A screen is an extremely limited amount of space. We knew when we started The Golden Notebook Project that we could only fit about seven readers comfortably within the margins of the book. However, we are not interested solely in these seven (wonderful) readers; we want the public to contribute to the discussion. A program called ReframeIt allows you to annotate any page on the web, and we’d like to try it for the Project. ReframeIt displays tiny colored boxes in the sidebar that expand into full comments – this isn’t especially pretty, but it allows for many more comments in a single sidebar than you would have if you displayed every comment in its entirety, making room for many more comments than before. The program also allows you to highlight (as shown above) and allows for all sorts of social networking. We’re excited to try this for The Golden Notebook so that the original text, the seven readers’ comments, and public comments can be in one space (rather than dividing the readers’ comments and the public forums into separate pages). We would like to invite you to join and follow along in the margins with us. You can download the Firefox extension here.
Since we launched Holy of Holies last year, we’ve made a lot of progress with the paragraph-level commenting system we’ve been building on top of WordPress. We’ve taken to calling it “Commentpress,” and until we get significant pushback (or a great alternative suggestion), we’re sticking with it. This is a pre-announcement to say that we’re pursuing plans to open it up as a plugin for WordPress in March (middle to end of the month).
The original instantiation was put together very quickly over the course of a week and was the dictionary definition of a hack. Still, we knew we had something that was worthwhile from the feedback we received, and we were excited to figure out the next step for Commentpress. That was almost two months ago. In that time, we’ve launched three other sites in Commentpress (1 2 3). Each new installation has seen additions and refinements to the Commentpress functionality. But we haven’t released it.
Why the delay? It’s not because we are reluctant to let it go. No, it’s just that we feel a responsibility to present a project that is ready for the community to act upon. And that means taking a good crack at it ourselves: we want to have a minimum level of ease of use in the installation, a little documentation, and a code package that looks like something constructed by humans rather than something that crawled out from the primordial ooze. That will take a little time due to all the other projects and launches we’ve got throughout the spring. We’re also spending time trying to figure out how to manage an open-source project. Since we’ve never really done it before, suggestions, case studies, horror stories, and revealing of miracles are welcome.
Thanks for your patience, and we’ll keep you informed.
Predicting the future is a fool’s errand, but it comforts me to look back on the past and see that some questions are important enough to revisit in each new age. In the 1996 collection The Future of the Book, edited by Geoffrey Nunberg, there are several essays that treat the same questions that we are concerned with now: how will reading change in the digital environment? What will be the form of digital texts? What role for the author? The reader?
Dan’s recent post provoked a range of commentary that clearly illustrates the ongoing status of the debate. Despite the fact that these questions were raised, and treated, more than a decade ago—and certainly even further back, in texts I am unaware of (please make recommendations)—their answers are still unknown, which makes their relevance undiminished. The discussion is necessary, as Gary Frost pointed out, because “we do not have a vernacular beyond synthetics such as blog or Wiki or live journal or listserv.” We haven’t developed a canonical term for this idea of a digital text that includes multimedia, that accretes other text and multimedia from the activity of the network. When you are working at the edges of technology, inventing new terms of art to try and explain and market your concept, the jargon production is fever pitched. But we just haven’t been exploring this question long enough to see what odd word will stick that can serve to separate the idea of a physical book, in all its permutations, from the notion of a networked book, in its unexplored mystery. It’s a fundamental direction of our research at the Institute, and the contributions from our community of readers continues to be instructive.
We were talking yesterday (and Bob earlier) about how to better organize content on if:book – how to highlight active discussion threads, or draw attention to our various categories. Something more dynamic than a list of links on the sidebar, or a bunch of hot threads advertised at the top. A significant problem with blogs is the tyranny of the vertical column, where new entries call out for attention on a stack of rapidly forgotten material, much of which might still be worth reading even though it was posted back in the dark ages (i.e. three days ago). Some of the posts that get buried still have active discussions stemming from them. Just today, “ways of seeing, ways of writing” – posted nearly two weeks ago – received another comment. The conversation is still going. (See also Dan’s “blog reading: what’s left behind”.)
This points to another thorny problem, still unsolved nearly 15 years into the world wide web, and several years into the blogging craze: how to visualize asynchronous conversations – that is, conversations in which time lapses between remarks. If the conversation is between only two people, a simple chronological column works fine – it’s a basic back-and-forth. But consider the place where some of the most dynamic multi-person asynchronous conversations are going on: in the comment streams of blog entries. Here you have multiple forking paths, hopping back and forth between earlier and later remarks, people sticking close to the thread, people dropping in and out. But again, you have the tyranny of the vertical column.
We’re using an open source platform called Drupal for our NextText project, which has a blog as its central element but can be expanded with modular units to do much more than we’re able to do here. The way Drupal handles comments is nice. You have the usual column arranged chronologically, with comments streaming downward, but readers have the option of replying to specific comments, not just to the parent post. Replies to specific comments are indented slightly, creating a sort of sub-stream, and the the fork can keep on going indefinitely, indenting rightward.
This handles forks and leaps fairly well, but offers at best only a partial solution. We’re still working with a print paradigm: the outline. Headers, sub-headers, bullet points. These distinguish areas in a linear stream, but they don’t handle the non-linear character of complex conversations. There is always the linear element of time, but this is extremely limiting as an organizing principle. Interesting conversations make loops. They tangle. They soar. They sag. They connect to other conversations.
But the web has so far been dominated by time as an organizing principle, new at the top and old at the bottom (or vice versa), and this is one the most-repeated complaints people have about it. The web favors the new, the hot, the immediate. But we’re dealing with a medium than can also handle space, or at least the perception of space. We need not be bound to lists and outlines, we need not plod along in chronological order. We could be looking at conversations as terrains, as topographies.
The electronic word finds itself in an increasingly social context. We need to design a better way to capture this – something that gives the sense of the whole (the big picture), but allows one to dive directly into the details. This would be a great challenge to drop into a design class. Warren Sack developed a “conversation map” for news groups in the late 90s. From what I can tell, it’s a little overwhelming. I’m talking about something that draws people right in and gets them talking. Let’s look around.