By Liam Andrew on May 13, 2014
The first thing that struck me about I Annotate 2014 was the setting: unlike the standard stuffy, windowless conference hall, the event was held at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, a historic, bright, and beautiful space overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Given the impeccable weather, the location was one consolation for staying indoors, but what really kept all of us there was a drive to annotate the world’s knowledge.
Organized and run by Hypothes.is, the second annual conference demonstrated how far the annotation community has come in just a year, making inroads in a wide variety of industries and research groups. Whenever you find Wolfram Research next to Rap Genius on a conference attendee list, you know it’s going to be interesting. Attendees represented research labs, startups, foundations, and organizations. They showcased tools, tricks and platforms ranging from HyperStudio’s own Annotation Studio, to Harvard’s edX and H2O, to semantic initiatives at the BBC, Financial Times, and the OpenGov Foundation. Scores of other projects and tools came from academia and industry, such as Rhizi and PeerLibrary. The W3C was also in attendance, in their effort to further the incorporation of annotation into the next generation of web standards. Based on the wide range of attendees and uses, they have their work cut out for them.
Most conference presenters did not try to pose a singular, overarching definition of annotation, instead showcasing their own projects and related examples. To me, this seemed wise; otherwise, we might have argued for days about what annotation is. When we talk about annotation, we are talking about many different practices couched in one ambiguous term. We were all gathered to advance the ways in which media can be published and discussed online, whether in the humanities, sciences, finance, law, or rap music. Each of these fields has different uses for annotation, and the one thing that we all had in common was a single word with many meanings.
It does seem clear that annotation tools provide a way to make online texts “read-write” rather than just “read.” Whether providing peer-review of scientific texts or analyzing your favorite rap lyrics, when you annotate you are providing feedback, complicating communication on a technical as well as social level. You are also forging connections between texts, making content both more discoverable and more nuanced. Much discussion revolved around whether annotations themselves should be annotatable, or even publishable (bringing up questions of copyright). Is annotating an archival act, or a discursive one? This adds a complex layer to the web, but gives unprecedented priority and weight to everyday users, and encourages more focused interaction with a text than a simple comment or published response.
There was also much discussion about possible new frontiers in annotation. How can we give people the ability to annotate images, audio, video, and scientific data? What about more complex media, like video games, or even real-world experiences? Does this stray too far from what “defines” an annotation? Some naysayers suggested what couldn’t or shouldn’t be annotated (perhaps we can go too far in archiving and explaining). Others claimed that the focus was in the wrong place: perhaps an annotation platform should be framed as a social network, with precedence placed on building communities rather than technologies.
In the end, all of these claims are probably true for some of the platforms and less applicable to others. There was a wide breadth of tools in many disciplines, using annotation in myriad different ways—the conference was exploring a technique and architecture rather than an industry, a horizontal instead of a vertical. This made it vary in relevance, but always focused and utterly unique. Conference breakout sessions ranged from the technical to the philosophical, and allowed for those with aligned interests to interact after the presentations.
The proceedings were followed by a two-day hackathon, where a handful of coders worked on expanding the open-source Annotator library (which also powers Annotation Studio) and its community to new ends. It was a fitting conclusion to the conference: after talking, it was time to make.
Liam Andrew is a graduate student in Comparative Media Studies and a research assistant in HyperStudio.