Organizing my research related reading

There’s so much great material out there to read and not nearly enough time. The question becomes: “How to best organize it all, so you can read even more?”

I just came across a tweet from Michael Nielsen about the topic, which is far deeper than even a few tweets could do justice to, so I thought I’d sketch out a few basic ideas about how I’ve been approaching it over the last decade or so. Ideally I’d like to circle back around to this and better document more of the individual aspects or maybe even make a short video, but for now this will hopefully suffice to add to the conversation Michael has started.

Keep in mind that this is an evolving system which I still haven’t completely perfected (and may never), but to a great extent it works relatively well and I still easily have the ability to modify and improve it.

Overall Structure

The first piece of the overarching puzzle is to have a general structure for finding, collecting, triaging, and then processing all of the data. I’ve essentially built a simple funnel system for collecting all the basic data in the quickest manner possible. With the basics down, I can later skim through various portions to pick out the things I think are the most valuable and move them along to the next step. Ultimately I end up reading the best pieces on which I make copious notes and highlights. I’m still slowly trying to perfect the system for best keeping all this additional data as well.

Since I’ve seen so many apps and websites come and go over the years and lost lots of data to them, I far prefer to use my own personal website for doing a lot of the basic collection, particularly for online material. Toward this end, I use a variety of web services, RSS feeds, and bookmarklets to quickly accumulate the important pieces into my personal website which I use like a modern day commonplace book.


In general, I’ve been using the Inoreader feed reader to track a large variety of RSS feeds from various clearinghouse sources (including things like ProQuest custom searches) down to individual researcher’s blogs as a means of quickly pulling in large amounts of research material. It’s one of the more flexible readers out there with a huge number of useful features including the ability to subscribe to OPML files, which many readers don’t support.

As a simple example has an RSS feed for the topic of “information theory” at which I subscribe to. I can quickly browse through the feed and based on titles and/or abstracts, I can quickly “star” the items I find most interesting within the reader. I have a custom recipe set up for the service that pulls in all these starred articles and creates new posts for them on my WordPress blog. To these posts I can add a variety of metadata including top level categories and lower level tags in addition to other additional metadata I’m interested in.

I also have similar incoming funnel entry points via many other web services as well. So on platforms like Twitter, I also have similar workflows that allow me to use services like or Zapier to push the URLs easily to my website. I can quickly “like” a tweet and a background process will suck that tweet and any URLs within it into my system for future processing. This type of workflow extends to a variety of sites where I might consume potential material I want to read and process. (Think academic social services like Mendeley,, Diigo, or even less academic ones like Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) Many of these services often have storage ability and also have simple browser bookmarklets that allow me to add material to them. So with a quick click, it’s saved to the service and then automatically ported into my website almost without friction.

My WordPress-based site uses the Post Kinds Plugin which takes incoming website URLs and does a very solid job of parsing those pages to extract much of the primary metadata I’d like to have without requiring a lot of work. For well structured web pages, it’ll pull in the page title, authors, date published, date updated, synopsis of the page, categories and tags, and other bits of data automatically. All these fields are also editable and searchable. Further, the plugin allows me to configure simple browser bookmarklets so that with a simple click on a web page, I can pull its URL and associated metadata into my website almost instantaneously. I can then add a note or two about what made me interested in the piece and save it for later.

Note here, that I’m usually more interested in saving material for later as quickly as I possibly can. In this part of the process, I’m rarely ever interested in reading anything immediately. I’m most interested in finding it, collecting it for later, and moving on to the next thing. This is also highly useful for things I find during my busy day that I can’t immediately find time for at the moment.

As an example, here’s a book I’ve bookmarked to read simply by clicking “like” on a tweet I cam across late last year. You’ll notice at the bottom of the post, I’ve optionally syndicated copies of the post to other platforms to “spread the wealth” as it were. Perhaps others following me via other means may see it and find it useful as well?


At regular intervals during the week I’ll sit down for an hour or two to triage all the papers and material I’ve been sucking into my website. This typically involves reading through lots of abstracts in a bit more detail to better figure out what I want to read now and what I’d like to read at a later date. I can delete out the irrelevant material if I choose, or I can add follow up dates to custom fields for later reminders.

