April 11, 2016 by Amanda Visconti

Talking social web annotation at the Folger Digital Futures panel

Early modern DH projects have focused on things like transcription, tagging, and data mining of texts; what else can DH projects around Elizabethan plays, old recipe manuscripts, and other early modern content do? I was part of a Folger Shakespeare Library sponsored panel on “digital futures” at the Renaissance Society of American annual conference (4/1/2016) that discussed possible next steps, and I gave a brief talk about the opportunities social annotation on such projects could support.

What kind of annotation?

I’m interested in letting modern readers add annotations to digital editions and similar textual projects. Where we may be used to pre-publication annotation by textual scholars, I’m interested in post-publication annotation by readers.

Online, this often looks like dragging your cursor to highlight words or sentences and typing in your annotation (with an expanded audience of annotators, this might mean a comment, question, interpretation,contextualization, translation, illustration, locations, or something else…). Then, you can see that annotation plus the annotations of other readers displayed somewhere alongside the digital text.

Open, public social annotation hasn’t yet been as supported by DH projects as activities like transcription or tagging. Compounding this, I’m not an early modernist, so if anyone knows of early modern projects supporting public annotation, please let me know! You can check out non-early-modern examples in the NYPL’s Candide 2.0, or my own project at InfiniteUlysses.com.

I’m especially interested in ways we can open up the conversations around literature to those outside universities, so I’m going to briefly talk about a couple ideas for social web annotation that serve reading audiences such as students and public enthusiasts:

Personalized & customized annotated editions

…Letting readers and researchers filter the visible annotations on a digital edition to just those matching personal interests and needs.

If we open texts to social annotation, even beyond basic moderation and curation to make sure annotations should be exposed to the public (e.g. that they’re not spam or off-topic…), we’ll quickly get more annotationson any page than most readers or scholars will want to see.

By gathering metadata such as the date the annotation was authored, the subjects the annotation discusses (e.g. slang or religion), and the type of annotation (is it interpretation? a translation? an illustration?), we can begin to allow filtering what annotations are displayed to each reader’s needs:

  • E.g.only show interpretations or contextualizations; don’t show translations; only show feminist readings; only show me annotations written by actors
  • E.g. a classroom version, first-time reader version, version accompanying a scholarly article annotating specific textual proof

I’ll briefly mention a few other filters provided by social curation of a website’s annotations: voting (problematic!), flagging for usefulness, tagging by annotation affect (funny, thoughtful). These carry their own issues–you want to have readers see ideas that challenge them, and give a voice in the conversation around a text to people who haven’t been invited in the past, so the various ways you make social annotation practically readable are very much under experimentation and debate. It’s important that projects allowing annotation filtering are prepared to test, assess, and change their interface to better support their user communities.

Annotation framework as an interactive introduction to textual scholarship

I’m imagining a kind of “Choose Your Own Edition” website that walks you through various locations of possible editorial intervention on a single interesting textual page, lets you choose from possible interventions or write in your own, and at the end recommends short writings and scholarly editions by editors who both strongly match and strongly oppose your line of reasoning.

At a very basic level, this makes clear to readers that “editing” is additional things beyond transcription, and that transcription is a complex and critical activity itself.

(I wireframed “Choose Your Own Edition” during a seminar at the Folger Shakespeare Library taught by Dr. Jeffrey Masten, and I’m hoping to further prototype the idea in partnership with Dr. Liz Mercier, who has been working on paleography pedagogy through her own site at http://purduepaleography.cla.purdue.edu/index.html).

In a classroom, different groups of students might be assigned to read the same section of a digital edition, but with a different “editorial theory” filter turned on for each group. Class discussion could then explore how reading differed when supplemented by annotations coming from different schools of thought and interests.

Or, after annotating scenes in a play, annotators could find out what kind of readings their annotations matched. E.g. did people into certain theories or readings tend to find certain passages especially interesting?

I see more digital editions in the future simply allowing post-publication social annotation, where annotation of a digital edition is an ongoing activity open to the public (or some subset, such as invited literature scholars), rather than just having finished digital editions containing annotations released to the public. Social annotations can let the conversation around a text grow and be iterative as new ideas, new performances, and new relevant events occur. Annotations can increase public interest in illustrative materials and lesser known texts. And perhaps most importantly, annotation can support participation and inclusion of citizen humanists.