Moderating Entities and Annotation as Meaningful Engagement

If this post ruffles your feathers, or if this post compels you to offer another perspective, Hypothesis is natively embedded on my blog and your comments are very welcome. See you in the margins.

Hypothesis and the I Annotate Conference

A week ago, in San Francisco, I attended the annual I Annotate conference, a gathering of developers, researchers, and visionaries interested in annotation technologies and practices. Hosted by the non-profit organization Hypothesis, this year’s conference was focused on “increasing user engagement in publication, science, and research, empowering fact checking in journalism, and building digital literacy in education.” I participated as moderator of the education panel, and was honored to support K-12 and university educators as they shared about how they are, according to the session’s description, “Innovating the venerable art of annotation to enhance teaching and learning” (video of that session, and others, is forthcoming).

This was my second I Annotate conference, and – more so than last year – I am appreciative of the fact that Hypothesis is building both a platform and movement. For those less familiar with the emerging genre of web annotation, the Hypothesis platform adds an open layer of information atop the web, affording discussion, collaboration, assistance with research, and opportunities for social reading. Complementing technical innovation, Hypothesis is also building a movement by leading the Annotating All Knowledge Coalition, establishing annotation standards, and annually hosting I Annotate (with a program featuring many different annotation technologies, projects, and agendas). For Hypothesis, it seems that developing a platform and building a movement are distinct yet interconnected efforts. From my perspective, tandem growth for the organization, its platform, and the broader field leads to exciting opportunities, an acute sense of social responsibility, and – at times – inevitable debate.

A Conference in Conversation with Context

As with last year’s conference in Berlin, I Annotate sessions and organizers intentionally recognized and made space for passionate debate about some of the social implications of web annotation. Can anything on the web be marked up, regardless of author permission? What of a writer’s ability to opt-out of annotation? And who “owns” what is posted and read online? Just weeks prior to I Annotate, a long-standing debate about authorial control and reader access, open participation, and the politics and power of networked technologies was rejuvenated in a post by Audrey Watters titled Un-Annotated: “I have added a script to my websites today that will block annotations… My blog. My rules. No comments.”

Not surprisingly, Audrey’s decision elicited lively conversation on Twitter, as well as thoughtful posts about power, gender, permission, and agency by Sherri Spelic, Maha Bali, Joe Dillon, Mike Caulfield, Kevin Hodgson, and, most recently, Martin Weller (did I miss anyone? If so, let me know!). What some of this exchange has missed, however, is the notable and consistent role that Hypothesis has played in creating the conditions for a public discussion that is equal parts technical, philosophical, and social. Prior to I Annotate in 2016, Hypothesis wrote about “Preventing abuse” and then specifically addressed “Involving page owners in annotation.” And at I Annotate in Berlin, conference organizers brought together a panel “On Consent and Abuse in Annotation Systems” (see the full video). In a related effort, Hypothesis subsequently addressed how technical and social aspects of their work are responsive to “Meeting the Audrey Test for educational technology” (as an aside, I am curious as to how many technology organizations – much less commercial educational technology companies – have publicized their self-assessment of the “Audrey Test”).

Despite ongoing debate, I submit that it is useful to view I Annotate as a conference – and Hypothesis as an organization – that is actively in conversation with social and political contexts. Rather than ignore an ongoing debate, rather than shun historical perspective in favor of future-oriented technological determinism, and rather than glibly nod to conflict as a means of superficial appeasement, Hypothesis organizers actively facilitated conversation that deepened collective investment in finding human – rather than merely technical – solutions to challenging sociotechnical dilemmas (my thanks to Nate Angell for frequently emphasizing this stance, it’s good learning for me and others). And right from the start, it was I Annotate’s opening keynote that set a powerful tone for such meaningful and nuanced engagement.

Esther Dyson’s Keynote

Themes of ownership, expression, openness, and innovation were focal points during last Thursday’s opening keynote by Esther Dyson. As she noted, “The goal of this is to be an annotated talk;” per her invitation, I hope the following synopsis and my interwoven commentary is a useful contribution to a necessary and ongoing conversation about web annotation.

  1. I Own My Content

Esther’s keynote shared three principles and one solution about “how annotation should work in the real world.” The presentation of her first principle was a full-throated defense of authorial ownership, including an author’s right to control the means of subsequent commentary (within established legal structures), economic rights to the value of their work, protection of intellectual property, and the need for “some space” between original work and commentary (such as annotation). This principle aligns with the ethos of “my blog, my rules,” as well as technical solutions at the individual scale such as the decision to disable annotation.

