Thursday, November 10th, 2005

ISBNs work on Amazon.co.uk, etc. / ratings graph

It took a while, but I finally solved the issue with using ISBNs on non-US Amazon. Sorry it took so long.

I’ve added a user rating section to a book’s “social data.” Here’s the DaVinci Code‘s:

More fun data coming up!

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Tuesday, November 8th, 2005

The Christian Science Monitor does the LibraryThing

Tomorrow’s edition of The Christian Science Monitor includes the article “Do Your Own LibraryThing” by Jim Regan, already available online. It’s a sunny, detailed look at LibraryThing, “poised to turn the cataloging of books into a form of communal recreation.”

With luck some the article will spawn others, but I’m particularly happy they got to it first. The Monitor‘s a great newspaper—international, in-depth and analytical. It’s been knocked about a bit recently, but it has made great strides on the web. The LibraryThing article shows CM‘s strengths: instead of a glib focus on library-size competition or the seeming dominance of J. K. Rowling (see below), Regan describes the site in detail, like someone who’s actually used it. The reader can make up their own mind.

So, hats off to Regan and welcome to Monitor readers—send me an email and tell me what you think of it!

J. K. Rowling and the popularity myth

I’m going to set it to show more of the top authors for context. People do have a lot of Harry Potter books but people have a lot of books generally—Rowling is only 1/3 of a percent of the total. In fact, LibraryThing exposes the popularity myth. For example, while Dan Brown seems so popular right now, his 379 books are beaten by Umberto Eco’s 476 and trounced by Jane Austen’s 736. C. S. Lewis flings him down and dances on him—1,706!

When’s the last time you read a newspaper article entitled “Dan Brown is selling well this year, but it’s not that big a deal in context”?

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Tuesday, November 8th, 2005

Consultant hires engineer to make an “exact clone” of LibraryThing

Cole Consulting recently posted a request on GetAFreelancer.com for an engineer to produce “an exact clone” of LibraryThing, giving $100-300 as its desired price. An Indian engineer won the bid at $260. (The engineer gave his hourly as $10, which makes for 26 hours of programming. I wish him good luck with that!)

Some things for Mr. Cole to consider:

  • People can of course makes sites like LibraryThing in many ways, but an “exact clone” would certainly infringe on my intellectual property.
  • I have added a strong anti-reverse engineering clause to the terms of service. These terms are enforceable in New York and Texas (Cole’s whereabouts are variously given). I’m not sure about Amritsar.
  • LibraryThing is social software. You’d need to clone a lot more than the code…

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Sunday, November 6th, 2005

New: Tag pages and related tags

UPDATE: I also added a section for the “most recent books tagged xyz.” RSS feed to come.

At 10:42 Sunday evening, LibraryThing acquired its one millionth tag. (hapgood applied the tag writing to the book On Writer’s Block.) In celebration, I have added a new feature: tag info pages.

Tag info pages resemble the tag pages on Deli.cio.us (a new service people are calling “LibraryThing for websites”). A tag info page lays out who uses the tag, the books mostly frequently tagged with it and the tags “related” to the tag. I find tag info pages both vaguely pointless and wierdly fun.

Some examples: divination, short stories, glbt, humor (also humour, which is different*), chick lit, cthulhu, evolution, alexander the great, jesus, depression and slavery. Also check out some of the biggies, like fiction, science fiction, fantasy, history, religion and biography. Some of the personal tags are interesting too. Is it surprising that the Silmarillion is the top book in unread? What does it say that half the books in twaddle are about the French philosopher Derrida? (Okay okay, I’m the only one using that tag right now, I admit it.)**

As you can tell, it has a slightly different look than other LT pages. You’ll see this design spreading through LT gradually—less clutter, more info.

*Clay Shirky’s essay / talk “Ontology is Overated” has a section on why it doesn’t make sense to alias user metadata, taking LiveJournal’s movie and cinema groups as an example:

“The cataloguers first reaction to that is, ‘Oh my god, that means you won’t be introducing the movies people to the cinema people!’ To which the obvious answer is ‘Good! The movie people don’t want to hang out with the cinema people.’”

Humor vs. humor is another great example. America (the Book): A citizen’s guide to democracy inaction is “humor.” But How to be a Canadian, even if you already are one is definitely “humour.”

Incidentally, the cinema vs. movie thing holds up at LibraryThing. Cinema includes academic/critical works like There must be a Lone Ranger: The American West in film and in reality. Movies starts with The Princess Bride, presumably because it was made into a movie.

**Also see crap, junk, trash and even bullshit. Others are now jumping on the twaddle bandwagon. I need something new—piffle, balderdash, malarky?

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Saturday, November 5th, 2005

Rating improved; half-stars added

Update: It’s working on everything now. No errors, I rpomise.

