Back in the fall of 2011 I wrote about a new web annotation tool called hypothes.is. At that time it was just a Kickstarter project that I recommended everyone support.
But since then it was successfully funded to the tune of $100,000, it has received additional funding and support from major foundations, and the software has been successfully completed. The tool launched this past October 27! It can now be used in most desktop browsers – it has plugins for Chrome and Firefox and a bookmarklet for Internet Explorer, Safari and Opera. I highly recommend it to all skeptics.
So what is web annotation? It’s very simple – it’s a way of attaching comments, criticism and so on directly to original content on the web. Unlike conventional comment threads, which are often a distant scroll away from the text to which they refer, annotations appear right next to the original. And since annotations reside in hypothes.is, they are not subject to the censorious whims of the owner of the original content.
As you can imagine, this could be a boon for skepticism, as it allows skeptics to directly respond to claims exactly where they are made. Anyone who has the hypothes.is plugin installed would be able to see the original content and the skeptical commentary too. That solves the crucial problem (also solved by other tools such as RBUTR) of how to lead readers from the misinformation to the correction.
But of course, there’s the additional problem of deploying skeptics to create good annotations on content that needs it. There’s an opportunity here for curation projects along the lines of the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia. GSoW has set its sights on improving content on Wikipedia, and targeted particular articles for improvement. Similar groups of skeptics could take on the task of creating web annotations pointing out misinformation online. To be effective, such groups should definitely plan to target their efforts, perhaps by topic area.
Well, for one specific topic – climate change – someone’s already formed such a group.
Crowdsourcing online skepticism using off-the-shelf tools – like Wikipedia, Web of Trust, RBUTR – has become a theme of this blog that I didn’t fully anticipate when I started it back in 2008. Originally I was more focused on the idea of creating tools specifically targeted at skeptics. Indeed, that’s where the name of the blog came from.
But instead of building our own tools, appropriating ones that already exist to skeptical ends has been a very successful strategy. Most successful of all has been the combination of educating skeptics on the use of the tools, then creating a community around it to rally the troops. That’s the beauty of what Susan Gerbic has done with the Guerrilla Skeptics. By taking on the important ongoing work of recruitment and training, she has managed to build up a group of skilled Wikipedia editors who are in position to achieve great things.
And so it will be with skeptical annotation. If every skeptic simply uses annotation tools like hypothes.is to drop random sarcastic comments on the web sites of pseudoscientists and paranormalists, it will just become a scattershot annoyance and not a useful tool. But if we attempt to focus our efforts and create high quality inline critiques, we could truly educate the public using this tool.
Emmanuel Vincent is a postdoc at Yale who has also had a fellowship at MIT. He clearly came to this same conclusion about the need for organization. He has put together a project called Climate Feedback. It is recruiting climate scientists and science writers to use Hypothes.is to annotate popular articles on climate change which misstate the science or otherwise get the facts wrong. Quoting from his site:
Climate scientists and experts in critical thinking will use Hypothes.is to annotate target articles sentence by sentence and evaluate their scientific accuracy based on the best available thinking in climate science.
The effort has recently been covered in an article at Salon, and is already tackling articles in popular sources such as Forbes and Wall Street Journal. That’s key to their effort – they are prioritizing content that has high visibility or is going viral in social media.
For an example of one such article, consider that Daily Mail article from August that declares the loss of arctic sea ice to be a myth. This article has been debunked in a number of places, including by friend-of-the-blog Phil Plait here at Bad Astronomy. That’s great, but what about readers who don’t take the time to go find the debunk?
If they happen to load the page with the Hypothes.is plugin activated, a sidebar appears on the right side of their browser, with little arrows pointing to highlights in the text which have annotations. If they click any of the arrows, the sidebar slides out and looks like the screenshot below:
Here a climate scientist has supplied a graph that debunks the claim made right in the headline of the story, and also supplies links to further content.
That’s just a single annotation, but Climate Feedback intends to take it further. They plan to annotate each article with an overall score card at the top, followed by detailed point by point comments below. Here’s a screen shot of a Wall Street Journal climate denial article, showing the scoreboard. There are over 36 further annotations attached to individual points within the article below that as well.
As you can see, a group of six climate scientists reviewed this article and didn’t think too highly of it.
I think this is a fantastic effort. It’s not just the interesting technology at work here, but the organization around it that will make this work.
Obviously, there are many questions. Can Vincent recruit enough climate scientists to chase down all these articles and rebut them? Will hypothes.is become popular enough to be a credible way to reach the public? And if it does, will trolls and deniers also start using the tool and clutter up the results? It remains to be seen.
And of course this is but one approach among many. The page-by-page approach used by RBUTR remains viable as well – indeed the very Daily Mail article I referenced already has a RBUTR link that will take you to the Phil Plait article. But the ability to display commentary including graphics directly on top of the original content could give hypothes.is a visual leg up.
The American Geophysical Union is having their AGU fall meeting in San Francisco this week. That means many climate scientists will be there. Climate Feedback is taking advantage of that to gather those who may be interested. They are having a presentation and workshop starting at 6:30pm on Thursday. That will be followed by annotation hack event on Friday starting at 9am at Hypothes.is Project HQ. Any climate scientists and critical thinkers who are in San Francisco this week should try to attend either or both of those events.
For others not in SF but interested in the technology behind web annotations, there is a standards committee attempting to create an open standard for how this type of thing will work, independent of any particular tool such as hypothes.is. They published their first working draft document of their data model just last week. To learn more about the thinking behind these efforts, I recommend this video interview with some of the members of the committee from a recent meeting.