My First Year With the Kindle

I am not a music person. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy listening to music. But my taste in music has never been an important part of my identity, and listening to music has never really been something I devoted a whole lot of time to. For that reason, the iTunes revolution didn’t impact my life quite as dramatically as it did for some people I know, for whom music is a very crucial part of their lives.

What do matter to me are books. I read a lot of books, and always have. However, the digital revolution in books lagged way behind the one in music. We can’t know the reason for this, but there’s one story that intuitively makes sense to me. By the time the web was born, CDs were already the primary way we were getting our music, and CDs were a digital format. It was trivially easy to rip songs from those CDs to our computers, which made piracy just as trivially easy once people started going online in large numbers. This created pressure to create legitimate, low-cost alternatives to Napster. In the publishing industry, however, we were still working with essentially the same “analog” product that humanity has known since Gutenberg; a physical, printed book. It takes a big time commitment to scan books page by page to turn them into something digital.

Amazon had built its empire on book sales, and despite the fact that they had started selling just about everything else under the sun, they weren’t about the rest on their laurels. Jeff Bezos knew the digital disruption would be coming to books eventually, and he wanted to own it rather than have Apple or someone else come in and dominate the future of a category that had been Amazon’s bread and butter. Learning the lesson of the iPod, he would offer a device with a tightly integrated content ecosystem. In 2007 he announced the Kindle, which was just such a device.

The Kindle basically created the market for ebooks, and has dominated that market as a result. Barnes and Noble’s Nook is in a distant second, and Apple’s iBook store has less than half of Barnes and Noble’s market share (source).

The Kindle and Me

Despite my love of reading, I waited for years before I took the plunge. In 2009, after Amazon deleted people’s copies of Orwell’s 1984, I thought I might never trust them enough to buy into their ecosystem. However, after the PR firestorm that rained down on them after that, I’m confident they wouldn’t pull it again–as the big fish in the ebook pond they are being scrutinized very closely, so they’re unlikely to be able to accomplish it by stealth, either.

2009 was the first year where I was really tempted, too, as I moved out of my parents’ place and into an apartment, which meant moving my books. I left behind the majority of my books, but the ones I took still amounted to a ton of boxes. Knowing that this was not going to be my last move, I started wondering whether physical books were worth the hassle.

I wasn’t really pushed over the edge until last year. I can pinpoint a single event that did it–the publication of Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation. It wasn’t just that a brilliant economist at the school I got my MA from was publishing a purely digital book. It was also that just about everyone in the economics blogosphere was talking about it. It was a $4 digital book that kicked off a fascinating debate and, really, set many of the parameters of the discussion around our current economic predicament. After watching this unfold, I couldn’t help myself–I really, really wanted a Kindle.

I asked for it for my birthday, which was three months later. Now, almost a year later, I currently have 62 items on my Kindle. I have read a ton, to put it mildly.

To put it plainly, I love my Kindle, and I love the Amazon ecosystem. The device itself is much lighter to hold than a book is. You don’t have to worry about holding it open or turning pages, so you can hold it with one hand. The fact that it isn’t a fully-featured computing device is definitely a plus in terms of avoiding distractions. I can also read my books on just about any computer–from my iPhone to my laptop. If I forget my Kindle at home, I can still continue whatever book I was reading by logging into my Amazon account and reading it in the browser.

2011 turned out to be a year where a lot of Great Stagnation-style, straight to digital short, cheap books came out. The other one that drew a similar amount of attention was Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s Race Against the Machine, but there were also Ryan Avent’s The Gated City and Alex Tabarrok’s Launching The Innovation Renaissance. I read blogs by all of these people, and when they announced their books, it was just too easy to follow the Amazon link and click “Buy now with 1-Click”. As my friend James Long eloquently put it, “any interesting Kindle book which costs less than $5 feels free to me because of a floating point error in my internal processor.”

Similarly, when bloggers or people on Facebook or Twitter that I trust recommend a book that is less than $2, it is hard to resist snapping it up. Authors and publishers are clearly learning to take advantage of this–I recently read Child of Fire, a fantasy novel that goes for $0.99. The price of the next book in the series jumps up to $5.99, and the third one goes up to $7.99.

To legacy publishers, ebooks may seem like a mixed bag as they threaten their margins. To authors who haven’t been able to make it big in the old system, however, there are new opportunities. Take Tim Pratt, whose Marla Mason series was cancelled before it was finished due to lack of sales. So he serialized the book on the open web and sold the complete version directly through the Kindle store. He was among the first to call my attention to the growth that indie authors with a strong fan following were seeing for the Kindle titles when he tweeted the following:

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I’ve talked about how Scott Sigler has taken advantage of the ebook scene–I actually just finished reading Nocturnal on my Kindle before I started writing this post (though that one came out through his publisher). And Amanda Hocking captured everyone’s imaginations last year when it became clear that she was making some serious money off of her Kindle sales.

One thing I don’t like about Kindle books, compared to print books or just open, non-proprietary digital standards, is that my friends can’t borrow my books. With a print book, if I love it and have a friend I think would too, I can just hand it to them. While a subset of Kindle books have “lending” enabled, where you can let one other Kindle user read it through their account, most Kindle books do not.

However, Kindles keep getting cheaper and cheaper. The cheapest one right now is $79, and I will bet good money that we’ll eventually see a $20 one. In a world with $20 Kindles, having a secondary one that you lend to your friends seems a lot more plausible.

