by Erik Inge Bolsø
The new Firefox extension Wikalong describes itself as "a wiki-margin for the internet". It essentially lets you take notes on a web page without printing it out and annotating the printout, or writing things down in a notebook or file you'll never open again. A wiki within Firefox.
I tried to work with the 0.12 version of Wikalong recently, and would like to share a few thoughts publicly.
Wikalong's implementation is straightforward; it shows up as a new alternative in the "Sidebars" menu. When enabled, it shows up as an "add a comment" form if there are no comments recorded for the page you're currently viewing, or it shows you the actual comments. When there are comments around, Wikalong presents you with icons for editing comments and browsing any previous versions of the comments.
It's clear that Wikalong currently is a beta. Notes are currently shared between all users. Having your own private storage for the comments is possible, but instructions for that have not yet been written - so better not jot down your internet banking username/password in the margin just yet.
Fun with Wikalong & Microsoft
There are a little tabbed browsing problem. If you're currently editing a comment for the web page you're viewing in one tab, then switch to another tab for some quick browsing for the cross reference, then switch back, you lose the edited comment. This is because the sidebar is shared between all tabs, and may not be easily solvable.
And the extension does one additional http request every time you go to a new page, so it can slow down your browsing quite a bit.
Now that we have the main problems out of the way, having comments from yourself show up in the sidebar when you're viewing a page is a wonderful memory aid. Adding links to similar pages helps bring out those nagging associations you never quite remember until three hours afterwards.
It does not, however, address the problem of having commented on a page that now is only a broken link. To do that, it would need to take a snapshot of the page commented upon, and that raises all sorts of thorny copyright and presentation issues, especially when shared.
But what is it good for?
The web, Google, and more generically, the computer, have already become many people's "external memory" - to be consulted as needed, recalling things you never knew in seconds. There has been a shift in needs: from having a well-trained memory to being good at finding information and evaluating sources. In a sense, everyone is doing research these days.
And with the Wikalong sort of extension, Firefox can be used very well for collaborative research. Installed generally in a business or group, coupled to a private wiki installation for storage, shared note-taking and commenting can be tremendously useful. Perhaps a hybrid approach could be even more successful - a standard wiki including and linking to the notes from Wikalong.
More fun, but with SCO this time.
The W3C's Annotea project, and its related Mozilla extension Annozilla, has a syntax (XPointer) and an interface for attaching notes to discrete elements of a document - for example, a paragraph or an image. A crossbreeding of these projects would be an interesting thing to see.
Taking notes is not useful if they are never consulted again. So having them automatically show up alongside the page in question enhances their visibility a lot, and extends their usability. In that regard Wikalong is similar in usefulness to the Remembrance Agent - amplifying associative abilities and memory for their user.
Wikalong, more info, less goofing around.
Vannevar Bush would have liked it.
*Screenshots by Steve Mallett - Managing Editor.
Erik Inge Bolsø is a UNIX consultant and epee fencer who lives in Molde, Norway, and has been running Linux since 1996. Another of his hobbies can be found via a google search for "balrog genealogy", and he can be reached at email@example.com.