After a year-and-a-half of development effort, the Institute for the Future of the Book has released the open-source CommentPress 1.0 theme for WordPress, which allows paragraph-level comments that are displayed side-by-side with the associated paragraph.
Here’s an excerpt from the announcement:
This little tool is the happy byproduct of a year and a half spent hacking WordPress 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. Out of this emerged a series of publishing experiments loosely grouped under the heading "networked books." . . .
In the course of our tinkering, we achieved one small but important innovation. Placing the comments next to rather than below the text turned out to be a powerful subversion of the discussion hierarchy of blogs, transforming the page into a visual representation of dialog, and re-imagining the book itself as a conversation. Several readers remarked that it was no longer solely the author speaking, but the book as a whole (author and reader, in concert). . . .
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 our version of the Iraq Study Group Report, or a copy of the federal budget, or a Walmart press release)
— creative writing: workshopping story drafts, collaborative storytelling
— recreational: social reading, book clubs