Are annotations the new comments?

January 21, 2013

I’m in Munich, for the DLD conference, where Ben Horowitz took the opportunity to introduce the Rap Genius guys to the European digital-media crowd. But it’s actually Horowitz’s partner, Marc Andreessen, who has the best explanation of what the investment is all about:

Back in 1993, when Eric Bina and I were first building Mosaic, it seemed obvious to us that users would want to annotate all text on the web – our idea was that each web page would be a launchpad for insight and debate about its own contents. So we built a feature called “group annotations” right into the browser – and it worked great – all users could comment on any page and discussions quickly ensued. Unfortunately, our implementation at that time required a server to host all the annotations, and we didn’t have the time to properly build that server, which would obviously have had to scale to enormous size. And so we dropped the entire feature.

Andreessen calls this “annotate the world“, and, as he notes in his post, it’s a very old idea indeed; the prime example is of course the Talmud, although you can probably trace it back to Socrates and even earlier. Up until now, however, annotation has been given short shrift on the web.

We’ve had a few other things instead: there’s commenting, of course, which is being constantly reinvented but never seems to be done well, and there’s also the kind of layered editing history one finds at Wikipedia, which is very hard to navigate. The promise of Rap Genius is to take the granularity and teleological iteration of Wikipedia edits, and make give them the visibility of a comments section.

But is the opposite possible? Recently, two different people told me on the same day that they were going to launch a comments section based on annotations — where readers comment on individual sentences or paragraphs or arguments, rather than a story or post as a whole.

The promise here is twofold: it helps the conversation stay on topic, and it also raises the possibility of really improving the original post, keeping it updated and accurate, all through crowdsourced technology.

I like the idea of moving from comments to annotations, if only because existing commenting technology just hasn’t worked well at all, and just about anything else would probably be an improvement. It shouldn’t be distracting, however, which is a problem: the annotations at Rap Genius are very obvious, because they’re the heart of the site, while most bloggers and news organizations would not want to give their commenters quite that much prominence. And of course it should be social: I’m certain to be particularly interested in the comments of my friends.

The first versions of these systems are going to be clunky and annoying — version 1.0 of anything always is. The only way to learn what works in practice is to roll something out and see what happens. But if this takes off, it could be a significant evolution in the way that we talk about web content. Right now, for instance, if I want to link to something somebody said on a web page, I’ll normally just end up linking from Twitter to an undifferentiated page, rather than to the specific thing being said. And more generally, the conversation around things like blog posts tends to happen mostly on Twitter and Facebook, where it’s easy to miss and almost impossible to archive.

It would be amazing if annotation could change all that, helping to make comments more on-point and also providing a centralized archive of the conversation around any given story. I doubt that Rap Genius will be the company to do that, but internet comments are more of a bug than a feature these days, and I do think that annotation is a very promising way of potentially addressing the problems they have.


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