And one thing I love about Amazon as a company is how relentlessly they push down prices. One of the books on my Kindle right now is an item from their Lending Library. If you have Prime membership and a Kindle device, you can get one book a month for free from a subset of their catalog that are part of the program. I just read the entire Hunger Games series this way, without paying a penny.

In short, I have really enjoyed my first year in the Kindle ecosystem. It’s really a very exciting time for anyone who loves to read.

The Value of Intellectual Products

Ultimately it comes down to common sense. When you’re abusing the legal system by trying to use mass lawsuits against randomly chosen people as a form of exemplary punishment, or lobbying for laws that would break the Internet if they passed, that’s ipso facto evidence you’re using a definition of property that doesn’t work.

-Paul Graham, Defining Property

According to the RIAA, our current failure to enforce copyright has cost us $12.5 billion per year in economic losses, and over 70,000 jobs a year. The message: piracy makes us poorer and leaves tens of thousands of people per year unemployed.

I don’t think I can do a better job of responding to that sort of estimate than Rob Reid did recently with his short Ted Talk.

Putting aside the methodologically questionable cost calculations, some have argued that unless a mechanism exists for rewarding creators whose creations we value, we won’t get those creations at all–or at least, not very many of them.

I believe that this is the only question that matters.

Priorities

I don’t care how many jobs are created or how much revenue the IP rights-holders make in a given year, or even if they make any revenue at all. All that matters is how much value ends up being created for consumers.

When I put out this idea on Twitter, Eli disagreed.

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A discussion ensued.

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And the answer, in my opinion, is that we want them to do that in a way that maximizes the value to consumers in the long run. Along the way, this will inevitably provide value to producers, but that value will be fleeting, as we find increasingly efficient ways to do what they do. The important thing is to consider the value provided to consumers, for as Bastiat said, “the interests of the consumer are the interests of the human race.”

In our role as consumers, it is in our interest for everything to be plentiful. In our role as producers, it is in our interest for whatever we produce to be scarce. Scarcity is poverty, abundance is wealth.

In short, our priority should be to arrive at the arrangement that provides consumers with the maximum amount of value from intellectual products. If we could provide exponentially more value to consumers from intellectual products but their producers were unable to make a dime, that would be a net improvement. That’s not the situation, but I think it’s clarifying to keep that extreme scenario in mind.

Trade-Offs

To us it seems pretty obvious that people always want to treat it as a pricing issue, that people are doing this because they can get it for free and so we just need to create these draconian DRM systems or ani-piracy systems, and that just really doesn’t match up with the data. If you do a good job of providing a great service giving people… as a customer I want to be able to access my stuff wherever I am, and if you put in place a system that makes me wonder if I’ll be able to get it then you’ve significantly decreased the value of it.

Gabe Newell, co-founder of Valve

What does not help is when consumers are pushed into something by reducing their options elsewhere. When Americans pay a premium above the global price for steel or sugar, it isn’t because they value those commodities that much more than their international counterparts; it is because policy has restricted the number of alternatives available to them. This approach destroys wealth rather than creates it, leaving only a handful of producers better off at our expense.

Every policy that the big content lobbies have pursued have been of this nature. From the copyright extensions to bills like SOPA; they have sought to extract more value for themselves individually by shrinking the pie for the rest of us. All while telling us that it’s for our own good.

Their efforts always come at the expense of the honest customer who isn’t trying to game the system. Meanwhile, they have done nothing to curb piracy, which remains trivially easy.

Eli recently wrote out a thought experiment where we were in a world in which enforcing laws against murder became as hard as it currently is to enforce intellectual property laws. His argument:

Suppose a new technology were introduced that made it easy to get away with murder (e.g., David Friedman’s plan for Murder Incorporated). This technology makes it extremely costly, though, say, not impossible, to stop murders from occurring. What happens to the optimal amount of murder enforcement? The amount that must be spent to deter each murder has gone up, so the price of deterrence has gone up. Consequently, society should aim to deter fewer murders.

I was a little skeptical of where he was coming from…

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But he elaborated that what he was trying to say was that “if even laws against murder should be sensitive to enforcement costs, then it makes sense to also make copyright law sensitive to enforcement costs.”

Here’s what makes sense to an economist but sounds horrifying to most non-economists:

If we are looking at Eli’s scenario from the point of view of the objective goal of maximizing the number of lives we save, then logically, we must accept his conclusion.

Say his murder technology made it so that it would take $80 billion in order to save a single person from being murdered. Say, in theory, that we could have spent that $80 billion on buying enough penicillin to save 8,000 people’s lives. Clearly, it makes more sense to spend it on those vaccines–if saving lives is really your goal.

All of this is to say that there are always trade-offs, and while the goal you have in mind may itself be subjectively chosen, the trade-offs themselves are absolutely objective. We can’t always know what they are, but they’re not something you can just wish away.

And really, that’s what the IP lobby’s strategy so far has come down to–trying to wish digital technology and the Internet away. But they are not going anywhere.

The New Balance

There is going to be more piracy than there used to be. That is the new reality that we are all going to have to live with.

