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Are We Finally Ready To Annotate The Entire Internet?

Comments sections are increasingly useless and nasty. Hypothes.is thinks it has a better way to make the Internet more democratic.

[Photo: Flickr user Sovat San]

Larry Hanley, an English professor at San Francisco State University, is the kind of man who aggressively annotates his books. He believes a particularly beautiful verse of poetry deserves to be underlined; a thought-provoking line of prose requires an equally intelligent comment scribbled next to it. In his classroom, he gently nudges his students to engage with books by writing notes in the margins.

"Annotation makes the reading process visible," Hanley says. "I encourage my students to annotate their texts to show them that the relationship between the reader and a text is a two-way conversation. It forces them to wrestle with the words on the page."

Over the last decade, however, as more of his reading has taken place on the Internet, Hanley has struggled to find an elegant way to take notes online. At a recent teaching conference at Georgetown University, he came across a free platform called Hypothes.is that allows you to write comments on any web page. By installing a plugin onto your web browser, you can create a layer of text on top of whatever it is you are reading or watching—a YouTube video, a news article, a recipe, or your friend's blog. You can choose whether you want your notes to be publicly available to all Hypothes.is users, a select group of people, or just yourself. These days, Hanley finds himself taking notes online, much like he used to write things down in the margins of books or magazines. "It's a really valuable way to curate the web," he says.

Hypothes.is was launched in July 2011 by coder Dan Whaley, who built an open platform that allows anybody to take notes on top of any web page. While the tool itself is simple and straightforward, Whaley believes that annotation can change the culture of the Internet by making it a more democratic place. By fostering conversations and diverse perspectives, he thinks we can improve the quality of information online. For example, he imagines a world where you could go to a news story about the Zika virus and see a layer of comments from scientific experts that provides evidence or insight that adds to, or even contradicts, what the journalist is reporting.

With Hypothes.is, Whaley is building on an idea that began in the earliest days of the web. In 1993, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina built an early web browser called Mosaic that fostered collaborative annotation, but by 1998 the platform was basically extinct, with users flocking to other browsers. Over the next two decades, no annotation software has managed to achieve the same Internet-wide scale. There is software like Diigo that you can purchase, and sites like Genius that allow you to annotate various things, but Whaley is dreaming of something much bigger.

"Our goal is to achieve this vision for the benefit for the citizens of the web and humanity in general," Whaley says. "We don't want this concept or its implementation to be monetized or sold off or otherwise sublimated to other purposes." To that end, Whaley has insisted that Hypothes.is remain a nonprofit; he's managed to secure grants from the Knight, Mellon, Shuttleworth, Sloan, and Helmsley foundations, as well as hundreds of individuals who have signed on to his mission. These funds allowed Whaley to hire a dozen staffers, and it also allows Hypothes.is to have a server that houses all of the annotations that users create.

Animated Introduction to Hypothes.is

Like Comments—But Better

After several years of laying the technological foundation for Hypothes.is, Whaley is now in expansion mode. Last year, more than 300,000 annotations were made using Hypothes.is, and its user base is now doubling every two and a half months. While Hypothes.is is reaching out to potential users across many industries, it is paying special attention to the scholarly community, since students and teachers need to take notes every day and are often quick to understand the immediate potential of the product.

Larry Hanley had been in the market for annotation software for many years when he came across Hypothes.is. He was recently working on an article about open education resources and he used Hypothes.is as he was reading the existing literature on the topic online. "I use it to collect the various gems from other authors," he says. Hanley's notes appear privately when he is on each of those web pages, but they also appear on his private feed in his Hypothes.is account. He thinks this method is much more efficient than writing down notes on books, because it allows him to easily access all the notes he has taken for a particular project in one place.

Hanley encourages his students to use Hypothes.is because it helps him understand how they are making sense of what they are reading. "If they've come to the conclusion that this is a poem about class struggle or maternal relations, what I am really curious about is how they got there," he explains. "Annotation opens up all kinds of new ways of thinking about reading." Hanley often asks students to refer to their notes in class discussions to retrace their thought process.

Jeremy Dean, Hypothes.is's director of education, says that apart from allowing students and teachers to annotate texts individually, there are also plenty of creative ways to annotate texts publicly or as a group. For students who grew up with social media and long discussions in the comments sections of blogs or articles, annotation feels a lot like many of the other public discussions in which they already participate. "It's really cool to see groups of people inhabiting a text," Dean says. "It's fun to see a conversation unfolding on a classic work of literature, the way you might see people going back and forth on Twitter."

Last semester, students from Plymouth State University in New Hampshire were asked to annotate Sigmund Freud's work as a group, and they responded much like they would on a Facebook wall. "You could see the students rolling their eyes. They were saying things like, 'Oh my God, this guy! What is his deal with women and his mother?'" Dean says. "Some of it was joking around, and some of it was high engagement with the text. That's something you would only normally see inside a really well-managed class discussion in a brick and mortar classroom."

Sarah Gross, a teacher at a New Jersey high school with a focus on STEM, had been trying to discuss the struggles of women in the sciences but hadn't gotten very far. So she asked her students to install Hypothes.is and collectively comment on Eileen Pollack's New York Times magazine article "Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?" "Imagine a very vibrant comments section, but nicer," Gross says. "Many of them felt a personal connection with what she was saying, and they just started writing. It was so interactive: They were responding to the text and to each other."

Helping Readers Get Closer To The Truth

While the scholarly community is an easy place to deploy a tool like Hypothes.is, Whaley has much bigger dreams for his software. Since the platform is so open, there are an infinite number of ways it can be used. In a corporate setting, the marketing department at one company might collectively annotate their competitors' website. Shoppers might comment on a new product on an e-commerce site. More broadly, Whaley believes that public commentary should exist everywhere on the Internet. He'd like to see a layer of notes on top of government websites, news stories, and even recipes.

To get a glimpse of what this might look like, he directs me to the Climate Feedback Group , an organization made up of the world's top climate scientists. The group believes that much of what is written about climate change in the media is confusing and often based on bad reasoning. Their mission is to correct some of this misinformation by providing a panel of six to 12 expert scientists who comment on news stories that deal with climate change. "Even in some very prominent outlets there are sometimes inaccuracies, and it can be very hard to know what is right, because you can hear one thing and then the opposite from one day to the next," says Emmanuel Vincent, a project scientist at University of California, Merced, who is part of the Climate Feedback Group.

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In January, for instance, scientists came together to provide an analysis of a Wall Street Journal article entitled, "The Climate Snow Job." As a group, they found the article problematic and detailed their critiques line by line in the article. However, since Hypothes.is is not widely used, they provided an overview of their main arguments in a blog post that can be shared. "The article misleads readers with a series of sweeping claims about distinct aspects of climate science and the implications of global warming for the global economy," they write in the summary. Eventually, however, as Hypothes.is builds its user base, they hope that people will be able to go directly into articles and read expert commentary alongside the text.

Whaley believes that the annotation will be a central component of the Internet of the future, and he's working hard to turn that vision into a reality. Given that the Hypothes.is platform does not have a single application but can be used in many ways, he spends a lot of his time describing and explaining how annotation can be useful. However, Whaley points out that to many people, Twitter's utility did not make much sense when you first encountered it. "Explaining your technology is just part of your job as CEO," Whaley says. "The broad uptick of people using annotation is only going to come when people see other people doing it, so our job is not just to build software, but to incubate use cases and communities of adopters."