I liked the way I stars worked, but I was in the minority. You no longer need to click five times to give a book five stars. Little gray dots now show up showing you where to click.

In another change, the system now allows half stars. I’m still torn on this topic. (Somehow it feels more choice made the decisions harder, not easier!) But big-time book blogger (and Classicist!) Debra Hamel wanted it, as did some others.

It’s pointless to explain something like this. Just fiddle with it. You’ll find one click makes a star, another makes a half star, a third zeroes-out the stars. Incidentally, everyone said I should copy iTunes. I largely did, but it has no way to zero out the stars. Once you give a song a rating, you’re stuck giving it some rating or other. What the heck!

If you’re not viewing your own catalog, stars show up without the guide-dots, e.g.,

Comments encouraged. They don’t call it user-centered software design for nothing.

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Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

How to do a LibraryThing forum

I’ve been thinking about a forum. In his comment on the last post, Felius raised some important issues. He asked for a forum that was…

“… integrated into LibraryThing and uses the same user profile. And maybe lets us discuss books as well (“See what are people are saying about Cryptonomicon” for example), and maybe doesn’t really distinguish between the two, but kind of integrates the general idea of “discussion” into the whole site.”

This is very much what I was thinking. The reason LibraryThing doesn’t have a forum yet is precicely because I don’t want to slap up a PhpBB board on with its different look and user system. (For the same reason, I have resisted using my own Mothboard site.)

I am also interested in how the forum can be integrated into the rest of the site so, for example, a forum conversation about The Lion the Witch and the Wardobe is somehow referenced on the book page. There are, after all, 145 LibraryThing users who have that book, but only a select few read the blog. At the same time, I don’t want to add a “mini forum” to every book. Most books just don’t have the necessary critical mass. Have you looked at the fora that are attached to every film on IMDB? Blech.

Felius’ closing comment also deserves quoting:

“Because, like it or not, LibraryThing is no longer just about cataloguing your books — it’s about mixing with the sort of people who think that’s a wonderful idea. ;)”

I’m torn on this. I do not want LibraryThing to devolve into a general book site. I do not want to scare away people who “just want to catalog their books.” There are a lot of such people—perhaps a majority on the site now. Whatever solution I choose must be and feel completely optional, and not change the main focus. Social features have surely become more important—and I am conscious that, to be a success, LibraryThing must keep at least some people around after they have entered their collection—but cataloging remains the core. It is what LibraryThing does best.

Some random thoughts:

  • A forum should allow users to embed links to users, tags, books and authors (a real author system is coming). Doing this so that it’s easy will be an interesting UI challenge. Perhaps each thread can be tagged, and anyone can add tags.
  • The system should highlight conversations about books you own. This information should be available in the forum and via RSS.
  • Perhaps a forum should display user names with the number of books they share with you after it, or a similarity percentage yet to be introduced. This will solve my main objection with an open book discussion:I don’t care what most people think; most people have different tastes than I do. Of course, I care what all of YOU think! :)
  • The system should sharply distinguish between past and present conversations, at least on a book page. You don’t want to be breathlessly told that people are talking about a book and then discover the conversation is two years old.
  • I am dead-set against multi-threaded discussion. I hate hate hate it. I expressed this view before and one user disagreed—former user, I should say, but I know nothing about his tragic, unusual and bitterly ironic death.

Comments welcome. Adding forums is an exciting change, but also a big one. Social software is tricky—I can write the software well and still produce a miserable failure. I’d rather do it right.

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Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

Humorous one-star reviews

On the topic of ratings, I must pass on this link to Amazon one-star reviews of classic literature. My favorite is the review of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

“I bought these books to have something nice to read to my grandkids. I had to stop, however, because the books are nothing more than advertisements for ‘Turkish Delight,’ a candy popular in the U.K. The whole point of buying books for my grandkids was to give them a break from advertising, and here (throughout) are ads for this ‘Turkish Delight’! How much money is this Mr. Lewis getting from the Cadbury’s chocolate company anyway? This man must be laughing to the bank.”

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Monday, October 31st, 2005

State of the Thing, Month 2

This innaugurates a new tradition: a monthly “state of the state” for LibraryThing. I’ve added a checkbox in “edit profile” in case you want to get this by mail. The default is “off,” of course!

Massive growth. What launched two months ago as a folly has become something of a hit. With no advertising and no coverage in the offline press*, LibraryThing has shot to 9,000 users and 665,000 books. It will surely hit a million before Christmas. Today it even nosed into the Alexa top 10,000.

Whether by luck or tireless improvement, LibraryThing has largely bested a surge of recent launches, none of which exceeds 50,000 books. (Veteran Bibliophil, online since December 2001, has 306,000 books.) Particularly gratifying has been the lack of significant damage from “Bookshelf,” one of the two showcase aps launched with Ning, the hot, well-funded startup of Marc Andreesen, the founder of Netscape. Ning gave me sleepless nights, but now, as I joked to a friend, there are two people who’ve beat Andreesen—Bill Gates and me.**

In all, LibraryThing is now one of the top non-commercial book sites on the web. Here is Alexa’s ranking chart, comparing it with BookCrossing, a much-loved and world-spanning project where you “read and release” books.

