The Book as a Social Signal

Thrice in recent memory, a stranger has come up to speak to me because of the cover of a book. Within the three great introvert institutions built by the book: the cafe, the library and the bookstore, book covers serve as social signals. They are ice-breakers par excellence. Or were. I recently bought the austerely cover-free Kindle.


From Wikimedia commons, GFDL

I am among those who celebrate the possibilities of the Kindle, but I have to acknowledge the dark side. With apologies to Joni Mitchell, we’ve digitized paradise, put up a plastic box. Finishing my first full Kindle-read, I realized with a sinking sadness that I was not holding a fringe toy. For all its rough edges, the Kindle is a legitimate book-killer, and it will prevail. In time, it will catalyze the formation of its own institutions and social-psychological landscape, complete with different social signals. But it will be too late for me. I am the sum total of the books I’ve read. Paper books with covers, with associated memories of intimate bookish conversations triggered by glimpses of covers. With the paper book, a part of me will die. I can imagine having a conversation with an 18-year-old Kindleworm in 2025. He will probably view me with the same incomprehension with which I, as a calculator-trained engineer, view 50-plus slide-rule-trained engineers.

This is my first stab at finding a short-format style that works for me. 250 words. What do you think? Still ribbonfarmesque?

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. This was great. I don’t think I’ve ever seen your minimalist side before, apart from cooking.

  2. Yes, seeing what people are reading at the airport gives me a pulse on what people care about. While we’re increasing signals across distances (twitter, FB, etc.), the proximal info signals are decreasing.

  3. In Japan, most people read during their long train commute. Their book covers are hidden under a beige paper envelope supplied by the bookstore (you have to insist for them not to wrap your new purchase). Some people have fancy book covers in leather. You can read/glance over your ride-neighbour shoulder, but starting a conversation… Not observed.

    I really like your short format.

  4. Interesting point. The Kindle is a utilitarian object with few, if any, social aspects. But we know social networking matters. Could the next version of the kindle include a kind of broadcast that will tell other kindle’s nearby what you’re reading?

    The sharing aspects of bluetooth technology turned out to be a privacy and hacking nightmare, but there’s a reason why they were initially popular. Whattaya think?

    btw: I am not yet 50 years old and I remember being taught to use a sliderule. After civilization is destroyed by the great EMP god, people like me will rule!

  5. sharath rao says

    Hi Venkat,

    What about conversations that did not take place by people put off by the book cover ?

    So then its quite possible that some conversations will be triggered simply because strangers now don’t know what you are reading. At least in the early few years of kindle :-)

    Generally enjoy your blog !

  6. This post was short and to the point. I would still have preferred a longer format, however I’m just glad that you still regularly post with wit and insightful writing.


  7. Interesting Venkat! It was such a meaningful and concise conversationesque post :). Felt like Alankrita and I spoke and then stared at the setting sun!

    Sinking feeling – if books were to just disappear! Haven’t had a chance to see the Kindle yet, but it fits into the Tamil “kindle”…it is a teaser for someone who has grown up with paper books :)

    Liked your short format…but don’t make it a habit!

  8. Interesting post… If so there’ll be also a great potential for “social browsing”. (more: I like the “short” format)

  9. 3 comments from ruby programmers. Interesting.

    @John: So the Japanese find even the minor ostentation of book covers tasteless? That shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. How do intellectual poseurs show off in Japan? Or are they lynched if they even try? :)

    @otoburb @Erik @manju: am thinking of product-testing the short format through August, and making it a regular size if I am able to sustain it without sliding into fluff. But epic-size posts will continue :). But yeah, slippery slope to be wary of. 5-day Test cricket didn’t think one-day cricket would come to dominate it, and one-dayers didn’t think Twenty20 games would cannibalize them.

    @carlo … do you mean geolocal social browsing (eg. bluetooth range) or just general social browsing (twitter etc.) online? As Ed points out, long-range signaling is thriving. It is <50 feet that is suffering.

    @irv I think a lot of entrepreneurs will try that bluetooth-range inter-Kindle social dynamics thing, but I suspect most will fail for being too direct. Social signaling works (I think) when the signal has a primary purpose that has nothing to do with signaling. A book cover is primarily meant for buyer selection. A Lexus is primarily a car. University-logo emblazoned t-shirts/hats are primarily clothing. Signals for the sake of signals are too overt to work I think, since they would defeat the purpose by signaling a subtext of social desperation. Indirect signals via other activities like games might work. Starbucks using a bluetooth scheme to run a “most books read at this location” rankings list, that displays on a board and wins free coffees. I suspect I’d win in my local Starbucks, but there are a few regulars who’d come close. I’ve never spoken to them, but I see them often, with books. And lately, Kindles.

