Owning and sharing your words

In 2001 I was among a community of early bloggers who came together around Dave Winer’s Radio UserLand, a tool for both publishing and aggregating blogs. To the world at large, blogging was rightly understood to be a new and exciting way for people to publish their writing online. Those of us exploring the new medium found it to be, also, a social network that was naturally immune to spam. We all had our own inviolate spaces for web writing. No moderation was needed because there were no comments. And yet rich discourse emerged. How? The web enabled us to link to one anothers’ posts, and RSS enabled us to monitor one anothers’ feeds. That was enough to sustain vibrant and civil conversation.

Things stayed civil because the system aligned incentives correctly. “You own your words,” Dave said, “and you speak in your own space on the web.” If you said something nasty about someone else you weren’t saying it in their space, or in some neutral space, you were saying it directly in your own space, one that represented you to the world.

Earlier systems, such as UseNet and Web forums, lacked this blend of mutual consent and accountability. So do modern ones such as Facebook and Twitter. The quality of discourse on Radio UserLand was, for a while, like nothing I’ve experienced before or since.

The blogosphere grew. Blog comments appeared. Google killed the dominant blog reader. Twitter and Facebook appeared. Now we can be sovereigns of our own online spaces, and we can be connected to others, but it seems that we can’t be both at the same time and in the same way.

What brings all this back is the kerfuffle, last week, that some of us who are building web annotation tools are calling TateGate. (Tate: annotate.) You can read about it on my company’s blog and elsewhere, but it boils down to a set of hard questions. Is it both legal and ethical to:

1. Write your words on my blog in an annotation overlay visible only to you in your browser?

2. Share the overlay with others in a private group space?

3. Share the overlay on the open web?

The answer to 1 is almost certainly yes. The original 1996 CSS spec, for example, recommended that browsers enable users to override publisher-defined style sheets. CSS recognized that the needs of publishers and readers are in dynamic tension. Publishers decide how they want readers to see their pages, but readers can decide differently. In 2005 a Firefox extension called Greasemonkey began empowering users to make functional as well as stylistic changes: adding a Delete button to Gmail, reporting book availability in local libraries on Amazon pages. If a site has ever successfully challenged the right of a user to alter a page locally, in the browser, I haven’t heard of it; neither have knowledgeable friends and acquaintances I’ve asked about this.

When the overlay is shared at wider scopes things get more complicated. The nexus of stakeholders includes publishers, readers, and annotators. Let’s explore that nexus in two different cases.

Climate news

In this case, climate scientists team up to annotate a news site’s story on climate change. The annotation layer is shared on the open web, visible to anyone who acquires the tool needed to view it. The scientists believe they are providing a public service. Readers who value the scientists’ assessment can opt in to view their annotations. Readers who don’t care what the scientists think don’t have to view the annotations. Publishers may be more or less comfortable with the existence of the opt-in annotation layer, depending on their regard for the scientists and their willingness to embrace independent scrutiny.

Before you decide what you think about this, consider an alternative. Climate skeptics team up to offer a competing annotation layer that offers a very different take on the story. Publishers, annotators, and readers still find themselves in the same kind of dynamic tension, but it will feel different to you in a way that depends on your beliefs about climate change.

Either way it’s likely that you’ll find this model generally sound. Many will agree that public information should be subject to analysis, that analysis should take advantage of the best tools, and that commentary anchored to words and phrases in source texts is a highly effective.


In this case, a news site annotates a personal blog. The blogger believes that she owns her words, she moderates all comments to ensure that’s so, and she feels violated when she learns about a hostile overlay available to anyone who can discover it. The annotators are using a tool that doesn’t enable sharing the overlay in a private group, so we don’t know how the option to restrict the overlay’s availability might have have mattered. The annotation layer is available in two ways: as a proxied URL available in any unmodified browser, and as a browser extension that users install and activate. The proxy could in principle have been turned off for this blog, but it wasn’t, so we don’t know whether things would have played out differently if a user-installed browser extension were the only way to view the annotations.

These variables may affect how you think about this case. Your beliefs about what constitutes fair use, appropriation, and harassment certainly will. And there are still more variables. A site can, for example, choose to invite Hypothesis annotators by embedding our client. We envision, but have yet to offer, layers in which groups self-moderate annotations that all viewers can read but not write. And we envision that publishers might choose to make only certain of those channels discoverable in the annotation layer they choose to embed. That restriction would, however, not apply to users who bring their own independent annotation client to the page.

