February 20, 2007

Marginalia + Paraphernalia = Story

by Nick Montfort · , 3:56 am

Mark Marino, one of the people named Time Magazine’s man of the year last year, has turned his bleeding-edge writing implements to the task of Web annotation. Travelogues and journals were in use for a while before Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, and A Journal of the Plague Year, and, more recently, email had existed for a at least few decades before Carl Steadman wrote Two Solitudes, Rob Wittig Blue Company, and Scott Rettberg Kind of Blue. As Marino has noted, literature of annotation exists, too, but Nabokov and Wallace, for instance, had a long tradition of “real” endnotes and footnotes to build on. Web annotation isn’t even out of beta (and specifically, the Diigo system isn’t) and Marino is already digitally scribbling a story in the form.

The dog-eared tale is called “Marginalia in the Library of Babel” and, appropriately, annotates the referred-to Borges story as told to us by a little fish. Marino has offered some context for the project in another post, saying,

“Marginalia” offers one example of annotation used to write upon the web and to use the web as writing. Borges seems an uncanny muse for this project for a variety of reasons, explored in the tale. After introductory text post, the story begins with a machine translation of Borges’ tale, posted on the web. Floating over the text, are the reflections of a meta-narrator, who sends the reader to other places on the web. As a result, the story is also reading over the shoulder of this character. The bookmarks themselves are the story.

Important! System requirements ahead. To read, you must:

1. Install the magical Diigo button in your browser.
2. Use a supported browser (Firefox on OS X works; Opera doesn’t)
3. Be patient, since annotations will take some time to load.

After you manage these feats three, you can read, everywhere you see blue, “Markcmarino’s private note (provided by Diigo).” Some of these have links. I found some interesting yellow highlighting in evidence, too.

Mark says the story is still in alpha – presumably, it’s headed toward aleph. I must admit that I don’t know how to read it, although it’s interesting to try. Now, it’s not that Marino’s writing or that where he’s chosen to annotate is inscrutable. Rather, it would be startling if I could read this story, because I don’t really know how to read or write the “nonfiction” Web annotations upon which this story is based. That is, I know how to make a note and such – some trivial, momentary initiation involving cork, wax, and the W3C Amaya browser led me to that basic understanding of Web annotation years ago. But I don’t have any feel for the conventions and textures of annotation specifically on the Web, if there are any.

The register of the annotations doesn’t seem to be that of metafictional mastery, but they are pitched higher than Mystery Science Theater 3000. There are interesting and amusing thoughts amid the quippy questions that might be made for class discussion, but I’m not sure what sense of character takes shape, or what whirl of combinatorial meta-amazement will be elicited. Right now, “Marginalia in the Library of Babel” is at least a good excuse for the annotation-curious to toy with Diigo. The story could grow into something compelling. The writing might twist further, and Marino’s marginalia could creep into every more interesting, ever more marginal spaces of our hexagonal Web. Who knows? An annotation of this review might even become part of the tale.