Slowly but surely I’m funneling down a tremendous amount of potential material into a smaller, more manageable amount that I’m truly interested in reading on a more in-depth basis.

Document storage

Calibre with GoodReads sync

Even for things I’ve winnowed down, there is still a relatively large amount of material, much of it I’ll want to save and personally archive. For a lot of this function I rely on the free multi-platform desktop application Calibre. It’s essentially an iTunes-like interface, but it’s built specifically for e-books and other documents.

Within it I maintain a small handful of libraries. One for personal e-books, one for research related textbooks/e-books, and another for journal articles. It has a very solid interface and is extremely flexible in terms of configuration and customization. You can create a large number of custom libraries and create your own searchable and sort-able fields with a huge variety of metadata. It often does a reasonable job of importing e-books, .pdf files, and other digital media and parsing out their meta data which prevents one from needing to do some of that work manually. With some well maintained metadata, one can very quickly search and sort a huge amount of documents as well as quickly prioritize them for action. Additionally, the system does a pretty solid job of converting files from one format to another, so that things like converting an .epub file into a .mobi format for Kindle are automatic.

Calibre stores the physical documents either in local computer storage, or even better, in the cloud using any of a variety of services including Dropbox, OneDrive, etc. so that one can keep one’s documents in the cloud and view them from a variety of locations (home, work, travel, tablet, etc.)

I’ve been a very heavy user of for years to bookmark and organize my physical and e-book library and anti-libraries. Calibre has an exceptional plugin for GoodReads that syncs data across the two. This (and a few other plugins) are exceptionally good at pulling in missing metadata to minimize the amount that must be done via hand, which can be tedious.

Within Calibre I can manage my physical books, e-books, journal articles, and a huge variety of other document related forms and formats. I can also use it to further triage and order the things I intend to read and order them to the nth degree. My current Calibre libraries have over 10,000 documents in them including over 2,500 textbooks as well as records of most of my 1,000+ physical books. Calibre can also be used to add document data that one would like to ultimately acquire the actual documents, but currently don’t have access to.

BibTeX and reference management

In addition to everything else Calibre also has some well customized pieces for dovetailing all its metadata as a reference management system. It’ll allow one to export data in a variety of formats for document publishing and reference management including BibTex formats amongst many others.

Reading, Annotations, Highlights

Once I’ve winnowed down the material I’m interested in it’s time to start actually reading. I’ll often use Calibre to directly send my documents to my Kindle or other e-reading device, but one can also read them on one’s desktop with a variety of readers, or even from within Calibre itself. With a click or two, I can automatically email documents to my Kindle and Calibre will also auto-format them appropriately before doing so.

Typically I’ll send them to my Kindle which allows me a variety of easy methods for adding highlights and marginalia. Sometimes I’ll read .pdf files via desktop and use Adobe to add highlights and marginalia as well. When I’m done with a .pdf file, I’ll just resave it (with all the additions) back into my Calibre library.

Exporting highlights/marginalia to my website

For Kindle related documents, once I’m finished, I’ll use direct text file export or tools like to export my highlights and marginalia for a particular text into simple HTML and import it into my website system along with all my other data. I’ve briefly written about some of this before, though I ought to better document it. All of this then becomes very easily searchable and sort-able for future potential use as well.

Here’s an example of some public notes, highlights, and other marginalia I’ve posted in the past.


Eventually, over time, I’ve built up a huge amount of research related data in my personal online commonplace book that is highly searchable and sortable! I also have the option to make these posts and pages public, private, or even password protected. I can create accounts on my site for collaborators to use and view private material that isn’t publicly available. I can also share posts via social media and use standards like webmention and tools like so that comments and interactions with these pieces on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and others is imported back to the relevant portions of my site as comments. (I’m doing it with this post, so feel free to try it out yourself by commenting on one of the syndicated copies.)

