Soon everyone will be annotating the Web

As Web pages become apps, they will also become collaborative spaces where anyone can annotate -- and the rules of engagement will take a while to work themselves out

Soon everyone will be annotating the Web

You are not likely to find yourself in this situation:

annotation collaboration Jon Udell

Here's the setup. I've browsed to Brian Donohue's essay Bookmarklets are Dead, and I've selected a sentence. Three annotators offer to handle the selection:

  1. Genius
  2. Hypothesis (disclosure: my company)
  3. Medium's built-in annotator

Although you'd have to go out of your way to encounter this clash of annotators, it's a harbinger of things to come. Bookmarklets that activate on demand and inject behavior into Web pages are being superseded by always-on browser extensions. Why? The W3C's Content Security Policy has evolved to favor the latter. Says Donohue:

Content Security Policy is currently being enforced by all major browsers, and is used by major websites like GitHub, Twitter, and Medium. Support for modifying Content Security Policy is non-existent for users, tenuous for browser extensions, and impossible for bookmarklets.

He thinks this was an unfortunate and unnecessary outcome. I agree. Whether to inject behavior into a Web page is my choice. How I do so is nobody's business. If a need that can be met with a bookmarklet instead requires a set of browser-specific extensions, that's a tax on developers.

On the bright side, we'll now be forced to consider standard ways to make and use browser extensions. Web pages are becoming ever more complex apps. Browser extensions are, too, and we've yet to work out the rules of engagement. I can tell my browser which external app to launch when I load a PDF file, but I can't yet tell it which extension to invoke for subtler interactions, like when I select a sentence on a page.

It will be nice to be able to set a preference, but the key point is that there are choices. As Web pages become apps, they also become collaborative spaces. We can converge on a blog post or a Google document or an Etherpad, and we can work together there. If we can do that only using the tools hardwired into those environments, though, that's a tax on users. We shouldn't have to learn new ways to do the same thing in different environments.

Our favorite tools ought to work in many different environments -- and for two of the three choices shown above, that's true. You can only use Medium's commenting tool on Medium. The other two work anywhere, needing no explicit cooperation with the Web pages they overlay.

As product manager for one of them, I am not an impartial observer. If you've followed my work over the years, though, you'll know that I've long imagined the Web as a universal canvas on which we paint with interchangeable brushes.

Will we get there? I make no predictions. Countervailing forces are at work. The Web as a technical platform is more complete, robust, and interoperable than ever. At the same time, the Web as an information commons is more vulnerable to enclosure than ever.

We are a social species, and the Web augments that aspect of our nature. But we are also a tool-using species. Tools augment our hands and our bodies. They are deeply personal. When you're invited to a barn-raising you bring your own tools. I hope we'll be able to do the same when we come together to work online.