CJ Eller

Thinking about tools for thinking about thinking

There is a pattern common to myself and others – putting pieces of writing writing into other pieces of writing – books. Sometimes it is relevant to the reading – an obituary of the author tucked away in the table of contents. Other times it is not even related – a birthday card that suffices as a bookmark.

It makes me think about how we embed writing into other writing on the web. A newspaper article clipping is replaced by a hyperlink to take you to said newspaper article. Sure, the tactility is lost, but deep down I wonder what else is.

Reminds me of Ted Nelson's qualm with “cut-and-paste” as adopted by early computing:

To me that was an outrage because no one has yet got a decent re-arrangement system that allows you to see the all the parts of the arrangement as you’re writing. Those words meant something entirely different until 1984. Balzac, the French novelist, carried a razor blade around his neck for cutting up his manuscript. Tolstoy would cut up his manuscripts and leave all the pieces around the floor. This is true cut-and-paste, where you’re re-arranging on a large scale and able to see the relationships between parts.

I used to hate underlining passages in a book. Without making a note of why I found it worth underlining, the passage marooned from meaning. Why did I underline that sentence in the first place? There had to be something in the margins to provide context.

So then I reread a book with those underlines with marginalia. Half of the time the marginalia gives me little to work from. (“Haha” – so I guess I found that sentence funny for some reason?) Others are so grounded in who I was at the time that my present self cannot even understand why I might have found it compelling in the first place. All of the emphasis on marginalia carried over little to future skimming. And maybe that is not what marginalia is for.

Lately I have grown partial to simply underlining. I don't rack my brain over leaving a comment. Even if I know not fully what I thought about a passage, the act of underlining it still comes back to me. I then find the underlined passage in question. Only then do I begin to think more about the passage, jot some notes down, turn it into a blog post. The underline was the most important part, not the thoughts attached to it. That was what set the deeper inquiry into motion

We need such anchors in this sea of words we find ourselves in. One has to be able to catch and release on a whim. On the web, annotation seems like such a well suited anchor. Like underlining, the act of annotating leaves me with a general impression of a passage I found interesting. Only after interrogating the passage beyond the annotation do I find meaning. But I could not have done so without anchoring myself at that point in that blog post, in that article, in that PDF.

Because you have to drop the anchor first. Then you start fishing.

I have been using Hypothesis to make annotations and highlights across the web for a while now. After some time, it struck me odd that I had not tried to turn the tool inward. Why not give others the ability to annotate and highlight my own writing?

So now Hypothesis is native on the blog. There are two things to notice. One, some parts of this post are highlighted in yellow. If you click them, a sidebar will pop up with the annotations therein. Two, if you highlight a part of text, Hypothesis will prompt you to make an annotation or a highlight. Making an account is easy. Think of the account as giving you the superpower to not only annotate here but anywhere on the web.

This experiment is an extension of a broader conversation on building meaningful interaction and context into the web. I have carried around this thought from a post by Bix:

One thing I miss about writing on Medium is highlighting, and it got me thinking last night and again this morning that blogging platforms should do away with likes, or refrain from implementing them if the platforms are under development, and instead implement reader highlights.

Likes are completely devoid of both content and context. If a reader doesn't have anything useful or interesting to add by way of posting a comment, their only other choice should be to highlight something in what they read that especially spoke to or struck them.

And if they do have something useful or interesting to add, why not have it attached to the thing that they read that especially spoke to or struck them? That is the strength of web annotation software – it can allow a spectrum of interaction that still gives context to reader and writer alike.

I hope you will join the experiment.

It's fun to be read, and more so, it's better to be debated, to be questioned, to have to defend one's ideas not from dogma but from reason and science.

This sentiment from Mikka gets at a yearning for most writers – to not simply be read but for someone to take what you have written and engage with it in their own writing.

But what if such a connection won't happen? What if we are just writing in a vacuum? Brendan Schlagel best describes this in a post as “uncertainty of reception”:

Uncertainty of reception: will anyone read or care? Will it resonate, or endure in any perceivable way? Barring that, might it even start an interesting conversation?

He develops this into a further developed cadre of questions:

[W]hat things make it hard to have meaningful networked conversations, ones intended to spark dialogue and explore ideas with others? What are the challenges to feeling like you’re part of an identifiable community when you’re writing?

While we can be unsure about the reception of our own writing, let us be more sure of how we receive the writing of others. Before I wrote here I wrote on Wordpress – 300 + posts of navel gazing. No wonder there was no worthwhile response.

But ever since I started writing here I developed a different posture. I started to interact with the posts of others here, engaging in worthwhile discussions about how to meaningfully connect on the web. It felt like a breakthrough. Not only was the quality of writing better but the writing experience as a whole.

It was a valuable lesson – to shift from the uncertainty of reception of my own writing into the certainty of reception of other's writing, to at least attempt to start those interesting questions, to at least question someone else's writing.

My feeling about why write a book in paper now is that what a book does is it actually stops the flow of information.

