Wordnik's Smartwords to make readers smarter
Wednesday, 24 February 2010, 12:05 Hrs | 1 Comments
With Smartwords, Wordnik and its partners are aiming to bring deep levels of context to any kind of electronic text--be it in e-books on readers like the iPad, Kindle, or Nook, or on computers or mobile devices - by examining words and the words around them and linking readers to potentially vast amounts of information about them.
"A lot of people say you can know what kind of person someone is by looking at their friends," said Wordnik CEO Erin McKean. "It's the same with words. And in the same way that people can get a pretty good idea of a person's demographic - are they the kind of person that goes to Dunkin' Donuts or to Starbucks - you can say the same thing about words. Are you the kind of word that appears in (a popular entertainment) magazine or are you the kind of word that appears in The New Yorker?"
The first stabs at Smartwords should roll out this summer, McKean said, and will be geared toward helping people get a much more personalized experience out of their digital reading. There's no way to know, of course, whether it will catch on, but with the support of Wordnik's partners and a likely surge in interest in e-readers, Wordnik clearly hopes it is hitting a sweet spot at precisely the right time.
One of the most important utilities of Smartwords is expected to be a system that will highlight words a reader isn't familiar with, offering them a definition and other contextual information. "Right now, your e-reading device is as dumb as a book shelf, which doesn't know what books are on it," she said. "But why doesn't your e-reader know that you've already read tons and tons of books about one topic or another and when you start reading a new one, it only highlights the words it thinks you haven't seen before."
Another important tool, and the one that could help with people's contextual understanding of what they're reading, could offer readers historical, literary, scientific or other kinds of references to phrases or terms they're not familiar with. So, McKean explained, if an e-book contains some sort of allusion to Shakespeare or the Bible, a reader could be alerted - and might gain more insight into the text than they would had they not understood the reference.
Smartwords could also share information about where readers are in certain kinds of texts, or where they've quit reading, she said. That could be immensely valuable to publishers trying to gain more information about how people use their content. And while such a system raises the obvious privacy concerns, McKean said that addressing those concerns will be one of the goals of the Smartwords advisory board, which includes the Internet Archive, a nonprofit well-known for looking out for privacy.
For Wordnik, launching Smartwords this summer is clearly crucial to getting applications like these onto digital devices everywhere. Once people have the standard in their hands, McKean said, anyone involved in putting out words digitally, from major book publishers to small bloggers, could implement the Smartwords application programming interfaces to provide more information to readers, and could, in theory, come up with new applications extending the standard's usefulness.
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