My main work tools are text and graphics. Graphics for use in presentations, and text to get all the information input for processing and thinking about.

I read a lot. Partly because it’s my job, and partly because I just enjoy it. But most of the time, when I read, I don’t just read, and I suspect most of you don’t, as well. It turns out it’s surprisingly hard to only focus on the text, and not to have thoughts wander off on a tangent.

Because that’s what we usually do best. Associations, memories, context. When I read, I work up on the context and the associations of what I read. I read about changes to the German Feed-In Tariffs, I’m mentally calculating potential upsides and downsides. I read about a new IoT-project, I look for similarities and differences to related projects. That’s how I work, and I’m beginning to suspect I’m not the only one.

Last week, at a conference called FinHTML5 I was lucky enough to be the opening speaker, and thus not be nervous and mentally going through my slide-deck and presentation all over again for the day, but be present. And so I could watch the impressive Andrew Betts talk about the work he’s done for the FT. He made a lot of valid points about how the reading experience on the web is in many ways suboptimal, especially on devices that have no reliable and persistent connectivity. And then he said the following:

“…the web was built for a publishing use case, and if it can’t do that well, that’s a pretty bad indictment of the web”


While I don’t necessarily agree that the web was built for the publishing use case, Andy has a point here.

Interacting with digital text is incredibly cumbersome.

We haven’t yet managed to get anywhere the ease of use that traditional printed text gives us, and we haven’t yet begun to explore the advantages of digital that expand beyond immediacy and ‘weightlessness’. Simple stuff that for me is absolutely essential, stuff like highlighting and annotating, still remain essentially unsolved. As Fabian, a good friend of mine, quipped over coffee the other day: for highlighting, there’s still nothing that beats paper and markers.

Highlight markers “Screw Digital” by Fabian Mürmann

There’s a couple of apps that try to solve this. I use Readmill quite religiously. They have a beautiful iPad app and so far seem to be the most convenient and easiest to use way to highlight and annotate text in ebooks. That is, unless the ebook you want to read is only available from Amazon, which provides its format, or non-Adobe DRM-ed epub. Talking of Amazon: I have a Kindle3, which I loved because for just quick reading it’s amazing. But highlighting? Forget about it. Also forget about consuming any content on that device that is not bought from Amazon. Even with the bad UX design that comes with highlighting on the device itself, for non-Amazon titles, you don’t even get a central repository of your highlights. And that’s just books we’re talking about.

Moving onto the web, it’s only getting more bizarre. There’s Quote.FM which I loved to use, but recently lost me because I feel the software is too opinionated. Only sharing one highlight out of a piece of text is simply not my use case. Often I need to highlight multiple passages. Also, it doesn’t integrate easily with another service I rely on heavily, which is Instapaper. That’s where the majority of news items, analysis, blog posts and other assorted text reside and wait for the next free 30 mins to be worked through. Highlights there get shared to Tumblr, because unfortunately that seems to be the only location that Instapaper let’s me reliably push text to.

These are the pains I have, working with books and online text. I do not even want to start imagining the pains academics and specialty professions have to go through.

Felix Salmon recently had an interesting piece up. Coming out of DLD13 he asked: “Are annotations the new comments?” and it seems to me that it slowly seeps into our collective conciousnesses that the way we work with digital text is a complete mess.

It’s 2012 and digital text still isn’t solved. Can someone fix that, please?

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