I have been dreaming about new tools that would help me capture what I was reading for almost as long I have been reading. During my college years, I lost a semester trying to build an epic Hypercard stack called "Curriculum" that would help me organize all my notes for the courses that I had stopped attending because I was too busy building the software. (Oh, the irony...) In my twenties I began keeping digital copies of influential quotations from books I had read so that they were searchable on my hard drive; during the next decade I stumbled across a brilliant application called Devonthink that enabled me to make interesting connections between those quotes. (I wrote a little lovesong to Devonthink for the New York Times Book Review in 2004.) While I was writing Where Good Ideas Come From, I found myself exploring the long and rich history of the commonplace book, one of the great intellectual engines of the Enlightenment: books of quotations assembled by hand by 18th-century readers, annotating and indexed and remixed by readers like Locke, Jefferson, and Priestley.
A few years ago, I had the good fortune of being re-introduced to John Borthwick, whom I had known slightly in the original dot-com years. We got to talking over lunch about our shared obsession with research and annotation tools. This was somewhere post-Friendster but pre-Twitter, so the idea of making these systems more social was very much in the air. A blog post I had written about Devonthink in 2004 had included this little riff:
The other thing that would be fascinating would be to open up these personal libraries to the external world. That would be a lovely combination of old-fashioned book-based wisdom, advanced semantic search technology, and the personality-driven filters that we've come to enjoy in the blogosphere. I can imagine someone sitting down to write an article about complexity theory and the web, and saying, "I bet Johnson's got some good material on this in his 'library.'"
John and I continued to nibble at the edges of that idea for next few years, until late 2010, when we began to talk about building something in earnest, under the wonderful umbrella of Betaworks, which had already incubated and launched a string of great services and apps: bit.ly, News.me, Tweetdeck, among many others. Early on we had the great fortune to bring in our co-founder Corey Menscher as head of product (well, let’s be honest, head of just about everything.) Today, I’m thrilled to announce that our collaboration has led to the launch of Findings.
The service is simple enough -- and draws upon a few social conventions that will be instantly recognizable. (So feel free to just go try it out and skip the rest.) At its core, Findings is a service that allows you to capture, store, search, and share small snippets of text from eBooks and web pages. It integrates Kindle highlights and web clippings (with more input options to come.) And it gives you the ability to share those quotes with your peers, as well as follow other people’s quotes through your timeline.
There are plenty of other services and apps out there that clip and store text. (When John and I first met for lunch, he was using a modified WordPress setup to store his personal quotes.) But with Findings, we are trying to do something that is dedicated explicitly to the task of curating quotations. In other words, it’s not designed to be a broader publishing platform, or a more generic notebook app that happens to include quotes every now and then. It’s a social commonplace book.
That narrowness of focus has allowed us to concentrate on a couple of key features that make Findings particularly useful. First, because we are focused on quotations, we have built a number of smart systems that pull metadata from the sources, which allows you to seamlessly organize your quotes around authors and titles and sources (and other organizational schemes we are going to dream up in the months ahead.) And the social component means you can do the kind of “searching someone else’s library” that I was dreaming of seven years ago. The combination of sharing and metadata means that we can start pinpointing the exact pages and passages that people are fixating on right now.
In the next few months, we plan on expanding the ways in which you can organize and navigate through your findings. (We are also expanding the team, so if you’re interesting in helping in a more direct way, give us a shout.) We want to make Findings the best service out there for people who have very rigorous organizational needs, and at the same time make it an engine of serendipitous discovery as well. But reaching those lofty goals will require feedback from you: how are you using Findings? What do you want it to do better? So go check it out and and let us know what you think.