Fortunately for us, we’re not living in Eli’s nightmare murder scenario–this technological shift brings with it benefits as well as challenges. In fact, I would argue that the benefits dramatically exceed the downside, from the perspective of value being made available. For example, you get a kind of “production as consumption” that occurs–people who like to write or illustrate or take pictures and share them online with an audience of uncertain but probably limited size. This very post is an example of that. I value the ability to share my writing with others, however few they may be in number.

More to the point, you get near costless replication of digital content, and near costless distribution around the world. Has the rhetoric around IP protection reached a point where I really need to actively argue that those are very good things?

Alarmism aside, the big IP rights-holders are not exactly hurting for money. Services like iTunes, Cable TV, and Netflix are making money hand over fist for them. Apple has paid billions to developers of apps alone–who are also producers of intellectual products. Then there are services like Kickstarter which allow consumers to pitch in for the up-front costs of creating intellectual products, and services like Paypal which make it easy to donate.

So the mechanisms to reward creators in the new digital landscape already exist, and new ones are being built all the time. Consumers have demonstrated that they are willing to open up their pocketbooks and use those mechanisms when it’s for something that they genuinely value.

So how should we be rethinking intellectual property enforcement, and intellectual property law itself, moving forward? I turn again to Eli:

In fact, the cost of deterrence has increased so much that we should begin to rethink copyright law. We could increase the benefits of deterrence if we targeted only high-value infringements. This means that we should shorten the term of copyright, since high-value IP tends to be newer IP (in fact, copyright terms have increased in recent decades, a move in the wrong direction). We might consider expanding “fair use” copyright exemptions to include more non-commercial uses, since commercial infringements are more likely to diminish the value of a copyright. Most importantly, we should withdraw public resources from the enforcement of IP violations. Private enforcement through the tort system has a built-in safety valve: when the cost of enforcement rises, people will do less of it. But the criminal system is essentially a public subsidy for enforcement; no wonder that pro-copyright factions are attempting to criminalize copyright infringement through SOPA and other legislation.

The bottom line is that recent expansions of copyright terms and enforcement powers get the comparative statics exactly backwards. In an age of costly enforcement, it’s time to give up, at least at the margin, on copyright. And at the margin, content creators should just be more polite to content consumers.

We need to loosen, but not eliminate, IP law and IP enforcement.

In the long tail, creators are already doing what needs to be done–focusing on creating value rather than on fighting against technological destiny. Witness Scott Sigler, who has built up enough of a fan base to make a living doing what he loves. Or the numerous webcomic artists who have managed to support themselves while still giving away their primary product for free.

I think that eventually, the big IP rights-holders will adapt to the latest technological shift just as they adapted to VHS, cassettes, and vinyl records in the past. For instance, big publishers are starting to reduce the uncertainty of their investments by waiting for people to make it big online before drafting them to the major leagues, so to speak.

We are simply in a transitional moment. Eventually our institutional arrangements will make full use of the advantages that digital technology and the Internet provide for creating value.

You Can’t Kill the Network

Back in June of 2010, a Japanese and American manga publishers formed a coalition for the express purpose of stamping out manga piracy. Shortly thereafter, they struck–One Manga, home to an enormous number of fan scanned and translated manga (scanlations), shut down its operations.

At the time that Alex Leavitt wrote this fantastic analysis of scanlation culture and online manga, One Manga was listed by Google’s ad planner as one of the top 1,000 most trafficked websites in the world. It received just over 4 million in estimated unique monthly visitors, but over 1 billion monthly pageviews. Which makes sense–as each individual page of a manga represented a pageview.

It slapped network ads all over the place, of the pay-per-click sort. Some back of the envelop calculations to give you a sense of the money involved: if all of their ads on a page had a very conservative clickthrough rate of 0.5%, and paid a very conservative $0.05 cost-per-click, that’s 5 million clicks a month which translates to $250 thousand a month in ad revenue. I don’t know how much bandwidth costs for a site serving images a billion times, but it would appear to be tens rather than hundreds of thousands, so it is very likely that the people running One Manga were making an extraordinary profit. This is true even if you go with more conservative estimates than mine, and in my experience, my numbers are pretty conservative.

It makes sense to me that the publishers would target a site like One Manga. What I find interesting is the fact that the big scanlation distributors are basically mirror sites to much smaller communities that do the scanning and translating.

The Network

This is something that the publishers are either completely ignorant of, or just really bad at acting on.

They keep going after the mirror sites, but the network lives on. In the Alex Leavitt post mentioned above, he say:

I predict that, just like the online telenovela audiences, scanlation teams and communities will — in the face of legal action — retreat away from prying eyes into further gated communities, allowing only internal (sometimes P2P-enabled) distribution.

This may happen, but it has not yet. Instead, they strike down One Manga, and occasionally swoop in and make its successors like Manga Fox or Manga Stream take down the big ticket titles like Naruto and Bleach. Which accomplishes nothing, because there are still plenty of places putting scanning and translating super popular titles like that. The very day that they came down, copies of each could be found at manga.animea.net and mangareader.net.

Out of curiosity, after a recent crackdown I googled “Naruto manga”. All ten of the first page search results were mirror sites like the ones mentioned above, not one result pointed to an official, publisher-associated website. And this in spite of the fact that Google has apparently blocked over 600 sites for copyright reasons!

