On Judging E-Books by Their Covers

How much do we judge books by their covers? I think one of the consequences of the infoglut is that our early-filtering systems are getting ever that much more use. We're learning how to pick and choose among stimuli, out of necessity. And part of this is that certain presentations are privileged, either because we like them better and subconsciously gravitate, or because we're better able to process certain messages quickly and therefore we actually "get" them in the milliseconds other messages squander with poor presentation.

On one level, I glide towards the Vintage books in a bookstore, just because no Vintage book has ever done me wrong. So I filter based on cover art -- literally judging by their covers -- towards books that have a certain modern playful gravitas to them. And on another level, there are some emails I will read and some I will never be able to do more than skim, just because of relative rates of absorbtion. When the once-over will do, I let it suffice, and if it's going to take too much effort, wham, onto the floor. I'm lazy.

But the thing is, the lazy filtration isn't a bad heuristic. A lack of typos in something indicates that its author cared. Someone took the time to proofread, ain't that sweet? If the printing is off, if the paragraphs don't fit together, if the subject line isn't clear - well, it's a turn-off, not unlike hearing the sounds of typing in the background as you talk to someone on the phone. The cosmetics are a proof of sincerity, someone else demonstrating that they're willing to jump through some hoops for you. Without them, one feels insulted.

I worry, though, whether the web age will magnify this trend to dangerous proportions. First, there came a time when pages with too generic an appearance started to offend, when the plain default light-gray background that originally meant "web content" came to mean "outdated web content." And now, it seems, no matter how data-packed, if there isn't a convenient navigation system using stylish but unobtrusive buttons, well, they just aren't taking you seriously. I think our tastes are getting ratcheted upwards as the standards of web design and web technology improve: the threshold for what we're even willing to process is rising. And this might be the true Internet elitism, the way that the lower-down are shut out from the system: they don't have the resources to be able to hone up the irrelevant cosmetics of their presentation, as a result of which our mental filters kick in and say, this isn't worth paying attention to.

Such trends worry me. The real fallout of the triumph of style over substance is that only those with the wealth and time to invest in style are noticed, are heard. And my concern is that certain aspects of the Internet-enabled media experience amplify these trends, indeed necessitate a much stronger reliance on stylistic features in order to make the required snap decisions about what to see and what to skip. People who talk about the "digital divide" are obsessed with the consumer end of things, but I think the real issues are at the production end of the content pipe. Whose voices will technology enable, and whose cries will it silence?