    @sharath Hmm… hadn’t thought of the “conversations that didn’t happen” effect. No thoughts on that yet. But would you really approach a stranger reading a Kindle and ask “What are you reading?” the way you would feel comfortable doing with a friend? Covers provide an opening…

    @ed Do you know if there is any known correlation between digital degrees-of-freedom distance and physical distance once work/school cohorts disperse? Increasingly though, my social graph proximal neighborhood is filling up with people I’ve never met physically.

  10. Regarding post length: Notice how many responses you get for the shorter posts. I think many of your posts are so complex that people are to intimidated to comment, for fear they’ve misunderstood. That, plus your tendency to ‘clarify’ your posts in responses that tend to imply you’ve been misread. If it’s comments you want, shoot for 17 syllables and the world might be yours!

    Regarding book covers: Just as there are skins for laptops, ipods, etc., I think that saran-wrap style kindle-skins (skindles?) may be the answer, certainly a lot less trouble than temporary tattoos on the forearm.

    Keep up the short work!

  11. I love the short post format, would love to hear more from you like this.

  12. LOL@ Katsushika. You are right about my tendency to ‘clarify.’ Bad habit. But price of putting out long beta thoughts.

    But no, it isn’t just quantity of comments that I look for. I suppose I mainly look to ‘elevate the discourse.’ One meaty comment is worth 10 “good job!” content-free comments. And there is of course the fact that some ideas just take much longer to explore than others.

    16 syllables. I have no talent in that range I think.

  13. Totally worked for me. You can bring out the longer, intense stuff every so often, but this was great. Really liked it.
    Winzipification? :-)

  14. Yup, with the Kindle, you just can’t judge the book by its cover, can you! That said, until the novelty wears off, guess we’re likely to continue coming across the “so what’s on your Kindle today” type ice-breaker conversations. I am sure the day is not far when the Kindle or one of it’s brethren would start sporting digital book covers, thereby satiating the “books one would like to be seen reading”

    Sure, a shorter length ‘ribbon’ like this, thrown in every once in a while does add flavor to the farm :)

  15. Oh man, talk about peer pressure. Lots more people tuned in at low amplitude high frequency bands.

    @jeremy I wouldn’t call this ‘winzipification’ of ideas in the sense you and I have discussed. I am not compressing a bigger thought, but sharing a small ‘seed’ thought that (hopefully) can grow into many different bigger thoughts in different thinkers’ minds.

    @pradheep Would digital ‘display’ book covers work? or would they be too direct/obvious?

  16. Really like the short format Venkat. Good thoughts on the Kindle and the “passing” of books. Is it just our age that makes us sad for things that are changing? The next generation will have something different to love about reading and writing … I just returned from a couple days exploring Monticello and have the sweep of history on my mind, all the changes since the early 1800s plus all the ways we are coming full circle back again.

  17. Indeed.. Digital display book covers is exactly where I was going with my comment… It may even bring about the flexibility to display a cover that is different from the actual book being read – just in case the person reading the book is suddenly overcome by the desire to throw his audience off guard :)

  18. Like the shorter post format. Definitely think it remains ribbonfarmesque. I read the blog for its depth and density. Sometimes these qualities are conincident with length (or even require it), but not always. And sometimes the density of a post is in its ability to spark deeper consideration and/or conversation rather than to cover a concept exhaustively. This seems like a good example of the “spark” kind of post. I enjoy it all. Many thanks.

  19. Two observations:

    Yes, good sparks sprinkled
    Amidst epic posts at times
    Ribbon-esque enough.

    And at other times:

    Start with Pascal quote:
    For this post I have no time
    To make it shorter.

    “I am the sum total of the books I’ve read.”

    This reminded me of a ,ghazal sung by Hariharan:

    Main khayaal hoon kisi aur ka
    Mujhe sochta koi aur hai
    Sar-e-aaina mera aks hai
    Pas-e-aaina koi aur hai

    My rough translation:

    I am the thought of someone else
    I am thought of by someone else
    In front of the mirror is my reflection
    Behind the mirror is someone else.

  20. Venkat, summarizing electronic books using a memetic drift of J. Mitchell’s lyric works on so many levels, it should become the rallying cry of the literary Luddites. Books, bookshelves and personal libraries (of all media, including music and movies) are dis-appearing from view, fully encapsulated in general- and special-purpose digital devices.
    “we’ve digitized paradise, put up a plastic box” may be one of the most brilliantly nuanced phrases I’ve ever read.
    This site is rapidly becoming one of my daily visit.

  21. The bigger social signal is the bookshelf. Glancing at someone’s bookshelf, and a minute’s conversation about its contents can tell you more about a person in less time than anything I know.

    What will this entail in the Kindle age? Perhaps we should adopt the model of game hunters, removing all the flesh and pulpy bits and mounting the skin. Amazon should sell dust jackets.