Web Annotation Redux

Back in 1999, in the Web 1.3 era, I posted a survey of existing web annotation tools on the web, and was cited (twice!) in academic papers for that minor amount of scholarship. (That was my other website, look.boston.ma.us, which lapsed when some naming authority began collecting all .us domains, and I neglected to go through the hoops to recover it.) It’s no great loss, all of the tools I listed in 1999 are now long gone. The key direct benefit was that Gene Koo, then a Harvard Law student, found me through the page, and we started putting together a startup that would use web annotation for legal scholarhip. This being the waning days of Bubble 1.0, we never got very far, I stayed with my day job (a major ISP which had a spectacular bankruptcy a year after I left), and we put web annotation on hold.

I thought web annotation was the next epoch of the web. It truly put control in the hands of the readers, in ways that the blog revolution still only claims (hence my current efforts on the blogbunk hunt). The most popular commercial implementation, ThirdVoice, was so threatening to the current regime that a grassroots movement, Say No to Third Voice, was founded. No matter, ThirdVoice was ultimately a victim of the bubble, and disappeared in 2001.

Let’s review web annotation: let’s say a columnist for Time writes an article about the political posturing around federal legislation that he really doesn’t know about (It’s happened.) So, in the blog era, a major blogger will take a whack at him, and hundreds others will as well, and his reputation will suffer. But perhaps millions may have read the original article, or still read the article online, without seeing any of the outside comments. So much for the power of "the people formerly known as the audience."

With web annotation, the comments go directly on the article. Obviously, this may not scale well, and it requires either the willful participation of publishers or a well-deployed plug-in and a reliable identity infrastructure. Details, details.

In the meanwhile, Steve Baker at BusinessWeek had reminded his readers back on 11/30 about a May 2005 article on blogs, saying "I would like to annotate the article, creating a December 2008 [sic?] version, which we could put back up on line." He wondered if a wiki would be good, so I responded that web annotation would be better, and another user agreed. That was the last I thought of it; this is a mere hobby of mine, while the McGraw-Hill Companies is a $6.3 billion publishing company, and I hope to heck they have more of a few people up-to-date on web tools.

Alas, no, Steve was still looking for help on this, so he solicited the help of a web PR star, who summarily sent a twitter to his thousands of followers… (twits?) inspiring a bunch of them to offer their help.

None of this got us any closer to annotating the article. So last night I poked around for the latest and greatest in web annotation, and came upon Fleck, an effort out of the Netherlands. So I flecked away, and you can see the results– the 2008 annotated version of BusinessWeek‘s "Blogs Will Change Your Business." I ended up writing 25 annotations, mostly factual updates to 2005, but allowing for a few wry comments.

As for annotation, I’m still curious to see experimentation and scholarship with it. It’s possible that scaling will never quite work. Perhaps the reader may just want to view annotater at a time for clarity. And perhaps this will allow web annotation to follow the Personal Branding wave. What drives web technologies– from web pages to blogs to Twitter to Facebook– is that they need to enable personal branding to attract people other than information architecture geeks.