Editors and relatives often ask me if there’s an application that lets you scrawl notes on a Web page. Instead of e-mailing a link to a news story, you could circle what you think is important before passing it on; rather than bookmarking a page, you could slap on a sticky note. The funny thing is, that kind of Web page annotation software has been around since before Netscape. Yet hardly anyone uses it, and none of the top browser makers has embraced it.
In 2001, Microsoft bought Web page markup technology from a company called E-Quill but hasn’t incorporated any of its features into Internet Explorer. The iMarkup toolbar, which debuted to rave reviews in 2000, hasn’t gotten much buzz since. You can still get iMarkup—a 30-day trial is free and it costs $39.95 if you want to keep it after that. One screenshot says it all: You can highlight parts of a page, post sticky notes, draw freehand, and insert arrows, links, file attachments, and sound bites. Taking notes on the Slate home page won’t change what other surfers see. But when you revisit the page, iMarkup will remember what you wrote and slap your notes atop the live site. In one simple step, you can e-mail your annotations (or a screenshot of your annotations) to a friend. Using a free iMarkup plug-in, they can then view your notes overlaid atop the live site.
After playing around with iMarkup for just five minutes, I was convinced that it’s a useful tool. But after a few more days of tinkering, I realized that Web page annotation has flopped because it doesn’t offer a compelling reason to change how we use computers. You could take notes in iMarkup, but it’s more straightforward to jot down your thoughts in Word. You could also use it to collaborate with colleagues, but it’s easier to send an e-mail or instant message. Then it hit me—there is a compelling reason to scribble on Web pages and news stories. This is the killer app for political bloggers.
Every killer app needs a killer name. Creating a new product by writing all over somebody else’s article is kind of like making a mash-up. Let’s call it newsmashing—that’s just nerdy enough to catch on.
Why is newsmashing better than today’s blogging techniques? Currently, political bloggers write a post by taking a snippet from a news story, an op-ed column, or another blog post. Then, they copy, paste, and indent the most partisan, disingenuous, and inaccurate passage onto their own blog and add a bulletproof rebuttal right below. The problem with this technique is that it makes the readers do all the work. First, they need to pop the original piece open in another window to “read the whole thing.” After that, they have to flip back and forth between the original and the rebuttal to make sure the blogger isn’t getting the facts wrong, leaving out a key detail, or quoting something out of context. Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier to read blogs if you could look at the critique and the original argument at the same time?
Think back to college. When you got a term paper back, it only took a few seconds to spot your transgressions—all you had to do was look for bright red ink, passages highlighted in yellow, or the dreaded “See me” sticky note. You didn’t have to flip back and forth—you could read the whole thing, as it were, in one stomach-twisting glance. The one advantage of my Jurassic day job as a print magazine writer is that whenmy editor scrawls “HUH?” across an entire paragraph, I don’t have to click any hyperlinks to get the point.
How would bloggers use a tool like iMarkup? Take a look at this screenshot of my markup of Josh Levin’s recent Slate piece on rappers and bloggers. Typing an all-text rebuttal would have been tedious. First, I’d have to spell out Levin’s failure to note his conflicts of interest rather than just marking the holes on the page. Then, unless I posted his entire piece in my blog, you’d have to take my word for it that he never figures out the difference between “bloggers” and “political bloggers.” But with iMarkup, I can just circle his own words on his own page—no more “out of context” alibis.
You might think newsmashing will turn the political blogosphere into one big, graffiti-strewn bathroom stall. If you’ve ever watched the left and right edit each other’s Wikipedia entries, you know how annoying that can get. Just this second, George W. Bush is defined as “the current President of the United States who is secretly plotting the downfall of America.” He’ll probably be “the architect of global democracy” by the time you click. But I think bloggers are capable of more than mental table tennis. I expect something at least as entertainingly infuriating as the Camille Paglia interview that ran in the first issue of Wired—with Paglia’s angry, handwritten corrections slathered on top. If she had just typed up a polite rebuttal, it would’ve been buried on the Letters page.
Even if newsmashing does prove itself to be a worthwhile form of communication, the software will have to get a whole lot better for leading-edge tech bloggers to embrace it. Instead of iMarkup’s plug-in format, newsmashing applications should use standard HTML. That way, bloggers will be able to mash each other from their Treos and Sidekicks; Google and, better yet, Technorati will search the results. Also, no one company can own the technology. If there’s a monopoly, geeks will bash it, not mash it.
Along with the tech hurdles, newsmashers will certainly face legal roadblocks. The founders of iMarkup told me they’ve never received any complaints about their product. They also told me they’ve never investigated the legality of marking up a copyrighted page and posting it for other people to look at. Can you publish a complete version of someone else’s article, plus your notes, without risking a copyright lawsuit? Google’s AutoLink feature tries to solve this problem by modifying only the local copies of Web pages. But lawyers I talked to said an angry publisher could still sue. The New York Times probably won’t buy the argument that it’s “fair use” to host a mashed version of a news story on your blog.
There’s no doubt that when newsmashing takes off, the mainstream media will not be amused. But maybe newspaper mash-up artists will follow the career path of music mashers. At first, record labels tried to sue them out of existence. Now, they court mashers as trend-setting viral marketers. The Times has a chance to leap ahead of the curve. When Daniel Okrent leaves on May 31, the NYT should hire Josh Marshall or Andrew Sullivan to remix the paper of record. Who needs a public editor when you can have a public newsmasher?