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Subtext: modern day annotation and social media

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James Richards | 13:00 UK time, Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Subtext screen grab 1
Subtext was one of the first projects to be originated by the Learning Development team, and answered a call to create a low barrier to entry social media project that could engage one or several of BBC Learning's core audiences. We reflected on how we had studied key texts when we were at school - I remembered paying my school to keep a copy of Hamlet, that had accumulated all of my marginalia after two years of studying the play for O level English literature.

Fundamentally we wanted to provide users with a product which would allow them to select and read a text online, with the capability to then annotate the text with their own notes and to be able to share those notes with other users.

The first step for development producer Andy Littledale was to scope and visualise the project. Andy on the development process:

"We decided at the start that we needed to spec out the interface in a very visual way and that rather than still screen shots done in Photoshop it would be good to design the movement and interaction at the beginning of the process. The obvious thing was to use After Effects to fake the interface in a video. The video would serve two purposes. Firstly to force us to make crucial decisions about the interface design, but also to explain the project to BBC stakeholders is a very visual way. We chose to work with Aardman in Bristol and they did a fantastic job.

As a Flash developer I made sure that what was represented in the video was also possible in reality. After some disappointing results prototyping in Papervision we worked with Adobe on a beta version of Flash 10 to ensure the 3d aspects of the interface were not just a pipe dream.

With an interface designed and essential prototyping completed we commissioned Zupa to build the application using Adobe Flex. Zupa were also tasked with changing the interface to accommodate any size of book. It was no easy task but they excelled in their creative approach to the job. The books themselves were taken from Adelaide university which are themselves taken from the Gutenberg project and reformatted as XHTML.

We are very pleased with the results and looking forward to adding more social media functionality in further releases to create an inspirational BBC product."

Subtext screengrab 2
GCSE Bitesize were the first clients for Subtext, adapting the prototype into the Booknotes production version. Certain social networking functionality needed to be necessarily tuned down for the Bitesize audience but students are still able to sign in to access a text, record their own annotations, and save and transport their notes via a downloadable file. Users of the Booknotes product need to be 16 years and under as it shares an SSO login with the Bitesize message boards.

subtext screengrab 3
The BBC Learning Development team are currently considering where Subtext could go next. As a product it can provide an evolving vehicle that allows users to 'get inside books', and to populate for a limited period a fleeting social network based around a specific need for or a more general love of a text. Classic BBC TV scripts, news transcripts, pending legislation, the minutes of meetings, collaborative crowd sourced translation - the possibilities are exciting.

James Richards is a Development Executive, BBC Learning Development.

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