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post #237
bio: stu

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Duly Noted*
For the most part, the digital age has left the printed word far behind. The book still retains a certain portability and legibility and timelessness--it doesn't self-destruct if you drop it in the bath, for instance--but we should be honest with ourselves. There's a lot to writing that computers do better. From the ease of publishing posts on a blog to the cost of the content we spend most of our time reading, to the access to so much text that was previously unattainable, the digital age has shifted the goal posts significantly and altered the way we read, and the way we think we want to read.

There is only one major element in my writing that the printed page handles far better than the digital page; the digital age is at a severe disadvantage to the ease and flexibility of the printed word when it comes to footnotes.

Footnotes, and to a lesser extent endnotes, are an important tool in any writer's arsenal. We're not just talking about the ability to cite what page of what book you're quoting. The power of footnotes extends far beyond that, comprising the ability to note something as an aside that might not pertain directly to the topic being discussed, either to expand on something without derailing the topic at hand. And done properly it can be an archly phrased comment, a laugh riot, playing off the straight man of the stated facts to create something truly transcendent. A footnote sits on the bottom of your page like Crow, Tom Servo, and either Joel or Michael (depending on your season) taking the bare facts, and commenting on them in such a way as to bring a new (hilarious, I hope) light upon them.

The big problem is that, well, footnotes are supposed to lie at the bottom of the page. So while you're reading the main text, you can just flick your eyes down to the footnotes, read what is necessary, and then return to your spot in the main text. Endnotes are a little more tricky; if you are a truly devoted endnote reader (as you'd have to be in something like Infinite Jest, for instance), you need two bookmarks to go back and forth between where you are in the main text and where the footnote is.

As footnotes and endnotes are handled on the web, they're currently being slapped on the end. Because there is no "page bottom" like in a book, there's no place to put a note where it would be within view of what it's referring to in the original text. For the most part, these endnotes are ignored until the reader actually gets to the end of the text; they may read the endnotes then, out of context, and try to remember what that might pertain to. There is no easy method in place for someone to click on a footnote, be transported to where that footnote resides, and then be returned to their spot in the text to continue their reading. (I have to note, right now, that the technology to do this--and many of my other suggestions coming up--is easy enough to do. But it's not done, partially because it's clunky, and partially because there's no standards and no one really cares all that much beyond, as far as I can tell, David Foster Wallace, John Darnielle, and me).

So. The option of just putting the footnote at the foot of the entire page seems like a mugs game. People aren't going to go down to see it, and then try to find out how to get back to where they were. That's just note going to happen. John Darnielle, in his early days of putting Last Plane to Jakarta on the web, dealt with this in a way that I really liked, that I'd love to become standard. He would create a link to the thing he wanted to footnote; the link would open in another window that would be sized exactly to fit the text that was inside of it. Check out this page here, about David Bowie's "Changes." When you click on his "Changes" link it opens the sidenote in another tiny browser window for you to read without it taking you away from the page you're consuming. The problem with this is it seems to necessitate more HTML coding that you'd think would be entirely necessary for such a thing, and the footnote popping up has to be created as a separate page of text, even. Kind of far removed from the WYSIWYG editors we've gotten used to where you just plug something in.

If I had any technical ability at all, I'd figure out how to add that to a WYSIWYG editor so it's practically the same thing as adding a link or putting in a picture. That'd be the best way just to announce there's a footnote there.

There's another way as well. If you go in and create a link the old fashioned A HREF way, you can add something to the link's characteristics called "Title." So, for a general link to my most recent story, putting an extra "TITLE" atribute; information in the HTML means that, if you mouse over the link, the text I entered in there will pop up as your footnote of sorts. This can even be done with photos (using the ALT attribute). This is not foolproof; for instance I fucked up the HTML three times just trying to make that link to get it to work, each time having to start from scratch to fix it. Also, in Firefox I had to install a Popup Alt Attribute add-on to make that text visible in times past (It should be fine on IE), which is not an attribute you can count on many people having without warning them ahead of time. Still, if that could become standard, that'd be a great way to handle footnotes. Nothing new popping up; just text flitting up from where you rest your cursor.

The final option, which is the least elegant, but probably the easiest and the most likely to succeed (in terms of getting your footnotes read, at least), is to just realize that the days of putting footnotes at the bottom of your page is over, and you should now move to putting them below the paragraph they're referring to.* Asterixes are okay by me. I don't even see the need to do numbers, unless your page starts to get really messy. Just do an asterix for your first footnote, a double asterix for the second, and so on, and reset when you start a new paragraph.
*I recommend making them flush to the right, since that will set the text off in a certain way that's not difficult to do at all.

That shouldn't be too complicated, and it should keep the footnote right where it needs to be to be seen, and newcomers to your blog should be able to figure out what's going on relatively easily without needing to be sent to this page for the full explanation.*
*Please feel free to let me know if you think this is, in fact, too complicated or stupid for the common Internet goer. I'm not talking about your typical youtube commenter, though. Those fucks are as dumb as posts**.
**And I don't mean the type of posts that get comments.
Still, I wish the other methods worked well. They are so much more elegant than this method. They just seem to take too much work, and run the risk of being misunderstood. If only I could educate everyone who'd come to my site...

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