WPTavern: Web Annotations are Now a W3C Standard, Paving the Way for Decentralized Annotation Infrastructure
Last Updated: 3rd Mar 2017
WPTavern: Web Annotations are Now a W3C Standard, Paving the Way for Decentralized Annotation Infrastructure
photo credit: Green Chameleon
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 âa new layer of interactivity and linking on top of the Web.â Comments are published by the publisher at the same location as the original content, but web annotation content is owned by the reader. Annotations donât have to be published on the original content. The reader has the choice to publish using an âannotation serviceâ 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, itâs 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 itâs an even vaguely political topic, youâve got the partisans jumping in, yelling at one another, how theyâre all idiots. You lose track with the content of the article. Thereâs 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 Mediumâs annotation-style commenting, show that people enjoy interacting on the web in this way. The W3C Web Annotation Working Groupâs goal in standardizing the technology behind web annotations was to produce a set of specifications for âinteroperable, sharable, distributed Web Annotation architecture,â 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 youâve 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.
âThis notion that whoever controls the original source also controls the dialog â thatâs dangerous,â Schepers said. âThis is why I like the idea of annotations. Itâs inherent in the idea of annotations, this indie web aspect of, âI want to control what I say, what channels it goes out to.â I canât 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.â
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 âto bring a new layer to the webâ that enables conversations on top of the worldâs 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 itâs 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 pluginâs 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.
â Hypothes.is (@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 organizationâs motivation behind annotating all of the webâs 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 weâre 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 â what if we had a much better idea, the direct record of their internal deliberations? Thereâs no shortage of things to annotate, and thereâs more knowledge being created per minute now than ever before â laws, scientific articles, news, books, tweets, data âŠbut our tools are crude, balkanized, ill-preserved, and even then only available on a small minority of whatâs important.
The idea of web annotations is to capture the surrounding conversation that doesnât necessarily fit into traditional comments, preserving it in a way that is open, sharable, and cooperates nicely with other technologies using the webâs standard.
What Does the W3C Standard Mean for the Future of Annotations?
Web annotation seems to promote more critical thinking and collaboration but itâs doubtful that it would ever fully replace commenting systems. The two serve different purposes and itâs 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 Horowitzâs $15 million investment in Rap Genius, Marc Andreesen describes how the technology was almost built into the first web browser:
âOnly a handful of people know that the big missing feature from the web browser â the feature that was supposed to be in from the start but didnât make it â is the ability to annotate any page on the Internet with commentary and additional information.â
The implementation was pulled not too long after, because they didnât 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 â all with varying approaches that donât necessarily play well together. Thatâs why the W3C standard is an important development.
âWhile 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,â Dan Whaley said. âThe more that these new collaborative layers are present without any additional action on the part of the user, the more their use will grow.â
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).
âThese technical recommendations have the weight of the web community behind them and can be relied upon,â Whaley said. âOur hope is that the standard will not only encourage others to adopt its technical approach, but also ultimately to open their platforms.â
In an ideal world, Doug Schepers sees annotation as a feature that is âbaked straight into the web,â 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.
âWe can refine things over time,â Schepers said. âWe can improve our culture over time. It sounds kind of lofty and maybe sort of abstract, but I think thatâs 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.â
Schepers said itâs 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 donât catch on with browsers. Like any new layer of interaction on the web, itâs worth building to see how the initial idea evolves based on where the users take it.
âI donât know whatâs going to happen with annotations,â Schepers said. âThatâs what Iâm excited by. I can think of all sorts of things that might happen with annotations if we truly enable this, but Iâm more looking forward to the things that I didnât see coming at all.â