The Anthologists

How do you balance the stream’s relentless push forward? You circle around, and step back into your own footprints. You find familiar places, look again, and pull the good things out of the past’s abyss.1

The desire to archive things for posterity is the itch that makes yearbooks and timelines feel necessary. We create edges and impose order on documentation to help us understand time, experiences, and ideas.2 We must develop ways to save these from the crush of “What’s New” as more of what we care about lives online.

I think the web is heading toward an age of anthologies, where users gain new ways to select, sequence, recontextualize, and publish the content they consume. Anthologies are distinct from remix culture, because the source material is not modified. Some of these tools will be automated like Flipboard or Facebook’s timeline, but I’m interested in the opportunities of manual tools which require our attention to pass over what we’ve saved, bookmarked, liked, hearted, and favorited on the web. The chosen material is sorted, arranged, and given edges. An anthology flies in the face of the web as it exists, simply in that one may “finish” because it “ends.”3 I hope we are finally admitting to ourselves that we can’t stomach as much as we thought. We’ve realized that the way to make sense of this meal is to step away from the table for a while and come back later.

Anthologies have the potential to finally make good on the purpose of all our automated archiving and collecting: that we would actually go back to the library, look at the stuff again, and, holy moses, do something with it.4 A collection that isn’t revisited might as well be a garbage heap.5

I think the most recent example of anthologizing is Readability’s Readlist service, which allows users to generate personal ebooks from multiple sources on the web to share with others. It’s a digital version of what Christopher Butler started to do a few years ago with his Mixbooks. Butler curated his year of reading down to a few articles, then printed several copies of the book at Lulu, a vanity press. He then gave away copies to his friends and the included authors. Mixbooks are a great idea that gives meaning and posterity to reading by producing an archival artifact that can be shared as a gift. It’s a single-serving anthology constructed by personal experience made possible by small-scale production methods. It makes sense to do this digitally as well, and we need tools to do so easily.

The source material, however, doesn’t need to be text. My favorite example of a natively digital anthology comes from Craig Mod. Craig created an eight-pound tome that documents the development process of Flipboard’s iPhone app. Mod used Instagram photos geotagged to the office, Git commit messages from code pushes, and versioned design mockups in Dropbox to create the book. Essentially, Craig pulled off a digital-to-analog flip-flop and made a document of record with a little additional work. Craig’s book is an incidental anthology which could only exist in our current circumstance where documentation is constant and passive, and can easily be collected because of metadata. The materials already existed, they just had to be arranged so they could be appreciated. The experience had to be anthologized.

Individual bits can be sewn together in other novel ways, even if the creators of the pieces aren’t willing collaborators.

Kutiman’s video of existing YouTube clips takes snippets of performances and remixes them to a completely different effect than what the original performers intended. Perhaps this speaks to what makes all of this anthologizing supremely weird to those of us who make things for the web: it means that your work, if good, will be taken from you and repurposed in ways you could never imagine. You will be an unwilling collaborator to a larger arrangement. You will jam with strangers in another stranger’s garage.

All content, no matter what the size, seeks to exist on an atomic level once it is introduced to the web. We want tweetable sized snippets; we wish to point to 2:47 into a YouTube clip; we crop television shows to 4 second animated gifs, blockquote the lead paragraph of a New York Times piece, and strip a Wired illustration from its article to take with us. These atomic units make us fickle and peckish on their own,6 but the way to counter the loss of context is not to lament the size of things, but to take those individual parts and arrange them into larger wholes again. Content may break at its connection points, but the ingredients can be recombined.7

Networked content seeks to bond to other content in as many different ways as possible. It is like carbon, constellations, or the crossroads. The stickiest content survives and thrives, because it lodges in our memory and has the capacity to bond and mix with what’s to come. The best things we make can stand on their own, but they give us the itch to connect them to something else to establish patterns. They suggest a fuller picture, now all we need are the tools to flesh out the rest of the image.

I believe we’re at a crucial point where we need to begin to make these tools. We have an abundance of content; now we must sift through it. Anthologizing is documenting and contextualizing. Most importantly, it is shared sense-making, and the web could stand to make a little more sense.


  1. For more on revisiting our digital past, have a listen to my talk at 2011’s dConstruct conference, titled “Oh God, It’s Full of Stars.”
  2. By the way, who’s going to make the product that uses Facebook content to auto-generate yearbooks into printed books and ebooks? I’d buy one.
  3. Imposing edges allows one to create curriculums from the boundless selection of content. Leaving things out suggests a hierarchy, and a limited set becomes something to measure things by. A curated collection is a recipe for a certain experience. For instance, consider this survey of classic magazine articles on Readlists, as chosen by Kevin Kelly’s CoolTools community. Our strong desire for edges is why we make lists about the best songs, restaurants, and movies, especially this time of year. We argue about what is included on a list and which order they take, because a list is a worldview.
  4. An important note: the way a user interacts with new content is different than what’s best with content they’ve already seen and marked as noteworthy. Making systems to reengage will require designers to rethink a bunch of interaction models and information architecture.
  5. Jason Kottke concisely explained the troubles of excess content and the importance of automated winnowing in 2011, when he said Flickr had become “a shoebox under the bed instead of the door of the refrigerator”.
  6. I suspect this is why I always feel dissatisfied when going through someone’s Pinterest account or Tumblr blog. It usually feels like going through their laundry.
  7. I’m stabbing in the dark here, but the most cotton-candyish content online is the animated gif. (And I love them.) That being said, how satisfying is Ann Friedman’s summary of the Petraeus sex scandal using animated gifs from Mean Girls?