I mention this not because BookCrossing is a competitor—not at all—but because BookCrossing has received a huge amount of press. Won’t someone write an article about LibraryThing? David Pogue, Xeni Jardin, Walter Mossberg, Hiyawatha Bray—where are you?*** There’s something really cool going on here!

New features. In the last month I have added the following major features, and some minor ones.

  • Power editing, so you can tag a whole bunch of books at a time
  • Book-by-book suggestions based on LibraryThing users data
  • Detailed book suggestions based on your entire library’s contents
  • Five-star book rating, with a nifty AJAX implementation
  • RSS feeds, presently restricted to recent additions

Development priorities: I don’t want to telegraph too much, but this month’s development priorities include:

  • Better search functionality
  • “Groups” or “tribes,” so book clubs, offices, clubs and others can create “virtual libraries”
  • A way to handle “wishlists” and other non-owned books
  • Giving every book full cataloging data (LC subjects, Deweys, etc.), even if the initial data came from Amazon
  • RSS feeds for every catalog page and for a number of other pages
  • Improved “folksonomy” support, including pages for tags
  • Author pages
  • A user forum

Thank you. Thank you all for using the site, for blogging about it and telling your friends. Most of all please continue to send me your comments, criticisms and suggestions. Your thoughts have been critical to LibraryThing’s growth.

An aside: I used to work on software that users mostly hated. We didn’t solicit suggestions and a thick, outsourced layer of “tech support” kept complaints at bay. When we needed reactions we assembled paid focus groups and sat behind glass screens while some (outsourced) expert bumbled through our software. Developing LibraryThing has been a transformative experience. I will never EVER develop software like that again.

Conclusion. In conclusion, the state of the thing is strong! Thank for you using it, and happy cataloging.

*Excepting an article in Brazil and rumors of one in Italy, two countries for which LibraryThing has no library. I’m not sure if Andrew Brown’s excellent piece in the Guardian‘s email digest “The Wrap” counts as mainstream media, but it was online mainstream media.

**Speaking of Bill Gates, don’t imagine LibraryThing is making me rich. Far from it. The reward has been that, at least for now, I no longer feel guilty about working on it. That’s good, as I basically work on it every waking hour.

***Maybe I can call up Randall Schwartz again—he must know one of them. Randall Schwartz! Randall L. Schwartz! Learning Perl! From the dark aether I call you! Ia Ia Cthulhu fhtagn!

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Monday, October 31st, 2005

Book rating added; no “pencil” required

I’ve added a five-star book rating system. The pro vote was overwhelming. If you don’t want it, don’t add the field to your catalog. I was against it, but once the feature was up I found myself obsessively rating my whole collection.

The system is technically cool. You can add stars to multiple books without leaving the catalog page. You do not need to use the “edit” pencil. There’s no “submitting,” “saving” or anything like that. Just click to add stars one by one; at five it cycles around to none again. (Loosely, the technique I’m using is called AJAX, and is very “hot.”) I’m going to be adding similar on-catalog editing soon for tags.

Your catalog may not be currently showing the ratings field. If not, go to change fields and add it.

As with tags and reviews, ratings are totally optional. If just here to catalog, more power to you.

I haven’t added stars to any statistics pages yet. I’ll do this as the data warrants it.

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Sunday, October 30th, 2005

Gratuitous back-pat / help on two coming features

Noticed that clicking on a tag is suddenly quicker? That query alone was responsible for about half the server load. Clicking on a tag like “fiction” in a “global” context brought the machine to a standstill for everyone. It’s much better now. Fiction’s still takes a second, but that’s better than 30.

Feature 1: Ratings
Okay, I cave; you win. I’m going to add ratings. I propose they be 1-5 stars, with no stars being unrated. I’ve decided on stars—thumbs are too dorky—but I’m going to avoid the “Amazon” look. Nor will I be importing star data from them. LibraryThing is not Amazon!

The stars will be easily mass-editable, either in power edit or by a new “AJAX” way. However I do it, you’ll be able to rate a whole bunch of books at a time—zip zip zip.

Feature 2: Tag pages
I’m going to add a page for every tag, showing related tags, top books with that tag, etc. The only trick is how to get to it. I want the tag links to still function as a search, at least within a personal catalog. I may kill system-wide catalog tag searches, making them go to the “tag page” instead. (They still take up a lot of resources; there are almost a million tags now!) Your thoughts are welcome. What do you want to see? How do you want to get to it?

Comments, criticisms, anecdotes—go ahead.

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