You can kill the mirror sites, but you can’t kill the network. I think that publishers would probably be satisfied  if Leavitt’s prediction came true, and scanlation was relegated to small communities exchanging them in private. In an ideal world they don’t want any piracy at all, but without the mirror sites the scale of the audience for such pirated works would be dramatically smaller.

Unfortunately for the publishers, it is trivially easy to set up a website, and the fact that ad networks have automated advertising means that there’s a market for anyone who can marshal a big audience.

Which brings us to the Oatmeal point: the reason that these sites can so easily marshal a big audience is that there is no legitimate alternative.

Not Taking Digital Seriosly

As Leavitt points out:

That problem, though, is two-sided. The obvious first side is that scanlations are technically illegal. But the second — and more important — side is that legal alternatives to online manga distribution do not exist. Yes, you can say that there are experiments with online distribution (such as Viz’s online Signature Ikki magazine), but the fact remains that a universal and ubiquitous legal alternative for online distribution of every English-language manga published in the United States does not currently exist.

iTunes, the Kindle Store, and Netflix have all demonstrated that people will pay for digital content if you give them a chance. The road ahead for manga publishers, if they want to recover the opportunity cost they have incurred from piracy, is to offer Netflix-like bundles for a monthly subscription as well as iTunes-like à la carte services. They could even offer a service for getting new, translated chapters to people within a week of when they come out in Japan, and charge a premium for it. If a bunch of amateur fan translators can get a turnaround time of a few days, surely a professional staff can do it in a week.

The tremendous success of physical manga in the US demonstrates that there is a market. And that existing market could be promoted further if a free digital copy was provided with each sale of a physical volume, something that Marvel recently announced that they would be doing. Author Scott Sigler does this as well for his premium-priced hardcover novel.

In short, fans cannot buy what you are not selling. No amount of piracy-busting is going to change that.

My Information Diet

I’ve told you what I think of the book. Now I’d like to examine my own information diet, as part of my personal process of rethinking it.

Google Reader

I am not someone who gets a lot of emails on a daily basis–I’m simply not that popular. So for many years, Google Reader was my primary dashboard for information consumption on the web. Social media has grown in relative importance, but I’ll go into that a little further down.

Reader is still my first stop when I wake up in the morning. I think of it as akin to the old habit of reading the newspaper in the morning before work–except that I have complete control over the composition of that newspaper. I even have my own comic section, made up of the webcomics I have found since I first discovered the form back in High School.

I’ve been using Reader since 2005, but my subscriptions look quite different from what they were then. For one thing, there is no longer any politics folder. The closest I get to politics are the DC blogs I read who cover some of the politics in my city, and the econ bloggers who occasionally comment on national policy debates. I also read a lot more about technology than I used to.

One of the nice things about Reader is that it provides me with data about my subscriptions.

For instance, the total number of subscriptions I have, as well as their output in terms of individual “items” (usually a post from a blog) over a 30 day period. Brace yourself, it is a lot.

That is an average of 262 items per day; though in general that means a lot more on week days and a lot fewer during the weekend. That’s a lot of items, and I don’t think that this would be a good information diet for most people. But I think this works for me. I may be rationalizing, but for the vast majority of those nearly 8,000 posts I just glimpse at the headline of to see if it’s something I’m going to be interested in, and then move on. There are a few blogs that I will give more of a chance to absolutely anything they write–usually people I know personally or very interesting but very low output writers.

Just look at how few of them I actually click on–388 items. While this isn’t the best measure of what I actually read, since some feeds give me full posts without having to click through, it’s a decent proxy for the bigger producers. It’s only around 13 posts a day, a far more manageable number. I would say the true number is probably more like 20-30 on average. Of those, maybe 5-10 are of any great length.

The producers of content are highly concentrated; there is a power law distribution across my subscriptions.

The top ten highest producing subscriptions account for an average of 191 posts a day; about 73 percent of the total items in my Reader account per day. The main value of Reader, in my opinion, is for following those other 199 subscriptions, which may update less than once a day, maybe even less than once a week or once a month. I don’t have to go to them to see when they’ve updated; their updates come to me. So if I wanted to think about scaling back, the top 10 subscriptions would be the place to do it.

By far the biggest producer is The Verge. An average of over 50 posts per day! This fluctuates depending on what’s going on in the tech world; when I looked at it a few weeks ago they were around 40 posts per day. Most of the posts are what Clay Johnson might call empty calories; quick updates about the tech industry that don’t have much additional content beyond a company announcement or the latest rumor. I have no problem skipping over nearly all of those posts, though occasionally I’ll find one to be interesting.

I’ve written elsewhere on what I like about The Verge’s general approach, but I’ll summarize it here briefly. I have followed the main cast of characters there since they were the head editorial staff at Engadget, and I think they get what it means to be at the heart of a web community. I enjoy listening to their podcast, as much for the personalities of the people as for the specific things they talk about. I trust them not to bullshit me. And I like that they invest in writing long form, visually rich feature pieces on quirky topics like this one.

As part of the process of rethinking my information diet, I’ve contemplated whether there’s a more fine-tuned way to approach my subscription to The Verge. They have RSS feeds for specific topics, for instance; I could cut down on some of the stuff I’m less interested in. But the fact of the matter is that I like being exposed to a broad swatch of technology topics, and I don’t think I’m sacrificing all that much to do so.

