Friday, September 30, 2005

Better Bookmarking

One of my next projects (unless someone tells me that this already exists) is to create a better bookmarking app, one which remembers exactly where I am within an article, blog, or other such web text that I'm in the process of reading.

In the real world, written words are typically confined to a physical form with finite dimensions. If I dog-ear a page in a book, or invert a magazine to the article I'm reading, it's quite easy to pick up where I left off. I can also leave permanent markings on the page to make this easier. On the web, this is a bit more difficult.

Bookmarking a page to a website like or to your Favourites menu in your browser is more like tossing a book or magazine onto the coffee table. You really don't know what page you're on. All you know is that you've been reading it, or want to read it someday.

Occasionally, a web text is quite long, and stretches way below the boundary of your browser's window. If I'm reading such a text (or any text for that matter) and bookmark it, there's no easy way to recall where I was at the next reading. Sure, I can leave the page open in my browser along with umpteen other articles and blogs, but this can backfire (someone presses PageUp or Home; someone closes your browser; your computer dies.)

So what's the solution? A few things come to mind:

1. Browsers should make bookmarking better.
2. should make bookmarking better.
3. A new service needs to be created.
4. I should stop reading things on the web.

It should be a fairly simple matter for browsers to improve their bookmarking functionality to include "geo-positional" bookmarks within a web document. I click a bookmark button, I highlight a word or sentence, I click the same (or another) bookmark button, and voila. The browser can use HTML tags, or surrounding text as context clues.

I'm not going to directly give any ideas to improve their service. I'm sure they have plenty of brilliant minds working on this problem. Of course, they could simply read the next two paragraphs.

What kind of new service is needed? Perhaps the simplest idea is a browser-based plugin or extension, like a Greasemonkey script. The script creates hidden links for each word or sentence, and when the user clicks one, a bookmark is created either locally, or much better, at some centralized bookmarking site. This is a nice idea although I don't like having to install new things into my browser, nor do I like the fact that this is browser-based and would have to be installed at each and every computer I intend to use.

Better, but more difficult to implement, would be a new service which allows you to read a website through another website's bookmarking interface. For example, I go to my favourite social bookmarking site (which has the new service), and I click on an article that I've started to read. The bookmarking site loads the article into some kind of frame, parsing all of the text and adding hidden links to it, and leaving only the smallest vestiges of the bookmarking site in view (a tiny control menu, for example.) The article is advanced to a highlighted sentence, the one I had previously bookmarked. I continue reading, but am interrupted, so click the current sentence to bookmark it. The browser sends a message (AJAX) to the bookmarking site, updating the bookmark for this article, and the new sentence gets highlighted. This idea can be broken, however, by sites which kill surrounding frame elements. (There should be a way around this.)

Is such a product available? If yes, please comment. If not, I'll have to start working on one soon. (Or implement idea number 4.)

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Collaborative Writing: unblokt

unblokt is my first attempt at social software. To get an idea as to how unblokt works, consider the 200-page novel that is currently being written. A visitor to the site is presented with a random sentence from the novel and the one following it. The task is to write a sentence between these two. However, these 3 sentences are not "locked" together. At random, any of them may be presented to other users, who may then stick more and more sentences between them. Kind of like a "Big Bang" for writing. I am informed by Matt Obert of the Verbatim writing group that the writing method implemented by unblokt is in fact quite old, and is termed larding.

At this time, random people on the web have written

a 300-page novel,
a "Dear John" letter,
a "George W. Bush" speech,
a "Letter from Camp",
about 100 pages of a second novel,
and a few scattered sentences in a number of other genres

These can be read on the unblokt bookshelf. A word of warning: some authors have chosen to write some fairly racy sentences, so be prepared. I hope to soon make unblokt both social AND democratic by allowing the community to vote offensive sentences or spam "off the island", so to speak.