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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Speak Up, the Internet Can’t Hear You

The Internet might have looked very different than it does today. When Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina were building Mosaic, the browser that practically created the Web in 1993, they included the ability to annotate any page. Discussions immediately sprang up. But they quickly realized that the server to host the annotations would have had to scale to enormous size, which was not practical. So they took the feature out.

What would the Web have looked like if annotation had managed to stay in Maybe a million conversations would have bloomed, and some of the furious divides that plague this country would have been bridged. Or maybe it just would have been a deafening free-for-all, cranking up all the cranks.

Twenty years later, there is a vast amount of discussion on the Web, much of it in the form of comments and reviews. But it is generally hosted by corporations - Facebook, Google, Amazon - that are selling ads or products, which kind of undermines the democratic spirit of give and take. When the companies fail, like Myspace did, the content simply goes away.

Maybe that is why there is now a renewed appetite for exploring ways of facilitating commenting across the Internet that give more control to individuals. Many of those interested in seeing that happen - including start-ups, academics, libraries and early adopters - came to San Francisco this week for the I Annotate conference. It was a discussion about discussion.

“Why now” asked Dan Whaley, founder of Hypothes.is, a start-up that hosted the conference with help from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “The Web is more mature. Browsers are better. There’s the potential of interoperability, of openness. We can create a parallel Web that is a conversation about the world as it found through the Web.”

An overlay of commentary would improve discovery. One scientist at the conference said that in biomedicine, there were 150 to 250 new articles a week, which means that if everyone in the field read them, they would never have time to do any research. Annotations could help drive the best papers to the forefront of attention.

Give Mr. Whaley, who in 1995 was a co-founder of the first travel company on the Web, credit for thinking big. Hypothes.is is no mere app that helps you buy some trinket. It wants to create an incentive for people to do their work to the highest standard, and make it harder to spread work that does not meet that standard. A preliminary version of its annotation system was introduced at the conference; a bigger roll-out will happen at the end of the year.

Many start-ups have tried to develop commenting systems, as Hypothes.is readily acknowledges. A prominent effort during the first Internet boom was Third Voice. It offered free software that allowed users to essentially place sticky notes on Web sites. Only other Third Voice users could see the comments, which were hosted on the start-up’s computers.

Web site owners did not like it, for obvious reasons; users were hard to control. Third Voice failed in 2001, but some of the issues that plagued it - How do you encourage useful comments while restricting trolls When does criticism boil over into attacks - are still around.

One thing Hypothes.is has going for it is that it is a nonprofit organization. “If you want to create a conversation layer over the entire Web, you can’t own it,” Mr. Whaley said. “People won’t trust it.”

But then, there are all sorts of ways to do annotations, including more targeted ventures. One of the start-ups presenting at the conference was RapGenius.com, which is getting both traction and attention. It started out as a music commentary site, where fans annotated the lyrics. Then the musicians started showing up to annotate their lyrics. Now it has branched out to other documents, like “The Great Gatsby,” the manifesto of the Los Angeles police officer-turned-killer Christopher Dorner and Archibald MacLeish’s poem “Ars Poetica,” which is annotated in images.

“We’re developing a social network that is specifically around close-reading texts,” said Jeremy Dean of Rap Genius.

He was peppered with questions. What about copyright What about trolls Once a text is annotated, is there less desire to work on it by a new crop of readers That might ultimately make the site rather static. And what is the business model here

“I’m a Ph.D. in English,” Mr. Dean said. “I just started working here a month ago. I don’t have a great answer to that.” Nevertheless, Silicon Valley is excited: Marc Andreessen has invested $15 million in it. Annotating’s moment could finally be here.