Not Another Web Annotation Service

If you found this post from the Knight Foundation News Challenge, then you may want to start at our Home Page in order to get a better introduction to rbutr!

A tweet yesterday flippantly dismissed rbutr as just another Third Voice destined to also fail. I immediately followed up with a list of other web annotation services which have also failed; DisputeFinder, WebKlipper, diigo, Marginize, ICorrect, Annotate, Goozy… There are more, but I only had the standard 140 characters of space!

Hypothes.is brought most of them to my attention in their KickStarter pitch video (which raised over $100,000 for them) because Hypothes.is is genuinely another web annotation service, and so they are trying to deal with the fact that everyone before them has tried and clearly failed. They claim to have solved the underlying problems which caused the earlier failures, and I am cheering for them, and hope they succeed.

I don’t see hypothes.is as competition for rbutr though, because I don’t see rbutr as a web annotation service. Hypothes.is, just like Third Voice and Dispute Finder and most of the others listed there, all have tried to do the same thing – inline discussion and annotation. rbutr has none of that. rbutr is a third party semantic linking service – we let rbutr members creating rebuttal linkages between two URLs. And that is all.

rbutr is Surprisingly Unique…

Over the last year or so since I originally had the idea for rbutr, I have been unable to find anything else like it. Everytime someone says “Oh that sounds like…” my heart skips a little bit, wondering if this is finally going to be the day…will i finally find out that what I want has been created already. But I have been disappointed every time as I have been directed to web annotation services, semantic web terminology and backlink search engines. For all of my efforts, as far as I can tell, rbutr is genuinely unique.

I’m as stunned as you are. I thought original ideas were a thing of the past too.

Especially ideas as simple as “Allow people to link pages to each other”. Actually, that might be the key to why no one else has thought of this – it is actually a little bit too close to the exact way the web works – it is a collection or tubes links. That is how it already works! Why on earth would you want to create another service which allows people to add more links to a system which is already based on links?!?!?!?

Hopefully the answer to that is obvious in light of what rbutr is all about – it is so that links of particular relevance can be added to pages even if the page owner doesn’t want them there.

rbutr has more in common with StumbleUpon, reddit, digg and social bookmarking services like them, than it does with web annotation services. But instead of trying to guess what you are interested in, or trying to show you content based on topics of interest, it just directs you to the best available rebuttal to the page you are looking at (based on community submissions and votes). So the methodology is more inline with that social link sharing (making) system, yet our goals are more like those of Hypothes.is and Dispute Finder. I dare say we are the bridge between social recommendation systems like StumbleUpon, and dispute resolution services like Hypothes.is.

So Why Will rbutr Succeed When They Have Failed?

Simplicity

The main weakness that I see in all of the annotation services, is that they feel too complicated to me – regardless of whether they actually are or not. It seems like I need to know what I am talking about to participate, I need to select where I participate and then I need to formulate my annotation. rbutr is much easier than this, because someone else has already done the hard work – all the rbutr user needs to do is submit the two URL’s, add a simple comment and select the tags. You don’t need to be an expert on the subject matter nor do you need to spend any time compiling your own response.

The whole process can be completed in under 30 seconds, and can be done without any real brain engagement (and still result in high quality rebuttals!)

Broad Appeal

When I was looking up information on Third Voice, I found this article about its decline in Wired. Something that really jumped out at me, was the fact that people were protesting it. Webmasters were upset about the fact that people were able to ‘graffiti’ their website. It is understandable that some people would be upset that people are able to alter the appearance or content of their own webpages, and again, this is where rbutr stands alone in its difference. There is no actual imposition on the website owners who are being rebutted. The linkage doesn’t change their website, overwrite it, interrupt it or impact it in any way. It merely alerts the reader to the fact that someone else, somewhere else disagrees.

