Hypothes.is wants to add an annotation layer to the web

Some of the readers here are likely to have been involved in the web long enough to recall Third Voice, a web annotation tool that allowed annotation of web sites visible only to other users of the product. Third Voice users could leave virtual post-its on any page: in principle, a democratization of the web.  As I said in 2006, ‘the founders envisioned the swarm debunking lies, clarifying news, and taking back the huge agora of the web from the commercial interests that seem to be running rampant’. The company raised some money, and pivoted into being an oddball search tool. The company struggled and joined the dead pool in 2001.

The reason I wrote about Third Voice in 2006 was the arrival of Fleck, yet another take on the annotation idea. A mechanism to annotate web pages, and keep track of where on the page the post-its should be shown. Here’s a screen shot.

Fleck is now a massively parallel multiplayer game, and no longer is pursuing the web annotation idea.

But it seems to be an idea that is coming around again. Hypothes.is is the newest take on this. A non-profit founded by Dan Whaley, and with a stellar group of advisors (like John Perry Barlow, Brewster Kahle, Kaliya Hamlin, and Salim Ismael), maybe the time is right for a new approach to the idea. As the web site states,

We think relatively simple tools can help us all improve the quality of information on the Internet, and by extension in the greater world around us.

Hypothes.is will be a distributed, open-source platform for the collaborative evaluation of information. It will enable sentence-level critique of written words combined with a sophisticated yet easy-to-use model of community peer-review. It will work as an overlay on top of any stable content, including news, blogs, scientific articles, books, terms of service, ballot initiatives, legislation and regulations, software code and more-without requiring participation of the underlying site.

It is based on a new draft standard for annotating digital documents currently being developed by the Open Annotation Collaboration a consortium that includes the Internet Archive, NISO (National Information Standards Organization), O’Reilly Books, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and a number of academic institutions.

None of the previous efforts in this direction were based on a specification like the Open Annotation Collaboration, which is no guarantee of success, just an indication of plausibility.

It seems that the idea is a distributed Wikipedia, a gloss across the web, with fact-checking and reputation-based analysis:

from the FAQ

This seems like a never-ending challenge; will we ever stem the tide of lousy information?

If what is published is immediately fact and logic-checked, in a detailed and highly visible way, it will necessarily put pressure upstream to the point of authorship. In order to accomplish this we need better feedback mechanisms. Standard comments just aren’t up to the task, and neither are newer systems such as Disqus, IntenseDebate, Facebook Comments or others. While interesting, none of them fundamentally change the comment model. It’s time for a new set of tools.We don’t expect perfection. Human affairs are a messy business. We do think things can be substantially improved.

I agree that comment systems are broken. Or better, today’s comment systems don’t line up well in today’s web: threaded discussion at the bottom of a blog post seems the wrong place if you are reading the text in a Tumblr dashboard, or in Flipboard. So a system that can affiliate comments no matter where you are reading the content — because it’s a browser plugin — seems like a great model.

Obviously, the existence of such a system, as it is envisioned by the founders, would be a startling addition to human knowledge. And a very controversial one. Imagine reading an annotated NY Times, where the pros and cons of Paul Krugman’s thoughts on the Euro could be argued by the world’s great economists. Or your sister could annotate online recipes on Epicurious. Or a company’s claims about their product’s capabilities and value could be countered by disgruntled customers.

It is that last case that caused the greatest controversy surrounding Third Voice, in fact: that users were ‘defacing’ company web sites. The central question is ‘who gets to decide what comments should be associated with a page?’ Companies, governments, and individuals alike might want to control what is linked to their pages, just like they work hard to police comments, game Yelp reviews, and struggle to get bad reviews or negative commentary lower in Google search results. The argument runs that those users could already blog their complaints elsewhere, but those didn’t feel connected to the company’s web site.

There is no doubt in my mind that we are headed straight into the heart of this controversy again, if Hypothes.is becomes anything more than a hypothesis.