Footnotes in Blogs & Nested Text
One of the things lacking most in blogging software is the ability to easily add footnotes. By “easily,” I mean something that involves using a simple tag, and that features, at the very least, an auto-numbering function. Even wikis have some established conventions for footnotes and there probably are innumerable proposed XML standards out there, as well. Yet here in blogospherelandistan, we have no footnotes.
Why do I care? Well, footnotes are a great way to annotate articles and essays, whether you want to make a detailed references, expand on a point or even go off on a tangent. In fact, because blogs are (as a medium) biased for brevity, footnotes would be especially useful for that kind of annotation. As a blogger, I find myself using way too many parentheses because I don’t have an easy way to employ something less obtrusive (like footnotes) (ok, that last parenthetical wasn’t so necessary, nor is this one, but you get my point).
How to represent a footnote? There are many ways to handle footnotes. In traditional books, I’ve always been a fan of the on-page footnote (which is a note at the actual foot of the page, as it were) as opposed to numbered comments at the end of the chapter, or worse, at the end of the book. The Talmud’s approach of having a page of text, nested with layers of surrounding commentary and meta-commentary, is particularly appealing. But even in the non-scholarly periodicals such as Newsweek, People magazine and so forth, you have something similar to an extended footnote: The Sidebar. Oh, the Sidebar, how I love thee.
All those methods of representation are possible online, and then some. One that I see often is green highlighted/underlined text, where you either roll-over or click on the high to reveal some additional notes. The hypercard/hypertext option is, of course, always an option… if you want to learn more on the subject, just click the link and go to another card/page (or even just a pop-up) that will deal with that subject. However, those tend to lack the immediacy of a footnote and function more as, well, links.
What I haven’t seen is a nested-text option, which would be particularly useful for articles that target audiences of varying levels of knowledge. You could use nested text to discuss a topic for which some readers require/desire a more basic introduction or explanation, while others are ready to move on to the next point, or even go off on a related tangent. The reader would be able to expand or contract the article as desired, the same way the “Group Rows/Columns” function in Microsoft Excel works. Imagine that! Variable-length text. Give me the elevator pitch, or tell me more about some aspect of it. Don’t make me click around through different documents.
I find that some well-written articles, particularly in the Wall Street Journal are sort of written like that anyway: The topic is introduced, background is provided, the story is told, the current status is explained and then the future is speculated upon. This tight writing structure allows the reader to “fast forward” through the stuff they might already know and get to the part they are interested in. Compare this to many articles in the New Yorker magazine, which jump around so much that you never know when they’re going to end (and as you keep turning the pages of the article your eye immediately searches for the black diamond on the bottom right corner… oh please, black diamond… please…). The point is, authors may sometimes not WANT to use footnotes and force the reader through a particular path. But here we are in the digital medium, and we’re not taking advantage of the potential to create a more fluid textual experience.
A tag might look something like this: <DIV CLASS=”FOOTNOTE” DISPLAY=”SIDEBAR” ALIGN=”RIGHT” BORDER=1 BGCOLOR=9999BB etc…etc..>. With a good standard, the browser itself might be able to control those footnotes, ie, whether to display them in line or at the bottom of the page (mobile browser mode), and so on.
Bit by bit, we can push this medium forward.
Ok, someone go do it.