We at Hypothesis are soliciting a range of views on this thicket of thorny issues, and we are considering how to evolve tools and policies that will address them. Here I’m not speaking for my employer, though, I am just reflecting on the tension between wanting to own our words and wanting to share them with the world.

The closest modern equivalent to the Radio UserLand model is one that indie web folks call POSSE, which stands for Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Everywhere. POSSE encourages me to comment on your site by writing a post on my site and notifying yours about it. You can choose to accept my contribution or not. If you do accept it, there’s a sense in which it is not a statement that lives on your site but rather one that lives on mine and is reflected to yours. Both parties negotiate a zone of ambiguity between what’s on my site and what’s on your site.

Web annotation seems less ambiguous. When I highlight your words and link mine to them, in an overlay on your page, it seems more as if mine are appearing on your site. Is that an unavoidable perception? I don’t know. Maybe there’s a role for a CSS-like mechanism that enables publishers, annotators, and readers to negotiate where and how annotations are displayed. It’s worth considering.

Here’s what I do know: I’m lucky to be involved in a project that raises these issues and challenges us to consider them carefully.

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20 thoughts on “Owning and sharing your words

  1. It’s been quite a few years since I thought hard about annotations. That was in the 2003-2004 period when I was finishing my book on the Semantic Web. At that time, I thought that the biggest problem that wasn’t bring addressed was the case when there would be a large number of annotations: how could a reader wade through them all so that they could be useful? I thought this situation would be inevitable, given the vasst scope of readers on the web.

    That problem seemed much like the case where you collect so many bookmarks that you can’t find anything. I solved that problem pretty well for my own use, on my own computer, by creating a topic-map-based javascript program that discovers links and connections between my bookmarks, and produces useful results from a search.

    I never thought about whether some annotations might be rendered private or semi-private, for some groups. It’s sure not a simple thing to sort through! If I consider such annotations to be essentially threaded comments, but better because they can be more clearly linked to the parts they talk about, then there doesn’t seem to be much of an issue. But annotations could be potentially libelous; how can we handle that possibility? Preferably without having to curate everything by hand. And I didn’t think of the possibility that there could be a set of annotations visible publicly but totally out of the control of the blogger. Wow!

    I suppose I’d have to say that at some point a blogger must have some responsibility for his site, and if that requires hand curation of comments, that may be unpleasant but it may be necessary. But if the blogger can’t control a set of annotations to his own words, then he can’t perform that function. Perhaps it moves into a case analogous to hostile op-ed pieces in a newspaper the writer knows nothing about?

  2. “a set of annotations visible publicly but totally out of the control of the blogger”

    Complicated by some different ways in which the annotations may be construed as public. Visible by means of a proxy URL that you can easily discover? By means of a browser extension that is also available to anyone but requires more effort to acquire and use?

    1. My thought here was that even if the blogger discovered that some annotations were viewable if only the right browser extension were installed, say, he wouldn’t necessarily by able to perform any curation activities for those annotations, any more than I can curate comments on some blog on the New York Times site. The only thing the original writer could do would be to add annotations to the others.

      This sets up a weird tension for me, since I have always thought that freely expressed opinions about a writing – basically an expended discussion – can only be a good thing, yet we have all learned how unpleasant and unhelpful unrestricted comment threads can be.

      This suggests that blogging machinery should maybe come with its own annotation subsystem, controllable by the writer. Yet nowadays the reality seems to be that any third party can set up its own system anyway, outside of your own. Well, if there were a good annotation system built into the blogging software, at least the blogger could keep some kind of control and authority, especially if it’s easier to use than third-party systems.

      Maybe we should invite Dave Winer to join this discussion.

  3. I left one of my main questions in an annotation on Hypothes.is, but here are a couple of questions I am knocking around:

    Does an annotation layer change the original text? Is it a remix or revision like we might do with a cc-licensed text? Or is it a totally new and distinct text, like a review, that just happens to have a kind of physical proximity?

    What does “ownership” mean in the landscape of the “open” web? Is a blog like private property, which others can drive by but can’t engage with unless they are invited in? Or is a blog (or any other website) more like an open house: we can go inside, we can critique it as we open drawers, we can even argue with the realtor or owner about how ugly it is while we are in there– but we aren’t ever able to assume ownership just because we’re there, and we can’t fundamentally alter the actual house; the owner never asks us to leave unless we cross the line into abuse or vandalism, because a successful open house depends on visitors. I don’t know. Something like that.

