Saturday, October 03, 2009

Privacy is a Funny Thing

Privacy resurged to the forefront of public debate after 9/11, and one of the more chilling examples was reports of the FBI trying to strong-arm libraries into handing over people's library records without a warrant. This was kinda dumb, since warrants are handed out like candy, and the Patriot Act forbids anyone getting such a warrant from making that fact public. It was even more dumb if you know anything about librarians; these are folks who've spent a lot of time thinking about why they're in the library business -- they don't go into it to get rich.

With that backdrop, you would think it's nuts to create a startup that relies on people being willing to give up privacy about their reading habits. But that's just what Library Thing does. Library Thing is one of the most successful book cataloging sites. You create an account for yourself, and start entering the books you have on your shelf. You don't have to expose your collection to others, but most people do. That's interesting. Why is that?

There are "social" features built in to Library Thing to encourage you to abandon the same privacy you would shriek to see your librarian surrendering on your behalf. You can see who-all owns the same book you do, or even who has "similar" collections (fat chance for me; since Paula and I are sharing an account, we are only "similar" to people who are experts in psychology, programming, and astrophysics).

But I think the basic motivation to abandon privacy is simpler. If you're going to go to the trouble to enter all your books in some digital list, you're probably a bibliophile, or at least suffering the early stages of the disease. In other words, Library Thing implicitly selects people who are invested in and proud of their book collections. Not to mention, people who have so many books that they have experienced the embarrassment of bringing home a new purchase only to find they already own it -- a disappointment Library Thing can help you avoid by letting you use your cell phone to check to see if you already own a particular book.

Library Thing lets you control your own privacy, but in some sense, simply makes it "cool" to abandon your privacy. There certainly is a Tom Sawyer component here: c'mon, tediously enter all your books, put them on display to others, and I'll let you pay me for the privilege! I'm bought in at this point because the interface is tolerable, export/import seems to work (not going to enter data I can't move elsewhere), $25 for lifetime service is cheap, and I really, really hate staring at a book at Half-Price Books and wondering if I already own it or not.

You can watch me helping Library Thing whitewash their fence by checking periodically here. By entering a shelf per week, I predict we'll have the entire collection entered before the end of 2011.


Vince A said...


The first 3 pages of your book list showed one book I have in common with you (plural you) -- the Dragon book.

I did notice several books which I have in my to-buy list: Polya, Cialdini, Kahneman (to read), and Hammond/Raiffa.

I also noticed you have a few interesting titles related to Decision Making, which I currently have an interest in. At least 4 of them I haven't heard of before.

Which decision-making books are your (or Paula's) favourites?

Ron Burk said...

Can't cite a favorite decision-making book because I haven't written that chapter yet, so I haven't read that section (so if you end up liking some I don't have, I hope you'll email me a pointer). Although I have some random notes for a chapter on... something (possibly called problem-solving), structure and scope are not made flesh yet. It's a fuzzy enough category to be fun. For example, Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice and that ilk could be categorized as relevant to decision-making, since they are really about how bad we are at choosing what will make us happy. The more mathematically minded decision-making texts generally overlook the fact that we often lack the ability to gauge what a future decision is worth to us -- even while we feel strongly that's not true.

I have read Judgment Under Uncertainty just because it's a classic and Tversky is a co-author. Tversky is one of those quirky "geniuses" (a hateful word once you study brain development/potential) of psychology, like Knuth pouinding away on his organ while his secretary prints out his email for him to read, or Dijkstra insisting on writing his works with pen and ink, forcing future CS students to waste enormous time digitizing them for future generations.

It's generally agreed that Tversky would have got the Nobel prize along with Kahneman for this work if he had not died. One co-worker remembered him by stating that he judged the intelligence of new department members by how long it took them to realize that Amos was much smarter than they were.