Now when I’m ready to begin writing something about what I’ve read, I’ve got all the relevant pieces, notes, and metadata in one centralized location on my website. Synthesis becomes much easier. I can even have open drafts of things as I’m reading and begin laying things out there directly if I choose. Because it’s all stored online, it’s imminently available from almost anywhere I can connect to the web. As an example, I used a few portions of this workflow to actually write this post.

Continued work

Naturally, not all of this is static and it continues to improve and evolve over time. In particular, I’m doing continued work on my personal website so that I’m able to own as much of the workflow and data there. Ideally I’d love to have all of the Calibre related piece on my website as well.

Earlier this week I even had conversations about creating new post types on my website related to things that I want to read to potentially better display and document them explicitly. When I can I try to document some of these pieces either here on my own website or on various places on the IndieWeb wiki. In fact, the IndieWeb for Education page might be a good place to start browsing for those interested.

One of the added benefits of having a lot of this data on my own website is that it not only serves as my research/data platform, but it also has the traditional ability to serve as a publishing and distribution platform!

Currently, I’m doing most of my research related work in private or draft form on the back end of my website, so it’s not always publicly available, though I often think I should make more of it public for the value of the aggregation nature it has as well as the benefit it might provide to improving scientific communication. Just think, if you were interested in some of the obscure topics I am and you could have a pre-curated RSS feed of all the things I’ve filtered through piped into your own system… now multiply this across hundreds of thousands of other scientists? Michael Nielsen posts some useful things to his Twitter feed and his website, but what I wouldn’t give to see far more of who and what he’s following, bookmarking, and actually reading? While many might find these minutiae tedious, I guarantee that people in his associated fields would find some serious value in it.

I’ve tried hundreds of other apps and tools over the years, but more often than not, they only cover a small fraction of the necessary moving pieces within a much larger moving apparatus that a working researcher and writer requires. This often means that one is often using dozens of specialized tools upon which there’s a huge duplication of data efforts. It also presumes these tools will be around for more than a few years and allow easy import/export of one’s hard fought for data and time invested in using them.

If you’re aware of something interesting in this space that might be useful, I’m happy to take a look at it. Even if I might not use the service itself, perhaps it’s got a piece of functionality that I can recreate into my own site and workflow somehow?

If you’d like help in building and fleshing out a system similar to the one I’ve outlined above, I’m happy to help do that too.

Related posts

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👓 What’s An Inclusion Rider? Here’s The Story Behind Frances McDormand’s Closing Words | NPR

Read What's An Inclusion Rider? Here's The Story Behind Frances McDormand's Closing Words by Colin Dwyer (
"I have two words to leave with you tonight," the actress told the audience after winning her Oscar: "inclusion rider." But she didn't define those words onstage — so, here's a helpful primer. Simply put: It's a stipulation that actors and actresses can ask (or demand) to have inserted into their contracts, which would require a certain level of diversity among a film's cast and crew. For instance, an A-list actor negotiating to join a film could use the inclusion rider to insist that "tertiary speaking characters should match the gender distribution of the setting for the film, as long as it's sensible for the plot," Stacy L. Smith explained in a 2014 column that introduced the idea in The Hollywood Reporter.
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👓 Project Gutenberg blocks German users after court rules in favor of Holtzbrinck subsidiary | TeleRead

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The global Internet and highly territorial real world have had a number of collisions, especially where ebook rights are concerned. The most recent such dispute involves Project Gutenberg, a well-respected public domain ebook provider—in fact, the oldest. It concerns 18 German-language books by three German authors. As a result of a German lawsuit, Project Gutenberg has blocked Germany from viewing the Gutenberg web site. The books in question are out of copyright in the United States, because at the time they passed into the public domain US copyrights were based on the period after publication rather than the author’s life. The three authors involved are Heinrich Mann (died in 1950), Thomas Mann (1955) and Alfred Döblin (1957).

Some interesting thoughts on cross border intellectual property and copyright. Even if a site blocks the content, there are easy enough means of getting around it that local jurisdictions would need to enforce things locally anyway. Why bother with the intermediate step?

