Sunday, June 14, 2009

ShiftSpace: Wikifying the Web

Annotation is the red-headed stepchild of research, it sometimes seems, and yet so much relies on it. Without level-headed (or contrarian) commentary on a text, too much can be taken for granted as true; some of the most reliable books I’ve borrowed from lecturers and students have been annotated so much that there’s more pencil than ink on any given page. Of course, annotations can be as suspect as the printed word – if only there were some way to toggle annotations on or off, depending on who wrote them…

Enter ShiftSpace. A simple plug-in to the Firefox web browser, ShiftSpace (currently at v0.14) has been annotating the web for a few years now, and has morphed into a pretty stable wee script, containing multiple ‘Spaces’ for users to ‘Shift’ webpages. Users can annotate pages using the ‘minor’ Spaces by highlighting certain words or terms, and adding sticky notes to certain sites – both useful for group work and note sharing – or go the extra step and work with two major Spaces – SourceShift and ImageSwap.

ImageSwap lets users switch out certain images or logos and replace them with others – you can, for instance, Shift by replacing the pictures of happy graduates with a picture of a burning sofa, as seen above. (Or a kitten, if that’s still your thing.)

SourceShift, alternately, is a blessing for anyone with rudimentary html skills, and enables users to freely alter the source code of a given website, adding annotations like videos (copy and paste the embed code from YouTube), pictures, or additional text. Once you’ve made a Shift, you can save it – anyone coming to the site in future will have the option to view your Shift, create their own, or view the page it its original format.

While there’s scope for abuse, ShiftSpace isn’t all about hacking or parody. For example, searching for “falun gong” on will give a different result than, as Falun Dafa is censored in China. ShiftSpace includes a note on the Chinese results acknowledging that they have been censored, and offers the uncensored top search results of ShiftSpace lets viewers stake a layer of freedom over the web, even over proscribed content.

Public annotation can, I think, be an art form in itself – assuming one draws a similar distinction to that between vandalism and street art. The already-vocal commentariat can be let loose from the bottom-of-page confines of comment threads, and respond directly to the page’s content, on the content. We can, with the simple addition of a layer in a browser window, return to the panoply of views that the internet purports to represent.

It’s locative art turned mainstream, framed in a browser, and from an aesthetic standpoint, ShiftSpace recreates the consensual hallucination of the web – Gibson’s proto-matrix be damned; ShiftSpace is a layer of textual awareness that can be toggled on or off, can be altered to suit any viewpoint, twisted to support protests or reinforced to back up arguments with insufficient evidence. It certainly results in a confusion of annotations and pranks, but it reclaims the web as public space, and making an already democratic medium slightly more fluid and open to re-creation is never a bad thing.

A How-to Guide

(Instructions and all links are also on
  1. Download and install the Firefox browser.
  2. Install the Greasemonkey plug-in for Firefox. This lets you run small Javascript programs to modify websites, from annotations like Shiftspace to user scripts and tweaks of Google’s email/calendar/docs ecosystem.
  3. Head to and click on the link to install ShiftSpace, then refresh your page, update to the latest version, and you’re good to go!
  4. While browsing, you can call up the ShiftSpace console and view all public Shifts made by other users, then toggle them on or off.
[This article first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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