Web Meets Books: Small Demons Brings Depth and Understanding to Reading

22 May

So much of the conversation about reading and technology is centered around the great ebooks versus print debate, and it’s easy to understand why that topic, with all it’s monetary repercussions for publishers and authors, has top billing. But there are other ways the web is impacting reading, lending depth of understanding for readers and Small Demons is one of them.

Let me start off by answering your obvious question. No, I do not understand why this site is called Small Demons, but I think the name is kind of edgy and cool! The name in the end doesn’t matter more than the mission of the company. In a nutshell, Small Demons seeks to help readers make the connections of understanding by mapping the web of knowledge and references contained in each work.

This is of vital importance. I’m sure I was not the only person who read The Da Vinci Code or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with art books and computers open around them to examine a specific work or track obscure Swedish politics. Frustrating! What if there was a one stop place on the web that had already gathered all those references together for me to enhance my understanding? Thank you, Small Demons, for doing just that.

Take the above screen shot of the book The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. The top of the page looks rather standard, doesn’t it? Your established book cover shot with the synopsis and a link to sources to buy it seems rather blah.  But wait! Look down a little. Here’s where the Small Demons magic begins.

Next we have a visual catalog of all the people and places listed in the book, which you may remember happens in Washington, D. C. Our pictures show all the references (and it’s Dan Brown’s intellectual professor as a mystery solving protagonist, so there are a LOT of people and ideas mentioned), from Albert Einstein to Mickey Mouse to Zeus. Just having the picture isn’t sufficient – if you hover over it you can see the identification of who you are looking at and if you click on the picture, you get taken to a separate page dedicated to that individual with all literary references to them as found in the Small Demons database. The map indicates the places mentioned and the specific pictures below the map are actual images of those places, with a similar rollover experience where you can click to find out more information. The pages dedicated to a person or place are really cool and worth exploring. Take a gander at Issac Newton:

Clicking on any one of the many books listed will give you the specific quote in the window above of the mention. Enabling the “Like” button with the heart by the person’s image links your interest in this person to your account so you can know when other books mention Newton. (Check out that hair! Doesn’t it remind you of some of the vampire hair descriptions in paranormal romance? Just sayin’.)

Back at the ranch the main book page of Brown’s novel, we can see that the buck doesn’t stop with the cool people/places references. Small Demons also links to music, movies, and other books mentioned in the text. In this screenshot from The Lost Symbol page, we see the link to the classical pieces Brown’s characters allude to, as well as the movies and books in the text.

Any reference or item I favorite, whether it be an author, a book, a person or movie (ANYTHING) gets added to my account’s Storyboard (see below) where it tracks my interests for me. Based on the company’s “What’s Coming Next?” page, you can see they’ll be moving in a direction where they will offer recommendations based on my interests. Other cool features in the works – besides the obvious additions of lots more books and references – center on pages devoted to specific subtopics (like vampires), the ability to preview or purchase music and movies, and more lists of bestsellers and awards.  They only have a romance list linked to the RITA for Young Adult Romance, so with any luck they will continue to work on all the other categories of romance fiction for us!

Right now they have an interesting smattering of the genre (there’s a genre drop down menu for easy browsing) with most of the books having some rather skimpy references, but the company seems to be working hard to keep adding to their offerings, so I check back weekly. Seeing what your friends are reading by linking social networks is an obvious next upgrade as well as the ability to have Small Demons as a mobile app on your phone or iPad.

Maybe because I’m a librarian, my first question always is “where does this information come from?” – after all, if it’s not from a reliable source, then it doesn’t help the reader in the end. Small Demons makes very clear that their information comes from Freebase, with some information from Wikipedia. I hadn’t heard of Freebase, but was really interested once I perused their wiki.

Freebase is a Creative Commons licensed database with over 22 million entries that charts entities (a person, place, thing, whatever), giving them unique identifiers but also tracking relationships and differences between them. The best example I can give is that of helpful metaengines, like yippy.com, which have taken your search terms and helped you figure out what you didn’t know. When someone searches on mercury, a search engine like yippy.com is able to separate out results into relationships, so it can have categories like Mercury (planet), mercury (element), Mercury (car), Mercury (god), etc. with the searcher able to click on whatever category fits their search.

The easiest way to get more content into Small Demons would be to let users help, but since I’m not a developer it’s hard to imagine how you could have account members access to the Freebase data in a user friendly manner. That said, I sent a note to them using their “Feedback and Suggestions” page with the thought of having a button next to each category on pages (whether or not there was any data there) that would allow readers to suggest material as they were reading. I got an incredibly prompt and friendly response saying they were already working on it, so I’m definitely feeling the warm fuzzies when it comes to the developers of this website.

Really, what I want are these features embedded in my ebook, so I could just hover over the reference and listen to the song or see a description of the book if I choose while reading, but with the proprietary nature of ebook formats, I can’t even begin to imagine how they could integrate this into the majority of readers’ experience.

A great way to keep up to date on books as they are added to the lexicon is to follow Small Demons on Twitter, where you can not only get a real-time update on items as they are added, but also enjoy the witty tone of the company as they promote new offerings and related material on the internet. Small Demons is a great website that has the potential to become as important to my reading experience as Goodreads, so I will eagerly await seeing how this great website grows and develops.

One Response to “Web Meets Books: Small Demons Brings Depth and Understanding to Reading”

  1. La Deetda Reads May 23, 2012 at 9:37 am #

    Wow! just wow!

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