    I constantly talk to students about their web domains, and work to instill a sense of ownership in them about their personal cyberinfrastructures (thank you, Gardner). But I think perhaps I oversimplify the concept of ownership in a digital, publicly-engaged context, so I am trying to think it out a bit more…

    1. “concept of ownership” Yes, and also our notions of what’s public versus private when group formation is fluid and group size highly variable.

  4. Really hope we can discuss this thoughtfully during Open Knowledge Fest (#OKFestMtl, co-located with the W3C’s WWW2016).

    This is only the beginning of a new phase in dialogue about annotations.

  5. I acknowledge that the comment that follows is based on (partial) ignorance – and that is somehow the point of it.
    I love this post Jon and I know it will be part of my remedying my ignorance about hypothes.is once I can find the time to study the technicalities sufficiently to make sense of my own recent experiences and observations of hypothes.is in action.
    You said “Earlier systems, such as UseNet and Web forums, lacked this blend of mutual consent and accountability. So do modern ones such as Facebook and Twitter. ”
    That is so true. And my question is how can technologies such as hypothes.is be shaped by a sufficiently broad range of stakeholders to encompass understandings of how they are used and imaginings of how they might be used. My brain fogged over during parts of your post as I tried to understand the implications of browser and extension choice by different stakeholders. Then I wondered if the whole shebang could be undermined by some of the strange behaviours I have seen as people switch between public and semi-private spaces (of course, there are all the private ones I can’t see).
    For me, some of the real questions are about
    how we can model ‘good’ (whatever they might be) behaviours with not just a new technology, but one integrated with other tech and services
    how we can critique said tech/lashups
    how we can use these to be bold in arguing against vested interests
    how we can be kind to each other in exploring ideas
    Yours in partial ignorance

    1. “My brain fogged over during parts of your post as I tried to understand the implications of browser and extension choice by different stakeholders. ”

      It’s not just you. This is a wildly complex set of moving parts and perspectives.

  6. I am having difficulty understanding one of the positions here — usually that is a signal that there is a viewpoint I am not considering, so I am hoping someone can help me to better understand it.

    I simply do not see what basis a blogger has for complaining about the annotations.

    Now, if the annotations were untrue or were insulting, then I could understand that being disturbing. It would be just as disturbing if the same statements were made in someone else’s private blog or in any other forum. In our society, untrue or insulting statements are a good reason to correct or socially shun someone, but not a reason to silence them. If the annotations were harassing, or threatening, then there would be a legitimate complaint of harassing or threatening behavior — which may actually be illegal. But my understanding is that the complaint is not about the content of the annotations, but just about the fact that they are appearing on the author’s own blog.

    If the tool for viewing the annotations didn’t separate the original content from the annotations, or allowed the annotations to transform the blog’s content, then I would understand the complaint. Presenting an article that I wrote, with a few words changed and a paragraph inserted in the middle praising Hitler would be completely unacceptable to me. Aside from my moral qualms, it might also violate copyright law (I never gave permission for my words to be used in a derivative work — now we get into questions of fair use and commentary). But my understanding is that both the plugin and the proxy clearly separate the original content from the commentary and annotations.

    In short, I am hearing someone saying “I’m upset that some reviewer wrote a review of my book – I am entitled to only be reviewed by people I like.”, while in actuality they probably intend something closer to “I’m upset that people are defacing my own web page.” Is there anyone who can help explain this viewpoint better so I can understand the other side?

    1. I think your last paragraph is on the money, but there is a question of degree. If hypothesis (and web annotation more generally) becomes really common, then people will be hard pressed to ignore hostile comments that are linked directly to the page and display in many people’s browsers. The experience of many (c.f. Twitter) suggests that this will be used to harass people unfairly and brutally. And that is what I (and others) are worried about.

  7. Dear Jon (long time no write)

    Dignity is key to your annotation scenario.

    The social framework around academic criticism dissuades us from disrespecting the ‘errors’ of thinking of previous writers. Wittgenstein was just a rude lad when he wrote of poor Dr. Coffey’s book:
    “In no branch of learning can an author disregard the results of honest research with so much impunity as he can in Philosophy and Logic.”
    Such rare exceptions are frowned upon in the long run.

    I “estimate dignity”, as an evaluation criteria,
    when I translate anther’s poem into English:
    The work should maintain its dignity in the receiving language
    – else the translation is a failure.
    The acid test occurs when I place the source and destination texts
    in parallel columns on the same page.
    That is when I get to know if I my translation can/cannot adequately defend the dignity of the creator. I.e. in the public space of dual columns.

