The Phoenix Nest as a Webbook:
A Living Being in the Noosphere
By Jim Fulton
If you look up the word 'webbook' in your favorite dictionary or encyclopedia, you're likely to find a definition much like this:
The Phoenix Nest is a webbook, but by that I mean much more than that you can read it on an electronic device like the latest novel you've downloaded. What I mean is a book that takes full advantage of the tools and techniques of the web to enhance your reading experience. For examples:
- A webbook does not stand alone. Its pages, like those of Wikipedia, are heavily interconnected (some would say littered) with hyperlinks, both among themselves, and with pages elsewhere on the web. A webbook is designed to be part of the grand project of human knowledge.
- A webbook is not static. It lives, changes, and adapts. When you revisit a favorite printed book, everything is comfortably the same, even its now familiar errors and anachronisms. Oh, you might notice new gems (or cracks) in the matrix of the ore, but those reflect not changes in the mine but in what you attend to. (Of course, if you're a professional scholar, you might track down the slight changes made between various editions of a book. But changing editions are rare, except for well-established textbooks. If an author has something new to say, publishers would much rather publish a new book than manage revisions to an old one.) Such is not the case with a webbook. No editions here. If I discover new, relevant information from your comments or elsewhere, or a mistake that needs correcting, or new ways of looking at a topic, or better ways of saying what I want to say, I will make appropriate changes right here in the stories in the Nest. If the change is significant, I will include a note explaining why. What you are reading here now is a new and improved version of what you might have read earlier. When you revisit, you might be surprised. (So if you quote from the Nest, cite the date along with the URL of the passage. What I say in the current page might change. Eventually I hope to provide a mechanism for keeping track of the history of changes to a page, but that is not yet in place.)
- A webbook is not linear. Although I will normally provide an expected sequence to follow in reading its pages, whether you follow that sequence is up to you. You can instead wander hither and yon among its pages and expect to comprehend what is said. If there are prerequisites to understanding a page, they will be listed at its top, and you can decide for yourself whether to go back and catch up.
- A webbook does not make you scramble to find supplementary information. Footnotes that reference end notes, citations, bibliographies, glossaries, appendices, and the like, are replaced, where possible, with links that take you right to the referenced material, along with the metadata that will allow you to find the information in traditional ways, and allow you to come right back to where you were reading. If you click on a link to a comment, it will normally "pop up" right over what you are reading, and then go away when you click elsewhere. In cases of long comments, ones that function as independent stories, you will be able to open it in a separate window, so you can come back to it later.
- A webbook can be easily bookmarked. You might well want to come back to a worthwhile page, and not just to a particular page but to a particular paragraph or idea on that page. Webbooks make it easy to find a web address (a URL) that you can use as a bookmark to enable you to return to that place or share with others. As of today's technology, how you manage those bookmarks will depend on your web browser, the device it runs on, and your preferred methods for organizing information. Browsers do not, like some e-book readers, have standard functions for collecting and sharing bookmarks, so you will have to figure out what works best for yourself. (I myself drag the URL from my browser into a folder in my iMac's Finder. That puts it in the same place as all the other bookmarks and files I have accumulated on the same topic. Later, double-clicking reopens the web page the same way it reopens a computer file.)
- A webbook has reusable content. In large projects writers invariably discover the need to say again what they have said before. Sometimes it is useful to say it again in different words, to paraphrase, so that the reader comes to understand the spirit, not just the letter, of the text. Sometimes, however, as for example with strict definitions, it is important that the words be exactly the same. When writing for print, in such cases authors will often use copy-and-paste techniques (literally when actually typing or writing long hand). The challenge comes when an author succeeds in producing a work of long-term value, one deserving of occasional updates and revisions. How does the author assure that all the copies of a bit of text are updated the same way? Webbooks offer an easier technique to assure that all copies are updated together: they can be written, and edited, in one place, and then inserted wherever they are needed, whenever that page is read.
These features are but a beginning to what publication of books might become as authors accustom themselves to writing for the web of human knowledge.
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