New Scholarly Coalition Embraces W3C Web Annotations

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Today marks the launch of an informal annotation coalition, organized by the Project, a W3C Member. W3C is excited to be part of this growing effort of over 40 leading organizations in the technology and scholarly publishing communities, including W3C Members IDPF, MIT Press, and Wiley.

The partners in this coalition share a vision of how annotation can benefit scholarly publishing, and of open collaboration for integrating web annotation into their platforms, publications, workflow, and communities.

W3C sees an important role for Web Annotations as a new layer of user-generated content and commentary on top of the Web, and across digital publications of all sorts. Today, comments on the Web are disjointed and often disruptive; a unified mechanism for creating, publishing, displaying, and sharing annotations and other comments in a decentralized way can aid in distributed curation, improving the quality of comments that a reader sees for Web content, and improving the reading experience. In parallel, Web users want to organize and remember useful sites on the Web, and want to synchronize their favorite sites across multiple devices, or to share their thoughts about a site with friends or colleagues; Web annotations enable all this by allowing users to make highlights or detailed notes about a site, to add tags for categorization and search, and to share these links and notes across multiple conforming social media services. This is ideal for casual users, or for focused reading circles or classrooms.

The W3C Web Annotation Working Group is working on a set of loosely related “building block” specifications to enable this functionality. The Web Annotation Model serves as a simple but full-featured data structure for interchange between browsers and different annotation-capable services. The Annotation Protocol defines behavior for publishing annotations to a service, for searching these services for annotation content, or for subscribing to annotation feeds. The FindText API lets a browser or plugin “re-anchor” an annotation to its original selection within a Web page, and a related URL fragment specification will leverage the FindText API to let you share a URL that navigates directly to the selection you shared. Together with a few other bits and pieces, these specifications, when implemented, will let you create a new annotation based on a specific selection on a page, share it to your preferred social media service, and let others (either a small group, or the world) discover and read your annotation right in the context of the page you commented on, or to find other annotations in your feed.

In addition to standardizing annotation technologies, W3C is experimenting with using the technology itself. Our standards process includes public review of all of our specifications, and we have enabled feedback via an annotation interface on some of our specifications; the expectation is that it will be easier for readers to provide feedback, and easier for Working Groups to understand, respond, track, and process feedback that's presented in the context of the specification document itself. if this experiment succeeds, we will spread this feedback mechanism across W3C's specifications.

Before a full ecosystem develops, where multiple browsers and e-readers, content sites, and annotation services interoperate, the groundwork has to be laid, in communities that already understand the power of annotation. The scholarly community has used annotations (and the related techniques of footnotes and citations) extensively for centuries. This annotation coalition brings that practice into the 21st century, with a solid technological underpinning that will empower this community to use the Web for review, copy-editing, collaboration, categorization, and reference. W3C welcomes technical feedback on its Web Annotation specifications, and the new annotation coalition welcomes all interested stakeholders to participate in all aspects of this effort.

We look forward to keeping the conversation going about how we can meet the needs of this community, and how we can spread this to other communities, from the next generation of “close reading” students who want to engage with content and not just consume it, to the professionals who want to organize their research, to the person who just wants to share their thoughts on content that excites them.

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