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❤️ Microsub bridge by Ryan Barrett

Liked Microsub bridge by Ryan Barrett (
If you’re familiar with much of my IndieWeb work, you probably know I’m drawn to building translators, proxies, and bridges to connect different protocols and services that do similar things. There’s been a lot of activity recently around Microsub, a standard API for feed reader clients to talk to feed reader servers. Many existing readers have APIs, so I’ve been thinking about a bridge that would translate those APIs to Microsub, so that reader clients like Together and Indigenous could use traditional reader services like Feedly and NewsBlur as their backend.

This article brings such warmth to my heart. It’s even beyond what I had originally envisioned in Feed Reader Revolution.

I’m salivating what this portends for the web and my ability to read it better in the future!

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👓 Book clinic: why do publishers still issue hardbacks? | The Guardian

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The editor of the Bookseller explains why the hardback format will be with us for a while yet

An interesting example of “signaling” value in the publishing industry. Curious how this might play out in a longer study of the evolution of books and written material?

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Facebook is Censoring My Notes

I don’t post “notes” to Facebook often, but I’d noticed a few weeks ago that several pieces I’d published like this a while back were apparently unpublished by the platform. I hadn’t seen or heard anything from Facebook about them being unpublished or having issues, so I didn’t realize the problem until I randomly stumbled back across my notes page.

They did have a piece of UI to indicate that I wanted to contest and republish them, so I clicked on it. Apparently this puts these notes into some type of limbo “review” process, but it’s been a few weeks now and there’s no response about either of them. They’re still both sitting unseen in my dashboard with sad notes above them saying:

We’re reviewing this post against our Community Standards.

There is no real indication if they’ll ever come back online. Currently my only option is to delete them. There’s also no indication, clear or otherwise, of which community standard they may have violated.

I can’t imagine how either of the posts may have run afoul of their community standards, or why “notes” in particular seem to be more prone to this sort of censorship in comparison with typical status updates. I’m curious if others have had this same experience?

We’re reviewing these posts against our Community Standards.

This is just another excellent example of why one shouldn’t trust third parties over which you have no control to publish your content on the web. Fortunately I’ve got my own website with the original versions of these posts [1][2] that are freely readable. If you’ve experienced this or other pernicious problems in social media, I recommend you take a look at the helpful IndieWeb community which has some excellent ideas and lots of help for re-exerting control over your online presence.

Notes Functionality

Notes on Facebook were an early 2009 era attempt for Facebook to have more blog-like content and included a rather clean posting interface, not un-reminiscent of Medium’s interface, that also allowed one to include images and even hyperlinks into pages.

The note post type has long since fallen by the wayside and I rarely, if ever, come across people using it anymore in the wild despite the fact that it’s a richer experience than traditional status updates. I suspect the Facebook black box algorithm doesn’t encourage its use. I might posit that it’s not encouraged as unlike most Facebook functionality, hyperlinks in notes on desktop browsers physically take one out of the Facebook experience and into new windows!

The majority of notes about me are spammy chain mail posts like “25 Random Things About Me”, which also helpfully included written instructions for how to actually use notes.

25 Random Things About Me

Rules: Once you’ve been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you. If I tagged you, it’s because I want to know more about you.

(To do this, go to “notes” under tabs on your profile page, paste these instructions in the body of the note, type your 25 random things, tag 25 people (in the right hand corner of the app) then click publish.)

Most of my published notes were experiments in syndicating my content from my own blog to Facebook (via POSSE). At the time, the engagement didn’t seem much different than posting raw text as status updates, so I abandoned it. Perhaps I’ll try again with this post to see what happens? I did rather like the ability to actually have links to content and other resources in my posts there.

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Brief Review of The Atlantic Interview Podcast

An awesome policy-focused and interview-based podcasts from one of the premiere news outlets of our day.

I’ve now listened to a dozen of the opening episodes of The Atlantic Interview and am enamored. It’s officially ensconced at the top of my regular rotation.

The weekly show, hosted by Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, features him doing a relatively in-depth interview of a single guest for about thirty minutes.

I almost look at this podcast as a far better version of some of the “Sunday shows” where the guest isn’t always so heavily guarded because it would be impolitic or that they’re lost in a sea of voices amongst a larger panel where they just can’t develop some longer coherent thoughts or theses.