I did take all of the top 7 producers out of any folder to stand on their own, so that my other subscriptions wouldn’t be buried by sharing a folder with them. I also learned years ago that the only healthy way to use Google Reader is to give yourself permission to just click “mark all as read” when you don’t feel like going through everything. Breaking out the big produces allows me to mark each of them as read more easily while leaving the smaller, individual blogs that I like to look at later.

io9, Boing Boing, and Lifehacker are about equivalent in their output, and I did think about whether I wanted to unsubscribe to any of them. But when it comes to the cost of subscribing to them, it’s the same story as it was with The Verge–I find it nearly effortless to skip over all the stuff that doesn’t look like it’s going to be of interest. And when I hit a gem on any of these three, it’s usually something really good. For instance, this very interesting post from io9. So I think these are still keepers, at least for the time being.

The Daily Dot I’m less confident in. It’s a perfectly fine publication, but most of the things they cover I am either not interested in, or I’ve seen covered elsewhere. I really only started following it because I wanted to keep an eye on what my friend Lauren, who writes there, was up to. Acknowledging this, I unsubscribed from the main feed and now am subscribed to her feed specifically. That takes it down from around 19 posts a day to more like 3; few enough that I can just shuffle it off to my Media Analysis folder.

Those are the big ones. Before writing this post, I also unsubscribed from ReadWriteWeb, since I felt their quality had been on the decline for a while and most of what they cover is already covered by The Verge. They were another big producer, so that helped. Another way that I improved my information diet was to cut out MG Siegler from it entirely. That decision was inspired by two episodes of Triangulation: the interview with Clay Johnson, and the interview with Gina Trapani. Gina said that the tech blogosphere often seemed like one big male pissing match. Afterwards, I read this post by Siegler and just decided I did not need to invite that kind of crap into my life.

Podcasts

Back in 2008, I took a job that was in Columbia, Maryland, which was a 40 mile drive from Vienna, Virginia, where I was living at the time. Shortly afterwards, I started grad school, the night classes for which took between an hour and a half to over two hours to get to from my job, depending on which campus the class was on and how bad traffic was. Oh, and I started seeing someone in Washington, DC.

In short, I spent an enormous amount of time driving, and podcasts became not only a big part of my information diet, but an important part of keeping up my quality of life. If I hadn’t had my podcasts during those long days on the road, I would have gone insane.

Nowadays, I’m living in DC with my fiancée, I’m done with grad school, and I took a job in Fairfax City–still about a 45 minute commute, but not nearly as insane as it used to be. My podcasts are still an essential part of my commute. I’m pretty proud of this part of my information diet; there isn’t a single podcast here that does anything but enrich my information consumption experience.

I use Downcast for the iPhone as my podcatcher.

Pictured here are four of the short story podcasts that I listen to. Podcastle and Pseudopod are part of the Escape Artists podcast family; a nonprofit group of three podcasts that post a new story each week. They specialize in fantasy and horror respectively, and the third podcast, Escape Pod, specializes in science fiction. The Drabblecast is a weekly weird fiction podcast that I started listening to more recently, and it is a lot of fun. The Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine is less consistent in its updates, but I enjoy it in part because it is just a couple of friends who decided to get together and start putting out a short fiction podcast. They don’t focus on any one genre, and the conversations after the story give it the feel of hanging out with two friends you’ve known your whole life.

I recently wrote about Scott Sigler, the man who pioneered the podcast novel. There was a time when most of what I was listening to on my commute were podcast novels, and I still follow Sigler’s as he releases new installments each week. There are also a couple of authors I’m looking forward to seeing podcast novels from, such as R. E. Chambliss, who is working on a sequel to her excellent fantasy novel, Dreaming of Deliverance.

The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast is just fantastic. Each week, the co-hosts and occasional guest discuss one of Lovecraft’s works, which they have been going through in the order that they were written for nearly three years now. I started it by going through the archive at the rate that I was capable of reading each story and then listening to the episode. I’ve been caught up for a while now, and really love the show. It’s like a free literature class in my car that I can partake of whenever it’s convenient for me. It also has the same element as the Dunesteef, where the co-hosts are good friends and their conversation is fun to listen to.

I started listening to Econtalk back when I was taking a class taught by its host, Russ Roberts. This is brain food of the highest order. It is ostensibly about economics but in practice discusses just about every intellectual topic under the sun. I am a lot smarter for having listened to it for the last four years.

And then there are my tech podcasts. Back in the day, I considered the Engadget Podcast to be essential listening for my week. The exact same cast of characters now hosts The Vergecast, and it still has the elements that I loved about its predecessor. But I’m at a point now where I give myself permission to just skip the tech podcasts some weeks, especially if I’ve been catching up on fiction. I don’t really listen to TWiT at all unless there’s some special topic they’re discussing that I want to hear their take on. I’m a fairly faithful TWiG listener, and I pick and choose  which Triangulation episodes I listen to based on who is being interviewed.

Social Media

The various social streams that I’ve set up on places like Twitter and Facebook are a big part of my web experience.

Of them all, Twitter remains my favorite.

I follow a lot of people; 531 at this moment. I treat Twitter as my index of interesting people with of many different backgrounds and viewpoints. I don’t feel the need to stay current with all or most, or even a large minority of them. The “mutual follows” – people who I follow that follow me back – is a much smaller core of people, and the people I talk to the most number maybe 15-20. I make use of Twitter’s lists feature to occasionally check up on them specifically.

