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SideWiki, Reframe It, Diigo: Considering Competing Web Annotation Systems

Diigo

When Jason Jones wrote about Google SideWiki a few weeks ago, my first thought was “What about Reframe It?” Others (I heard) thought, “What about Diigo?” The following week, Brian Croxall posted “Writing in the Internet’s Margins”, which talks about CommentPress and also mentions digress.it.

No matter the tool, one thing is clear: more than a few people are hankering for a ubiquitous end-user commenting system for the web. Not group annotation of documents born in or uploaded to the web such that they live within a particular system (see: Google Docs, Co-ment, etc), but a specific service layered on top of the existing, independent web content. Sure, this layer and the accompanying freedom will result in comments that range from profane and inane to brilliant and life-altering, but hey—that’s people. And people have been hankering for this type of service for years—the Web Annotation entry in Wikipedia was created in 2003 (that’s almost 25 years ago in internet time!).

Now, for someone who geeks out over paratextual elements of dusty old books, you can imagine what these sorts of systems bring to the table—second or third order paratexts? Awesome! But that’s a discussion for another dissertation day. What we have now are several tools that allow users to do fundamentally similar things. However, none are ubiquitous—there are access limitations based on the flavor of web browser that you use, and the complexity of the interfaces renders them nearly useless on small devices (think netbooks, not to mention smartphones). Additionally, since these are competing services, the data—annotations and potential discussions attached to web content but outside of the content owner’s purview—the data is not shared. That is to say, as an annotator or commentator you have to first buy in to a single system unless you want to duplicate your efforts across the services..

All the Comments, All the Time

It’s worth clicking to enlarge.

This screenshot illustrates the potential absurdity of running all three of these annotation systems simultaneously over Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence, itself running an internal commenting system. For reference, the screenshot is of a full-screen browser at 1440×900 resolution. While you can close all three of the sidebars—which you would do if you weren’t going for a particular effect, as I was—there are still issues of screen real estate being taken up by tools and their attendant toolbars. [On a somewhat related point, I also wonder if the next few years will see The Rise of the Landscape Web.]

Setting aside the issues of toolbars, sidebars, and browser extensions or lack thereof, and returning to the potential uses of these three pieces of software (and you will find others if you search for “web annotation” in your search engine of choice), we find still-murky waters. Which to choose? Or are the choices too overwhelming to be useful?

With Google SideWiki you can add a comment within the SideWiki system; that comment is associated with web content at a particular address, and your comment can highlight text on a page. Your comments are tied to your Google Account (and viewable on your profile), and you can push your SideWiki comments out to Blogger-based blogs. You can read wikified comments and vote them up or down (useful or not). However, the mechanism relies on the Google Toolbar. I know I am not alone in my dislike of full toolbars when unobtrusive menu items or buttons will do. [Note: I was an external usability tester for the Google Toolbar several years ago, and I said essentially the same things then, to no avail.]

With Reframe It you can add a comment within the Reframe It system; that comment is associated with web content at a particular address, and your comment can highlight text on a page (sound familiar?). Your comments are tied to your Reframe It account, and unlike SideWiki there are already hooks in place to share your annotations throughout your social network at large. The Reframe It service also allows you to build a network of people and groups within the service. This is similar to…

Diigo, which allows you to (say it with me now) add a comment within the Diigo system; that comment is associated with web content at a particular address, and your comment can highlight…

OK, OK, I get it. Highlighting, stickies, comments, browser toolbar or sidebar, so what? Which do I use?

SideWiki has the power of Google behind it and therefore a built-in user base; if millions of people are clamoring for invites to alpha/preview software (Google Wave), you can imagine there will be plenty of adopters of this technology that fundamentally already works pretty well. There’s also a SideWiki API. An API ensures that the data can be used elsewhere; in fact, I will venture to say that the value of SideWiki won’t really be seen until people start using the data elsewhere (and the commenting interface doesn’t require the entire toolbar).

Reframe It in Action

Reframe It in Action

Reframe It has the interface I like the best, but lacks a community despite having “noted authorities”—if you use annotations to build a secondary conversation layer, you’re out of luck. If you’re leaving notes to yourself, then it’s fine. If there were one service I wish more people would use, it’s this one.

Diigo has a toolbar plus a button option for those of us who do not like toolbars, and other customizable interface methods that make it clear they are trying to address the needs of many types of potential users. Diigo also brings together Delicious-like social bookmarking, which I found to be significantly more popular than the annotation aspect of the service.

Personally, I have not integrated any of these services into my workflow. As a content author, of course I care what people think about what I’ve written. But I tend to write in spaces that already have a commenting system as part of that first layer of the text (see, for instance, this post). As a content reader, I am interested in what other people have to say, but I am so used to the relatively useless comments prevalent in open writing spaces that I don’t know why I would add another piece of software to my browser just to see more of these comments. There’s simply not enough data to see if voting comments up or down or reporting offenses through the system will do any good to filter the noise.

More germane to the conversation at ProfHacker, which of these would you use in the classroom, and why? Earlier in the year, Nate Kogan wrote about the potential for Diigo in the classroom, and I’m interested in hearing more from him and others. Right now, I’m not seeing it for my own classes. What about you? Grab a coffee, give us a call, we’ll talk. No big whoop.

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