You are here: Home » Beyond Business » Columns
Business Standard

Learning by owl

Rrishi Raote  |  New Delhi 

It’s great to be a fan. Quite uncharacteristically, back in 2000, I became a fan of Harry Potter. This meant doing the things that (grown-up) fans do — obsessing over idiotic little details, getting onto the mailing lists, writing faux-scholarly essays, taking at face value “Harry Potter seminars”, buying the action figures, watching the first movie four times over even though it was terrible, drinking deeply from the turbid ocean of fanfiction, and so on.

Now, of course, the whole episode feels like a bizarre aberration from the business of ennui as usual. Which is why the idea of J K Rowling’s website Pottermore was both intriguing and off-putting. When it was announced in 2009 it was described as an immersive Potter experience, where fans would be able to try out things like duelling, potions-making, Quidditch and getting Sorted, and where Rowling would reveal all sorts of details, back-stories and episodes that didn’t make it into the books. It was also, and obviously, a brand extension by Rowling.

But the site has taken too long to make. Fans are not patient. In July 2011 registration for the site started at last, and (as a books-interested journalist, naturally) I registered. The beta version opened for a few users at the end of 2011, and the reviews were instant and not encouraging.

A few weeks ago I got my invite. The reviews are right. Pottermore is not much fun. There’s not enough by way of extras though a lot of design work has gone into it. Only the pages pertaining to the first Harry Potter book are open. It is the sole place on the Internet where you can buy Potter ebooks legally. But what’s most disappointing is that, despite the already large number of users, there is virtually no community life, which is the absolute minimum requirement for a website that aims to draw in and keep fans. The whole thing is too managed.

I want to draw a contrast with another much-awaited website that is just about to go live and for which I must be one of the last few beta users. This week I got my invite. has nothing to do with a fandom — other than, perhaps, the cult status of its founder Luis von Ahn. Von Ahn is the brain behind CAPTCHAs, those distorted words that many websites as one to type out before posting a comment or booking a ticket. They identify the user as a human being and not a spam programme.

Von Ahn soon turned this mere tool into a valuable utility, to identify words from scanned books that programmes had not been able to automatically transcribe. This clever twist, called the reCAPTCHA, has helped transcribe hundreds of millions of words, helping libraries, newspapers and other kinds of clients.

From reCAPTCHA has grown Duolingo, which uses similar principles to translate the Web’s different languages between one another without professional translators. The way von Ahn’s team has set up Duolingo, the user learns a language (I am learning Spanish) while at the same time improving machine translations of the Spanish parts of the Web into English, and vice versa. If enough people do this, the speed could be breathtaking — many millions of words a day. The benefit is, eventually, that everything in any of the major languages of the Web could be available to speakers of all the other major languages. And my Spanish lessons are free.

Duolingo, it could be argued, is no less complex a website than Pottermore. Yet it was done much faster, the interface is terrific, the learning programmes and audio work well, and there are dozens of useful details for the learner. Most critically, because to learn a language it is not enough to know grammar and vocabulary, one has to use it, Duolingo has a built-in social aspect. You can form groups, see what stage your fellows are at, chat with them in the chosen language, compare your work with theirs, and so on.

The whole thing is just quirky enough to develop into a fandom of its own. And that’s why I think it will work.  

First Published: Sat, June 16 2012. 00:40 IST