Scalar review

Despite its embryonic status (open beta), Scalar delivers an exciting new Web-publishing platform that will scale to and perhaps expand the boundaries of your book, chapter, or online project.
Photo of Scalar

Before it even became available, Scalar had the Digital Humanities community abuzz. A product of USC’s Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, Scalar (Free) was heralded as a groundbreaking publishing platform that would empower users to chart non-linear paths though a pastiche of Web-born content and media—all without onerous technical expertise. After using the open beta for nearly a month, I am happy to report that Scalar achieves, and perhaps surpasses, the scuttlebutt.

Whether you are connecting to the Internet Archive (Free) or linking to a song in SoundCloud (Free), Scalar can work with the repository in question, and with only a couple clicks. Through Views (templates) and Paths (sequences of content), you can provide readers with creative ways to engage content, or solicit their comments and annotations. Other Web platforms like Squarespace ($8-$24 per month) deliver more visual-savvy; but, given Scalar’s scalability and customizability, little stands in the way of you creating an innovative and beautiful online book.

Adding Content
Using Scalar for a project moving panoramas, my interests lie in integrating multiple kinds of content (images, video, and text), charting multiple courses through tha WordPress t content (sequential, spatial, and temporal), and soliciting both general and granular feedback on that content. Thankfully, Scalar was more than up to the task.

I began by importing my content using a left-hand sidebar. Although Scalar supports a host of local file formats (Local Media Files), there is a two-megabyte per file upload cap. If this sounds stingy, that is because it is. Scalar incentivizes linking to web content, for which support is generous. You can connect with online repositories such as Critical Commons, HyperCities, and the Internet Archive (Affiliated Archives), or connect to Prezi, SoundCloud, Vimeo, and YouTube (Other Archives). Should your content reside elsewhere, you can simply enter a URL (Internet Media Files). Adding text is as easy as clicking the New button at the bottom of the screen.

Creating Relationships
While the page editor emulates traditional blogging software, Scalar offers a novel approach to content relationships. To add a link in Scalar is to create a dynamic relationship between two (or more) items. You can add a reference to a media file or a media file annotation, assign media references inline with text, or link to another Scalar page (also called a Note) or an external webpage.

Alongside these various links, a host of different content containers: Comments, Annotations, Tags, and Paths. Comments and Annotations are analogous; however, while anyone can anonymously comment (subject to Author approval), annotating requires book access (Author, Commentator, Reviewer, or Reader). Tags and Paths are likewise similar: Both create relationships with multiple items; however, the relationship is linear with Paths (think: chapters) and non-linear with Tags. All delineations are fluid: You can assign a page as a Path and transform it into Tag, just as easily as you can define a page as a Comment on an existing item.

In practice, I found it was easiest first to import media (images and video clips), then to add text without associations, and later to add associations between the two. Because my project required multiple sequential layers, I relied upon Paths. Alternatively, for less defined projects, an Author might preference Tags, though nothing precludes using both.

Setting Views
Default Views are the most powerful way to shape the look and feel of a project. Each view functions as a template through which to dynamically reformat content. For example, if I have a page with text and media, I can use Text Emphasis to push media to the right margin; with Media Emphasis, I can foreground media with a slideshow at the top of the page; and, with Split Emphasis, I can set media flush with the left margin. Alongside these (and other) templates, Scalar furnishes a host of Visualizations, through which to conjure Paths, Media, Tags, and an Index of content associations. As you can see from the slideshow, visualizations are sophisticated, and integral to managing complex projects.

Just as an Author can set Default Views, a reader can toggle between Views. In fact, readers need not use Paths to explore a project. From the Index, a reader can peruse all content in the project—pages, media files, annotations, and comments. If one page sparks interest, she can access its associated items, and follow those associations to other corners of the book. The point is that Scalar is a tool to be wielded by Authors and readers alike.

This is not to say that Authors cannot shape the experience. Tech-savvy Authors may take advantage of Scalar’s customizability, including the ability to enter Custom CSS styles or Custom JavaScript. Thanks to Scalar’s API, you may even use Scalar to drive a third-party interface. Consider, for example, The Knotted Line, which overlays Scalar’s content management system with a tactile Flash-based interface.

Soliciting Contributions
In a collaborative project, whether an online book or classroom aid, knowing who has contributed is as important as what has been contributed. By enabling readers to contribute generally and anonymously (Comments), or with credentials and specificity (Annotations), Scalar offers two tracks of contributions. Authors of large, public projects might favor Comments that they can simply approve or deny. Small, more intensive working groups will likely prefer Contributor accounts (Author, Commentator, Reviewer, and Reader). Because Contributors must be credentialed (Manage Content/Book Users), Authors can always trace Annotations and page edits (Versions).

Authors can also use Annotations to control how readers encounter media. For example, if I annotate a YouTube clip, I can queue when it starts and stops, and supply context. By the same token, targeted annotations promote more detailed comments. If I post an image of a war scene, contributors can isolate and comment on its particular actors. Certainly, the image tagger leaves much to be desired (using X/Y axis values takes practice); however, the ability to tag and annotate media makes for a more vibrant knowledgebase.

Scaling Expectations
As Comments, Annotations, and Versions indicate, Scalar is not just an impressive Web-publishing platform, but also a dynamic, living repository. Just as Authors can capture media from across the Web, carve it up into Paths, and foreground items using Views, readers can contribute to the repository, re-envision that space via Views, and chart their own course through the content. Depending upon the amount of content and associations you add, Scalar can become labyrinthine in structure, and, given its beta status, scant documentation exists should you find yourself lost. However, compare Scalar to its kin, and you will soon see that it does not have any: Scalar stands apart in its novelty, accessibility, and capability, and for these reasons—and many more—it receives PCMag’s Editors’ Choice award.

Specifications
OS Compatibility Windows Vista, Windows XP, Linux, Mac OS, Windows 7, Windows 8
Type Personal, Professional
Free Yes

Verdict
Despite its embryonic status (open beta), Scalar delivers an exciting new Web-publishing platform that will scale to and perhaps expand the boundaries of your book, chapter, or online project.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc