Channel 4′s latest web project reinvents quotations for the Twitter age

Quotations are ubiquitous, from Facebook and Twitter to media coverage and watercooler chats. But the experience of finding a quotation online is often messy and reliant on amateurish sites that seem to rely on the same old quotes – and that’s the problem a new Channel 4 project is aiming to fix. By Jemima Kiss


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jemima Kiss, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 2nd September 2010 12.05 UTC

“My favourite quotation is £8 10/- for a second-hand suit,” Spike Milligan once said.

Quotations are ubiquitous, from Facebook and Twitter to media coverage and watercooler chats. But the experience of finding a quotation online is often messy and reliant on amateurish sites that seem to rely on the same old quotes – and that’s the problem a new Channel 4 project is aiming to fix.

New Zealand quotations (1)
Photo by PhillipC on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Quotables wants to reinvent the quotations dictionary. Co-founded by Channel 4 and the Arts Council, there’s a focus on literature but also some priority C4 areas including comedy, news, the arts and independent British cinema. C4′s new media commissioner for factual, Adam Gee, said that despite the number of quotations sites already out there – from Wikiquote and ThinkExist to BrainyQuote and QuotationsBook – there’s room to do much better, because many of those reuse the same databases and rehash the same misattributions and inaccuracies.

Charlie Brooker: “Snakes. They’re like bits of rope, only angrier.”

“We had the realisation that the way we interact with quotes online is really lacking in many respects,” said Gee. “It’s not a fun experience or an easy experience, and when you do find something you have no idea if it is accurate or not. Quotables is starting from a blank sheet, built from the preferences of an active community.”

Oscar Wilde and Socrates will make the cut eventually, but there’s as much of a focus on events, TV and popular culture; the end of Big Brother has been a focus for Channel 4.

Albert Einstein: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

Gee said there are four dimensions to the project. He hopes Quotables will become to quotes what Delicious is to links, a standard utility for saving and sharing. There’s also a buzz element, capturing trends in quotes on different days; Tony Blair was a hot topic yesterday. And over time it value as a reference tool will increase, as will its community.

David Gibson, from the Edinburgh Fringe: “I’m currently dating a couple of anorexics. Two birds, one stone.”

Is the popularity of short quotes a symptom of how the internet is rewiring our brains, impairing our ability to process long-form content? These are 75-word quotes. “By having these nuggets from great works of literature, great speeches, great articles, we’re encouraging the entirety to be read and that’s part of the ongoing programme of functionality. One aspect is we’re building a batch upload process of independent publishers so they can upload a selection of the best quotes from recent publications, and it gets published alongside links to Amazon or their own online shops. But concision is really about encouraging a more considered, careful submission so people don’t submit a whole paragraph – what is the essence you are put across?”

Quotables was conceived and commissioned by Channel 4, built by Mint Digital and co-founded by the Arts Council and Channel 4. Gee describes it as halfway between a standard Channel 4 commission and an investment, more like that of 4ip. The aim is to make Quotables a sustainable, standalone business and it already has an office base and small team in Glasgow. Gee would not say how much had been invested in the project.

Terry Pratchett: “Build a man a fire and he’ll be warm for the night. Set a man on fire and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”

“It’s not extravagant but it’s not tight. And it has been budgeted for the long view. The emphasis is on building a lovely experience and a core of enthusiastic users and around them a community people enjoy being a part of.” He said that as well as advertising, there are plans to help the project sustain itself by adding merchandising – “Moo-style” hard products.

“People have been very generous in sharing the repositories of inspiration,” said Gee. “Quotables has the edge over what’s out there at the moment; the fact you have proper tools for the quotes – the ability to edit tags, the ability to correct things, for finding duplicates, proper attribution and more accuracy. And a system of lists as well as tags so you can keep your own stuff sorted.”

All of which reminds me of a line my Dad used to say was by Virginia Woolf, along the lines of: “Efficiency cuts the grass of the mind to its roots.” I’ve never been able to find it – does anyone know?

There’s more from Quotables on its blog and you can subscribe to daily quotations from Quotables on Twitter.

Woody Allen: “If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

• Elsewhere, Channel 4 is working with Six to Start on a project with the working title ABC – Arts Buzz Culture. “It’s an early-warning cultural radar system, particularly picking up on online buzz around discovering and sharing arts and culture events,” said Gee. If you frequently find events are sold out or are over by the time you’ve heard about them, this will be for you. It’s a working prototype, and the design side is being developed with Rob Bevan of XPT. “It’s a difficult design job – you’ve got to make it seem very simple and not overwhelming. The creativity and brilliance of the design is hidden in its simplicity, in many ways.” It’s personalised, social – and due out in 2011.

Dolly Parton: “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb… and I’m also not blonde.”

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