Many tools for thought offer a single-player experience centered on storing and retrieving information, and don’t integrate well with the biggest multiplayer platform of all time: the Internet. Part of the problem is that we have been idle when it comes to its foundation: the hyperlink. In more than 30 years, the way we link to each other’s content hasn’t changed. Embedding and deep linking are still chores. Unattributed quotes and vague links to an irrelevant homepage are fairly common. Not ideal to foster conversations at scale.
A tiny but mighty tool called Quotebacks by Toby Shorin and Tom Critchlow aims to tackle this problem. “We built Quotebacks as a little idea with a big heart,” says Tom, one of the creators. “The big ambition is to help create a culture of blogging, in particular a culture of cross-blog dialogue. Quotebacks itself is a simple tool but hopefully reduces friction and encourages people to think of blogging (or networked writing) as a thing that creates discussion and spreads ideas.”
Quotebacks is a browser extension which allows you to quickly save snippets of text from around the web and to convert them into embeddable blockquotes on your website. Here is what an embedded quote looks like:
The web is still a very young medium, and it has been influenced more than anything else by print media design. There is so much more that can be done with text on a screen than is being done today. Citations, drawing, chat, speech-to-text. There are opportunities everywhere, and the bar is low! If we are serious about unlocking the value of knowledge we should consider how to improve every part of the knowledge production stack, and that includes reading. As Laurel Schwulst says: “Imaginative functionality is important, even if it’s only a trace of what was, as it’s still a sketch for a more ideal world.”
Forget about the messy process of copying and pasting interesting quotes in a document or a page in your note-taking tool. An amazing feature of Quotebacks is its dynamic library of quotes you can seamlessly build while browsing the web. The library is searchable, and each card is interactive.
You can export each quote as a blockquote, an image, plain text, or markdown. There is even a field to add personal notes. And all of your content is private: the quotes are saved into Chrome’s local storage and are never sent to a server. You can easily export all of the quotes in your library as a JSON file.
To use Quotebacks, install the browser extension for Chrome or Firefox, then use CMD+SHIFT+S or CTRL+SHIFT+S on Chrome, or ALT+S on Firefox after highlighting text on any page. If you use an extension that already uses this shortcut—which was my case—you can change the shortcut in your extensions settings.
Quotebacks may seem like a simple utility, but it has profound implications. Toby and Tom describe it as “a political act, in which we elevate and validate the voice of another individual.”
First and foremost, quoting gives context, helping readers see where an author is coming from. Quotes and citations are an important part in making and remembering history. And looking looking towards the future, they allow us to better see, understand, and build on the vast graph of human knowledge—the original “web”—that other, greater internet of which this one is just part.
Secondly, quoting another person can be generous. Generous quoting can mean raising another’s voice alongside your own, affirming their authorship, and striving to not take them out of context. One can quote generously, no matter whether one is agreeing or disagreeing with another author.
As a content creator or online writer, you can use Quotebacks to quote other people, but also to quote yourself. Not source is off limit: you can quote Tweets, YouTube, comments on HackerNews… For instance, here is a tweet of mine using Quotebacks:
We tend to take notes during meetings, but pre-meeting notes can be incredibly powerful:
• Learn about their work/life journey
• Make your own intro relevant
• Prepare original questions
It may sound unauthentic but in my experience actually leads to much deeper conversations.
The ethos behind Quotebacks is one of the reasons why I love the product. Yes, it’s a great addition to my thinking toolkit, allowing me to store quotes without polluting my note-taking and thinking system. But it’s also a tool which aims at making the Internet a more generous place. If you regularly write online, give it a try!