inside and out, know every detail…” 1,761 people thought this was highlight-worthy.

“The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.” 3,962 highlights.

“A man who acquires the ability to take full possession of his own mind may take possession of anything else to which he is justly entitled.” 8,586 highlights, and who am I reading? E.L. James or Ayn Rand?see Reading Atlas Shrugged in my 40’s

“Oh, f___ the paperwork, he growls. He lunges at me, pushing me against the wall of the elevator.” 2,349.

And so on. The funniest thing is that there is never just a highlight with 50 highlighters or 10. Just thousands. Does Kindle only report the top-scoring highlights of each book or article? Yes. “We combine the highlights of all Kindle customers and identify the passages with the most highlights. The resulting Popular Highlights help readers to focus on passages that are meaningful to the greatest number of people. We show only passages where the highlights of at least three distinct customers overlap, and we do not show which customers made those highlights.” (http://gigaom.com/2010/05/03/amazon-starts-sharing-what-youve-highlighted-on-your-kindle/)

I’m so glad to know that two-thousand people thought Christian pushing Anastasia against the wall of an elevator was wicked important, aren’t you?

What Amazon doesn’t address is why. Why so many people highlight particular passages. Is it based on true personal preference or is there a copy-cat quality?

I will continue to watch with great interest the highlighting trends in Kindle editions. I’m wondering how this feature could be used and abused–both from sharing information about what certain kinds of readers highlight and also from influencing what readers think is important by artificially amping up the supposed highlights (hello: pay or otherwise ask 100 readers to highlight a certain passage thus causing more people to pay attention to certain ideas and to also copy-cat and highlight that passage than would happen organically.)

What do you all think?

4 responses to “Copy-cat Highlighting on Kindle

  1. Give me 50 shades of blue-green any day 😉

  2. Hi, Shelley
    A lot of users have noticed this as well and seem to be perplexed too. Nevertheless, being able to highlight passages is one of Kindle’s popular features.

    An iOS app called Snippefy (http://www.snippefy.com) will be released this November 2013 that will make it more convenient for Kindle users to read and share their notes and highlights all in one place. These can also be integrated to social media, Evernote, Dropbox, email.

    I wanted to share this with you and hope you can find it helpful.

    Thank you

    • Thanks…I think the highlighting feature is fun—and funny, especially when people are highlighting passages from erotica like it is The Gospel E.L. James or something (more power to her, though! Nothing but pleased for the author, any author, who can get that kind of success from something that started as fan fiction. We should all be so lucky!)

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