I love Twitter, I really do. I have made more new friends on Twitter than I have any other single place on the web. There’s something about the structure of how conversations take place there that is just wonderful, and difficult to explain to people who aren’t using it. There’s a lot of serendipity as well; people respond to things you didn’t expect them to, or suddenly two people you follow are talking to each other and you hadn’t even realized they knew the other existed.

The other big social network I use is Facebook.

I used to be very wary of Facebook, back when I first joined it. I think I deleted my account three or four times before I finally embraced it. The event that crystallized it for me was when I was in a friend’s wedding a few years ago. Afterwards, everyone who had been in the wedding party friended one another and started sharing pictures of the wedding. I suddenly saw just how useful Facebook could be.

I have since customized my Facebook experience to make it work for me. Most of the stuff I post goes into groups rather than the main feed. My favorite is a group I created with my friends and siblings to talk about video games, science fiction, art, and general geek things. We have so much fun there that we’ve all been bringing in more and more people to join in. My experience in that group is, to my mind, the pinnacle of what social media is at its best.

A much smaller part of my social media activity happens on Tumblr.

Part social network, part publishing platform, part feed reader, I like Tumblr’s style. I don’t follow very many people on there, but I have found a few fun artists that post there to follow.

Finally, there’s Google+. I was excited about it when it came out, but to be honest, I don’t really spend time on it any more. There are a  few very specific reasons I haven’t abandoned it entirely:

  • The integration with Google Reader makes it effortless for me to share stuff I find interesting there.
  • There are a handful of people I like interacting with who are still very active there, and that’s the main place I end up talking to them.
  • Robert Scoble once put me in a suggested circle – with 400 other people – therefore I have four times as many followers there as I have on Twitter. Hard to resist the pull of attention.
But it’s a vanishingly small part of my information diet.

Offline

The biggest non-web portions of my information diet are books, TV, and movies.

I don’t watch as many TV shows as I used to. My fiancée and I will occasionally find a show to watch through on Netflix, and we’ll usually be following one or two shows that are going on right now. For the life of me I can’t think of any that didn’t begin by watching the first seasons on Netflix or Hulu, though. In general I am a genre guy; I like my science fiction, fantasy, and horror. But truth be told I haven’t been as up on it lately as I was in, say, college.

We occasionally go out to the movies and generally try to find a movie to watch on Netflix, Amazon, or TV Friday or Saturday night.

I read a lot of books. This has always been true, especially back when I was working at Borders. And since I got a Kindle last year, it’s been that much easier to get and read books.

And I do find it much easier to read on the Kindle than to read on a computer or even to read a physical book. It is much lighter to hold and much less unruly than a real book – there’s no accidentally losing your place – and lacks all the distractions that the computer comes with.

The kinds of book I read range from…well, The Information Diet and books like Here Comes Everybody, to the Dresden Files books and other genre fiction. I don’t think the book part of my information diet really needs any work.

Major Lessons from the Book

The most important thing that I took from the book had less to do with the content of my information diet and more to do with the time I spent on it. I definitely get into the bad habit of checking things compulsively. In particular, my email, Google Reader, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. One thing I am going to set out to do is create bigger buffers between when I let myself check for updates.

I also did decide to scale back on some of my RSS subscriptions, but ultimately I think I’m in a healthy place with them. They don’t rule my life, and I’m content to mark all as read and miss what I miss.

Reading the book made me think that it would be a good idea to do this sort of audit of my information diet. I did make some changes, but not many drastic ones, which has me wondering if I’m too close to it. So if you’re still with me, these 3,000 words later, I’m asking: do you think I should make any changes to my information diet? Am I information obese?

Information, Food, and Democracy

I am a skeptic on the subject of food diets but have been a true believer in the information diet for a long time. I am pretty sure that Clay Johnson had the opposite sort of reader in mind when he wrote The Information Diet.

As I read the book, I kept thinking of things I wanted to respond to and aspects I wanted to explore. But in the spirit of restraint which the book embodies, I will hold myself to just two posts – an overview of my own information diet, and this broader response.

Information Mania

Back in 2004 I was extremely into the political blogging scene and thought that all mainstream news was utter crap. My reasoning was pretty straightforward – bloggers actually linked to things in order to provide context. They didn’t pretend to be objective; they wore their ideologies and biases on their sleeves. The distorting news cycle that mainstream media operated on, and the narrow perspective they approached everything from, drove me crazy. I excluded it from my information diet as much as possible.

I had family members and friends who I could see develop a kind of mania as they followed more traditional news outlets. They didn’t want to talk about anything but politics. They made blunt statements that were insulting to anyone who disagreed with them, under the assumption that no one did, and were genuinely surprised when it turned out this assumption was wrong.

The section of Johnson’s book where he talks about his relationship with his Uncle Warren, a Fox News faithful conservative, really touched a chord with me.

The conversation, viewed from the outside, couldn’t have been considered coherent. It was just an explosion of nonsense—two grown men shouting at each other about taxes, gun control, and healthcare, with some perfectly good turkey between us. That Thanksgiving, Uncle Warren left early, and things haven’t been the same between us since.

I myself came right to the brink of such a fallout on several occasions. Of course I realize now what Johnson has also realized; that my own behavior and my own information diet were part of the problem. I fell into an “us versus them” mentality and I selected for blogs that fed into that. Despite adamantly refusing to affiliate myself with either political party, I was still drawing a line in the sand; my people against everyone else.

