Building an Open Annotation System to Curate a "Cacophony of Perspectives"
Walter Cronkite would never make it in today's media business, according to Peter Brantley, director of scholarly communications for the non-profit organization Hypothes.is. "The world of today could never countenance the hegemonic perspective that Walter Cronkite presented on the news," Brantley explains. Today's news, and media in general, have expanded to encompass multiple perspectives and reader involvement. Readers have become accustomed to adding their voice to the comments sections at the ends of articles.
Yet as comments sections proliferate, the noise level grows and controversies emerge when publications take a heavy-hand approach to moderating user commentary. According to Dan Whaley, founder of Hypothes.is, online comments sections are no longer practical. He points to online articles with comments numbering in the thousands, and questions anyone's ability to wade through all that verbiage to find valuable insight.
The Hypothes.is team believes the solution to creating active, functional, and more manageable online commentary lies in open annotation. The next step, according to Brantley, is "to move beyond reporting the cacophony of perspectives to actually curating those that would be most worthwhile to consider."
To do this, Hypothes.is aims to create a cross-platform annotation system that would essentially function as a layer on top of the existing web, allowing users to comment on pages, pictures, video, documents, or data. This open annotation would allow discussion to take place on any web real estate, not beholden to those who control the pages. (Whaley cites the lack of commenting functionality on government websites like the Director of National Intelligence as one example why such a tool is needed.) Such an open annotation system would be moderated by internet communities based on the merit of the comments. By design, open annotation is intended to be interoperable and bottom-up, not top-down and closed off like the commenting systems that exist on most of the web. Think of a world-wide Wikipedia-like commenting tool.
The tool that Hypothes.is is building, which is currently in alpha, is based on a core annotation software product called Annotator, which was originally developed by the Open Knowledge Foundation in England. With improvements and added functionality, Hypothes.is hopes to create a system that will become widely used.
The idea behind the system is that it will give readers the ability to annotate any web-based material; think of it as "crowd-sourced peer review." Readers access the system in one of several ways, including as a plug-in or, for developers, as an API. Once turned on, the annotation system appears on the right hand margin of the screen. Readers can access existing comments (which are weighted using a model of reputation management), see a heat map which indicates the number of comments in each area of the document, and, by clicking on portions of text, readers can add their own commentary.
Brantley explains the advantages of this method of online annotation. "It provides a richer level of discourse because it can point into specific passages or parts of a document and guide the discussion that's relevant to those sections in a more facile way." He envisions, for example, researchers being able to add commentary about their own research results to published papers they read.
According to Brantley, this sort of annotatability was built into Mosaic, the first web browser co-created by Marc Andreessen, but when he realized what was involved in maintaining it, he removed this function. Others have tried since, but the
Hypothes.is approach is unique in that it is open source and freely available to all. Their hope is that their system will further scholarship and public discourse by enabling participatory consumption of a broad range of digital documents, parts of documents, and even, in the future, images and video. The work will have applicability for news, books, blogs, terms of services, software code, ballot initiatives, scientific articles, legislation and regulations, press releases and essentially anything one can publish online.
Brantley cautions publishers to pay attention to this technology: "My overriding message is that I think it's important for all publishers to understand that engagement online is becoming more pervasive and extensive, and as a publisher you will be faced with this need to explore how to support that conversation in a way that makes the most sense to you. Annotation is a very flexible mechanism that can be tailored to produce deeper engagement and add value to the work you do, and can do so at relatively little cost."