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. Page from the Talmud, the original hypertext and editorial sidebar, all rolled into one. 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.

The digital medium hasn’t yet been fully explored with respect to the presentation of text, and nested-text would be a very natural, medium-appropriate format. This is particularly true when you think about the current AJAX-driven/”Web 2.0″ visual language of dynamic content. Using a mix of CSS, <DIV> tags and maybe a smattering of Javascript, the full length of the text could exist in the document (which especially important for the search engines) but the user could “unwrap” the document at her own pace. 

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.

Some of the fancier FAQs, newsfeeds and search result pages out there already feature something very close to this idea of nested text as part of an article. see more.... I said, CLICK HERE! LinkedIn uses a pretty tight system for its LinkedIn Answers feature: When showing a list of questions and answers, the answers are truncated and end with the text “see more.” Clicking on that expands the paragraph of text and the “see more” becomes “see less.”  In the document source, the paragraph is contained inside a <DIV> called “seemore,” and a Javascript function controls the truncation and more/less tags.  So this idea of having nested text as an additional tool for the creative writer just needs a tiny push forward from the existing utilitarian application of having a single “see more” on a chunk of text.

(By the way: The proprietary WordPress <!–more–> tag isn’t exactly like LinkedIn’s “seemore” CSS/Javascript solution.  It’s more like a traditional weblink, that also allows the author to manually truncate the post when it’s being displayed on pages that feature more than one post.)   

Bit by bit, we can push this medium forward.

Ok, someone go do it.


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on December 30, 2007, in Blogging, Information Design. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I wish I had the time and energy. I thought I had seen something like footnoting here in WordPress, but it seems that I was mistaken. I love the nesting idea.

  2. I know this is an old article but a plugin I like to use for WordPress is called FD Footnotes plugin, works really well.

    • Thanks for this recommendation for the FD Footnotes plugin for WP– it looks like a really good, clean solution!

      Thanks also for deciding to comment even though this is an “old” article. 🙂

      Now, let’s see if we can find a Nested Text plug-in for WordPress…

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