Hypothes.is just might make the web relevant again.


RSS this, syndication that — my new colleagues here at DTLT have a torrid love affair with web feeds, and rightfully so. Of the media I consume online, probably 60% of it comes from the 113 sites I follow via my preferred RSS reader, with the other 40% consisting mainly of activity on Twitter, Netflix, and Hulu. The only time I really ever visit a website by browsing directly to it anymore is 1) because the map view on the Craigslist mobile app is frustratingly unusable, 2) to check the latest posts on Ask MetaFilter when I’m really bored, or 3) because I’m shopping for an item and want to check reviews. When I do find a new channel of news, culture, entertainment, etc to follow, it’s usually because someone whose opinion I trust has linked to or otherwise recommended that source, not because I went searching for it or stumbled across it.

In short, RSS is a filter for me; all wheat, no chaff. Problem is, by being such an active curator of the web and making sure I get the best parts delivered, I’ve left myself without much motivation to go out and surf; the open web has largely become irrelevant. Sure, I occasionally author a blog post, comment on someone else’s, or create an animated GIF. But although the web is democratic in theory — anybody can self-publish anything! — in practice, you need a pretty good marketing plan, or pre-existing fame / infamy / celebrity, in order for your online contributions to make much of an impact on the larger conversation.

This is part of the reason I’m so interested in and excited by the Domain of One’s Own project here at UMW … establishing one’s own domain is a great way to create your identity and build credibility, over time, for both online and offline purposes. It’s important to take ownership not only of your own plot, though, but also of the work you do on third-party sites. But with each site having its own disparate method of handling comments, with many methods (including WordPress) leaving ultimate authority to approve or reject with the post author or other site manager, there’s no good way to make sure your thoughts, and your insights, are properly attributed to you, or even displayed at all. You’d need a commenting system with an single authentication system for all sites, that doesn’t subject your comments to the whims of individual site managers.

Last week, Jeff McClurken, UMW prof extraordinaire, alerted the DTLT denizens to a new tool that might do just that. Hypothes.is is a browser plugin that allows you to mark up any website, leaving comments much in the same way you would if you were grading a printed term paper (highlighting a sentence or phrase, then leaving your comment in the sidebar). Anyone else with the browser plugin who comes across the page will see your comments inline, and can either mark up a different section of the webpage, or reply directly to existing comments on the page. Here’s how it looks:

hypothesis-in-actionI’ve seen web markup services before, but there a couple of features in Hypothes.is that make this particularly compelling to me. The first is that you actually register a username, so your edits can be tracked and attributed easily to you (especially if you use your real name). Highlighting of annotated sections can be turned on or off, and the sidebar can be collapsed or expanded, depending on whether you are in the mood to preserve the more traditional web reading experience or ready to engage in conversation. You can choose to make your comments private so that only you can see them, or public so they are visible to anyone with the plugin who visits the page. Threaded comments make it a lot easier to have an actual conversation, even easier, I would say, than built-in commenting systems which require you to scroll up and down the page to refer back to specific portions of the text. And, annotations can be assigned tags — not just the initial annotation, but every reply thereto.

There are some parallels here between Hypothes.is and wikis; first of all, when you are leaving a comment, you can apply formatting to your text using the same Markup language that MediaWiki / Wikipedia use. Also, this is a collaborative text tool, but instead of having one person’s edits overwrite another person’s work and having to refer to a separate discussion page to tease out what happened, all of the suggestions can be seen as a layer over top of the original text, and the edits are not applied until the original author chooses to do so.

But to me the most exciting part of this is that each and every annotation has its own permanent URL that can be shared with anyone, regardless of whether that person has a Hypothes.is account.


Whether you are using the browser plugin or viewing a permanent link, all of the pertinent data and metadata is maintained: the full original source, the specific section of the text referred to by the annotator, and any comments that refer to that specific section of text. This could be huge in terms of claiming ownership of one’s work; the annotations you made are useless without the full context, and should not be limited by whether someone has chosen to sign up for the service.

Hypothes.is right now is in very early (alpha) testing, but already I see a lot of promise and opportunity. In the future I’d like to be able to follow the activity of users, tags, and URLs; to save an archive of my annotations and host them on my own domain (much like Twitter’s archive download currently works); and to mark up not only text but also images, video, datasets, and other kinds of media.

This kind of tool has the potential to further democratize the web, by making the comments and conversation surrounding a piece of writing just as important — if not moreso — than the original text. That is something compelling that could, and would, bring me out of my RSS shell and back onto the open web. And it could be a brilliant tool for higher education. What are some ways that you can imagine using an annotation layer in your classes, or in your discipline more generally? I look forward to hearing your ideas!

Ryan has been proudly maintaining and contributing to Language Lab Unleashed since 2005, and is the current President of SWALLT. Since the summer of 2013 he's been causing trouble with his all-star colleagues in the UMW DTLT; when not wrangling websites Ryan can be found doing strange things with heavy objects.

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