Comments and notes and annotations, oh my!

In the real world, people add their own layer of information on top of printed documents by scribbling notes on them, and highlighting passages. They can share the modified document with their friends, and pass on their opinions and insights.

This is really hard to do on the computer. Distribution formats like HTML pages and pdfs are designed to deliver information from the producer to the consumer. You can’t even add your own notes, let alone share them with others.

With the real-world analogy so glaring, there’s been a lot of attempts to fix this. The wikipedia article on web annotation alone includes twenty-two active projects! In a different direction, MS Office now includes OneNote, which is a tool for creating free-form notes, and sharing them with friends. It focuses on pulling content into a separate notebook, rather than adding notes on top of the content.

So why haven’t you heard of most of these web annotation tools? Casey has a post covering the history of web annotation, from 2004. There’s been a few successes since then, but most of the annotators have struggled to get the critical mass of users they need to be useful. One of my favorites is JumpKnowledge, which has a focus on letting you email pages with your comments on top, using their AWE Firefox plugin.

Reading their blog is pretty painful. When Yaakov describes trying to get coverage for their system as "like banging my head against a wall" I can sympathize. He’s got some great reviews, from some big names, but it seems like even they’re no longer in active development.

[Update- I just heard from Yaakov, and they have been working on some interesting new features, which is great news! See his comment on this post]

This is a good reminder you can build it, and they won’t come, unless you get marketing and distribution right too.

Diigo seems like the most successful annotator out there at the moment. It’s in active development, supports a lot of cool features like sharing with groups, and some neat search functionality for things like looking for inbound links to the current page, or searching on the same site. Trailfire is another very active annotation tool, that does some content analysis of the page you’re on to figure out if there are related pages in its database.

It still feels like the killer app for web annotation is missing. Maybe people really don’t want to scribble on web pages as much as us techies think, or maybe we just haven’t found the right way to do it. I thought that JumpKnowledge‘s focus on mailing web pages together with annotations had a lot of potential, but it doesn’t seem to have caught on. Diigo has tools for easily posting annotated pages to a blog, which also seems like it could be really popular, but I don’t see too many blogs being created that way.

3 responses

  1. Pete,
    Thank you for your kind words about JumpKnowledge!
    I just wanted to clarify that we are under active development and we have many exciting features that will be rolled out soon. Lesson learned: I guess I should update my blog more often 😉
    Your overview of the annotation market is spot on and we are taking steps to get our marketing and distribution done right.
    We recently released an Annotation button for websites and blogs to give their customers and readers to power of annotation. The Button Wizard is located here:
    Yaakov Sash,

  2. That’s great to hear Yaakov! I’ve updated the main post to make it clear I got that one wrong.
    I’m really impressed with what you’ve done with JumpKnowledge, and thanks for the honesty of your blog posts. I’m finding the marketing and distribution process really hard to get right, it was good to see it’s not just me.

  3. Hi Pete,
    Thanks for your mention of Diigo. Based on your comments, I think you’ll like the new Diigo that we are about to release.
    By the way, Diigo already supports easy sharing of annotated pages via email (our “Forward” function). A lot more powerful innovations to come shortly! I’ll give you a head-up when ready.

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