Posted on by & filed under annotations, programming.

Lighter-weight manuscripts were one of the big ideas from the Books in Browsers 2012 talk that Liza and I presented last month. In our particular case, we focused on the combination of voice recognition and wordprocessor-free authoring, but this is really part of a larger trend which Peter Brantley captured: an “explosion of new services, spreading across many niches of story-telling that never before were beneficiaries of Internet technologies.” Although Google Docs are now more than five years old, the publishing community has not fully grasped the disruptive potential of writing in a world that doesn’t worry about files or formats, where sharing is native and painless.

Our talk presented a very simple demonstration of that disruptive potential by stringing together basic tools for making manuscripts (Dragon Dictate, Google Docs), editing (edits in Google Docs), and commenting (Twitter #hashtags). In the hope that these building blocks might spur more interesting work, I’ve released the code behind one piece of our talk, a tiny project-let called Oration.

Oration transforms a series of Google Docs inside a folder into a presentation with static HTML in the center, Google Doc comments on the left, and Tweets matching a hashtag on the right.

A three column version of the talk transcript, with specific annotations from Google Docs on the left, the actual captured content in the middle, and tweets on the left

Oration worked well for our talk. We followed this basic setup:

  1. Set up a Google Doc folder and share it (publicly or however you prefer)
  2. Add Google Docs to the folder in the order they should be presented
  3. Ask people to edit any Google Doc to improve it
  4. Ask people to comment on any Google Doc to discuss specific topics
  5. Ask people to tweet with a specific #hashtag
  6. Publish the HTML output of Oration somewhere to preserve a “final” version

Under the hood, Oration pulls from both the Twitter API and the Google Drive SDK to build the consolidated HTML output. Each Google Doc in the specified folder is extracted as HTML and appended to the main content as a row. The primary content for the row is stuffed into the center column, any Google Doc comments are pulled out (using a terrible, fragile hack) into the left column of the row, and any tweets that matched the time window when the Google Doc itself was created (this is probably too fiddly in practice) are put into the right column.

If you want the HTML to look pretty, you will probably want a CSS framework like Foundation.

The Python code is available at under a BSD license.


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