|Annotations - a working manifesto
||[Nov. 17th, 2011|05:41 pm]
The annotation problem fascinates me. It's an amazing opportunity to create a new and incredible, almost unimaginably rich way to experience content in the digital domain.|
I can easily describe what I envision in terms of the digital content delivery options today, and it seems like what I imagine is not a stretch for the contemporary Kindle, iPad, or Nook. The experience would include at least the following abilities:
What do we have to do to get there?
- to annotate a text I'd purchased electronically as easily as I can circle words, highlight or underline passages, or write notes in the margins of a physical book - no matter which platform;
- to attach exclusive luxuries of the digital domain to specific parts of a text, be it hyperlinks, media, or a reference to someone else's annotation on the same part;
- to easily migrate my annotations from an older edition to a newer edition of the text;
- to share my annotations with or, indeed, receive annotations from my friends via my preferred intermediary - be it as basic as email or as socially structured as Facebook and Google+ - without having to share more than a reference to the version of the text on which the annotations are based and/or a link to the annotations themselves;
- to have whole conversations around passages captured as annotations, or even conversations about annotations.
Consider a physical book. I never had to look far for an example - my parents' office shelves are filled with tomes and volumes of all shapes and sizes. Both retired language teachers and former Comparative Literature doctoral candidates, over time my parents filled the pages of their collection with at least half a lifetime's worth of margin notes, not to mention streams of underlined text. The end product? An invaluable resource of their own personalized "Cliff notes," customized to their needs and wants - annotations, from which they derived countless essays, a dissertation or two, and in the end an entire career of teaching others how to really read and thoughtfully write.
Far from a limited academic exercise in capturing thought, the process and purpose of annotating one's reading is wide-ranging. Fundamental to recall and abstraction, annotations on a text serve crucial functions in reading, interpreting, discussing, critiquing, reviewing, and studying a text with the ultimate goal of assimilating or learning its content or deriving from it some useful, practical knowledge either in isolation or in connection with other texts or knowledge.
Any doubt on the value of annotations will be dispelled quickly enough with a visit to the average college campus, where dorm room shelves heavy with "required texts" can be found, each volume dog-eared and marked up, its temporary owner's grades directly proportional to the quantity and quality of text underlined or highlighted or notes scrawled in the margins and reviewed before tests and essays.
We've also already evolved annotations beyond the one-way, static, personal response note to an authoritative text: the web is replete with blog upon blog, alongside respected publications, offering users not only the ability to comment on content but also the facility to interact with other commenters - blurring the line between margin notes and class discussion - on just about every imaginable topic. In the process, we learn each other's perspectives and advance understanding to an extent previously impossible without the medium of the internet, or at least outside the austerity of a classroom and the formality of convened meetings.
With the right tools, it's not difficult to imagine a virtual book club as the shape of the classroom of the future.
The development of tools to support new ways to experience text-based content might, fortunately, be under way. Let's just hope it's the "right" way! I think the tools that will successfully transform the experience through mass-adoption will ultimately be based on openly standardized approaches to some critical challenges:
There are probably others - and they are interdependent. For example, any annotations created on my iPad for a particular edition of a book should be shareable with my Facebook friends reading the same edition, no matter what reader they use. There will have to be tools and standards to support this, or we'll have great difficulty getting to the point where we can see our friends' comments on a text alongside it as we're reading it!
- Specificity vs. detachability - tying annotations to a particular piece of digital text, without embedding them in the text's container. We see this frequently now with video and audio content on the web - what are the barriers to doing it effectively for text content?
- Continuity - easily replicate or migrate annotations across editions of a text.
- Sociability - easily share notes across social and reading platforms.