Web annotations became a W3C standard last week but the world hardly noticed. For years, most conversations on the web have happened in the form of comments. Annotations are different in that they usually reference specific parts of a document and add context. They are often critical or explanatory in nature.
One of the key differences between comments and web annotations, according to the new standard, is that annotations were designed to be decentralized, creating “a new layer of interactivity and linking on top of the Web.” Comments are published by the publisher at the same location as the original content, but web annotation content is owned by the reader. Annotations don’t have to be published on the original content. The reader has the choice to publish using an “annotation service” or their own website.
Doug Schepers, former Developer Relations Lead at W3C, described the difference between annotating and commenting on an episode on The Web Ahead podcast:
When a comment is at the bottom of a page, it’s so abstracted out from the rest. They get off track, they start talking about other things that have nothing to do with the original article. If it’s an even vaguely political topic, you’ve got the partisans jumping in, yelling at one another, how they’re all idiots. You lose track with the content of the article. There’s this viscerality, this immediacy, of actually commenting on something in its context.
Do people want to annotate the web? Popular implementations of this concept, such as Genius Web Annotator and Medium’s annotation-style commenting, show that people enjoy interacting on the web in this way. The W3C Web Annotation Working Group’s goal in standardizing the technology behind web annotations was to produce a set of specifications for “interoperable, sharable, distributed Web Annotation architecture,” enabling healthy competition between services and discouraging publisher lock-in.
Decentralization is critical to unlocking the full potential of annotations on the web. If commenters have control of their own content, they have the freedom to publish it wherever they like. Open comments sections can sometimes offer the illusion of discourse, but are ultimately under the control of the publisher. This is obvious if you’ve ever seen a controversial blog post, which should undoubtedly have comments with varying viewpoints, but the only comments published are those in agreement with the author.
“This notion that whoever controls the original source also controls the dialog – that’s dangerous,” Schepers said. “This is why I like the idea of annotations. It’s inherent in the idea of annotations, this indie web aspect of, ‘I want to control what I say, what channels it goes out to.’ I can’t control who puts it into a different channel but I can control what channels I try to put it out into. I can actively publish in multiple channels.”
Hypothesis Plugin Brings Web Annotations to WordPress
Hypothesis is a non-profit organization that is building an open platform for annotation on the web, based on the Annotator.js library. It allows readers to highlight text and select whether they want to annotate it or highlight it.
The Hypothes.is community has an ecosystem of tools and integrations for various technologies and publishing platforms, including WordPress. The Hypothesis plugin on WordPress.org offers the same functionality that you see on the Hypothesis website with the ability to select text and have a sidebar slide out for taking notes. Annotation requires an account with Hypothesis. You can test it by pasting any link into the tool on the Hypothesis homepage.
The mission of the Hypothesis project is “to bring a new layer to the web” that enables conversations on top of the world’s collected knowledge. The project also allows you to publish annotations privately, creating your own personal notebook of observations as you surf the web.
The Hypothesis plugin allows users to customize the defaults and behavior and control where it’s loaded (front page, blog page, posts, pages, etc.) Highlights can be on or off by default and the sidebar can be collapsed or open. Annotations can also be enabled on PDFs in the Media Library. Hypotheses can be allowed/disallowed on a list of specific posts or pages, which is helpful for sites where the author may only want annotation on scholarly material.
Hypothesis Aggregator is another plugin for WordPress that offers a shortcode with different parameters for displaying annotations from the service. It allows site owners to display a collection of annotations from a certain user or topic.
[hypothesis user = 'kris.shaffer']
[hypothesis tags = 'IndieWeb']
[hypothesis text = "Domain of One's Own"]
[hypothesis user = 'kris.shaffer' tags = 'IndieEdTech']
The output includes a link to the original content, the highlighted text, the annotation, and the person who curated it.
Kris Shaffer, the plugin’s author, is considering adding support for multiple tags (in both AND and OR configurations) as well as the ability to embed a single annotation in a post, like users can with a tweet.
The Hypothesis network of annotators is growing, along with the vast collection of knowledge that is getting linked and added every day. The service just completed a record month with nearly 6,000 annotators contributing content.