To some extent, this podcast is starting to fill a hole in my daily schedule that was created by the disappearance of The Charlie Rose show late last year. The sad part is that, at only once a week, I’m going to wish I had a lot more when I’m done binge-listening to the short backlog I’ve got. On The Atlantic Interview I appreciate that the “thing guests may be selling” (book, article, show, film, etc.) takes a pointed back seat to the broader topic(s) at hand.

Much of the strength of what I’ve heard thus far stems from interviews with people that are slightly off the beaten path, but with serious messages and interesting viewpoints. They’ve all been journalisticly solid and almost always provide me with news, viewpoints, and subtle information that I didn’t have before. Another strength is that the show can give guests additional time and depth than they might receive on other traditional shows. The guests so far have been very smart, cogent, and interesting. Their selection has been well balanced for gender, topic, and general variety within the space the show occupies. The show has generally impeccable audio and production values.

While initial guests seem to have an air of familiarity with the host as the result of closer (disclosed) interpersonal connections, I suspect that even when the list of immediate friends in his Rolodex runs dry, the show will easily have enough value and gravitas to successfully run on long beyond this.

One of my favorite parts of these podcasts are the somewhat snarky bumpers that Goldberg puts onto the the end encouraging people to give reviews and subscribe. I kind of wish he’d let loose a bit more and inject some of this kind of snark into the interviews too. If nothing else, he’s at least having fun with a part of the show that would otherwise be typically painful to trudge through.


I’d love to hear more about education policy, health care, public heath, internet, and foreign policy. A few guest ideas I’d love to hear in this format: Tressie McMillan Cottom, Mike Morrell, Susan J. Fowler, César A. Hidalgo, Tantek Çelik, Ellen J. MacKenzie, and Ezekiel Emanuel. Continuing in the vein of interviewing the interviewers, which I find terrifically fascinating, I’d love to see Judy Woodruff, Fareed Zakaria, W. Kamau Bell, Trevor Noah, and John Dickerson in the future. These aside, I suspect that anyone that Mssr. Goldberg finds intriguing, I’m sure I will as well.

Additional Technical Commentary

I really wish their podcast had individual web pages for each episode so I could more easily email, share, or target individual episodes for people. It would also be nice if the main page actually had .mp3 versions of the audio embedded in them to make it easier to bookmark and share through services like I really don’t know why podcasters insist on using third party podcasting services to hide their .mp3 files from the outside world–it’s literally their most important product! Stop it! I find the practice to be as irksome as newspapers that use Facebook as their primary means of distribution, and just like that case, they’ll regret it in the long run.

While is a nice hosting platform for the show, I’m not sure why a publication the size and scope of The Atlantic isn’t simply self-hosing their own content using their own URLs.

The content for the show is still a bit scatter-brained. The main page on The Atlantic has the best and most comprehensive meta-descriptions of episodes, while the Megaphone page has some nice individual episode artwork that The Atlantic doesn’t have or present. This is sure to cause uneven experiences for people depending on how they choose to subscribe.

I appreciate that some of the early episodes went to the trouble to have full transcripts and some additional snippet content and images. I miss these transcripts. I do know that doing this can be painful and expensive, though perhaps services like might have some technology to help. If they want to go crazy, it would be cool to see Audiogram functionality, which they could use instead of relying on Megaphone or some other platform.

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👓 FAQ: What happens when I choose to “Suppress Ads” on Salon? | Salon

Read FAQ: What happens when I choose to “Suppress Ads” on Salon? (
Like most media companies, Salon pays its bills through advertising and we profoundly appreciate our advertising partners and sponsors. In this traditional arrangement between reader and publisher, we are able to offer our readers a free reading experience in exchange for serving them ads. This relationship — of free or subsidized content in exchange for advertising — is not new; journalism has subsisted on this relationship for well over a century. This quid pro quo arrangement, ideally, benefits both readers and media. Yet in the past two decades, shifting tides in the media and advertising industries threw a wrench in this equation.

