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.
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.