Annotating the Web

I had a great time at the I Annotate 2018 conference last week.

Here are slides and notes from my talk:
The InSite System: Enabling Transparency with Searchable, Shareable Interactive Transcripts
(Slides, PDF)

Annotations may seem like a limited subject, but there’s a lot to them when you apply them to the web.

It’s always been possible to annotate paper – underline, highlight, scribble in the margins, and attach tabs, flags and sticky notes.

It’s historically been trickier on the web. There’s a matter of logistics – how do you get information from disparate webpages into whatever program you’re using so you can mark things up? And if you do that, what context do you lose?

One possibility for keeping things in context is to annotate right on a webpage – highlight passages and write notes similar to how you’d highlight and write notes on paper. There are web schemes that enable this using a browser add-on or bookmarklet, and save the highlights and notes so you can toggle to see them whenever you’re at that website.

These schemes subdivide webpages into much smaller parts than the usual webpage address URL, giving elements of the webpage like sentences the equivalent of street-level addresses. Some also further divide images by region and videos by time.

This also enables anyone to share one or a set of annotations with anyone else. It allows you to share a sentence or paragraph of a website directly and in context. This is useful for many things, including educating, doing science, and publishing just about anything.

The InSite system that my talk was about enables interactive transcripts. It uses a similar principle but comes at it from a different angle. InSite uses the WebVTT standard to  attach each sentence of a transcript to the appropriate point in audio or video. This also gives each sentence its own address. The connection makes it possible to use transcripts to search and navigate audio and video. The address makes it possible to send anyone an excerpt with a link that makes it possible to see the excerpt in context.

With InSite, publishers enable each transcript to make sentence-level addresses available whenever anyone selects a part of the transcript. With web annotation schemes, everything on the web is automatically available to select, but the user has to be signed into an annotation layer to do so. The two approaches can also be used together.

It’s always been useful to point to a specific place on paper. It’s increasingly possible do the same on webpages.