Writing in the Internet’s Margins

Jason’s post on Monday about the advent of Google’s SideWiki was fortuitously timed with Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s announcement on Twitter that the text of her new book had just been posted online. Not new to the world of online writing within academia, Fitzpatrick has been blogging for most of this decade and has been recording her progress on the manuscript of Planned Obsolescence for much of that time. What makes its appearance online especially noteworthy–especially in the context of SideWiki–is that Fitzpatrick is inviting the entire Internet community to comment on the manuscript. But as opposed to comments on a run-of-the-mill blog (such as this one) which merely follow a post, Planned Obsolescence allows for comments to appear side-by-side with the paragraphs of the text. But how does this marginalia work? And how can you do something similar?

As Fitzpatrick explains, her ”site is powered by CommentPress, which allows comments to be attached to whole pages or to individual paragraphs. on her website.” CommentPress is a theme that you can install on a WordPress blog. What this means is that you can use it to allow marginalia in any text that you can place in a blog–provided that you have the permissions to do so. (Julie’s post on website hosting 101 might mean that you already have all of this in place.) CommentPress’s development has been sponsored over the last two years by the Institute for the Future of the Book. Fitzpatrick confirmed in an email exchange that her site is running on a beta version of the theme and that the final version will be even more robust than what is installed on the site.

Fitzpatrick writes that the comments left on the her site will be used in the revisions she makes to the text, which is due to be published by NYU Press. (Kudos to NYU Press for being willing to experiment with this new form of publishing and peer review.) While I personally love Fitzpatrick’s work, she is not the first person to use CommentPress as a new and open form of peer review. McKenzie Wark’s GAM3R 7H3ORY was the first text to be networked using an early version of CommentPress (there’s also a version 2.0 now). And during Spring 2008, Noah Wardrip-Fruin published chapters of Expressive Processing on the group blog Grand Text Auto. Fruin writes about the experience in several blog posts.

But hold on! Thanks to the wilds of the Internet, you actually have more than one option if you want to add marginalia to your blog. The original programmer of CommentPress has been working on similar project:, which is a major re-visioning of the project.  Like its predecessor, works within a WordPress blog.  One major difference, however, is that instead of being a theme it is instead a plugin. (See Ethan’s and Julie’s posts about themes and plugins, respectively.) I won’t get into the details of how this differs, but if you have your own WordPress blog, then installing one or the other will be a piece of cake. offers several options that the publically available version of CommentPress lacks at the moment: such as threaded comments, RSS feeds for comment authors, real-time on-site notifications of new comments, and more. (As mentioned, CommentPress continues to be developed and one assumes that similar features may be included in the future. An RSS feed for all comments is already present on Fitzpatrick’s site. [What's RSS? See Jason's ProfHacker 101 post on the subject!])

Whether you decide CommentPress or might be the right choice for you, the use of such a tool is not simply limited to academic manuscripts. One can easily imagine using it in the classroom, say, to collaboratively annotate a literary text, as Rob Gray’s students are doing with at the University of South Alabama. Or you might use it to gather feedback on a manifesto or two, as UCLA faculty did with CommentPress in an attempt to foment a revolution in digital humanities work. Perhaps you could use it to take comments on your committee’s revisions of the departmental handbook. The CommentPress theme and plugin seem ideal for when you want the ability to comment more closely on a portion of a text than a typical blog or wiki allows and when you want to avoid the full-on collaborative experience of working with a wiki.

What uses can you think of for in-line commenting in any realm of academic work?

[Image of annotated copy of James Joyce's Ulysses by flickr user cobra libre. Used under its Creative Commons license.]

Return to Top