Just the other day I was reading about third party plugins that injected code that allowed websites to mine for bitcoin in the background. Now publications are actively doing this in the background as a means of making money? In addition to the silliness of the bitcoin part, this just sounds like poor editorial judgment all around.

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👓 Quincy Jones on the Secret Michael Jackson and the Problem With Modern Pop | Vulture

Read Quincy Jones on the Secret Michael Jackson and the Problem With Modern Pop by David Marchese (Vulture)
Music legend Quincy Jones on who he thinks killed JFK, the secret Michael Jackson, his relationship with the Trumps, and the problem with modern pop.

I’ve known many older “Hollywood” executives like this. You have to take what they say with a heavy grain of salt, though some of their stories can have some grains of truth to them.

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👓 The MoviePass Tips You Need to Know | Lifehacker

Read The MoviePass Tips You Need to Know by Patrick Allan (Lifehacker)
MoviePass, the almost all-you-can-watch buffet of movies on the big screen, is a pretty sweet deal at $9.95 a month. But what if I told you that deal could be even sweeter? We’re talking scoring free popcorn, guaranteeing tickets to brand new releases, and easily avoiding the most common problems. All you need is the right tricks.
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👓 How Facebook Is Killing Comedy | Splitsider

Read How Facebook Is Killing Comedy by Sarah Aswell (Splitsider)
Last month, in its second round of layoffs in as many years, comedy hub Funny or Die reportedly eliminated its entire editorial team following a trend of comedy websites scaling back, shutting down, or restructuring their business model away from original online content. Hours after CEO Mike Farah delivered the news via an internal memo, Matt Klinman took to Twitter, writing, “Mark Zuckerberg just walked into Funny or Die and laid off all my friends.” It was a strong sentiment for the longtime comedy creator, who started out at UCB and The Onion before launching Pitch, the Funny or Die-incubated joke-writing app, in 2017.

This article really has so much. It also contains a microcosm of what’s been happening in journalism recently as well. I have a feeling that if outlets like Funny or Die were to go back and own their original content, there would still be a way for them to exist, we just need to evolve the internet away from the centralized direction we’ve been moving for the past decade and change.

Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia

eliminated its entire editorial team following a trend of comedy websites scaling back, shutting down, or restructuring their business model away from original online content.  Hours after CEO Mike Farah delivered the news via an internal memo, Matt Klinman took to Twitter, writing, “Mark Zuckerberg just walked into Funny or Die and laid off all my friends.” It was a strong sentiment for the longtime comedy creator, who started out at UCB and The Onion before launching Pitch, the Funny or Die-incubated joke-writing app, in 2017.

“Mark Zuckerberg just walked into Funny or Die and laid off all my friends.”

The whole story is basically that Facebook gets so much traffic that they started convincing publishers to post things on Facebook. For a long time, that was fine. People posted things on Facebook, then you would click those links and go to their websites. But then, gradually, Facebook started exerting more and more control of what was being seen, to the point that they, not our website, essentially became the main publishers of everyone’s content. Today, there’s no reason to go to a comedy website that has a video if that video is just right on Facebook. And that would be fine if Facebook compensated those companies for the ad revenue that was generated from those videos, but because Facebook does not pay publishers, there quickly became no money in making high-quality content for the internet.

Facebook has created a centrally designed internet. It’s a lamer, shittier looking internet.

The EU has a bunch of laws kicking in to keep this in check — one is algorithmic transparency, where these places need to tell me why they are showing me something.

If someone at Facebook sees this, I want them to know, if they care at all about the idea that was the internet, they need to start thinking through what they are doing. Otherwise, then you’re just like Lennie from Of Mice and Men — a big dumb oaf crushing the little mouse of the internet over and over and not realizing it.

And I want it to feel that way to other people so that when they go to a cool website, they are inspired: They see human beings putting love and care into something.

Facebook is essentially running a payola scam where you have to pay them if you want your own fans to see your content.

It’s like if The New York Times had their own subscriber base, but you had to pay the paperboy for every article you wanted to see.

And then it becomes impossible to know what a good thing to make is anymore.

