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For this installment of the How We Will Read series we chatted with comedian and author Baratunde Thurston (@baratunde on Twitter). A man once called “someone I need to know” by Barack Obama, Baratunde has been an internet pioneer of political satire and comedy for years. He is an author, a standup comedian, a lecturer, and even a television host. Baratunde’s playfulness using digital media to tell stories and connect people is legendary…from holding a real-world rally to maintain his Foursquare mayorship, to sharing his computer’s desktop to the public while writing his recent book How To Be Black. Among other real and imaginary positions of importance, he has served as Director of Digital at The Onion and co-founded popular black political blog Jack and Jill Politics. Read on to find out why Baratunde hates hardcover books and how he hacked a hashtag into his own book.
How has reading become more social for you?
I’ve experimented with the bookshelf app on Facebook that will capture everything I’ve ever read and just rate books. I did all that and then I didn’t use it. And I did it with GoodReads. I got into GoodReads years ago. It was a community of really intentional readers, sort of like Artisanal Reader World. If there were farmer’s markets for books, the people on GoodReads would be the ones to shop there. [laughs] Again I didn’t stick to the service, I invested a bunch of time and rated a bunch of things and then stopped. So the way I find books is mostly through what my friends write (I have a lot of writer friends), and books that I hear about through conversation, whether it’s online or offline.
How do you read books today?
Almost always digitally. I feel about hardcover books the way I feel about phone calls. There is a burden associated with receiving a book. Like when you get that phone call and you wonder “Is this an emergency, did someone die? You couldn’t have used an asynchronous form of communication? You really want me NOW?” So when someone gives me a book, I’m grateful, but it’s kind of like giving me a CD. Now I have to convert this.
Plus, I live in an New York apartment. Space is the most valuable thing in my life. Time is money, space is money, too. Plus, I travel all the time. I use a Macbook Air and I’m given a book which does 1/1000th of what that computer does and weighs twice as much and takes up five times as much space.
Where do you discuss what you read?
I do not engage in book clubs. I think they’re racist and fascist and anti-earth. [laughs] No, I just have never been a part of a formal book club. I do talk about what I’m reading. I post my thoughts about what I’m reading online in Facebook and in Twitter, and I share some of those quotes. I’m a big fan of the pull quote…finding some really juicy nugget and boom! Toss it out as a provocation and see how people react. And I do that even with articles I’m reading. That’s how I use Instapaper. I rarely tweet out an article I’m reading, I tweet out a quote from the article I’m reading.
I let the world come to me, mostly. I look mostly at my feeds, and whatever’s happening in those feeds. If something bubbles up that looks interesting I save it. I have If This Then That programmed to push favorited tweets to Instapaper, and then when I’m on flights I load up my Instapaper and read. I also talk to people a lot. I have a very new app, it’s called “Conversation”. [laughs] It’s really immersive. It’s high touch, high impact. I think there’s a future in it, but it doesn’t scale very well. When I think about other ways I discover or share my reading process, I notice it’s mostly passive. Rarely do I ask “What do I need to read right now?”
Is that because now there’s so much to read you don’t even have to ask the question?
With books, I think because the time it takes to read a book I’m never short on material. It’s really about prioritizing what I read next. I probably have fifteen books on my Kindle that I haven’t read! It’s so easy to buy them, but you can’t consume them fast enough.
I’m also a big audiobook person. I grew up listening to books on tape, like actual cassette. I’d go to the public library to get them through from middle school all the way through college, and then shifted to CD’s. Then when Audible came out I died and went to heaven. I have books in Audible, I have books in my Kindle, I have all kinds of queues. I get into certain media consumption modes. Like, I’ll want an immersive long form reading experience, so will focus on that and shift away from Instapaper articles and the New York Times and just read a book. Same with audio, I’m either into a bunch of podcasts for a couple of weeks or I pick a book. And I occasionally deviate from the book for one or two critical weekly podcasts that I think make me a smarter and a better citizen.
Do you read more fiction or non-fiction?
Much more non-fiction, but there are some fiction books. I’m in Game of Thrones right now. I’ll read a chunk of a series and then go to a different book to mix it up. Epic tales…that’s what I love in books. I, Robot series. Foundation series. Dark Tower series. I love series, including in television. The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Killing…those long arc TV shows. The reason I love those is because they’re like books. They keep you going…it’s like watching a book in a way a movie doesn’t. It’s too tight, 90 minutes isn’t enough time.
The beauty of series is that they exist counter to the instant, tweetable, gratification that we are obsessed with. To invest the time into watching all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica, or reading all 16 books of the Left Behind series, or Game of Thrones…it’s such a counter-intuitive investment to make. But I think because we have such short attention spans, thanks to our devices and general media model, there’s a piece of all of us that craves a long form tale. We crave the idea of sitting around a fire listening to a storyteller weave this magical thing. And that’s how I feel about books, though TV has become more book-like.
Where do you see print going?
Print is becoming a specialty. A novelty. A vanity. It’s things that end in -ty mostly. [laughs] It doesn’t make a lot of sense, given planetary resources, given inefficiencies, to force the maintenance of a physical distribution model for most book reading. As an author who has gone through the process…it is painfully delayed in so many ways. I was in London just yesterday and stopped by Waterstone’s book store in Trafalgar Square. “Do you have my book?” “No we’re out, but Picadilly has it.” You don’t go to Amazon and hear, “Oh port 80 can’t distribute the book right now, come back to Amazon next week.”
