Tuesday, August 12, 2003

More on Annotation

The problem with annotation is that it involves a many-way dance: the web-site content owner, the annotator, the annotation host, and the viewer. It's easy to change any one of these, and with a little bit of effort to coordinate two, but coordinating all of them (with "annotation host" not even a real thing yet) is quite difficult. As I probably mentioned before, I strongly believe that the annotation host and the content host must be different, or there will be too much political pressure to only accept friendly annotations.

The idea is that anyone could annotate a given site, and place it in some trusted third-party registry. When a user (using an annotation-aware browser) visited any site, the browser would simultaneously fetch the actual content of the web site and also check in with (possibly many?) annotation sites to see if there were any available. If there were, it would display them overlaid on the original content. Of course, each one of these steps has many complications and roadblocks, and I'll dig into them over the next couple of postings.

What exactly do I mean by annotation? The classical usage is in literature studies, where an annotation is some sort of expanded detail of a fragment of text. In the broader web context, it could be additional data, a comment, a potential revision, a supporting or opposing fact, or even just an AOL-like "me too!" It would be nice if there was a mix of structured and unstructed format to these annotations, so that while we wouldn't be constraining any innovative uses of the system, we could more easily extract meaning from or categorize them.

A giant missing piece of this puzzle is a reputation system; if a web site like Rush Limbaugh's has fifty thousand annotations, who can possibly read them all? Which should the browser display by default? Ideally, there would be some sort of system that allowed the user to customize who they trusted and liked, or even what sort of annotations they were looking for at that time. Again, we must be extremely careful that we aren't blocking out contrary views; there's no point in building such a system just to increase the reflectivity of the echo chamber.