Soul searching

By dwhly | 27 September, 2012

We’ve been busy.

In particular we’ve been thinking hard about the multitude of design decisions that inevitably present themselves in a project like this. How do we build an experience capable of showing hundreds or thousands of annotations on a page simply and elegantly. How do we create functionality that’s there when you want it, but stays out of your way when you don’t? How do we design for the cold start, when people won’t have our software installed to begin with? How do we effectively, efficiently and transparently match metamoderators to moderation opportunities they’re knowledgeable about?

But one design decision we’ve made recently stands out from the rest. It forced us to do a little soul searching on our part about what exactly we are building, and who exactly we are.

It was inspired by looking at something we built, stepping back for a second and asking ourselves a simple question.

The way it was...Do people really want to see our logo on the right hand side of their pages? Particularly if they purposely embed our functionality as a substitute for a traditional comment service like Disqus, LiveFyre or facebook comments. Maybe so, after all each of those services have some attribution that involves placement of their logo whenever they’re embedded.

But we’re not like those projects. Our goal is to enable a vibrant, thriving community of citizens of the world. Full stop.

Furthermore, from a technical perspective, we’re really two projects– a front end javascript layer that exists embedded on the page or enabled via an extension or bookmarklet, and a back end running on a remote server. These two communicate via an API. The back end is the “annotation store” (and leverages functionality and an architecture originally created by our partners at the Open Knowledge Foundation, through their annotator, that we’ve now extended).

We suspect that if an open standard for annotation is successful long term that our front end will eventually be built into the browser, where it belongs, in addition to being duplicated, enhanced, or possibly reinvented by others leveraging a common API. That sounds like success to us. It means our job on the front end right now is to create a phenomenal reference implementation for the user interface that, for instance, Mozilla might build into Firefox.

...the way it is.So what exactly would that look like? For starters: clean, simple functionality, minus branding, that enables a choice of back end annotation providers. In the same way that you can change the default search engine provider in the browser to whomever you like, we think you should be able to choose your annotation provider.

Which brings me to the back end. Making annotation providers easily switchable creates competition amongst potential future annotator stores for who can provide the best service, for instance: the largest, most diverse community, the best model for distributed moderation, the fastest, most reliable storage layer, the highest commitment to long-term archival access, and so forth.

That’s why in the latest version of our user interface we’ve done just that. Our front end is no longer branded as “”. Instead, we’re simply a selectable annotation store provider, with which you can create an account and annotate the web. We anticipate many more such stores in the future. The interface simply indicates [username / annotation store]. Imagine for instance if you’re a large corporation with millions of documents behind your corporate firewall, you could run your own annotation store that your employees could use to annotate internal documents against.
Select your store.
Long term, our users don’t win unless we deliver the best possible service for them. That ethos should be, and will be, engraved foremost in our minds, non-profit or not. We can’t force that by locking them in to our platform. On the contrary, we think the only way forward is to demonstrate that this is a completely open project, on every level, and that we plan to excel at every aspect of it.

You might think it’s crazy, before we’ve even launched, to be building the very hooks in to our system that enable others to replace us.

We’re just wrapping our heads around this for the first time. So, what do you think?

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