It was extremely bad for me. It made me unhappy and dissatisfied, and every so often I would become downright unpleasant company.

I was right about mainstream news, but was unwilling to recognize that the problem was not the medium but the type of content. Since I considered myself a part of the new media crowd, I didn’t give new media as critical an eye as I did traditional media. The only exception was the critical eye I turned to those blogs of a different point of view.

I’m still a techno-optimist and I still think that most news is crap, but I have come to realize that there is a lot more crap on the Internet than off of it. This is because there is a lot more of everything on the Internet, good and bad. The digital age gives the producers of crap some new, powerful tools that they didn’t have before, as Johnson describes:

Even more than television, Fox routinely tweaks the news on the Web to make the news more palatable to its audience. Even when it takes content from other sources like the Associated Press and puts it on its website, the organization tweaks the headlines to make them more attractive to its conservative audience. The AP’s story “Economic Worries Pose New Snags for Obama” turned into “Obama Has a Big Problem with White Women.” “Obama to Talk Economy, Not Politics, in Iowa” turned into “White House Insists Obama’s Iowa Stop for Economy, Not 2012.” And “Malaysia Police Slammed for Cattle-Branding Women” turned into “Malaysian Muslims Cattle-Brand Prostitutes.”

Fox isn’t about advancing a conservative agenda. For its parent, News Corporation, it’s about the dollars. Fox changes these headlines on the Web not because it has an agenda, but because people click on them more, meaning that more advertisements can be shown, and more money can be made.

So I have, for some time now, agreed with the general proposition that the information we consume has an effect on us on our emotional and intellectual state of mind. This is an idea that is old and familiar to me, and it is a crucial part of the story told in The Information Diet.

But it isn’t the whole story.

Food Morality

Something else that is common among certain members of my family and friends is the propensity to moralize on the subject of food.

A lot of the time, this centers on the “obesity crisis” or “obesity epidemic”; something that is apparently a very important public health issue. An uncle of mine once assured me that it was only a matter of time before national life expectancy began to fall as a result of this problem.

The food moralist’s story is a key piece of the story that Johnson wants to tell in The Information Diet. Consider the following:

Today, 13.5 million people die each year of heart disease and stroke, and 4 million from diabetes-related complications–far more than die in automobile accidents. heart disease is now our number one killer, and it takes more people to the grave in the United States in five years than all our war-related deaths combined. Instead of dying from the cold of winter, we find death in cholesterol.

The way this story is framed is at odds with my understanding of the material progress that has been made in developed nations over the last two hundred years. But I didn’t want to just dismiss it out of hand, so I went to see if the known facts were what I had thought that they were.

The following are the facts, as I understand them, with links to primary sources.

First, my uncle’s comment aside, life expectancy has been rising consistently for centuries. It’s been rising more slowly in the last few decades than it was, say, right after the discovery of penicillin. Nevertheless, it has continued to increase. I understand that the past is not prophecy; it could start to decline. But it hasn’t so far.

But what about the specific risk factors of being obese? What about heart disease and stroke? After all, as Johnson points out, “heart disease is now our number one killer.”

Just because something is the biggest relative cause of death does not mean that it is a bigger problem than it used to be.

According to the CDC, “Overall, death rates for heart disease and stroke have decreased in the United States in recent decades.” They hasten to add that “rates for incidence and death continue to be high”, and to talk about how it is higher among some socioeconomic groups than others. But they don’t include a breakdown of whether those higher rates have increased or declined – a number I would be very interested in seeing.

According to the American Heart Association, “From 1997 to 2007, the death rate from [cardiovascular disease] declined 27.8%” and “the stroke death rate fell 44.8%, and the actual number of stroke deaths declined 14.7%.” Not only is the stroke death rate down, the actual number of deaths is down despite the larger population. This is not the rate at which people who contracted these diseases died from it – this is the number of people that died of these diseases per 100,000 people in the overall population.

This 1997-2007 period is squarely in the middle of the 1990-2010 period that Johnson cites as one of enormous growth in the obesity rate. People were getting fatter but the things that they are at higher risk for was killing them less often. This is hardly finding “death in cholesterol”.

Now, these are just the death rates–it could be that the incidence rate of heart disease and strokes has increased, but medical science has advanced so far that it’s actually overcompensated and the number of people per 100,000 in the population that actually died of them decreased. And I’m not saying that it’s a good idea to be overweight, or that you can eat nothing but chocolate for three meals a day, seven days a week. Obviously dietary choices have health consequences; a friend of mine knew someone in college who ate nothing but ramen for a month and actually ended up getting scurvy.

I just don’t see the smoking gun here. This is no existential threat, no “crisis”; this is a lot of people eating in a less healthy manner than a physician would probably recommend. But they are still, on average, living longer. In particular, the things that overweight people are at risk for are killing them less often.

I believe that what we eat is a personal and quality of life issue, not a moral one. Some people may have less energy and feel bad about themselves because of the kind of food they eat regularly. On the other hand, some people may be happy eating food that they enjoy but being overweight to some degree. There are trade-offs to be made, and everyone must weight those trade-offs for themselves.

This disagreement over whether food is a moral issue or a personal one is paralleled in the conversation about information.