  1. Freedom of Speech

The second principle Esther presented was freedom of speech. Just as hate speech should be legislated, so too is there a “sacrosanct” right for the government to protect everyone’s speech. The opportunities and limits of free speech vary for both authors and readers, and are certainly complicated by readers who act as annotators. As a refraction of the “my blog, my rules” ethos is another perspective on online interaction best summarized as “my browser, my rules.” From this perspective, a reader’s browser is like a pair of glasses; the more tricked out the frames and lenses, the greater are the means by which that reader can access, read, curate, and annotate online content.

Mike Caulfield’s reflection on I Annotate addresses the ways in which tools (like Hypothesis’ annotation platform), principles (like freedom of speech), emergent social practices, and cultural context all collide:

It’s your browser, and you’re allowed to annotate anything you want with it. But the separate question is what should be encouraged by the design of our technology. People want to turn this into a legal debate, but it’s not. It’s a tools debate, and the main product of a builder of social tools is not the tool itself but the culture that it creates. So what sort of society do you want to create?

Not unlike Mike’s question, I’d like to raise another query that speaks to tensions associated with Esther’s first two principles: What is the sound of one blog chatting? Perhaps it’s because I’m a public educator (something I have done across elementary, secondary, and higher education settings for the past 12 years), a researcher (whose scholarship is peer reviewed and scrutinized both at conferences and by my public university), and a blogger – I have come to expect that when I share the artifacts of my practice someone will clap back.

  1. Moderating Entities

The third and final principle shared by Esther in her keynote was the importance of moderating entities. There is a need for some type of entity to manage content in non-governmental and non-monopolized (online) spaces. Moderating entities (think non-profit organizations, like Hypothesis) have, according to Esther, an “obligation” to foster productive interaction and restrict harmful speech. A moderating entity should provide access to and active moderation of “layers” of information and discourse, creating “separate fabrics” for the production and circulation of new knowledge. Multiple moderating entities will invariably arise, creating – in the best case scenario – a culture that defines what is appropriate and what is not. To remix the question Mike asked when reflecting upon his I Annotate experience: “What sort of society will moderating entities create?”

A Solution: Let the Market Work

Ultimately, Esther suggested that individual moderating entities will succeed or fail based upon the number of people who find new types of (online and digital) interactions both useful and meaningful. And this, then, lead to Esther’s concluding solution – let the market work. I have friends and colleagues who may take umbrage at such a recommendation, particularly as market-based solutions – certainly within the field of education, and elsewhere, too – have exacerbated inequality, restricted access, and shunted new means of participation. Yet I didn’t hear Esther abdicating responsibility to a faceless market beyond the influence of creative designers or critical educators. Rather than sit back and let a so-called free market do its thing, I found Esther’s commentary an encouraging invitation to get one’s hands dirty by actively shaping how the tools, ideas, and people associated with a given moderating entity create safe, participatory, and more equitable digital spaces. And that’s precisely why I partner with Hypothesis on various teaching and research projects.

I found Esther’s keynote – like the entire I Annotate conference – both provocative and immediately useful. Yes, it is possible to enact technical solutions at the individual scale to mitigate real and imagined problems. And yes, doing so is sometimes necessary to prevent harassment and harm. At the same time, it appears to me that thinkers like Esther Dyson, and organizations like Hypothesis, are also committed to advancing human solutions to sociotechnical problems at the collective scale. If, in our debates about web annotation, we talk past one another, perhaps that discordance reflects social responsibility operating via different strategies and at different scales.

Another Human Solution

If you’ve read this far, perhaps you’ll entertain another human solution that I’ll share by means of conclusion. In April, I helped to launch a new collaboration between the Marginal Syllabus and Educator Innovator to support and scale educators’ equity-oriented and interest-driven learning. The Marginal Syllabus convenes via author partnerships public conversations about equity in learning during monthly annotathons and fosters openly networked professional learning through web annotation practices. The Marginal Syllabus and Educator Innovator collaboration is an intentional effort to establish longer-term author partnerships, welcome and explore critical perspectives in education, and provide multiple entry points for educators’ informal and professionally-relevant learning. In April, participants partnered with Sangita Shresthova to annotate her chapter of By Any Media Necessary titled, “Storytelling and Surveillance: The Precarious Public of American Muslim Youth” (if interested, you’re very welcome to jump back into that annotated conversation, or to watch our webinar). And later this month, we’ll be partnering with Bronwyn LaMay, a high school English teacher, to discuss a chapter from her book Personal Narrative, Revised: Writing Love and Agency in the High School Classroom.

Here’s to the hard, collaborative, and complex work necessary to create human solutions.


One response to “Moderating Entities and Annotation as Meaningful Engagement”

  1. I’m so thankful for Remi’s post here: not only does he help guide people to various corners of this conversation so far, but he also emphasizes what I think are key parts of the debate. Because comments aren’t great for more specific commentary, I’ll put more granular comments in the margins >

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