We’re beyond scarcity, and that is a known fact of the new world. What we do still have as a value is a visual social indicator physical books communicate that ebooks can’t…unless we had a display on the back for the cover of what you’re reading.
While you were writing How To Be Black, you shared your screen with the public as a kind of live social reading experience. What was that like?
A friend of mine sent me an email that I should use this screen-sharing service join.me to share my screen and let people watch as I write. And I wrote him back this really long message about how it would ruin the writing process, would be too invasive, and would turn the creation into performance…and by the end of this long rejection I said, “Yeah I wanna do it!” [laughs] I got my own custom join.me screen-sharing URL, cleared my desktop and put a little billboard that said “Welcome to the live writing experience. This is what I’m testing. Pre-order the book! (with a link)” And then I just wrote. There was a chatroom which created an instant community. It turned me into a platform for other people to connect. I made it clear “You’re not here to talk to me, but I’m an excuse for you to talk to each other.” That’s what’s so much of the world. Twitter is an excuse to connect. Facebook is an excuse to connect. So, I became a service, a platform for people, and that blew my mind. Plus there was stuff going on in the chatroom, “Oh this reminds me of that,” and “Oh my friend so-and-so told me about this thing.” So, not only are you giving people a generic reason to connect, you’re giving them a reason to share their version of your story…or see themselves in it. When I looked back over the logs there were a lot of personal stories emerging from that.
It’s like a having a comments section as you’re writing.
I just shifted the timeline. But it still was a social reading experience. I’ve seen other artists do this. Sculptors, specialty painters, visual artists…they will create in public. But I had not ever seen someone use screen sharing. Someone told me of an example from a while ago, like back in the typewriter days, of a writer sitting and writing in public. But you don’t get the chatroom. Using the web for that was not something I had ever come across.
How do you feel your audience is different for your book versus the web?
I don’t have book author analytics, but I know who reads my website. I go to Quantcast or Facebook stats. I know where they are and what their ages are and what languages they’re speaking. The book…I have a sense from only a few indicators. Twitter, Facebook, and the real world. Twitter is self-selected though: readers who also tweet about what they’re reading and do so in a way that I can see them. They must spell the title correctly, mention me, or use the book’s hashtag. We’re talking a funnel within a funnel within a funnel. So that’s going to lean heavily toward young, digital, probably male. People who post to Facebook are much fewer than Twitter. And then there are live events. When I go out into the world, physically, that’s my focus group. It’s speaking at Pratt Library in Baltimore, or doing a book party in Chicago, or running into people who just recognize me and say “Oh I read your book.” It’s like a real world tweet.
The book was supposed to come out in February 2011. That didn’t happen. Then they decided to push it to the fall of 2011. I proposed we split the publication, to come out with a digital-only book in February, because production-wise we could meet that. Then we’d follow it with a very special hardcover edition. But the publisher was really against it. And I was like, “But I’m a digital dude!” I literally yelled that at a meeting. My audience is connected to me through the internet mostly. I said, “We’ll do well. We’ll kill it.” And they said “No, you’re going to leave too many other readers behind.” And they were absolutely right. My sales are 50/50! There are too many people out there who need to read this book who would have never heard of it. Not everybody has a Kindle, not everybody has an iPad.
Speaking of which, how do you feel the rise of digital books versus physical books are affecting the digital divide?
You know, there is probably a Pew study on this. I have not seen anything in particular about ebook consumption by age, by race, by language. I would assume there’s a lower penetration of ebooks among black people, even though there’s a higher penetration of mobile devices than the general public. Mobile internet use is much higher. I have not anecdotally come across people who’ve read my book on a phone, nor do I have a sense whether more or fewer black folks are reading the book on a device. I will tell you the level of social digital conversation around this book by black people is very high. Because of Twitter, because black people run Twitter.
Black people run Twitter?
This is the hidden truth: black people dominate Twitter. The trending topics, the amount of mobile penetration of devices…study after study continues to prove that Twitter is disproportionately black. And if it’s a conversation around my book, I think it’s heavily black. I want to pull the avatars of all the people tweeting about the book, and view the shades of what those images generally are…assuming people are putting their faces up, you’d get a sense of the color line.
I came across a Twitter reading group because they mentioned me and I love myself. [laughs] So I looked at this thing Ninjas Be Reading (#NBR), and it was a heavily black hashtag-based reading group. So I joined in, and I took questions. They were like OMG we got the author! And I retweeted some of the best comments. It was so natural. Because of Twitter’s bias toward black out of proportion to the population leads me to think that social reading and cultural discussions around book objects or cultural objects by black people in general is high. There is a great market, a great opportunity there. That it is not leaving people behind, quite the opposite.
So does your book have an official hashtag?
#HowToBeBlack! In fact I went so far as to print it on the top of every other page, instead of the title. I hacked the book! This is the fun part, the playing. I worked at The Onion doing digital storytelling all these years, I’ve been flying through Twitter, doing Foursquare campaigns on the streets of New York. I love this. And the idea of doing a book was kind of counter to my general direction as a storyteller [makes a record-scratch noise] WHAT? Baratunde is writing a hardcover WHAT? [laughs] But, even within that framework I made room to put a hashtag on every other page to provoke a conversation. And it worked! That’s the beauty of it. People want to engage. It doesn’t mean they have to have a 3D immersive reading room that you walk into Second Life-style. It may be as simple as printing a hashtag on every page of your book to indicate that conversation it possible. Let the audience fill in the blanks. It’s not all high tech.
This interview was conducted by Findings co-founder Corey Menscher.