Lots of people have been complaining about “frictionless sharing” lately, those posts added to your Facebook or Twitter stream telling you that someone has read so-and-so, listened to something else or checked in at the end of their road. Posts like this are the equivalent of sharing your implicit personal activity bot, and they are made all the more curious by the actual selection process behind every (allegedly frictionless) share. No one ever checks in to say they’ve been to the toilet or read a particularly shaming bit of gossip in The Daily Mail. We only seem to be casual with the good stuff, the things that shape our reputations and build our approved sense of self.
I’ve travelled on a lot of tube trains this week, and have twice been surprised by the books I’ve seen people reading: the first was The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius and the second was William and Mary, by I can’t remember who, but in the exact same edition that was in my school library. Both readers seemed gripped and delighted, oblivious to the train full of overcoats and commuting armpits, despite neither book seeming likely to be a passport to enthralled escape. Both covers stayed with me, a nice change to the sea of One Day and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Book covers are the ultimate in frictionless sharing, a mixture of the accidental and intentional. After the moment of purchase, it’s as if the cover was made for the people sitting opposite you on the tube to admire, leaving their vapour trails behind them, making a literal post in the activity feed of your life. The choice of what to read, and how to angle the jacket, is created by the same mix of overt and covert intention as allowing Spotify to publish your playlist to Facebook. It’s a very British kind of showing off.
Meanwhile, The Guardian tells us that, “Ebook sales are being driven by downmarket genre fiction”. To my knowledge, the easy availability of paper has never made Bend, Sinister a sensation on The Sunday Times bestseller list, so it would be peculiar if difficult literary fiction was made more popular by the existence of Kindles and Nooks. Difficult books provoke difficult thoughts, and people’s willingness to think those is unlikely to be changed by the surface that the words appear on.
But the popularity of genre ebooks might indicate that one-click purchasing is more instinctive, more closely connected to pleasure seeking; less oriented towards our intention to improve or impress and more aware of our need for gratification. A secret read of a Robert Ludlum ebook doesn’t take up any space on your bookshelf or post to your activity feed. It’s traceless, more intimate, intended only for the eyes of its reader.
Who Reads Exhibition Catalogues?
This presents a challenge for high culture, which has long relied on the status inferred from physical souvenirs.
Since we haven’t installed tracking devices in exhibition catalogues or opera DVDs, we don’t know if anyone ever opens them once they get home. We know they buy them – possibly in a moment of well-meaning excitement, as a souvenir or a promise of future intellectual engagement – but we don’t know if they ever sit at home and watch The Ring Cycle on a Tuesday night. A minority will, but the majority will let the DVD linger reassuringly on their shelf while they watch Downton Abbey. It’s either a comfortable reminder of cultural aspirations or an awkward guilt trip, depending on how you’re feeling that day.
If you’re anything like me, then CDs of difficult modern music and hardback editions of The Letters of ee cummings are the kind of purchases you make for the life you wished you had: the one in which you had more time, were less tired and less interested in who was going to win The Great British Bake Off. In the digital world, these tokens are more difficult to negotiate. In fact, any one who has ever bought a Penguin Classics mug (“look! I can even make literary allusions while drinking a cup of tea!”) is a model of this mode: defining and identifying themselves through cultural products, signifying themselves through a range of overtly stated preference.
This system of signs is difficult to recreate in a world of frictionless sharing. It’s the sort of thing MySpace was made for (“here are all the cool bands I say I like, but really I’m listening to Christina Aguilera”) but which has been lost by the specificity of activity posts, and hidden by the anonymity of digital artefacts. So while we can certainly edit out our trips to the toilet and our glimpses of The Daily Mail, we don’t yet have a way of editing in the things we haven’t done or of motivating ourselves to do better. For instance, while you might allow an unread copy of Sorrows of Young Werther to languish prominently on your bookshelf, you would probably (I hope) draw the line at tweeting, “I’m thinking about reading some Goethe at some unspecified time in the future.”
For arts organisations who trade in high culture, doing a brisk(ish) trade in art books and monographs and six-hour opera recordings is a little like trading in dreams. It’s selling things that people might get round to experiencing in the future, but which in all likelihood will stay wrapped up. It seems possible that that market will get smaller as the intention gap starts to close, as the things we want right now are delivered to us with greater immediacy.
Besides making money out of pretension, there’s an opportunity here to create some new souvenirs. Perhaps a Kindle cover with a built-in LED to show the title of the book you’re reading or a Global Hypercolour t-shirt that lists the playlist from your iPod. Rather than filling your activity feed with drab lists of the coffee shops you’ve checked in to, it might be fun to share small, unimportant details ambiently and accidentally with the people in the coffee shop you’re in right now.
Apart from anything else, if everyone’s reading things in secret on their Kindle, it will be a lot more difficult to develop random crushes on strangers. And if we only share what we think are the good bits, then the real good bits – the things might be charming or funny or pompous or all of the above – might get lost in our ruthless self-curation. If no one can tell what you’re reading on the tube, then we may as well let our implicit activity bots take over. So we should remember to leave more accidental clues.