Establishing an editorial platform

Many things — perhaps too many things — have been written about online social networking in the last decade. But while social networks have done much to commodify and facilitate human interactions, thus making them more instantaneous and frequent, not a lot of serious work gets done within them. This is surprising, since there are common professional activities, such as contract negotiations or managing projects, that need high levels of trust and rapid interaction. Writing annotated, collaboratively-edited texts could be one of those activities.

Shakespeare scholars are perfectly situated to exploit the practices of social networking, because their field is inherently interdisciplinary, and they already have to venture outside the confines of literary study. They are not professional historians, but they must learn the events and contours of Elizabethan and Jacobean England; they draw from fields as disparate as archaeology, economics, psychology, and others. These habits are of great service in an increasingly network-centered culture, where the barriers to conversing with experts in other fields have been largely eradicated.

Because of the cultural and lingustic distance between Shakespeare's time and our own, handing an unannotated Shakespearean text to a student could be considered an act of sadism. Actors must embrace the preparatory work of learning their lines with knowledgeable guidance, or else they risk misinterpreting their lines in front of their peers or, worse, a paying audience. Modern Shakespeare editions differ in the amount and depth of annotations they provide, but in the first-rate editions, the gloss functions practically as a concurrent narrative alongside the original text. If collaboration and annotation are to be translated successfully into the online realm, we could learn much from the two most popular social networks.

Facebook's early popularity was driven by two attributes. First, it allowed users to post status updates, share photos, exchange brief messages, and most importantly, to codify their offline relationships (no matter how tenuous). Those relationships allowed users to publish their contributions only to people they trusted. This encouraged people to participate in the network, since they were interacting with their "friends" and not the entire Web.

Second, Facebook allowed developers write applications outside the Facebook platform, but that can interact with the platform. A myriad of widgets on web sites encourage sharing into the platform, so readers can inform their friends what they are reading and products they are coveting. Retailers use Facebook to help identify potential and actual customers. Many online publishers allow their readers to use Facebook credentials to identify themselves on comment threads and discussion forums. And then there are the various time-draining diversions such as games and quizzes.

In truth, both of these attributes are essentially the same: the Facebook platform allows any registered user to contribute to it, whether it is by posting a snapshot or a complicated application. The word "platform" is critical — it means that the wide world of Facebook isn't limited to Facebook proper, and its structure remains permeable: it's easy to get things into it and out of it. Facebook allows this not for altruistic reasons, but to keep people on their site so they can sell advertising.

Twitter is far less sophisticated than Facebook, and it has legions of detractors (myself among them) who find the torrents of "tweets" overwhelming, and the 140-character epigram to be a stifling literary medium. But Twitter has gained widespread acceptance through the same characteristics of trust and openness, so much that even highbrow publications display the news feeds with that damnable blue bird.

Relationships within Twitter are established by following other network members, and by encouraging others to follow you. It is possible to protect one's contributions (I can't bring myself to call them "tweets") to one's followers, but that is uncommon. Twitter also has a platform with the full-fledged (no pun intended) interface for external applications, just like Facebook. One salient advantage is that its origins are in syndicating text (SMS) messages, so practically anyone with a mobile phone can send and receive messages on Twitter. Because SMS users number in the billions, in theory Twitter is the most accessible social network on the planet, though it has fewer users than Facebook. (Facebook has an SMS interface for a small subset of its functions, and its usage is very limited as a result.)

Thus, if an online service wants to serve a large audience, the keys are to create a sense of trust and encourage outsiders to build compatible applications. But why not use an existing platform to annotate and collaborate? There are plenty of sites that have comment threads, built by countless free software packages. And why not a wiki?

Those products and services are designed for either collaboration or annotation — not both. Wikis allow editors to make changes while still keeping previous versions intact, but the annotations are typically rendered through footnotes or "Talk" pages that exist in parallel "behind" the wiki article. Blogs allow users to leave comments, but they are at the end of the article, and cannot point to a particular passage without quoting it.

The web pages linked below offer a glimpse into what such an interface would look like. They constitute what could be the kernel of a new platform that would interweave text and commentary in a way that only online media can.

This platform would be open to future uses, such as mapping the locations mentioned within texts, or linking to other media. It could interact with other platforms (it would be simple to create a "news feed" of annotations to Facebook or Twitter, for example). Readers could package a snapshot of an edition and put it on an electronic reading devices such as a Nook or Kindle.

None features mentioned on the pages (with the possible exception of cross-referencing) are unique. That means that the technical challenges involved would not be insurmountable. The success of the platform would likely hinge on the interface, and whether it provided a compelling experience without obscuring the site's capabilities.

Accomplishing that goal might involve avoiding a list of pitfalls, even more than striving for an ideal. The interface cannot be so simple that readers do not notice the annotations, but not so complex as to be distracting. A modern, highly-polished aesthetic could be off-putting to experienced readers, but a completely unornamented interface signals to visitors that the site's owners did not invest the time in making the site attractive.

Whatever the interface looks like, it should be tested by showing it to potential users, and asking them how they would accomplish certain goals within the site. The users' perspectives would then be used to help improve future versions of the site.

Although it wouldn't be immediately necessary to optimize the site for smaller screens, such as tablets and smartphones, the first generation of the interface should at least render correctly on them. Because most of the pages will have a two-column layout, determining a way to display and create annotations will be tricky, because it will involve stacking the necessary page elements on screens that are 70% narrower than a typical desktop computer's window size. The first-generation interface should be structured in such a way that it does not preclude a future, more small-screen-friendly interface.

These prototype pages show many of the salient features of the proposed platform. Collectively, they are called the "Marginalia" interface, although that name would eventually changed into something more distinctive.

Reading: Demonstrates how annotations and comments would appear alongside the text, with annotation indicators inside the text.

Annotating: A user with "Editor" status could create a new annotation. Contributors would be allowed to comment on an annotation, rate its value, and establish cross-references between passages (either within the same text, or to external texts).

Search Results: Shows how to narrow the search results by various criteria, including by work, collection, and contributor.