This is where webmentions on sites can become valuable. People posting “read” posts or “watch” posts (or even comments) indicating that they saw something could be the indicator to the originating site that something is interesting/valuable and could be displayed by that site. (This is kind of like follower counts, but for individual pieces of content, so naturally one would need to be careful about gaming.)

Here’s another analogy, and I learned this in an ecology class: In the 1800s (or something), there were big lords, or kings or something, who had giant estates with these large forests. And there were these foresters who had this whole notion of how to make a perfectly designed forest, where the trees would be pristinely manicured and in these perfect rows, and they would get rid of all the gross stuff and dirt. It was just trees in a perfect, human-devised formation that you could walk through. Within a generation, these trees were emaciated and dying. Because that’s how a forest works — it needs to be chaotic. It needs bugs and leaves, it makes the whole thriving ecosystem possible. That’s what this new internet should be. It won’t survive as this human-designed, top-down thing that is optimized for programmatic ads. It feels like a desert. There’s no nutrition, there’s no opportunity to do anything cool.

Recommending things for people is a personal act, and there are people who are good at it. There are critics. There are blogs. It’s not beneficial to us to turn content recommendations over to an algorithm, especially one that’s been optimized for garbage.

the internet was a better place 3-4 years ago. It used to be fruitful, but it’s like a desert now.

Facebook is the great de-contextualizer.

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Fragmentions for Better Highlighting and Direct References on the Web


Ages ago I added support on my website for fragmentions.

Wait… What is that?

Fragmention is a portmanteau word made up of fragment and mention (or even Webmention), but in more technical terms, it’s a simple way of creating a URL that not only targets a particular page on the internet, but allows you to target a specific sub-section of that page whether it’s a photo, paragraph, a few words, or even specific HTML elements like <div> or <span> on such a page. In short, it’s like a permalink to content within a web page instead of just the page itself.

A Fragmention Example

Picture of a hipster-esque looking Lego toy superimposed with the words: I'm not looking for a "hipster-web", but a new and demonstrably better web.
29/1.2014 – Larry the Barista by julochka is licensed under CC BY-NC
Feature image for the post “Co-claiming and Gathering Together – Developing Read Write Collect” by Aaron Davis. Photo also available on Flickr.

Back in December Aaron Davis had made a quote card for one of his posts that included a quote from one of my posts. While I don’t think he pinged (or webmentioned) it within his own post, I ran across it in his Twitter feed and he cross-posted it to his Flickr account where he credited where the underlying photo and quote came from along with their relevant URLs.

Fragmentions could have not only let him link to the source page of the quote, it would have let him directly target the section or the paragraph where the quote originated or–even more directly–the actual line of the quote.

Here’s the fragmention URL that would have allowed him to do that:

Go ahead and click on it (or the photo) to see the fragmention in action.

What’s happening?

Let’s compare the two URLs:

They both obviously point to the same specific page, and their beginnings are identical. The second one has a # followed by the words “I’m not looking” with some code for blank spaces and an apostrophe. Clicking on the fragmention URL will take you to the root page which then triggers a snippet of JavaScript on my site that causes the closest container with the text following the hash to be highlighted in a bright yellow color. The browser also automatically scrolls down to the location of the highlight.

Note: rather than the numbers and percent symbols, one could also frequently use the “+” to stand in for white spaces like so: This makes the URL a bit more human readable. You’ll also notice I took out the code for the apostrophe by omitting the word “I’m” and adding another word or two, but I still get the same highlight result.

This can be a very useful thing, particularly on pages with huge amounts of text. I use it quite often in my own posts to direct people to particular sub-parts of my website to better highlight the pieces I think they’ll find useful.

It can be even more useful for academics and researchers who want to highlight or even bookmark specific passages of text online. Those with experience on the platform will also notice how useful highlighting can be, but having a specific permalink structure for it goes a step further.

I will note however, that it’s been rare, if ever, that anyone besides myself has used this functionality on my site. Why? We’ll look at that in just a moment.

Extending fragmentions for easier usability.

