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It seems that through the use of browser extensions, web annotation could provide an awesome way to 'add more channels' of data to an existing web resource. Given the limited technical challenges, and the popularity of certain 'snippeting' note taking apps such as Evernote, could the reason be down to an inappropriate or undeveloped user experience and user interfaces for web annotation having not yet become a mainstream way to hold discussion and enrich content on the web?

Certainly, a few specialised applications flourish -- such as video and music annotation (soundcloud and youtube). But general, 'web app' or 'web page' annotation of , say, news articles, wikipedia, search results, or even (somehow) web apps...could not really be called popular. Is the use case invalid, or is it simply a case of no one having to successfully crack it as of yet?

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2 Answers 2

Many, if not most, websites offer some kind of user participation built in: blogs and news sites have comments, e-commerce sites have reviews, etc. These features cover most of the benefits of web annotation. If a particular site doesn't allow user input, people can always vote with their feet by moving to a site that does.

On top of that, there are myriad sites consisting entirely of user-created content: Wikipedia, Facebook, StackExchange sites of course, and many others. If people have an itch to contribute some content, it is definitely being scratched (and then some).

Given the participatory experience that the web already offers, I don't think there is a demand for an additional annotation service. One has to ask: what would it add to already-existing web features? I can't really think of anything.

Perhaps if one had caught on early enough, before all these other channels of user-created content existed, things would have been different.

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There are two different needs that you seem to be conflating here:

The first "need" is to comment and participate in online discussion: users have an opinion or question that they'd like to engage a larger audience or community with. This appears to be the need that would drive the hypothetical annotation services you're talking about.

The second need is to keep track of information that might be personally valuable to me in the future -- this is what things like Evernote were built to do. This need actually doesn't really relate to the first need well (despite similarities in UI or execution of the product), because for this use case, many people would prefer to keep that information private.

So, if we focus on that first need, we arrive at exactly the conclusion Dan mentioned: there are already lots of ways to participate on the web already, comments, etc. but even Twitter and Tumblr provide ways for me to provide feedback (sometimes on specific pieces of webpages).

And now you're saying, "But Ninakix, annotations would fill [a particular need (e.g., people's need to provide detailed feedback or analysis of text, whatever)] better than comments do! They should still work!"

So, the specific issue with this logic is that when it comes to approaching needs that are already being filled by some other product, one needs to design a solution that's orders of magnitude better than what currently exists. If I can hack my existing tools and existing networks to get done what I want, as people do when they use ">>" type indentations to indicate quoted text, my willingness to switch to a new product is very, very low.

If you want to think about how you might build an annotation service, here's how I'd evaluate ideas:

  • What would this tool allow me to do that simply wasn't possible before, even by hacking?
  • What need does this "super power" fill?
  • Would this new super power be something that I'd be using 90% of the time I have this need?

Obviously the relatively random effects of path-dependency mean that anything can take off, but, the better you can fit those criteria, the more you increase your chance of success.

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