learning + networked society + dossiers + extra
home + what's new + index + comments + rss feed

PDFs, DIIGO and collaboration online

The PDF: a straight-jacket to collaboration

The ISO standard for the Portable Document Format (PDF) states that it is: a digital form for representing electronic documents to enable users to exchange and view electronic documents independent of the environment in which they were created or the environment in which they are viewed or printed. The PDF sets out to do two things related to publishing documents: ensure that a formatted layout appears the same across different platforms and protect copyright by locking material in the layout. This is done by using postscript to encode and encapsulate the page. One of the consequences of doing so is that the PDF makes the document into an object that cannot (easily) be broken down into smaller elements that can be reused elsewhere.
Some of the key facets of collaboration include commenting, annotating, modifying, reusing, … The PDF is not a system adapted to such collaboration carried out online. Although PDFs can be and are largely shared over the Internet they are really an off-line technology. For example, they can be locally annotated and comments commented on and the annotated documents can then be posted to others. But this way of annotating doesn’t have the power of an online collaboration system like DIIGO which links comments and annotations to a document and displays those annotations to chosen people without actually changing the original web document.

Making annotations

Part of the DIIGO system for tagging and sharing online resources is the possibility to add comments at any place on the web page. From the user’s perspective, this is done by adding a sticky-note made up of a marker in the form of a number (indicating the number of comments in that field) within a small coloured bubble that marks the entry point of the annotation in the text. When the cursor passes over the entry point, the comments are displayed in a separate small window that is displayed next to the marker. It is possible to add comments to the comments. These appear in the same window under the original comment. Annotations can be made private or public or attributed to a group of people using DIIGO. As a result anyone who has access to the annotations also sees the relevant markers on the page and can comment on them or create their own comments. Unfortunately PDFs are excluded from this possibility and a considerable amount of interesting online material is in the form of PDFs.

Solving the dilemma of annotating PDFs

The dilemma of not being able to satisfactorily comment on PDFs could be largely resolved if we could read PDF documents directly in a navigator, like FireFox, and then use an annotation system like the one offered by DIIGO. Earlier versions of navigators made it possible to read PDF documents ‘in-line’ but this is no longer the case. From our perspective, the advantage of reading a PDF in the navigator - as if it were a web page - is that doing so enables the use of web-based tools like DIIGO and, as a result, sharing comments with others in a controlled way. One of the interesting aspects of such an approach is that the original document remains untouched, thus satisfying those people who need to lock up their writings and protect them.
Unfortunately Firefox (the browser for which DIIGO has made its plug-in) does not support reading PDFs within the navigator, but opens them in an external, offline Acrobat Reader, thus apparently cutting the document off from the Net and online collaboration. I imagine the reason why a PDF cannot be converted into a web page and handled as such is the encoding. As a result the mass of PDFs, despite the interest of much of the content encoded in them, is like a dead weight in a universe of online collaboration. As the PDF has been very widely taken up and is now a recognised public standard it would no doubt be difficult to get people to use something else, even though advances in HTML code have solved many of the problems that PDFs were designed to handle by ensuring the reliability of the layout. The answer then must lie with some form of transliteration from PDF to HTML that allows annotations (as in the DIIGO system) but still satisfies the desire of writers and content owners to protect their writings.

Rogue annotations

However, thinking ahead, if such a system were to become reality and be widely used, it might have unwanted repercussions as it would allow anybody to comment on documents as they wish. Not everybody is motivated by a desire to learn and to understand and to share constructive ideas. For some people the ability to say whatever they like, however objectionable or abusive or questionable or troublesome, is seen as an unalienable right. Clearly limiting the sharing of annotations to a group or a set of “friends” would go a good way to solving the problem of “rogue” annotations. Otherwise some sort of “noise filter” would be necessary in the public space, especially if commercial interests caught onto the idea of using annotations to advertise products (Annotation: I really wish I hadn’t had that particular idea!).

Share or comment
| More

learning + networked society + dossiers + extra
home + what's new + index + comments + rss feed

ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey,
Artwork & Novels: Secret Paths & PhotoBlog - LinkedIn: Portfolio - DIIGO: Links
Created: June 3rd, 2009 - Last up-dated: June 3rd, 2009