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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Pretty (Useless)

posted by on June 26 at 13:00 PM

Zoomii seems to be an interface that makes Amazon look like a giant bookstore. It’s actually pretty neat, and it removes one of my major complaints about Amazon: the fact that there’s no random discovery. By having all the covers next to each other, there’s more of randomness at play in the process of looking a book up. When I look up a book on Amazon, the last thing I want to see is another book that’s more of the same, but that’s all that they offer.

But then, since 90% of all books are crap*, that kind of makes the Zoomii search frustrating, too. Just like a real bookstore!

* This is why I’m the books editor, incidentally. I firmly believe that 99% of everything—music and movies and television, for example—is complete bullshit, but that only 90% of books suck. That’s why books are the best thing ever.

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1

When you're in a book store looking at one book, the next book you see is going to be what the bookstore chose to place nearby. It is not random, it is what they thought belonged with the surrounding books.

At any online retailer, the related/similar items they show you are chosen by someone or some algorithm because they too are thought to belong together. There are actually even greater opportunities for serendipity online, because multiple avenues of similarity are possible: subject, author, genre, date, reading level, etc. Physical shelves can only group books by one dimension.

It's actually far more random to mistype a subject or title or author title while searching, or just get a list of search matches for similarly titles that span a large range of subjects. And random crap is more likely to annoy you than inspire you.

Posted by elenchos | June 26, 2008 1:13 PM
2

I only checked it out for a couple of minutes, but it was more fun than browsing at Amazon...

Posted by Matthew | June 26, 2008 1:17 PM
3

Even though I was drunk, and at that point probably stoned, I remember talking about that with you a few months ago at Slog Happy. Yay Sturgeon's Law (or Revelation, depending on who you ask).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon%27s_law

Posted by NaFun | June 26, 2008 1:46 PM
4

Neat website. Just going through the top-300 I found a lot of interesting stuff.

Posted by Ryan | June 26, 2008 1:52 PM
5

@3
it's totally sturgeon's law. and he was right!
his writing is beautiful too.

Posted by ultimate egoist | June 26, 2008 2:14 PM
6

Elenchos, you write that like someone who doesn't spend enough time in real bookstores or libraries. Shelf browsing in a properly organized place is incredibly serendipitous, in a way that online browsing COULD be, theoretically, but never is in practice.

Amazon's data entry standards are abysmal, and their categories are shockingly lame. If they have a category you want, it has hundreds of thousands of items in it, too many to browse; and if they don't, as is almost always the case, you'll never find what you want unless you're lucky. To give an example: Australian Aboriginal Art, a special interest of mine. You could spend weeks poking around Amazon and not be able to identify the key works in the field, amid all the dross you will be forced to look at, at the speed of molasses.

That's another factor: speed. I can browse a library shelf from end to end in seconds; it's a specialized skill, but it can be developed. I can pick the misfiled book out of ANY library shelf in less than a minute, whether I've seen it before or am familiar with the subject or not. At Amazon, I have to wade slowly and painfully through oceans of horrible Flash garbage. Even on the miracle chance that I've hit a stretch of Amazon that isn't completely filled with data entry errors, it's ridiculously slow -- and getting slower all the time, because the faster the typical connection speed, the more gunk they are able to load onto the pages. Amazon is slower for me now, on a cable internet connection, than it was when I first looked at it many years ago on dialup.

And they show you ten books a page. Seriously, in a well-stocked library (i.e., not a branch of SPL) I can gather an armload or two of material from ten different call numbers by shelf-browsing in the time it takes to track down and order three books at Amazon.

Interestingly, the only part of Amazon that really works are the automated social-networking bits, the "other people who bought X also bought Y" -- which works, sometimes, for things that are very popular. But it has a LONG way to go.

A while back I was looking for books in the general category of "memoirs of growing up in the Grim North of England (or Scotland) in the 50s, 60s or 70s", along the lines of Stuart Maconie's "Pies and Prejudice". A good library or bookstore will provide virtually every known example in no time; Amazon.co.uk fares moderately OK; and Amazon.com is abysmal. Even at finding books I already know about it fails, so I know it's failing on others I don't.

No substitute for shelf-browsing. Never will be. It expands the mind much in the same way reading the thesaurus does.

Posted by Fnarf | June 26, 2008 2:48 PM
7

I've found good things I wasn't originally looking for online, sometimes even at Amazon. If you've never once had that happen online, I suspect stubbornness. Perhaps for some users, it never will.

But some bookstores are uninspiring, to say the least. So the key is whether it is done well.

When I hear claims that an old medium "expands the mind" and so on, while a new medium makes you dull, it sounds quite familiar to me. They said that about radio, and TV, and recorded music and movies and everything, pretty much. Supposedly the younger generation would be uncreative and unable to solve problems and unemployable. Yet that's not how it turned out.

No doubt something is lost while something is gained. That's change. But I wouldn't go overboard.

Posted by elenchos | June 26, 2008 3:06 PM
8

@7 something is lost while something is gained....

...in living every day.

Is it "use song lyrics in your post" day at Slog and nobody told me?

I don't care what they do online to make it seem more like a "real" bookstore. Until they add smell and touch it won't seem the same to me. That's not to say I don't use Amazon, because I do, often, as my UPS driver can attest.

Posted by PopTart | June 26, 2008 3:43 PM
9

Sure you lose something and gain something, but library cataloging is different. It has to do with shades of meaning. ORGANIZED shades of meaning. Go to any library catalog and browse, not by title, but by call number instead, and you'll see what I mean -- you can see the categories shift and overlap as shades of meaning come in and out. The beauty of it is, it doesn't depend on good cataloging -- most cataloging work is piss-poor, actually. But it doesn't matter, because the system is so beautiful that it brings out the meaning anyways. That's why I compared it to Roget's (not those horrible alphabetical thesauruses).

I have sometimes found things I wasn't looking for online. But I find a hundred things I wasn't looking for EVERY TIME I look in a library catalog or shelf.

I'm still sticking to my Australian Aboriginal Art example, because it demonstrates what I mean: on Amazon, searching for that term results in a complete mishmash of useful and practically-worthless books, and NONE of the ones that are the real stars of recent scholarship are anywhere near the top. It's a terrible, terrible search result.

On this Zoomii thing, you get "no results"; and if you broaden it to just "art" you get a page of horsecrap that has nothing to do with art, including a book by Antonin Scalia (WTF?), "The Art of War", "The Art of Public Speaking", "The Art of Raising A Puppy" and "Champions Body For Life". It is, apparently, complete shit.

Posted by Fnarf | June 26, 2008 4:15 PM
10

OK, here's the thing: Zoomie has what looks like a thousand books or fewer. It's worse than your average mall B. Dalton. Yuck.

Posted by Fnarf | June 26, 2008 4:25 PM

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