Yesterday at Smart Chicago we launched our Annotations project, where we publish rich text-based annotations of dense government documents like municipal code, RFPs, contracts, and other documents of this nature using the News Genius section of Rap Genius (“your guide to the meaning of rap lyrics… and LIFE“)
I’ve really loved Rap Genius since the day I saw it. Searching for lyrics in search engines used to be a dirty business filled with spam sites and trick downloads. Rap Genius is smart software that can be used for any purpose.
T.S. Eliot de St. Louis: the master of the annotation
As a poet, I’ve had a long love affair with annotations. In college, I had a side project where I looked up every footnote in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland in the library. I wanted to physically see each reference in every book he called out in his masterpiece.
Annotating the physical world
Right around the same time I did a similar thing called the Bibliography of American Poetry Told Through the Pulitzer Prize— a spreadsheet of every winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with an image, the library call number, and a personal annotation about the edition that I had retrieved from the shelf at the UIC Main Library.
Mind you, I didn’t actually *read* most of the books. I just wanted to touch each one of them and capture something real about every one of the objects, as books.
When I made my first website, I put in on the Web. I remember thinking at the time, “Man, *this* is what the World Wide Web was *made* for!”
GoogObits: testing out hypertext enjambment
Later, I made my first weblog (late to the game in 2002). It was a Salon Blog called, “GoogObits: Obituaries and essays augmented by Google seaches. There is a lot to learn from the dead.” My underlying principle was that copyrighted text has meaning beyond its first life. I called all of this “hypertext enjambment”. Here’s an essay I wrote explaining it (“On Hypertext Enjambment”). And here’s some snips on how it worked:
- Sometimes the links buttressed the text of the obituary, linking to books and other original works mentioned in the obituary
- Sometimes the links were instructive in prosaic ways not intended in the original text, like linking “food stamps” to more information at the Social Security office:
- Sometimes the links were sideways, using the found text of the obituary to make a completely unrelated point, like linking the word “Misrepresentation” to a page about the Iran-Contra Affair
My overall term for this is “hypertext enjambment”. People don’t do enough of that, I think. Links are mainly boring and straight on the internet. The word “red” links to something red. A link on the phrase “Governor Rockefeller” would never surprise you. There’s more to be had. All hail hypertext enjambment.
Some of my favorites:
The site was even the Yahoo! Pick of the day at one point. Glorious.
Y!Q Link Generator: technology for enjambment
In 2005, Yahoo! came out with something called “Y!Q for Publishers”, which was (I thought) an awesome tool for embedding some of this interestingness into the Web. I wrote a pretty comprehensive post about Y!Q called, “Y!Q for Publishers: More Hyper, Less Link!“. It was a complicated implementation that required too much work to create the links.
I came up with an idea for automating link creation and my colleague Ben Friedberg did all of the technology. The result was a pretty badass tool that made the links for you. It’s still alive, notwithstanding the fast death of the Y!Q program itself:
I finally put all of this thinking about annotations down in a cohesive format with my “Derivative Works Art Manifesto” in December 2005. Snip:
Users of the world are presented with fresh, owned content every day. We have the technology, the precedents, and the duty to make new art out of this owned content—the stuff of our lives.
Here’s what we need now:
- A universal acknowledgment of this right to create derivative works from our experience of owned content without regard to the wishes of the original content owner
- A set of guidelines that inject mutual respect, recognition, and accountability into the process of creating derivative works
- An automatic compensation system that ensures payment to reward original creators while inducing new artists
Annotations are the linguistic right of the people. All hail Rap Genius.