This thought from Kenneth Goldsmith touches on something key. We think that the power of the web is like running water. But what good is that water if it cannot be turned off sometimes?

There are many ways this can be done besides writing a book in paper. I am reminded of a technique of novelist Don DeLillo that Inquiry brought to my attention:

Something from it that rather stuck was [Don DeLillo's] habit of putting paragraphs each on their own sheet of paper – I think in part to see how each paragraph stood on its own, as if being merely seen straddled by other paragraphs distracted his mind from sufficient focus to make the most of such a unit.

We usually think of a single page holding as many paragraphs as it can. But DeLillo did not think that way – one paragraph per page. He too wanted to control the flow of information.

So then the question becomes, “How do we do this on the web?” Because there are more ways available than simply limiting internet time.

It has taken on a new context on the web.

Because most writing software is anything but. Editors parade everything but the kitchen sink – fonts, video, italics, images, alignment, audio, color. One can spend hours on what a sentence looks like, let alone what it means.

And the place where one writes can also be where one reads. Messages whiz by as you try to write your own. It can be like trying to have a conversation in a noisy bar where other conversations are within earshot.

Minimalist writing software goes the opposite direction. It promotes the blank page. Who knew that the symbol of writer's block would become marketed as a symbol of freedom?

The tyranny of the blank page becomes the benevolence of the blank page.

My work as a blogger, I explained, is rolling snowballs downhill. Some I create new; others I push along, adding a small measure of mass along the way.

My point: rolling snowballs is way different from building sites and transporting content. Not totally different, perhaps, but enough to fork the Web.

Doc Searls has a point — snowball management is what we do when we write on the web. Which ones do we push along? Which ones do we add a small measure of mass to?

These questions take on a new context in light of platforms where snowballs form at an exponential rate. It is hard to see how they even got cascading downhill to begin with. At best we ask which ones are picking up speed. That way small measures of mass can be directed to snowballs already in motion.

But is this viable? As Bix says of social media, we lose context from such snowball management. The hills are so massive that snowballs hurtle down the hill, often at the harm of those in their path.

Why not focus on smaller hills? On snowballs we where we can see individual contributions to the conversation? Why must we be rolling snowballs downhill to begin with?

He bound the manuscripts of his diary. Six volumes were catalogued into his library alongside a first edition of Newton's Principa and works of antiquity.

They could have been thrown aside. Put into a desk to be forgotten. Instead, we get a peculiar sense of foreshadowing. It is as if Samuel Pepys knew that his diaries would be of interest to future generations. That entries would be read beyond his personal library.

What is the equivalent of binding our digital notes for posterity? I am reminded of a concern stressed in a New York Times article on the 2012 “Take Note” conference at Harvard:

Anxiety over the potential mindlessness of note-taking took on particular urgency during the digital annotation session, at which panelists debated whether the Internet and social media had ushered in a golden age of notes or doomed us to watch all our fleeting thoughts — if not our brains themselves — sucked down a giant digital drain, beyond the reach of future historians.

Current online systems are good at showing you when someone does something, posts or tweets or toots or comments or whatever. But the endless scroll hides the absences. Not out of any malice, I suspect, just because it's harder to show people when someone doesn't say something. What would that notification even look like?

Nate, your thought reminds me how much software focuses on entrances. “This is the first time Nate has posted – let's welcome him to the community!” People join and introduce themselves. All is well and good.

Then people slip out of the conversation. These are quiet and drawn out. No formal goodbyes. No “I miss you, please come back.” It just happens.

There are people I follow on the Read Write.as feed, for instance, that seem to have stopped writing. I note how I have not seen their posts in a week. Then a week becomes a month. Then I forget that I miss them. Not out of any malice, I suspect, just because it's harder to notice when people are not posting when they used to.

While a community based question, it also sounds like a systemic one. Why can't we build into our software the ability to reach out to lapsing members, to remind us of people who we should reach out to again, to let someone know that people are missing their contributions on a platform?

I have been thinking about the nature of correspondence, and pondering the value of intentionally writing and framing ‘reply’ blog posts in the second person and first person:

Hi Riley. Your blog post makes me think…

This perspective feels much more like a conversation than a commentary. While there is nothing wrong with commentary, I suspect the usual, detected third person POV will always sound more like an editorial than an exchange. Of course, there is nothing wrong with editorials, either. The question is, do I personally want to be more of a reporter or more of a conversationalist in this space?

James, your post makes me rethink how I interact with other posts on the web. The third person does create a different kind of relationship. We point to writing rather than addressing the writer. This question of identity, whether to be more of a reporter or a conversationalist on the web, is an important one to ask.

Because there are two ends of the spectrum – both of them are echo chambers. One is of the lonely individual and the other is of the insulated community. How can we arrive at a healthy medium?

Perhaps reviewing the terms on which we engage with others is a start.

HT: Thanks Bix for sharing this article on your blog. I hope that you choose to continue your blog on Write.as. Your writing has helped me think better about the web.