One of my favourite parts of a blog post, I confess, is the comments section. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that they are as informative and meaningful as the body of the article, but they are often interesting and sometimes entertaining, occasionally more so than the article itself. If, of course, and a big if, the comments are well moderated (I will never understand why people enjoy sending pure drivel, I mean, really, what can they possibly get out of it?). In some of the blogs I read, the comments open up other areas of debate, contribute new bits of information, validate some opinions and examples, refute others, and generally add variety in terms of tone and texture. Sometimes the comments are on other comments, rather than the text itself. It’s almost like going out for drinks after a conference and discussing what you’ve just heard.
A new trend I’m seeing more of recently, and that I like very much, is the concept of “annotations”, or “notes”. What are annotations? According to my online dictionary, they are “notes added to a text, drawing or book as a way of explanation”. And in the web sense, they are still that, but with hyperlink possibilities. While most computer programmers insert annotations into their code to explain to themselves and collaborators what the different sections do, here we’re going to talk about annotations and notes in published online content. The main difference is, the authors don’t add them, the readers do.
So, what is the difference between annotations and comments? Annotations, and here’s the cool part, are inserted in the body of the text, or more specifically, in the margin. They’re like comments, but by paragraphs. You can comment on an individual paragraph, adding information, debating a point or asking a question. And this turns the article or post into even more of a conversation. People “interrupt” the flow of the article with comments or queries, just as in a real dialogue. If you find that annoying, you can ignore them, or go back to them once you’re finished reading. But personally, I enjoy the interruptions, they usually add depth and interest.
True, they’re not like a conversation in that the author of the piece does not respond in real time. But he or she can respond in another annotation, just as they can with end-of-post comments. The beauty is, you get the dynamics and sparkle of a conversation while at the same time retaining control of the pace. Read the comments, skim them, ignore them, it’s up to you.
By this stage you’re probably wanting examples. So far the top two news sites that I’ve found that use annotations are Quartz, a general news site (I love it, the tone, the layout, the style…), and Medium, an open blogging platform, with quality writing and a clean, refreshing design. On both platforms, you can comment on a per-paragraph basis. Storify, which I confess I haven’t gotten to know very well yet, lets users thread social media clips together to form a story, and allows comments on each paragraph and social media insert. Quartz calls them annotations, Medium calls them notes, Storify calls them sidenotes. I call them fun to browse.
Now, Quartz, Medium and Storify are not the only content annotation opportunities out there. YouTube also supports annotations in the form of clickable text overlays, and Soundcloud, the music streaming site, has an original annotation system. You add your comment as you’re listening (to music, or a podcast), and your comment appears in the piece’s timeline, when you added it. I find this very compelling, you see the comments at the point in the song that the writer thought of them. There are others, and some interesting new software platforms are emerging to facilitate and manage commenting. We’ll talk about them in another post. For this post we’re focussing on news and article interactions, and the dialogue and thought they provoke.
Do annotations influence the overall effect of an article? Yes, I believe that they do. With more opportunities to interact, we feel more connected to the story. With more “actionable” ideas, we contribute more, possibly even think more about the message and its components.
This form of commenting changes the way that readers interact with content. It feels more immediate and interactive. You read a paragraph and react to that, you no longer need to wait until the end of the post to express yourself, and you don’t need to be broad and insightful about the message as a whole. Your comments can be much more specific, and thus relevant. Post-wide comments are interesting and often insightful, but paragraph-relevant observations can actually contribute content to the post, which itself can then be discussed. Rather than one discussion thread at the end, you can have several distributed throughout the post, which is more interesting and at the same time selective (you can choose which interest you).
The annotations concept makes it easier to comment, to add something to a small part of the content, satisfying our impulse to just jump right in. Having to wait until the end of an article to express a well-thought-out opinion is much more daunting.
Aesthetically, it’s not as chaotic as it sounds, the comments are “hidden” until the reader clicks on the icon that indicates that they’re there. The formats I’ve seen so far are not intrusive, the comments appear in little stacked boxes in the right margin, and they tend to be short. Another click on the icon will hide them again.
Are bottom-of-post comments history? No, they’ll be around for quite a while longer, partly because of tradition and partly because of the programming required to switch, which is complicated for most of the basic blogging platforms. And they are enjoyable, it’s probable that many will continue to prefer the one-thread, generalist discussion. But I love that we’re starting to look at new ways of interacting. I do believe that most of us have something to say, but we’re usually in too much of a hurry, or too intimidated to sign off on an opinion. Let’s open up the dialogue, get more thoughtful participants, and share more ideas. Notes, annotations, whatever you want to call them, will become much more prevalent as we get used to this new form of participation.
(NOTE: I use WordPress, and am starting to investigate how to switch to annotations… Lyvefire looks interesting, they recently launched a service that enables clients to include annotations on their blogs. I’ll keep you posted!)