Saving Democracy

Johnson does not just want you to fix your information diet for the sake of self-improvement. He wants you to do it because he thinks it will be good for democracy.

The role that information plays in influencing politics is complicated and difficult to measure. It’s something that my father thinks long and hard about over at The Fifth Wave.

Johnson appears to hold to what I would describe as the traditional progressive hypothesis: the more informed the governed, the better the quality the governance in a democracy will be.

once you lose the fluff and start really seeing what’s going on, new priorities arise that require new tactics to accomplish.

He recognizes that there isn’t a straightforward relationship between the amount of information available and policy outcomes. For instance, he spends a whole section taking down the notion that mere “transparency” is actually effective at holding policymakers accountable.

Like the calorie counts from food, transparency is ineffective at arming the masses unless there’s a strong will in the public to arm itself with the knowledge of how this information affects us, and how to effectively read the metaphorical labels. People will be no less obese—and no less ignorant—unless they have the will to consume less of the stuff that’s bad for them, and more of the stuff that’s good for them. While transparency can help the problem, it alone cannot fix it.

Admitting that mere transparency isn’t enough to achieve mass enlightenment does not mean that Johnson thinks such enlightenment is impossible, however.

He then offers a laundry list of how you can make a difference, ranging from the kinds of problems you should focus on:

My plea to you is to start sweating the small stuff at the expense of some of the big stuff. Washington isn’t the land of vast, radical changes, it’s a battleship waiting to be nudged in the right direction.

Nudges such as:

If you’re worried about federal spending and the budget, don’t concern yourself over the debt-ceiling debate. Work to change procurement laws so that government can get access to the same things the private sector has without paying an arm and a leg. We spend so much time figuring out what programs to spend money on, comparing their priorities to one another, and blanket cutting them when they’re deemed too luxurious. It’s the equivalent of trying to lose weight by cutting off your legs. Optimizing how government spends its money is at least as important as figuring out what our money gets spent on, and there are real, pragmatic solutions to getting there.

There are also tools available to us, and tools yet to be made, that can help us do the job.

We can also improve our government without waiting on government to act. Organizations like PopVox.com, for instance, make it easier for people to translate what they want their representative to do into the language our representatives speak. There’s a whole world of technology out there waiting to be used to help members listen to their constituents, and it’s likely—now that much of our discussions about politics are public—that we don’t need government to act: we can build tools that listen to what people are already saying, make that information public, and question our elected officials when they’re voting against their constituencies.

I’m not denying the value in what he’s saying, I just really wonder how much exhortations like these are going to make a difference.

I don’t pretend to any special knowledge on the relationship between information and politics, but it seems to me that when you write a book encouraging people to have a nice, balanced, reasonable information diet, it encourages people to be nice, balanced, and reasonable. In my admittedly limited experience, it is rarely the nice, balanced, and reasonable people that move history.

I keep going back to the circumstances where policy or norms moved in a direction that I, personally, consider to be good. For instance, when the web rose up against SOPA and PIPA and managed to get those bills tabled. In my opinion, it wasn’t the well informed, reasonable people that made that happen. It was Wikipedia and other major websites going dark and essentially sending the message “STOP SOPA OR NO MORE WIKIPEDIA/LOLCATS FOR YOU”, lighting a fire under the typical web user to get pissed off in their representatives’ direction.

Or a much more important example, the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and the student activists of the 1960’s were not just nice and reasonable people, they were extremely shrewd about the media of their day and the rhetoric that they used. They picked their battles very carefully to have the maximum emotional impact.

That is what I thought of when I read the following line in The Information Diet:

As much as I’d like to use the political skills I’ve learned in the past 10 years to drive a traditional campaign, doing so would go against the principles of the book.

Call me cynical, but I tend to think that if the problems that Johnson thinks are solvable do get solved, it will be because some very effective propagandists and rhetoriticians get behind it. It won’t be because people are suddenly more reasonable and informed, and decide en masse to get behind the solving of practical problems.

That’s just my instinct. It doesn’t help that I went to a grad school that distinguished itself in the field of Public Choice theory, which tends to make you skeptical of the notion that a more informed populace translates into better policy outcomes.

I should also say that I’m skeptical of the hypothesis that things are so much worse and so much more polarized than they were in the past. I think the fact that we all share this big information space called the Internet means we’re exposed to the loud and angry among us much more than we used to be. I also think that technological change and an increased overall wealth now allows us to support the Fox News’ and MSNBC’s–the Krispy Kreme donuts of information intake–rather than the bland mass products of old like CBS News. But I don’t really think those bland mass products were any better for us.

A Book Worth Reading

So I don’t really think a good information diet is going to save democracy, but I do think that there are big benefits to be had by taking the time to scrutinize your information diet. Johnson made me think not just about the content I consume, but the amount of time I spent obsessively checking for updates.

The Information Diet is, for me personally, exactly the kind of meal I need to have more often in my own information diet. It challenged my perspective on a number of margins but was reasonable and inoffensive while doing so. More than anything, it made me think. It also introduced me to interesting tools like EveryBlock.

I really can’t recommend this book enough. It’s only 160 pages long and very well written. I got more out of reading it than I have from books three times its length.

Once you’ve read it, I recommend Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics as a good companion piece. It’s even shorter than The Information Diet and is an excellent guide to sorting the sense from the nonsense.