    An equal-weight, side-by-side presentation fosters the social framework
    in ways that marginalia, or overlay, or over-write probably cannot – IMO.
    Even MS-Word comments from a tutor can feel intimidatory.
    Having graffiti written on your property feels negative to most people.
    Being cited first gives them a boost – what ever happens next.
    Graffiti can have a negative influence on the third party attitudes too.

    If only we could cite verbatim the intellectual property of others – in an
    W3C agreed and controlled manner.
    Then we could lay their and our words side-by-side and engender
    a dignified appreciation of their contribution.

    In W3C Web Annotations Workshop 2014
    we proposed a scheme dubbed ispan.
    It would allow you to insert verbatim text from anther’s page
    in what I consider a dignified way. Basically think of an IFRAME
    and then allow SPANs to do just that. Then persuade the W3C!

    Read about it here:
    [The workshop page is here: https://www.w3.org/2014/04/annotation/submissions/ ]

    Please do
    keep up the stimulating work!
    Best wishes

    Gavin Brelstaff, Sardinia

    1. Gavin! I had no idea our paths have crossed in this way!

      If I understand correctly, ispan is transclusion of fragments from a source into another context, and I love the idea.

      How would a viewer of the source discover that other context?

  8. Still catching up on this issue, but a couple of thoughts.

    I agree that an author should retain control over their blog. In the realm of virtual space, your blog is like your home. You can make it look like you want, and ideally you should feel safe there. Most would feel uncomfortable and deem it unacceptable for someone to come and put graffiti on your house, or yell harassing comments outside your window.

    Commentary should be allowed on writing though, and as you mention, perhaps the place for that is not on the original document. What if instead a site could opt out, and then if people wanted to comment on it, that site would be ‘cloned’ to a different URL? Commentary could occur on that site, while leaving the original site the way the author intends. Also, it’s not forcing the author to engage in the conversation. They’re welcome to comment if they want, but the idea that just because someone writes something requires that they engage in conversation about that work is a new one. Engagement should not be a requirement of being an author, just because you publish online.

    One other thought would be to have a Code of Conduct for people using hyphothes.is That would require reporting and enforcement pathways that you might not be interested or able to support, but it could help cultivate a positive hypothes.is community. It would be an opportunity to set yourself apart in the online conversation space, and one that could foster more diverse and unique perspectives.

    The hypothes.is mission seems to be “To enable a conversation over the world’s knowledge.” Do you want a real exchange of ideas? Or only participation from people who feel they don’t need to be afraid? To paraphrase Margaret Atwood: The privileged are afraid that others will laugh at them. The underprivileged are afraid that others will kill them.

      1. I was fascinated by the paraphrase, so I went looking for possible origins. The source-text for the paraphrase, I think (Tracy can confirm, or not) is “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” When I google that quotation, I find an interesting site of inquiry here

        Toward the bottom of this page, at 22:18 on 25 January 2013 (UTC) adduces this fascinating reference. And just below, at the very bottom at the time of this writing, it appears that another author has adapted the Atwood discourse into a more apothegmatic expression.

        I know none of the above replies to the main point of the discussion. It’s just the result of curiosity. I hope to write a blog post at some point, POSSE – style, and link here. These are very important questions and have many layers of complexity–and yes, I majored in obvious in my undergraduate days.

  9. gah! Gardiner, your link for the “interesting site of inquiry” is nonexistent, and I need to know! Now I have to go Google it for myself…

  10. The Right to be Forgotten seems relevant — see Lauren Weinstein’s commentary, which I just ran across again: http://lauren.vortex.com/archive/001160.html. The bit that struck me as very relevant is: “Of course, no country openly frames this as an attack on freedom of
    speech per se. Rather, they employ arguments such as claiming that
    they’re trying to protect their citizens from “unfair” or “unflattering”
    third-party materials on the Internet (and by the way, irrespective of
    whether those materials are actually accurate or not).”

    Not sure I can perfectly explain why I think this is relevant, but maybe it’s this: anyone can *link* to your blog and write a nasty comment that Internet search engines will then pick up and attach to your name, in varyingly in-your-face ways. Unfortunately, preventing that kind of thing with legislation runs smack into the same issues that RTBF, above, hits.

  11. This may or may not be relevant, but I don’t see any easy way to block one site from including another’s articles – one can always create an XML document that defines the other URL as a ‘system entity’, embed it into the XML (&entity ), then reformat as necessary via XSLT. So, I think technological solutions may be out. Legal and ethical ones remain.

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