Thursday, August 07, 2003

Annotation

Reader Joseph Kondel was kind enough to point out some historical startups that offered "post-it" note functionality for web pages, but sadly they have either disappeared or morphed into IM companies. It's not surprising that there isn't particularly a good business opportunity for annotation, but that doesn't mean it's not a vitally important technology.

The idea of annotation is related to the idea of the parallel document, something that Ted Nelson, the coiner of the term "hypertext" and one of the original thinkers in the field, is deeply interested in. His project, Xanadu, is a kind of alternate-history web, built around much deeper structure, and designed to support applications like two-way links and parallel texts. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that his project will displace the web, another instance of Gabriel's worse-is-better at work, most likely.

The failure of a business model and the failure of a technology model doesn't mean that we can't graft good annotation onto the web, though, and I think that we need to. Annotation, simply put, is the ability for a user to record a set of commentary around a web site (or page, or fragment of a page), in a way that it becomes accessible or visible to later visitors of that site. The extremely coarse-grained way to do that now is when web sites offer public comment fields, but of course those can be edited, and they are not always offered. Annotation, in my sense, has to be completely independent of the hosting web site.

Why is all this important? Because the vitality of our democracy rests on the ability to trade in the market of ideas, and to participate in vigorous debate. With the web emerging as such an important way for people to get information, it becomes more important for ideas to exist in a context where they can be challenged and possibly refuted. This is not censorship -- just the opposite. Everyone deserves the right to speak (in this age where "freedom of speech" and "freedom of the press" are merging into one), but for that right to translate into democracy, we need to be able to collectively, that is, as a group activity, weigh and judge that speech.

Especially in this time of political polarization, it becomes easier and easier to just read information that reinforces your own worldview, giving you the mistaken impression that everyone agrees with you. Nothing could be more dangerous. And if we can make a small difference in that by just hacking Mozilla, then why not?