Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Caroline O'Donovan at the Nieman Journalism Lab has an interesting article entitled Exegesis: How early adapters, innovative publishers, legacy media companies and more are pushing toward the annotated web. She discusses the way media sites including The New York Times, The Financial Times, Quartz and SoundCloud and platforms such as Medium are trying to evolve from comments to annotations as a way to improve engagement with their readers. She also describes the work hypothes.is is doing to build annotations into the Web infrastructure. There is also an interesting post on the hypothes.is blog from Peter Brantley on a workshop with journalists. Below the fold, some thoughts on the implications for preserving the Web.

I'm a big fan of the idea of annotations as part of the Web infrastructure. I participated in one of hypothes.is' early workshops, and was very impressed with the progress Peter Brantley reported at the Spring CNI meeting. I'm much less enthusiastic about the idea of site-specific annotation technology. I agree with Zach Seward, Quartz senior editor that:
The goal is to encourage more thoughtful and directed conversation,
and that doing that on a per-site basis by:
let[ting] readers anchor their thoughts to paragraphs throughout a story
is an improvement on comments, but it isn't much of an improvement. An example is the Quartz story on the decline of Google's "20% time" system which, alone among the recent articles I looked at, actually has some (8) annotations. They are relevant and, in some cases, point out significant omissions such as the genesis of the system at 3M. But the annotations all address the background to the whole story. Their placement on a specific paragraph seems arbitrary, as indicated by the fact that half are on the last paragraph.

On the other hand, modulo some issues with the Not Your Grandfather's Web technology used to implement them, these site-specific annotations don't greatly impair our ability to preserve the site. Quartz even provides the ability to link to their annotations, for example, this one. But, alas, the link goes to the annotated page with the linked-to annotation visible rather than to the annotation with a link to the page.

hypothes.is is far more ambitious and desirable. As Dan Whaley says:
the big difference is interoperability. “Right now, we’ve got systems that do this, but they’re proprietary — they don’t talk to each other. The commenting system in The New York Times doesn’t talk to the commenting system at TechCrunch. If I want to have a conversation in both places, I can only do so because they created it and if I go get two separate accounts,” he says. For him, it’s the difference between creating a platform that is dead in the water, and a platform that will revolutionize how we think about and use the web.
Clearly, the ability to annotate anything anywhere on the Web would be transformative. Preserving the annotations would be important, perhaps of even greater lasting value than preserving Tweets. Dan seems to understand this; the article says:
Whaley takes the responsibility of what he calls “archival stewardship” very seriously.
and the hypothe.is principles say:
Think long term: Infrastructure for 100 years. Or longer?
But preserving annotations would have analogous problems to those URL shortening services pose. Annotation servers would be another piece of Web infrastructure that would need to be preserved, not just as a pile of data but as a working service, in order for the reader's experience to be re-played in the future. As with URL shortening services, I believe Memento would be essential to doing this.

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