smartwords_logo_495x81 CNet has an article about Smartwords, an idea from start-up company Wordnik that sounds terrific but sure seems hard to describe succinctly. As Smartwords’s website puts it:

Smartwords is a lightweight, easy-to-use standard for retrieving and publishing real-time, contextually-aware information about words.

It took reading through the CNet article a couple of times to figure out that it might better be described as “an integrated dictionary on steroids.”

Existing e-book apps with dictionary support (such as eReader) are largely limited to clicking on a single word to get a definition. Wordnik wants to go further than that. With Smartwords, as CNet puts it:

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.

And that context is not just limited to the words around the one in question; Wordnik CEO Erin McKean suggests it might even go as far as checking out what other books you keep on your device so it knows to offer information only about words you probably haven’t seen before.

Smartwords will also incorporate elements of social networking, allowing readers to share snippets of text on Facebook, Twitter, and the like. (Though I wonder if I am being too cynical to foresee a bit of difficulty getting many e-book device and app makers to sign onto this, publishers being notoriously paranoid about copy-and-paste ability.)

It might also provide a useful source of demographic information for publishers—letting them know how long it takes readers to finish particular books, or where they stop reading. This might be of some concern to privacy advocates, but McKean says they have an advisory board—including the Internet Archive, well-known for being concerned about privacy itself—that will be keeping an eye on those aspects.

One thing’s for sure: this isn’t some “if I build it, maybe they might come” pipe dream. CNet’s listing of some of the backers of the Smartwords project reads like a veritable who’s-who of digital media: “The New York Times, Forbes, the Huffington Post, O’Reilly Media, Vook, Ibis, Scribd, and the Internet Archive.”

Smartwords has the potential to be quite useful. It will be interesting to see if anything comes of it.

(Incidentally, along the lines of Paul Biba’s capitalization pet peeve about the “nook”, the Smartwords website only capitalizes “smartwords” at the beginning of sentences. I wish companies would cut that out. CNet uses more traditional capitalization.)


  1. This sounds very much like intellitxt advertising, except that they’re trying to make it sound useful. Personally, I think that highlighting words like that makes for a much more disruptive reading experience, and is ultimately why I’ve adblocked intellitxt. When I’m reading fiction I particularly don’t want my reading experience disrupted like they suggest.

    It could see more use for it for textbooks and journals however.

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