— Hypothesis (@hypothes_is) March 1, 2017
Members of the Hypothesis team are principal contributors to the Annotator project and the organization was also deeply involved in the effort to make web annotations a W3C standard. The Hypothesis community tools are quite frequently used in the context of scholarly or academic dialogue, but the app aims to bring annotation to all types of websites, including news, blogs, scientific articles, books, terms of service, ballot initiatives, legislation, and more.
In a presentation at the Personal Democracy Forum in 2013, Dan Whaley, founder and CEO of Hypothesis, described the organization’s motivation behind annotating all of the web’s collective knowledge:
Think back 1,000 years, reflect on the key documents produced over that time, like the Magna Carta in 1215 or the Declaration of Independence, for which we only have the document itself. What we’re missing are the notes passed between co-authors in the drafting, the reviews by others providing feedback on early versions. We lack the perception by the public immediately after and most of the fine-grained citations, quotations, and reuse in the intervening years. Those incessant arguments about why the founding fathers chose this or that particular phrasing – what if we had a much better idea, the direct record of their internal deliberations? There’s no shortage of things to annotate, and there’s more knowledge being created per minute now than ever before – laws, scientific articles, news, books, tweets, data …but our tools are crude, balkanized, ill-preserved, and even then only available on a small minority of what’s important.
The idea of web annotations is to capture the surrounding conversation that doesn’t necessarily fit into traditional comments, preserving it in a way that is open, sharable, and cooperates nicely with other technologies using the web’s standard.
What Does the W3C Standard Mean for the Future of Annotations?
Web annotation seems to promote more critical thinking and collaboration but it’s doubtful that it would ever fully replace commenting systems. The two serve different purposes and it’s more likely that annotations will serve to supplement conversations on the web. Not everyone is fond of the current implementations of annotation UI, which require visitors to keep clicking on things as they are reading.
Despite being first being introduced to the web in the Mosaic browser prototype in 1993, annotation tools are still in their infancy. In a post announcing Andreessen Horowitz’s $15 million investment in Rap Genius, Marc Andreesen describes how the technology was almost built into the first web browser:
“Only a handful of people know that the big missing feature from the web browser – the feature that was supposed to be in from the start but didn’t make it – is the ability to annotate any page on the Internet with commentary and additional information.”
The implementation was pulled not too long after, because they didn’t have the capabilities required to host all the annotations and have it scale. For the past 24 years, various companies and organizations have taken a stab at bringing this feature back to the web – all with varying approaches that don’t necessarily play well together. That’s why the W3C standard is an important development.
“While Hypothesis and others are already enabling annotation to take place over any page on the Web, a standard means that there is additional incentive for browser vendors to include this functionality natively,” Dan Whaley said. “The more that these new collaborative layers are present without any additional action on the part of the user, the more their use will grow.”
Whaley also said the new W3C standard should send a strong signal to those who have developed proprietary annotation implementations, such as Genius, Readcube, Medium, and Amazon (Kindle).
“These technical recommendations have the weight of the web community behind them and can be relied upon,” Whaley said. “Our hope is that the standard will not only encourage others to adopt its technical approach, but also ultimately to open their platforms.”
In an ideal world, Doug Schepers sees annotation as a feature that is “baked straight into the web,” where all users can choose where their content is published. Annotation services would then offer the ability for users to choose which syndicators and aggregators the content is going out to. Publishers in turn would have the ability to consume annotation content and bring it back through their commenting system if they feel it adds value.
“We can refine things over time,” Schepers said. “We can improve our culture over time. It sounds kind of lofty and maybe sort of abstract, but I think that’s what annotations can help us do. It can actually increase the growth of ideas and not the suppression of ideas. It can improve how we create our culture in a more conscious way, in a way that includes more critical thinking.”
Schepers said it’s too soon to know how the future will unfold for web annotations and whether or not browsers will be interested in supporting them natively. Annotations may be relegated to live in script libraries forever if they don’t catch on with browsers. Like any new layer of interaction on the web, it’s worth building to see how the initial idea evolves based on where the users take it.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with annotations,” Schepers said. “That’s what I’m excited by. I can think of all sorts of things that might happen with annotations if we truly enable this, but I’m more looking forward to the things that I didn’t see coming at all.”