Friday, June 18, 2010

New Buzzwords: Geo-Aware eBooks and Sub-text Annotations

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, Book One)In the magical world of Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy, true names are very powerful things. Her wizard-protagonist Sparrowhawk is able to gain power over a dragon by virtue of knowing its true name. The "true name" is a recurrent theme in mythology and fantasy literature, not just in Le Guin's work.

expand or collapseTo some extent, the enchantment of names and words is a writer's conceit; most authors never get their books published and fewer get their work read, so the idea that a writer's craft has magical power is quite seductive.

A similar thing is going on in the W3C semantic web effort; it has promoted a conceit that bestowing a proper (http) identifier (URI) on a thing imbues it with a first-class objectness.

There are times however, when the act of giving something a name is more than a conceit, it animates something previously ill-defined by allowing attachment of attributes. It allows people to talk and allows talk to become buzz. In the past two weeks, I've twice come across novel literary constructs with names that promise new substance: geo-aware ebooks and subtext annotations. Only time will tell if these will end up as flimsy toy widgets or will give rise to new forms of creative expression.

The sub-text annotation is something being explored by blog pioneer Dave Winer. The emergence of the "blog" as a literary form is an interesting example of how a name can emerge alongside the substance of the thing it names. The name "blog" derives from a joke generally credited to Peter Merholz, that the correct pronunciation of weblog (apparently a 1997 coinage of Jorn Barger) was "we blog".

Winer has been blogging since before the blog had its name and was an important early advocate of the form. By adding syndication to the blog's set of standard features in late 1997, Winer helped shape the substance of the weblog from out of a website morass.

I met Winer after an event on citizen journalism that he organized last week at NYU; he is very engaging and a true New Yorker, although he has only recently come home from a lengthy California sojourn.

expand or collapseA subtext annotation is some text hidden below a paragraph that that can be expanded and collapsed by the reader. This feature comes out of a line of thought about hypertext and reading that includes Rich Ziade's work on the "Readability" bookmarklet. Are hyperlinks good for the reader, or are they distractions? How can annotations be included in electronic text so that they optimally engage the reader while leaving the text with as much impact as possible? Readability strips out inline hyperlinks, replacing them with numbered endnotes. Winer point out that collapsing the annotation into the text makes the rest of the text easier to read.

If there's one thread that has pervaded Winer's work over his entire career, it's the application of hideable, hierarchical text. From the ThinkTank outlining application for the Apple II and PC to the Frontier content management system with its collapsible Usertalk scripting language to weblog syndication itself, it's clear that Winer loves collapsing text. Go over to Scripting News and see a cleaner implementation of sub-text; I struggled a while with getting it to work here, and it looks a bit funny.

expand or collapseYes, there's a subtext annotation above this paragraph (and below it). Click on a little plus to expand it. I think you'll agree that it's not something so new that it's inexplicable. You've seen collapsing outlines in all sorts of user interfaces before. Blogs often use collapsed text to implement "below the fold". But what happens if the subtext annotation becomes standard on blogs, and gets included in ebook authoring toolkits? Will authors and readers find the subtext annotation more natural, more versatile, and more usable than the endnote annotation or the hyperlink? Will the subtext lead to new forms of narrative or better ways to present information? Doesn't collapsable text seem more natural than a table of contents for ebook navigation?

In a fascinating 2005 interview with Robert X. Cringely, Winer describes his non-magical view of names- he thinks they don't matter!
And, you know, and later on, in 1998, actually, earlier, sorry, I had a - I did work with Microsoft on something called XML R. Then it became XML RPC. Later became SOAP. And we actually had a rule during the collaboration that we're gonna always go for the worst possible name for every element. And that ended all the arguments where people would say, "Well, I've got a better name." I said, "Well, but that's not the point. You could tell me you have a worse name and I would listen to you. But if you've got a better name, I don't wanna know about it."

Speaking of ebooks, Liza Daly is a practitioner of ePUB magic. ePub is the emerging standard delivery format for ebooks; it's based on HTML, so developing an ePUB ebook is a lot like developing a website. In her talk at IDPF two weeks ago, she described the geo-aware ebook for an audience of ebook technologists. The geo-aware ebook is not Liza's invention, but she certainly summoned it into being for us from out of the HTML5 protoplasm. HTML5 includes new scripting APIs that expose system hooks to a an HTML page's javascript. Of particular interest here is the interface to geolocation information.

expand or collapseTry it.

Yes, this annotation knows that you are in your underwear, wondering what this is. Congratulations, you have just experienced the world's very first geo-aware subtext annotation. Or maybe you haven't, because your browser (IE?) doesn't support it or because you've declined to give this page permission to access your geographic position.

A nice chapter on HTML5 Geolocation is in Dive Into HTML 5

My implementation isn't as sophisticated as Liza's. Feel free to leave a comment if you're using current versions of Chrome, Firefox or Safari and the sentence above still shows "your underwear".

It's an open question as to whether geo-awareness will be widely get used for art as opposed to commerce, but there are sure to be some amazing applications.
The applications to guidebooks and in-ebook advertising are obvious. I imagine a news site akin to Hacker News that ranks stories according to the coordinates of the reader and the contributor.

expand or collapseIt's becoming clear to me that the ebook will assume many new forms. Participants in the book industry- publishers, merchants, libraries, editors and of course authors will need to learn how to manage an increasingly diverse and dynamic product. Even if they don't have "true" names or identifiers for them.

The sorcerers of the "Vook" have many dragons to worry about.

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  1. Google Reader expands the annotations (and leaves the reader in his underwear), so it's necessary to click through to the blogsite to get the full experience.

  2. Other feed aggregators seem to choke on the javascript content at the top of the article; I've moved it to the bottom to see if it helps.

  3. Still a problem. I got here after starting with what I suspect was the updated version in Google Reader. I saw the plus signs, but didn't really understand what they were about until I read the article here.

    The geolocation also thinks I'm in Chicago, IL. I'm on AT&T's uverse network in Columbus, OH. Maxmind's GeoIP correctly nails my location, right down to my zip code (

    All in all, though, interesting thoughts. I'm not a big fan of moving the hyperlinks to the bottom of the page as footnotes. The expanding subtext annotation is neat, but since I spend most of my information surfing life in an old fashion RSS news reader I didn't get the benefit of them.