CommentPress is, for educators, one of the most important developments to come out of the WordPress community and one of the most significant innovations that I know of in online publishing. I first learned about it when I saw that Yale University Press were using it to invite comment on Yochai Benkler’s book, The Wealth of Networks. In its original form, CommentPress is a theme for WordPress that allows readers to comment on, annotate and discuss paragraphs of text. In fact, although installed as a theme, it transforms a site not only by design, but with functionality you’d normally expect from plugins. In CommentPress v1.x, form and function came as a single package. It’s worth reading about the background to CommentPress. You’ll see that it’s part of a larger course of research by the Institute for the Future of the Book.
Institute for the Future of the Book was founded in 2004 to [... stimulate] a broad rethinking—in publishing, academia and the world at large—of books as networked objects. CommentPress is a happy byproduct of this process, the result of a series of “networked book” experiments run by the Institute in 2006-7. The goal of these was to see whether a popular net-native publishing form, the blog, which, most would agree, is very good at covering the present moment in pithy, conversational bursts but lousy at handling larger, slow-developing works requiring more than chronological organization—whether this form might be refashioned to enable social interaction around long-form texts… We can imagine a number of possibilities: scholarly contexts: working papers, conferences, annotation projects, journals, collaborative glosses; educational: virtual classroom discussion around readings, study groups; journalism/public advocacy/networked democracy: social assessment and public dissection of government or corporate documents, cutting through opaque language and spin (like the Iraq Study Group Report, a presidential speech, the federal budget, a Walmart or Google press release); creative writing: workshopping story drafts, collaborative storytelling; recreational: social reading, book clubs.
We have started to use CommentPress at the University of Lincoln for the discussion of internal documents and feedback from staff has been good. Many are astonished at what it makes possible. A departmental research strategy paper received over 100 comments from nine staff; something we’d never have had by emailing the document out for comment. Of course, I am keen to use it to support courses and a colleague and I have recently applied for funding to use CommentPress in a course with over 100 Criminology students, who are normally asked to critique texts and respond by emailing Word documents to their tutor. Using CommentPress allows for transparent and open, formative feedback and assessment by both staff and student peers.
Outside of my work for the university, I’ve been developing WriteToReply, with Tony Hirst from the Open University. You can read about how we started WriteToReply and you’ll see that CommentPress is fundamental to what we’re trying to achieve and we’re using it for networked democracy, as suggested above. CommentPress is in fact, a comment engine for each document site. Two things make this possible. First, and most obvious, is the fact that readers on a document site can direct comments to specific paragraphs of text. Readers can also respond to other readers’ comments and a happy by-product of our re-publication of the Digital Britain – Interim Report, is that the discussion still continues, despite the consultation period being over. So CommentPress is an engine for on-site comment and discussion. Texts are dissected but remain whole; they also become social objects.
The second important contribution CommentPress has made is the provision of permalinks for each paragraph in the text. This provides a unique URI or URL for each paragraph of text, making linked references from third-party web sites possible. Combined with the trackback/pingback system built into decent web publishing platforms, CommentPress makes remote commenting on text possible, as Tony explains on his blog.
What this means is that the paragraph, action point, section or whatever can become a linked resource, or linked context, and can support remote commenting. And in turn, the remark made on the third party site can become a linked annotation to the corresponding part of the original report… How? Well through the judicious use of trackbacks… So even if you don’t want to comment on the Digital Britain Interim report on the WriteToReply site, but you do care, why not post your thoughts on your own blog, and link your thoughts directly back to the appropriate part of the report on WriteToReply?
It’s this feature, so easily missed, which makes CommentPress a comment engine. An engine suggests an underlying technology that drives something greater. By introducing paragraph permalinks, text can now be linked at a much more accurate and deeper level than was previous possible. Texts are transformed into uniquely identifiable resources of data. Academics can now reference paragraphs rather than page numbers and readers can reflect, comment and participate in the analysis of texts from their own site. For the reader, CommentPress provides a fluid interface to the document as a whole but at a technical level, explodes it across the Internet.
If you test CommentPress 2, you’ll immediately see that it’s been split into a suite of plugins and themes and that it’s now much more flexible in terms of compatibility with other WordPress plugins and in being able to select different components, options and themes. Notably, paragraph permalinks are available as a separate plugin, which means that any WordPress blog will be able to have paragraph-level URIs, without necessarily supporting paragraph level commenting. My test site is on WriteToReply. Feel free to have a look and post comments, if you wish. As I write, it’s not quite ready for everyday use, but at the speed which Eddie has been working over the last few days, I’m confident that I’ll be able to use it here at the university and on WriteToReply before the month’s out. If you’re used to using v1.4.1, you’ll notice a lot of change. Remember that it’s still beta software and that not all of the features have been fully implemented yet. It would be great if other people could help test it across various browsers and with different documents. Multimedia is not something I’ve yet been able to throw at it, for example.
Finally, CommentPress needs continued support in terms of testing, reporting issues, bug fxes and feature development. This can be done voluntarily, but given it’s potential to support education, business and government consultations, I for one, will be looking for ways to raise funding to help support all of this. If you know of any possible funding opportunities within UK Higher Education, please do let me know.