Hypothes.is and the dream of universal web annotation

Digital, networked technology has irrevocably altered the way humans process, analyze, and share information, a reality not lost on those in scholarly communications, where traditional modes research and publishing are (albeit slowly) evolving to embrace the potential these advancements offer. Some developments include the rise in open access publishing, an increase in scholarly blogging, sharing of datasets, electronic lab notes, and open peer-review. Another effort gaining traction among academics and publishers is facilitation of online annotations, aimed at promoting an ongoing dialogue in which scholars and other individuals comment on, highlight, and add to information published on the web.

Scholars have a long tradition of annotating others’ works–in the form of marginalia, errata, and highlights in printed materials–recognizing that new knowledge requires building on previous discoveries and insights. Web annotations “attempt to recreate and extend that functionality as a new layer of interactivity and linking on top of the Web.” The idea of annotating the web is nothing new. Mosaic, a free web browser platform launched in 1993, was originally designed with the ability for users to annotate web pages, but the feature was discarded because of the operational implications. Since that time, over fifty independent annotation projects have emerged at various points, but most are/were proprietary, or only intended for small, specialized circles, specific to the website’s or tool’s audience. Over the past few years a burgeoning movement of scholars, publishers, and programmers have come together to advocate for development of web annotation standards, and realize the long-standing dream for a native, interoperable platform to support these collaborative exchanges.

Enter Hypothes.is, a non-profit organization formed in 2011 in San Francisco with a lofty goal: “To enable a conversation over the world’s knowledge.” Hypothesis is an open source platform for discussion on the web based up the Annotator project. It allows users to contribute “sentence-level critique or note-taking on top of news, blogs, scientific articles, books, terms of service, ballot initiatives, legislation and more.” In addition, Hypothesis leadership helped launch the Annotating All Knowledge Coalition, and is integrally involved in the W3C Web Annotation Working Group, which has worked on specifications for a web annotation data model, vocabulary, and protocol. Hypothesis is also pursuing cooperative relationships with publishers and journals, such as their new partnership with eLife, the open access life sciences journal.

Hypothesis’ founder Dan Whaley believes “reasoning tends to work better as a team sport,” and thus, the organization’s vision is both democratizing and pragmatic, with its mission and activities structured around twelve unifying principles that emphasize openness, neutrality, transparency, preservation, and privacy, and a commitment to universal, free access to annotation tools. In an era where lies and propaganda are regularly promoted and circulated as fact, an open annotation layer across the Web holds limitless potential for identifying and correcting misinformation where and as it occurs, and facilitating a real-time exchange of knowledge and ideas.  

One potent example of Hypothesis’s capacity to support global dialogue and accountability is the Climate Feedback project, a worldwide network of scientists using web annotation to “distinguish inaccurate climate change narratives from scientifically sound and trustworthy information in the media.” Climate Feedback provides in-depth, expert analysis alongside basic fact-checking, and submits their findings back to the editors of the published content, reporting on the credibility of their information.

Hypothesis is also an effective digital tool for classroom activities. High school teachers have used Hypothesis to have students comment on mainstream media or collectively annotate historical documents. Examples in higher education are also becoming more prevalent, like this Supreme Court opinion annotation exercise, or these neuroscience graduate students marking up scholarly articles. The platform’s ability to create private groups further supports educational uses, accommodating privacy and copyright concerns. Any academic librarians providing instruction or research support, conducting research, and/or publishing or editing journals would benefit from familiarizing themselves with Hypothesis. In addition, a group of community-minded librarians recently formed the LIS Journal Club, an online reading club of open access scholarly library and information science articles, using Hypothesis as the platform for comments.

Hypothesis is incredibly easy to use, and requires no personal information to participate. Accounts are free and can be set up anonymously or pseudonymously, with only a valid email needed for activation. In keeping with their principles, Hypothesis maintains a vigorous privacy and confidentiality policy in their terms of service, and claims no ownership over annotations, with a public API via which users can access their own data. In terms of long term preservation, Hypothesis Director of Education Jeremy Dean explained annotations are saved and view-able if a web page changes or is removed. If the text on a page changes but the URL remains stable the content is still preserved. Dean also said that very soon these “lost” annotations will be displayed in “what we’re calling an ‘orphan’ layer containing annotations associated with a URL but unable to anchor for whatever reason (2016, email communication with author).”

Users can annotate publicly, privately, as part of established groups, or create new (private or public) groups. After creating an account, users must select one of four methods for annotating. A Chrome extension is available for download, with a similar, quick bookmarklet installation process for other browsers. A second option creates a “via” proxy page over the original web content when pasting the URL into the text box on Hypothesis’s front page. Users don’t need to be signed in to view comments when annotating with the proxy method, and can share that link with anyone, not just those with Hypothesis accounts (hence why readers here can view the project examples linked above).

The Hypothesis platform is very simple, with four basic annotation types: highlights, marginal notes anchored to specific text, pages notes (similar to social bookmarks, these comment upon or tag the entire document), and replies, or comments made back to others’ annotations. Users can also add hyperlinks, images and streaming video, and tags, which are aggregated into the searchable Hypothesis database or Stream. The Stream allows for quick collation based on keyword, which includes topical and organization tags (say, a class or seminar number, versus a subject-based association). Hypothesis is also fully integrated with various social media widgets, allowing easy sharing on Facebook, Twitter, and others.

Other integrations, plug-ins, and programming tools such as this WordPress aggregator and Drupal module are being released regularly, with help from the vibrant open source community who share Hypothesis’s commitment to interoperable digital tools. The Hyopthesis development team report on their progress via a public Trello roadmap, code and collaborate on GitHub, host discussions on mailing list, and chat in #hypothes.is on freenode (also available as a public channel on Slack). In addition, individuals and small organizations can apply for an Open Annotation Fund grant ($2k-$10 per award) to support new integrations and use cases, like the epub.js integration and EPUB format selector storage project for ebook annotation launched by FuturePress, part of a multidisciplinary research project at the UC Berkeley School of Information.

Widespread adoption of open web annotation could have a powerful impact on the way we consume and produce digital media, within the scholarly communication and beyond. As librarians combat challenges associated with information literacy, and seek ways to strengthen the research process and improve communication of new and proven discoveries, tools like Hyopthesis will be crucial to these efforts. Those able to support its advancement should consider donating to the non-profit if unable to contribute to technical developments. If current events are any harbinger, Whaley’s prediction that “the revolution will be annotated,” may indeed prove true.


Author: Lily Troia

Lily is the Digital Services Librarian at the College of William and Mary working at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science in open access and research data management. This position follows completion of a Masters in Library and Information Science (MSLIS '16) at Simmons College School of Library and Information Science in Boston where she focused on cultural heritage, archives, and digital stewardship with a research emphasis on copyright and intellectual property.

One thought on “Hypothes.is and the dream of universal web annotation”

  1. I love Hypothes.is! Thank you for sharing. One thing–you may want to correct the spelling of Hypothes-is in the title/URL. 🙂

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