Recently as a result of multiple conversations with Aaron Davis (on and between our websites via webmention with syndication to Twitter), I’ve been thinking more about notes, highlights, and annotations on the web. He wrote a post which discusses “Page Bookmarks” which are an interesting way of manually adding anchors on web pages to allow for targeting specific portions of web pages. This can make it easy for the user to click on links on a page to let them scroll up and down specific pages.  Sadly, these are very painful to create and use both for a site owner and even more so for the outside public which has absolutely no control over them whatsoever.

His post reminded me immediately of fragmentions. It also reminded me that there was a second bit of user interface related to fragmentions that I’d always meant to also add to my site, but somehow never got around to connecting: a “fragmentioner” to make it more obvious that you could use fragmentions on my site.

In short, how could a user know that my website even supports fragmentions? How could I make it easier for them to create a fragmention from my site to share out with others? Fortunately for me, our IndieWeb friend Kartik Prabhu had already wired up the details for his own personal website and released the code and some pointers for others who were interested in setting it up themselves. It’s freely available on Github and includes some reasonable details for installation.

So with a small bit of tweaking and one or two refinements, I got the code up and running and voilà! I now have a natural UI for highlighting things.


When a user naturally selects a portion of my page with their mouse–the way they might if they were going to cut and paste the text, a simple interface pops up with instructions to click it for a link. Kartik’s JavaScript automatically converts the highlight into the proper format and changes the page’s URL to include the appropriate fragmention URL for that snippet of the page. A cut and paste allows the reader to put that highlighted piece’s URL anywhere she likes.

text highlighted in a browser with a small chain icon and text which says "Click for link to text"
Highlighting text pulls up some simple user interface for creating a fragmention to the highlighted text.

The future

What else would be nice?

I can’t help but think that it would be fantastic if the WordPress Fragmention plugin added the UI piece for highlight and sharing text via an automatically generated link.

Perhaps in the future one could allow a highlight and click interaction not only get the link, but to get a copy of both the highlighted text and the link to the URL. I’ve seen this behavior on some very socially savvy news websites. This would certainly make a common practice of cutting and pasting content much easier to do while also cleverly including a reference link.

The tough part of this functionality is that it’s only available on websites that specifically enable it. While not too difficult, it would be far nicer to have native browser support for both fragmention creation and use.  This would mean that I don’t need to include the JavaScript on my website to do the scrolling or highlighting and I wouldn’t need any JavaScript on my site to enable the highlighting to provide the specific code for the custom URL. How nice would it be if this were an open web standard and supported by major browsers without the need for work at the website level?

Medium-like highlighting and comments suddenly become a little easier for websites to support. With some additional code, it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump to dovetail this fragmention functionality with the W3C Webmentions spec to allow inline marginalia on posts. One can create a fragmention targeting text on a website and write a reply to it. With some UI built out,  by sending a webmention to the site, it could pick up the comment and display it as a marginal note at that particular spot instead of as a traditional comment below the post where it might otherwise loose the context of being associated at the related point in the main text. In fact our friend Kartik Prabhu has done just this on his website. Here’s an example of it in his post announcing the feature.

Example of inline marginalia on Kartik Prabhu’s website “Parallel Transport”.

You’ll notice that small quotation bubbles appear at various points in the text indicating marginalia. By clicking on them, the bubble turns green and the page expands to show the comment at that location. One could easily imagine CSS that allows the marginalia to actually display in the margin of the page for wider screens.

How could you imagine using fragmentions? What would you do with them? Feel free to add your thoughts below or own your site and send me a webmention.​​​​​​​​

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Here’s an excellent two part interview with my friend and brilliant actor Robert Catrini from London by reporter Thomas Anderson Fawkes in the Spotlight section of Film Curiosity.

Part One: It’s Never Too Late To Act With Robert Catrini
Part Two: It’s Never Too Late To Act With Robert Catrini

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Bret Victor, beast of burden

Bookmarked Bret Victor, beast of burden by Bret Victor (
Bret Victor has been provided by the management for your protection.

This is awesome looking website. The transitions between pages are quite lovely and not the same as everything else out there.

I love what happens when you click on the tagline under the site name multiple times. Then keep on clicking… be careful though.

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