So first of all, rbutr is far less offensive than the annotation services on that level. But it also has a broader appeal to all levels of society – everyone has an opinion about something, and most of them want that opinion heard. rbutr is a simple method to allow people to have their opinion heard. Whether it be by linking their own blog posts to arguments they disagree with, or by linking the rebuttals they agree with – it is the same thing. Broadly, everyone wants their opinion represented, and rbutr is a tool to enable that. For all opinions.

Overheads

rbutr is a little bit like Twitter in that the concept is so simple, and the data required to make it happen is so small, that hopefully we will not be killed by our own success, and find ourselves unable to fund the server requirements as our usership grows. We are hoping we will be able to continue funding our own expenses until we are large enough that we find some way to cover those expenses. There are lots of options there, and we will be looking for community feedback before making any decisions. One option is a simple “contributor status” method, where members who contribute to our costs earn themselves special rank.

In the meantime though, it would be remiss of me to not point out that one of Craig’s friends is very very kindly supporting rbutr by offering us some amazing server space – so if you need a webhost, or web development and design done, check out Solutions First!

The Internet Has Changed

Ever since we started working on this, we have several times noted how lucky we have been with our timing. It doesn’t look like this project was really even possible just three years ago. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft announced that they would honor Canonical URLs in 2009 and slowly but surely, all of the major CMS’s and websites fell in to line, offering canonical URL links for each page in order to improve their own SEO. Without canonical URL’s, rbutr really isn’t possible. As long as one page can have an infinite number of URLs to it, then numerous people will be looking at the same content, but seeing different rebuttals (or none at all in most cases) in spite of rebuttals having been submitted to it. Web annotation services from the past no doubt had this same problem, and no simple solution.

Also, again from the decline of Third Voice article linked to above, another major change is the advent of Social Media. Web 2.0 and all that. Back when Third Voice died, facebook didn’t even exist, let alone twitter, reddit, and StumbleUpon was only just being invented! So when the Wired article on Third Voice says:

Third Voice couldn’t generate enough advertising revenue to raise consumers’ awareness of its free service, and it couldn’t generate enough consumer awareness to raise the advertising revenue it needed to stay in business.

my first thought was “Why did they need money to raise awareness?” The internet has changed almost unimaginably over the last 10 years, and that cannot be forgotten. Without our modern social network systems, and sharing, and subscribing, and interactivity – yeah, getting the word out was much harder back then. They certainly weren’t about to go viral…

Where is it all going…?

So rbutr is unique. Awesome. What is the point of it though? What is it good for?

Well, I’m not sure if this is going to sound crazy or inspired, but I’m going to say it anyway, because I do actually believe it. If we can bring rbutr to success, then rbutr will change the internet. It will usher in the next stage – the semantic web as it was meant to be. The first step towards actual organisation of the internet, in a meaningful way.

At the moment the internet has no real structure. No real organisation of its information. It is like a giant virtual pile of many billions of webpages. And if it wasn’t for Google, there would be no accessing most of it.

Google is like the ‘Claw Crane’ machine, with its claw reaching in to the pile of pages, pulling out the one you (hopefully) want. The claw doesn’t add any organisation to the pile, or even affect future attempts, it just has a go, and hopefully you get what you are after.

rbutr (and the apps/technologies which will no doubt follow) will bring about organisation within that pile. Google will still provide its skycrane function, reaching in to the pile, and plucking out the page you are hopefully after, but rather than just getting that one page, you will get that page *attached* to several other pages which are relevant to it. In this case, the page you get out will be attached to pages which it has rebutted, and pages which rebut it. You will receive, through one page, a whole discussion between unconnected individuals, websites, and ideologies.

rbutr is a piece of technology which can change the very fabric of the internet. And with that change, the flow of information online changes. And with that, the way people are informed changes. And that has huge ramifications. This is what my 15 min video I made about a month ago was all about: Internet Discourse Animation Mockup

So anyway, I better leave this epic post here. I have moved through the concept that rbutr is unique, and not an annotation service, to what the ramifications of rbutr could be. We’ve got a very long way to go before we get there, but I believe it is absolutely worth fighting for. Because the future looks awesome.

 

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