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pal·imp·sest (pāl'ĭmp-sěst') n.
  1. A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible.
  2. An object, place, or area that reflects its history

In a talk Matt “blackbeltjones” Jones gave at Adaptive Path’s MX week in 2008, he " recommended the metaphor of the palimpsest as a “model for social tools,” while speaking of Dopplr, a social network for frequent travelers:

Our content itself gets smarter as it aggregates our thoughts about it…. I think the palimpsest as a model for social tools is a powerful one. Of course they originated from the scarcity of media, something we don’t exactly suffer [from]. But thinking about the medium as something that accretes messages in the way they did helps me. I also just like saying it. Palimpsest!

We like saying it too!

Literally, a palimpsest is a manuscript (this being an ancient term, it might be papyrus or parchment) that has been overwritten at least once, with the earlier text only partially erased and obscured. Thus the layers of the preceding meaning are still slightly visible through or “behind” the most current layer. The word has also been used as a metaphor to describe any place that reveals its own history.

Kenneth G. Wilson defined it in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English as, “a piece of writing that has been erased one or more times and written over, so that it is layers deep. It then provides a metaphor for complicated reading or deciphering or simply for penetrating to truth through layers of matter overlying it. The metaphor is not so much about mystery or age as it is about layers of meaning.”

OK, so what does it mean, then? Well, it means providing your users with ways to annotate, add meaning, add metadata, reformat, recreate, and change the environment you’ve designed for them, while still leaving traces of the earlier contexts.

Flickr Commons is a great example of this, also stolenborrowed from Matt.


The Commons at Flickr provides a way for members of the community to annotate (by adding tags or comments to) photos from various museums and libraries (starting with the Library of Congress), thus adding successive layers of meaning to the digitized artifacts from these collections.

essay still t/k from blackbeltjones