Reading over our shoulders: Amazon shares Kindleers’ highlighting

Reading over our shoulders: Amazon shares Kindleers’ highlighting

You know how reading seems like a private experience?  Maybe you’ve been involved in a good book somewhere public…on a bus, on a park bench.  You get that kind of creepy feeling, and you realize that someone is looking over your shoulder, reading your book.  Isn’t your natural inclination to twist slightly, turn in your seat, rotate your hand a bit…so they can’t see it?

On the other hand, have you ever made somebody listen while you read a paragraph out of a book you found especially amusing or enlightening?  Have you ever sent somebody a favorite quotation from a book…or just quoted it from memory?

I certainly do the latter…share quotes from books.  I love quotations, and I plan to do a book of them at some point.  I’ve even started to put some out in another blog of mine, The Measured Circle.

On the other hand, I don’t hide what I’m reading if somebody joins me.  I’ve even made the book easier to read, and tried to judge if I’m turning the pages too quickly.  However, I might be unusual in that.  🙂

I suggested in an earlier post some ways that e-books might become more interactive experiences.   The fact that they are (or can be) connected to the web opens up a lot of fascinating possibilities.

Amazon has recently implemented two new web-enabled elements to Kindles.  One is here now: the ability to see the most highlighted books and passages.  The second one comes when you get the latest update: the ability to tweet passages (share them on Twitter) and add them to your Facebook page…directly from the Kindle.

Let’s take a look at these two.

A tiger at the (aggre)Gates?

Amazon is already listing the most popular highlighted books and passages.  You can see those at

Amazon Kindle site

There is certainly some interesting data there for sociologists and marketers.

Before we look at some of that data, we have to ask: what does it mean when someone highlights a section?  Do they do that because they like what it says?  Do they do it because they want to share it with others?  Do they simply do it to make it easy to find again?

My guess is that all of those are true some of the time.  If you think you might have trouble remembering who someone is, you might highlight the section that introduces that person.  Yes, you could just bookmark the page (Alt+B works), but you can see your highlights without jumping around in the book, so you can be much more specific about what is the important point.   That doesn’t mean you think the writing is particularly good, just that you want to get back to it again quickly.

I’ve even deliberately highlighted errors in a book, so I could send them to the publisher for correction in future editions.  That doesn’t mean I particularly liked that part, of course.

That said, you can look at several things at the site:

  • All time most highlighted books
  • All time most highlighted passages
  • Recently “heavily highlighted” books
  • Recently “heavily highlighted” passages
  • All the popular highlights in a given book
  • All the highlighted books for a given author (and then the highlights in those books)
  • If you click on an author, you’ll also see highlighted sections in books not by that author that mention her or him

That last one is particularly fascinating to me.   One obvious enhancement is for Amazon to let us search for words within the popular highlights.  That could let us discover a lot of books!  For example, you might want to find all of the popular mentions of…Benjamin Disraeli.  From there, you certainly might buy a book that had a particularly good (and popular) reference.

I tried doing it with Google, by the way…it might just need a day to index, but I didn’t get any results using a site search.

 The most highlighted book of all time (so far) was the biggest e-book* of last year, a fiction title, but a dense one.  Was it more highlighted because it was so popular?  Or were people really trying to track things more?

The most popular passage in it was highlighted by 898 Kindleers.  They show ten passages, the least popular having been highlighted by 265 Kindleers.   Interestingly for a title with significant Christian themes, the total count right now is 6636. 

The second most highlighted book is the Holy Bible (NIV), published by Zondervan.  Again, I get ten passages, so I’m guessing that’s the maximum number displayed.  The highest is 202, the bottom 82, with a total of only 1381.  Gee, you remember that remark John Lennon made about the Beatles’ popularity?  😉

For the third one, there are ten passages…but some of the individual passages are higher than the Bible ones in count!  There’s a single passage with over 1400 highlightings.

Obviously, the most highlighted rationale isn’t as obvious as it might be.  😉  It may be that there are many highlightings per book that we aren’t seeing.  There might be fewer Kindleers highlighting that Bible, but highlighting many more things.

If we look at the most highlighted passages, that’s where we can see some of that impact.  Five of the most highlighted are from the #3 most highlighted book, three are from the #1 most highlighted book, and none are from the Bible.

I started digging around to see how far it would go.  When I looked at passages, I got as high as 130,790…and the lowest number of Kindleers who had marked it was 3. 

My guess is that if three people highlighted a passage, it gets on the list.

A couple of navigation tips: when you find a highlight, you’ll see the name of the book and the author highlighted.  Clicking either of those will bring you to the highlights with them in it.

Ooh, here’s a great tip!  I just figured this one out!  I’m so excited…

You can enter your own keywords.

For example, I did this:

That found me books by the author Charles Fort. 

Shucks, when I clicked on them, though, no highlightings.  😦

Sadly, I’ve seen this:

“There isn’t enough highlighting in this book to show Popular Highlights.”

If I put in a single word, like this:

I seem to just find books with that in the title (although when I put in “Kindle”, I got some of Amazon’s public domain titles as well…maybe it says “Kindle edition” in some hidden manner?).

Interesting stuff!

Is it an invasion of privacy?

I’ve already seen threads in the Amazon Kindle community that suggest this.

It’s a matter of opinion, of course, but my opinion is no.

