Taking it to go

The web is spinning ever-faster, shards of content are scattering every which way, RSS and podcast feeds radiate in all directions, each new day brings new ways of grabbing & saving & sharing digital bits shorn of context.

It can seem so… centrifugal. Now that web content has slopped out all over the place, churning and reprocessing itself in a puppydog frenzy to deliver customized services, we might take a nostalgic moment to recall when “webmasters” published “pages” that we “surfed.” Somehow, while you were downloading that mp3, emailing your baby pics to all and sundry, setting up your personalized sports news alerts, punching up maps in your car — the very notion of a website became quaint.

To defenders of edifices and books and beautiful places, the 2.0 web world might seem a wilderness of fleeting, fractured signification: a million ephemeral pokes. Of course the web is still designed, even triumphantly, but that architecture is more likely to be in the form of submerged code — design that delivers a teeming, unfixed front end, the on-the-fly, just-in-time, gotta-go whimsies of what I want at the moment.

Two ways of plucking at the web at will — as if it were a lo-fat all-you-can-eat banquet — crossed my path lately. The first, Clipmarks (“Just the best parts of the page”), offers a browser-integrated clipping tool that will grab words, paragraphs, selected images, even video posted on YouTube & its ilk. The Clipmarks demo says it all, and will only detain you for 49 seconds:

The Clipmarks Vision celebrates reach-for-scissors epiphanies, “moments that snap people out of a day dream.” A Bartlett’s Familiar Quotes dream, that is:

Think about when John Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” That line was part of a much longer speech. Imagine if instead of being able to clip that line from the speech, people were forced to listen to the entire speech every time.

Now imagine if that was a web page. What if you were forced to bookmark the entire page, but you really wanted to clip the part that mattered most. How many people would have the time or attention span for the whole thing?

We believe that information is easier and more enjoyable to digest in small portions. Kind of like movie trailers, sushi and cliff notes.

Armed with virtual scissors, web readers are less passive, less hostage to what someone else packaged, less hostage to the ‘writerly,’ as Barthes might suggest from the grave. But is improved appropriation of web content leading to a world of Cliff Notes movie trailers with the shelf life of sushi? Or, more portentously, “obnoxious, mean-spirited dialogue” conducted by anonymous clippers, fueled by uncertainly sourced and possibly stolen material?

Fortunately not every such tool is so blithely delivered into the Whatever Zone. The second grab-it tool coming across the transom recently is more purposeful in emphasis: MediaMatrix, developed at Michigan State University.

In an informative video introducing MediaMaker (a video that, ironically, can’t be easily embedded inline here), we see similarities to Clipmarks: server-side application, browser integration, links-driven. The difference here is that clipped objects load into an editor that encourages annotation, resizing, cropping, notes association, and metadata assignment. Streaming audio and video can be segmented without actually being copied or downloaded — through clever use of just URLs and text parameters. This is sophisticated, task-oriented clipping of media that Clipmarks can only dream about (at 3 a.m., drooling into its Cliffnotes).

With the exception of text, which can be custom-selected, Clipmarks grabs elements in the form that they have been fixed on a webpage (the image, the video, the song as is). MediaMatrix, on the other hand, lets you edit those elements for yourself: it lets you create out of what you collect, even as it encourages responsible tracking and attribution through “metadata skins” that appear during the annotation process.

MediaMatrix clipping

A clipped sound file is edited on MediaMatrix

MediaMatrix metadata

MediaMatrix encourages metadata application

But what then happens to your MediaMatrix clip-derived creations? Well, they hang like fruit on an individual’s “tree”…

MediaMatrix tree

Clipped and edited assets hang on a MediaMatrix tree

…and await plucking into essay/presentation spaces:

MediaMatrix workspace

A MediaMatrix workspace, where one prepares presentations or multimedia essays

It’s here, oddly, where MediaMatrix starts to feel outpaced by the bubbleheaded Clipmarks. We’ve had recent occasion to think about centralized versus distributed models of publication; here we have a comparison that exemplifies the dichotomy. MediaMatrix imagines that you will collect and analyze the assets you’ve plucked out of various contexts within a rather gloomy, solitary, pre-formulated workspace. It’s a one-way ride: bits and pieces come out of the web and get imprisoned in “my portal”; if you want to work with them, you have to use MediaMatrix editing tools in a MediaMatrix environment. To publish your work, the best you can do is send out a URL that draws right back to MediaMatrix. What happens in MediaMatrix stays in MediaMatrix.

Clipmarks, in the other hand, cheerfully offers you any number of ways to fling your clipped treasures in any direction. You can save them on their site (and share them with fellow clippers, tossing them up into the communal winds to see what happens — sociability entirely lost on MediaMatrix), or you can push them to your email client, your printer, even your blog (a connection that was fairly easy for me to configure).

Clipmark options

Where do you want it? Clipmarks sends your selection any which way.

Clipmarks frankly doesn’t care much about what happens to what you’ve clipped — leaving options for you if you do. Route your purloined selections of web content to the publication platform of your choice, private or public, online or off.

While we’re waiting for perfect digital object recontextualization engine, one that mashes up Clipmarks’s flexible and social publication with MediaMatrix’s editing power, analytic focus, and sense of responsibility, we might think about how to emphasize new wholes out of digital fragmentation. When “the torch has been passed to a new generation,” it will have to know about how to create connections with virtual splinters; “divided there is little we can do.” It is with an exhortative spirit that I clip here the whole Kennedy inauguration address, grabbed in two pieces from YouTube:

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