I’m going to throw off a product idea in the hopes that someone builds it. I want this, but it’s more than I can take on on my own.
What is it? Think of a social CMS, a book that puts the reader’s understanding and participation before everything.
So start here: I used to say that the conversation of civilization is carried out in books — but then I stopped reading books.
It was software manuals, actually, that changed the way I read. They’re both too big and too arcane to be read cover-to-cover, so, instead, you go to them ad hoc, as needed, by way of the index.
That has all moved on-line, so searching is just that much easier. And, all thanks to Google, almost all reading has taken this form: You find exactly what you want and read only that.
Stuffy dinosaurs will lament the loss of libraries and the fondly-remembered aroma of dust-mite feces, but the simple truth is that the internet style of reading is massively more efficient.
But to lay one lily on the grave of the book: One thing you cannot have, right now, either directly on the internet or through any of the many eBook formats, is an annotated book.
If I lend you an old book from my collection, you will experience either delight or annoyance or boredom at my marginal notes and other annotations. A library book can host interesting remarks from any number of readers. The best used textbooks have detailed notes in the margins from one or more former students of the very class you are taking. Text expressed in electrons is hugely perfect and massively abundant. But it is not terribly note-friendly right now.
Yes, there can be comments at the bottom of the page, but there is a tall status barrier between authors and commenters. But an annotation can rise above the text, perhaps turning into an entire counter-argument.
Amazon’s @author gimmick is a Vookly kind of web twoishness, but, even then, it doesn’t travel with the book.
Here’s what I want: A Content Management System that assumes annotation.
So we start with any primary document — this essay, for example, or any story or poem or book, new or old. We’re encoded in HTML, embedding any multi-media content we might want, and linking out with abandon. This is what we expect from any web-based document, and, because we are on the web, in the cloud, a document can always be kept in a state of perfect maintenance: No broken links.
(That means, as a side note, if we envision some kind of off-line reader, like the iPad-in-airplane-mode, downloaded documents should be synced, when the reader is connected to the cloud, to stay as current as an off-line document can be.)
Assume annotation: Anyone reading this document, can, at his will, select any text or other content in the document and add an annotation to that content. An expandable mark will be left in that spot to indicate the annotation. Other readers can elect to read the annotation or ignore it — or read it when re-reading the document.
Any other reader can add annotations at will.
Any reader of any annotation can annotate that annotation. Possibly this could initiate a conversation, which is why this should be thought of as a social CMS. But it’s also possible that sequential annotations could be widely separated in time — like the penciled notes in a library book.
One type of annotation can take the form of a link to another document — or annotation — in the CMS. This is a way of initiating new conversations or reviving old ones.
As annotations accrue in a document, they could become ungainly. Readers should be able to vote annotations up or down. They should be able to filter annotations by rating, or by favoriting or squelching certain annotators.
A student might filter for only his own annotations — his class notes. But when finals roll around, that same student might read every annotation in the book, including the linked-out documents and off-site links, developing a comprehensive subject-matter expertise.
This is all duck-soup database programming, not much beyond WordPress. But unlike current commenting paradigms, the simple act of annotating the content, rather than rephrasing and possibly mischaracterizing it, enforces a built-in rigor and transparency.
Meanwhile, authors can have genuine, enduring and serious conversations with their readers — good for everyone’s understanding and very good for the author’s on-going income.
This is a good design, I think. It’s SplendorTech in the sense that it removes power and status barriers between people. But I don’t see why it can’t be profitable in real money, too.
This is how books should be published, in a way that makes it plain that the conversation of civilization includes each one of us.