Cherry-picked quotations are an old problem, but one which digital tools are uniquely able to combat.
Take for example, the following cherry-picked quotation about slavery from Thomas Jefferson’s autobiography:
Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.
In this selective quotation, Jefferson appears to be a foreward-looking man, anticipating the emancipation of African-Americans. But if you click on the above red down arrow, you can see that the text expands to reveal subsequent sentences which portray a complex and contradictory history, one which is often omitted from our founding myths. 1
Quotations that appear in the media are frequently devoid of context, requiring the reader to trust the author or follow a footnote. I call these “severed quotations” because the context necessary for readers to evaluate them has been chopped off. I use the term “severed” as a way suggest that we need to establish a new norm for quotations, a norm which the digital medium has only now made possible, where the text surrounding a quotation can be expanded to provide readers with a fuller context. This new norm can help distinguish those people who desire to live to a higher standard of accountablity, from those who play fast and lose with the record.
Out of Context Quotations in the Media
Take for example, the Saturday Night Live Sketch that Parodied Sarah Palin:
I can see Russia from my house!
This line was actually a exagerated paraphrase from Sarah Palin that makes more sense if you read the interview’s full transcript.
Earlier, in the interview, Gibson raised the topic of Russia’s proximity to Alaska:
GIBSON: Let’s start, because we are near Russia, let’s start with Russia and Georgia.
Later in the exchange talks about this proximity and comes up again, with Palin saying:
PALIN: They’re our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.
I wasn’t a Palin supporter, but I am sympathetic to conservative who say that in this instance the media treated her unfairly.
If media outlets would use expanding quotations, linked to a full (or at least fuller) transcript, they might regain some of the public’s trust.
To make this new norm of expanding quotations possible, I created Neotext, an open-source project which makes it easy for any WordPress user to create this type of expandable quotation.
You can see what its like to create your own Neotext quotation on my demo site by clicking on the “Test Drive” button below.
The goal of the Neotext project is to bolster the credibility of serious creators, by allowing the public to hold them to a higher citation standard. I’ve made all the code for Neotext open source (BSD) in the hope that this will speed its adoption by authoring platforms like Medium.
How Medium could adopt Neotext
Medium could be the first platform to adopt this digital writing feature, if it:
- added a source URL field to their blockquotes and
- incorporated a citation web service like the one I developed.
The Technology behind this Open Source Library
I’ve created the above prototype as a proof of concept using a custom jquery library and Python web service to demonstrate how this idea could be implemented as a WordPress plugin. Neotext is currently alpha-quality code, but all the code is free to build off of and is available under an open source license (BSD) at GitHub.
How to Help This Project:
If you don’t work at Medium.com and want to help on the WordPress plugin, I’m looking for:
- Programming collaborators to help me improve the code, and
- WordPress authors who are interested in being alpha-testers of my plugin.
How the Code Works:
The plugin I created takes advantage of standard html’s blockquote cite attribute, where the url is specified with the “cite” attribute. Platforms like Medium would need to modify their editors to allow the author to specify a URL with their blockquotes:
- When the article is published, the Web Authoring Tool (either WordPress or Medium) scans published articles and checks to see if the article contains a <blockquote cite= “url”> tag. If the article does, it uses the HTTP POST command to programmatically send the article’s url to the Python web service I created.
- The Python Web Service gets the submitted url, downloads the specified article, and for every cited blockquote url it finds, it retrieves the cited document, creates a text-version of the cited source, and locates the quotation.
- After the web service locates the quotation, it copies the 500 characters of text before and after the quotation.
- The web service saves the 500-character contextual text snippets to a json file on Amazon S3, constructing an identifier from a hash of the quoted text and the page’s url.
- When a reader views the citation on the published page, their browser:
- uses jquery to find any <blockquote> tags with the “cite” attribute,
- looks up the json file in the Amazon cloud, and
- injects the json content into hidden <divs> on the citing page and displays arrows above and below each <blockquote>
Related: Download Sample HTML template
What’s in it for Medium and Me:
My goal is to bring this functionality to every significant online writing platform. Medium could strengthen the credibility of its platform by being an early adopter.
I’m not looking for fortune or fame. There’s an old quote that says:
A man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.
- Journalists and Technologists Should Collaborate to Build More Trustworthy Media, which I also wrote.