It’s simply aggregate data…it doesn’t identify what you are highlighting, it shows what we are highlighting. 

It’s no different, in my eyes, than when Amazon tells you that “people who bought this also bought this”.  That’s the same thing, aggregate data. 

Do you mind if a book you bought gets on the bestselling list?  That’s basically the same thing.  When a brick-and-mortar store reported the sale of a book you bought, they didn’t report to the New York Times who bought it, right?

If you really want to opt out, you can…but that also opts you out of Amazon backing up your highlights for you.  If your Kindle is lost/stolen/dies, you would lose your notes as well.  On your Kindle, you can turn that on and off at Home-Menu-Settings.

This also makes me think that it is only going to be books you get from the Kindle store: Amazon doesn’t back up the ones you get from other places, and I assume the number crunching at their end is on their website, not on individual Kindles.

Oh, after I did that digging around, I did see that it is a minimum of three highlighters.  🙂  That was on this Help page:

Amazon highlighting help

 You can also see these highlightings on your Kindle itself.  Personally, I don’t think I’d like this.  I don’t want underlinings in my book that I didn’t do.  Some people like that in paperbooks, but I like my books pristine.  🙂

Once you have the 2.5 update (you can always do Home-Menu-Settings to see your current version at the bottom of the screen), you’ll be able to hit Menu with a book open to choose to see popular highlights in that book (they’ll have a gray dashed underline).  I don’t know if you’ll be able to ask the Kindle to show you all of them, like you can with your own notes & highlights (by using the Menu).

To turn it on and off for all books, it’s Home-Menu-Settings, and you’ll see a Popular Highlights choice.

One other question I have: what about profanity?  There are some really raunchy Kindle books out there…if it only takes a couple of thousand people to make something a “most highlighted passage”, I wonder if they’ll be showing up on that list?  Will they “censor” it?  They do keep adult material off the bestseller lists at Amazon, I believe.  UPDATE: I just thought of a book where I could check this, and an inappropriate word was visible…

Twitter and Facebook

So, that’s the situation when it is just in the aggregate.  But what if you want to tweet (send via Twitter) a passage, or put in on your Facebook page?

With the 2.5 update, you’ll be able to do that directly from your Kindle.

First, you’ll need to have a Twitter or Facebook account.

Then, you’ll be on your Kindle and go to Home-Menu-Settings, and choose Manage next to Social Networks.  You’ll follow the instructions to link the account.

When you are creating a note or making a highlight, there will be a new option to “save & share” (I hereby name sending a passage to Twitter “klipentweet”).  🙂 

With an existing note or highlighting, you’ll be able to use

Alt+ENTER (the arrow that looks like it hit the ground and broke)

This is a very different process than shared highlights…you are choosing what to send.  Note also that you’ll be able to send notes…not just highlights.  You could have all your Facebook friends see your speculation about what was happening in the mystery at a certain point…or make jokes about hokey dialogue (a la Mystery Science Theatre 3000).   I’m not sure how it will relate it to the actual text if it is a note, though.

I think this could be a huge feature, in terms of cultural impact.  It would be an easy way to share notes (or cheat) about a class assignment.  A tweeted passage could certainly make you want to buy the book (and I assume the link will be there, just like it does on the shared highlights page.

Maybe later on, we’ll have this:

“Did you read the book?”

“I don’t think so…I did read the tweets, though.”


* I’m not naming the biggest e-book of 2009 because it is from a company that blocks text-to-speech access.  I’m also not 100% sure it was the biggest, but I think so.

 This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

4 Responses to “Reading over our shoulders: Amazon shares Kindleers’ highlighting”

  1. tuxgirl Says:

    One thing I thought was interesting on the page is that I can pull up the highlights for a book that I read (and highlighted), and see my highlights interspersed with other people’s highlights. I was kind-of curious if there was a good way to add someone else’s highlights to mine, actually, because on one of my books, one of the popular highlights was something I like a lot. (It was my first kindle book, and I don’t think I figured out the highlighting until part-way through)

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks, tuxgirl!

      I haven’t had time to explore that yet…I didn’t actually log into the site when I wrote the article, I did it all as an anonymous user. I will be checking things out more, though.

  2. Brian Says:

    This is so freakin bad, I don’t even know polite ways to describe my complete pissed-offed-ness. My highlights, made public? And you can’t get Bradbury? It does seem to meld into WTF? Sorry, Bufo,, usually I’m more erudite, but this one really gets me…………………….

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Brian!

      I don’t think Amazon does a good job of anticipating people’s reactions. They certainly have made missteps in the area of what people consider personal. The removal of the Orwell book is a perfect example. The story goes that Amazon had accidentally made a book available outside of the legal jurisdiction for which it was intended (that’s the way the publisher tells it, anyway). Amazon had broken the law, and they took a step to remedy that. Eventually, the people involved actually made a profit on it, since Amazon compensated them more than they had spent.

      But people were mad! That decision still haunts Amazon…people still comment on it.

      I have no problem with this one, but a lot of people will agree with you.

      It’s not yourhighlight: it takes three people highlighting the same thing before it gets shared. You aren’t identified. As I mentioned in the post, to me it’s the same as my purchasing a book affecting where it is on the bestseller list.

      But I know a lot of people won’t see it that way. 🙂

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