Author: nateavenson

The Constant Distraction of the e-book Annotation

I’m fascinated by the internet and how readily available it’s vast collection of information is. But the availability is a double edged sword.

This video(2:19) of comedian Aziz Ansari illustrates the danger quite well.

E-book annotations offer up the same double-edge. They are there to clarify the text, which is great, but they are also an endless distraction. A link to a wikipedia page is a trap. You’ll click it, you’ll find out what you needed to know, but you’ll also be given extra information, information that will undoubtedly lead to more questions, and the answers are just a click away. Three hours later, you forgot you were even reading a book, and you know way to much about Joe Pesci.

Editors discuss the e-book annotation distraction problem here.

Excerpts Worth Discussing:

There’s an excellent book titled “What Jane Austen Ate and Dickens Knew” that goes into all the nitty-gritty background: how much was rent, how much did bread cost; if someone has an income of 500 pounds, is that a lot or a little? But it’s a good thing that this information is packaged up in a separate book, not embedded into my copies of Dickens’ books. But if someone could figure out the right way to build this kind of reading experience in a way that wasn’t intrusive, that would be really good.

Still, there are some texts for which the annotations are an indispensable part of the experience. I would have found “Ulysses” to be nearly impenetrable in places if I didn’t have the annotations handy. To have those annotations somehow built in to the ebook so that I could easily flick back and forth between text and annotation sounds very appealing…

The UI problem of all the ancillary material getting in the way of a clean reading experience can be solved easily, by simply making the links/extra info invisible until the user reveals them. That can be done through a gesture, a Ctrl+Click or some other unused-in-ebook-reading action. The reveal would be a toggle, so users could turn it off equally easily. That lets publishers include as much ancillary information as they wish without interfering with the reading experience.

Sensory Fiction

A small team at MIT has created a new way to experience fiction.

This sort of tech shows the dualistic demands of the modern reader, yearning for elements of both the future and the past.


The reader uses a special book and wearable support with the following outputs:

  • Light (the book cover has 150 programmable LEDs to create ambient light based on changing setting and mood)
  • Sound
  • Personal heating device to change skin temperature (through a Peltier junction secured at the collarbone)
  • Vibration to influence heart rate
  • Compression system (to convey tightness or loosening through pressurized airbags)

From the creators:

Sensory fiction is about new ways of experiencing and creating stories.

Traditionally, fiction creates and induces emotions and empathy through words and images.  By using a combination of networked sensors and actuators, the Sensory Fiction author is provided with new means of conveying plot, mood, and emotion while still allowing space for the reader’s imagination. These tools can be wielded to create an immersive storytelling experience tailored to the reader.

To explore this idea, we created a connected book and wearable. The ‘augmented’ book portrays the scenery and sets the mood, and the wearable allows the reader to experience the protagonist’s physiological emotions.

The book cover animates to reflect the book’s changing atmosphere, while certain passages trigger vibration patterns.

Changes in the protagonist’s emotional or physical state triggers discrete feedback in the wearable, whether by changing the heartbeat rate, creating constriction through air pressure bags, or causing localized temperature fluctuations.

Reddit: The Power of the Upvote is the self proclaimed “front page of the internet”, using “upvotes” to rank and display user-submitted links.


Paraphrased from Wikipedia: Reddit

The site is a collection of entries submitted by its registered users, essentially a bulletin board, split into numerous categories, known as “subreddits”.

When items (links or text posts) are submitted to the site, redditors (users) can vote for or against them (upvote/downvote). Each subreddit has a front page that displays items ranked by the age of the submission, positive (“upvoted”) to negative (“downvoted”) feedback ratio and the total vote count.

Redditors can also post comments about the submission, and respond back and forth in a conversation tree of comments; the comments themselves can also be upvoted and downvoted.

The front page of the site itself shows a combination of the highest rated posts out of all the subreddits a user is subscribed to.

Two important things are going on here:

reddit-alienUser Submission

The content of the front page is user submitted, though not always user created. Users submit to the Reddit community something that they believe others might be interested in.


Submitted content is up/downvoted by users, causing the proverbial “cream” to rise to the top.

Relevance to Digital Humanities:

The Good

User-submitted items and comments provide a collaborative means of organizing information.

One subreddit, /r/explainlikeimfive, uses the power of the upvote to provide simple answers to user-submitted questions in language a 5 year old can understand. The best answers are upvoted to the top of the comments section, allowing the user to obtain the best answer to their question as voted on by other users.

News related subreddits, like /r/worldnews, benefit from user submission to provide coverage of multiple angles of news events. Coverage of an event often includes user-submitted pictures and videos, links to the story as covered by major online news outlets, and AMA’s (Ask Me Anything) from people on the scene.

The Bad

The tendency for popular points of view, both in the form of submissions and comments, to be upvoted while unpopular points of view are down-voted, leads to a phenomena on Reddit refereed to as “circle-jerking”, where popular opinions tend to get reinforced through a feedback loop stemming from a confirmation bias that leads users who hold the majority opinion to out-submit and out-vote minority opinion holders.

The result is that on controversial topics where the majority opinion holds only a slight edge over the minority opinion, the minority opinion is vastly underrepresented in the front page of the feed.