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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Test Run: BookVibe Picks Up the Buzz on Books

A persistent problem faced by users of social networks like Facebook and Twitter is the flood of information they create. If you are connected to more than a handful of people on one of those platforms, you will be deluged with far more status updates, photos, likes, advertisements and videos than any human being could ever digest.

That provides an opening for tools, like BookVibe, that scan your feeds to pull out specific, useful information.

BookVibe, created by a tiny start-up called Parakweet, basically analyzes the tweets of accounts that you follow on Twitter and compiles a list of book recommendations based on which titles those people are talking about.

The company uses artificial intelligence techniques to try to distinguish between someone expressing true affection for a book as opposed to merely mentioning it. When you pull up the recommendation, the service gives you the full tweets so that you can see the book reference in its original context. And on Wednesday, Parakweet unveiled a new feature that lets you look at the Twitter discussion surrounding half a million specific titles.

I currently follow 245 accounts on Twitter, many of them smart people in technology and journalism. Although I am a voracious consumer of news and magazines, I don’t have time to read a whole lot of books, so I am always looking to make smart choices about the ones I do pick up.

So I checked BookVibe, which is free, to see what it recommended for me. It pulled up an eclectic list, from the 1972 children’s classic “Watership Down” by Richard Adams (which my colleague Diego Sorbara called “a wonderful book”) to the 2012 novel “Forgotten Country” by Catherine Chung (which the author and food blogger Cheryl Tan said was “a beautiful debut novel”).

Intrigued by “Watership Down,” which I never read as a kid because it was about rabbits, I clicked through to learn more. I got a basic description of the book plus data that indicated it was being mentioned about 20 times a month on Twitter. There were many tweets from fans, including the Chadron State College professor Elisabeth Ellington, who proclaimed it “My #1 Top crying book?” A British Twitter user named John painted a more mixed picture: “I was obsessed with Watership Down as a child (even wrote fanfic) but it has more blood & death than most horror films.” And a student named Camille was clearly distressed at being forced to read it for school: “That book looks like it is NOT the business.”

Hmmm, perhaps I made the right decision back in junior high.

Would “Forgotten Country” be more promising? Although its BookVibe page said it was only getting a few mentions a month on Twitter, they were overwhelmingly positive. The Syracuse University student Kyra Nay wrote, “Beautifully clear prose. Complex meditation on family, sisterhood, immigrating & secrets.” And the book blogger Jaime Boler not only liked it but pointed out it was now available in paperback.

Much more my type of book. Since BookVibe provides easy links to Amazon.com to buy books, I added it to my list of saved items for my next order.

The service is still in beta, and it shows signs of being a work in progress. Extracting real meaning from the shorthand found in 140-word tweets can be a challenge for humans, let alone computers. Some books popped up on the recommended list because their author had mentioned them. Some reviews were missed because the Twitter user offered a link to an external review without summarizing it in the tweet.

But over all, I found BookVibe to a valuable single-purpose tool and an indication of what’s possible as social media search technology becomes more sophisticated.

One of BookVibe’s most intriguing features is what I call voyeur mode. Because most Twitter posts are public, BookVibe lets you see the books recommended for any Twitter user, offering a window into their possible tastes through the people they have decided to follow on Twitter.

So you can, for example, peek at the recommendations for the television book-club hostess Oprah Winfrey (“Gone Girl” is on the list, as is “The Kite Runner”), or for the Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates (“Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything” popped up, as did “The Autobiography of Malcom X”).

Ramesh Haridas, the co-founder and chief executive of Paraktweet, said in an interview that his team set out three years ago to figure out what kind of posts in the social stream had staying power and would be worth cataloging in some way.

“We decided that the most useful ones were updates about activities,” he said. “The quality of these updates was very, very good, especially movies and books.”

In addition to the free consumer-oriented BookVibe, which will soon come out in a Facebook version, the company sells a more in-depth set of tools to book publishers, authors and retailers to help them understand how books are selling and where and what people are saying about them.

Parakweet is also developing a similar recommendation service for movies, which it calls TrendFinder. (There is already an early version.)

The technology is promising enough that Parakweet was recently able to raise $2 million from angel investors, and Mr. Haridas said that several global media companies and retailers, which he declined to name, were testing the company’s services.

By focusing on just a few topics, he said, Parakweet is able to offer more sophisticated results than those provided by the general-purpose search tools available on Twitter and Facebook. “It’s very hard to be an all-purpose social media tool and provide actionable analytics,” he said.