W3C Web Annotation Working Group

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We are thrilled that web annotations, one of the core building blocks that we are using for Geungle, have made it onto the W3C standards track. While this is a great stepping stone in the standards process, there is still a good ways to go before they becomes a W3C Recommendation, and are adopted by the general Web community. There is great hope, however, for Doug Schepers, the W3C contact for the new working group, mentioned that web annotations broke the record for the number of W3C votes for any new charter ever since online voting began (in 2003).1 I have thoroughly enjoyed witnessing how people have come together from many different places and worked together, trying to make the web a better place. While there were opportunities to sow seeds of discord, no one did (that I am aware of). This is kind of unique in the standards world (yes, even at the W3C), but I think everyone just realized the importance of this work, and that collaboration was essential for success. I have learned a lot watching this process, and have been impressed by everyone in the Open Annotation Collaboration, especially Rob Sanderson, Paolo Ciccarese, and Herbert Van de Sompel for their vision and inclusive approach. Thanks to Hypothes.is for sponsoring the W3C workshop that helped to make all of this happen.

Since the creation of the World Wide Web, not all has been peachy-keen. The original vision of the Web, according to Tim Berners-Lee, was one of openness and collaboration, one of democracy and egalitarianism. While there has been forward progress, there has also been a lot of backsliding. Corporatism, in various forms, is fighting right now to take over the open, independent Web—to gain control of it. This is not happening without resistance, however. The IndieWeb is one example of an initiative to take the Web back to its original vision. As we transition to doing research on the Web, it is critical that the remedy be not worse than the disease.2 While research is now moderated by the incumbent gatekeepers, there is the potential for research to be “hedged in” in many more ways if this transition is done badly. The Web, and especially the Web of research, needs to grow organically, in accordance with principles of meritocracy, and without corporate hedging. I am hopeful that there are enough people now clamoring for openness and transparency that this will happen.

Web annotations have the potential to be a significant boon to this egalitarian vision because they provide an excellent foundation for other open, collaborative standards to build upon. Web annotations invert control compared to current commenting systems. The author or content creator retains power over the annotation and the choice of where and how to publish it. The publisher or website owner doesn’t have this power, and must compete for business on some basis other than vendor lock-in. Vendor lock-in can be completely avoided since web annotations are portable and globally understandable, thanks to the underlying technologies of RDF and JSON-LD. All of this gives us, as a research community, enormous potential for moving beyond the current publishing paradigm.

Annotations for Research

To understand why web annotations are useful for research, we need to look a little deeper at what research is. The verb research is from the Old French recercher, which means to seek out, or search closely.3 The re- prefix means back to the original place; again, anew, once more, also with sense of undoing.4 No wonder we beat our heads against the wall sometimes! It often feels like we need to start over again for the umpteenth time.

So seeking out, or searching closely implies that there is an object that is being sought after. In research, this object is called a source. A source contains information that could possibly help in answering a question. This source of information is searched closely, over and over, until new knowledge, in the form of a conclusion, is obtained.

CMS: Simulated Higgs to two jets and two electrons
CMS: Simulated Higgs to two jets and two electrons by CERN. Here a Higgs boson is produced which decays into two jets of hadrons and two electrons. The lines represent the possible paths of particles produced by the proton-proton collision in the detector while the energy these particles deposit is shown in blue. Licensed under a CC-BY-SA license.

Really, the only thing that differentiates the research domains from each other is what that information is and how that information is obtained. Once information is obtained the process of finding answers using that information is surprisingly similar. If you are trying to understand the weak force, you need a really large particle accelerator. If you are trying to piece together the past, you need all the artifacts from that time period that you can get your hands on.

Web annotations let us build on top of these existing sources of information, whether they have been sitting for hundreds of years in a archive, or have just been created by an expensive particle detector. Web annotations are domain agnostic—it doesn’t matter whether the information involves census records or high-speed proton collisions. Web annotations do not change the data or documents that they point to. Since web annotations are creative works, the annotation creator is at liberty to choose how (or if) to license an annotation, the same as with any other authored content on the web. Yes, this even makes it possible to liberally license and share annotations of copyright images in paywalled image repositories.

So to conclude, web annotations are awesome. They’re fundamental for collaborative, open research. They have the potential to revolutionize the way that research is published. In the near future I will be describing what this means for genealogy. Bring on the Web!

Web Annotation Architecture, an infographic from the W3C about web annotations. Display fullscreen for the best viewing experience. Licensed under a CC0 license.


  1. The announcement for the new working group is in the W3C mailing list archive.

  2. See The Fishes and the Frying-Pan, from Abstemius’ Fables, in which the Remedy is many times worse than the Disease.

  3. research, from the Online Etymology Dictionary.

  4. re-, from the Online Etymology Dictionary