Open Annotation, Wikipedia, and the Line

So in reading “There Are No New Directions in Annotations” by Jason B. Jones, I found that I had mixed feelings in regards to what he was stating about the culture surrounding the annotation process. I felt almost as though he was stating some very obvious parameters around annotating and it was it does for the classroom (focusing mostly on the “Annotating in the Liberal Arts Classroom” section of the text). Annotations were not always a tool accessible to students, but more so high-end scholars who are working towards publication. Similar to how the CUNY Academic Commons was actually software only accessible to faculty and graduate students until the decision was made to open the space up to undergraduate studies. They now make up for a large amount of the 900+ groups on the commons, helping to promote interactive mediums as a tool in all levels of education.

Anyway, Jones goes onto talk about how these mediums open up the potential for bringing our outside materials in order to make connections across other disciplines and perspectives of scholarship. He supports that idea when he writes about how annotations should not be limited to explaining the factual, contextual, or textual conundrums, but can be interpreted as one wishes (Jones). Like previously mentioned, this feels fairly obvious. However, the problem I am thinking about with the idea of annotating and blogging on an online space is with the facilitation of the conversation. Naturally, with the incorporation of one’s thoughts and experiences in correlation with a work, it can either promote some sense of ethos in other participants or quite the opposite. So from an online space, what authority can a teacher or professor express from behind a screen? More often or not, people tend to forget to keep civility in mind when getting into heated debates on the internet. We see it in both academic and non-academic spaces. While you are able to reply to one another, it is in no way the same as fostering a conversation within a classroom. So how do we change that? How can we have online learning spaces that remain open to new ideas whilst still having enough trust that the participants will keep it to a certain degree? It almost feels like an oxymoron. I guess my question is: what is the balance between freedom to say or debate whatever you would like and how should you then keep it within reason? The struggle lies in what something means to each individual, and that’s where the line gets seriously blurry.

Jones also touches on the other end of the spectrum in opposition of open annotation: Wikipedia. Wikipedia is accessible to literally anybody, and anybody can make adjustments. So in a sense, it is open in the same way as an open annotation tool. However, while open annotation tools such as enforce little to no rules, Wikipedia has incredibly strict guidelines to follow when modifying or creating an article. I am currently enrolled in the ITP Core I course here at The Graduate Center, and this is actually what we’re experimenting with right now. Wikipedia is a tool that can give students the liberty to create something for the public, while simultaneously learning the ins and outs of publishing in a source such as this. When making adjustments, you need to state your case to the previous Wikipedians and have solid evidence. So in a way, its annotation mixed with modification and strict rules. In studying how Wikipedia functions from the inside out, and now having a general understanding of the logistics behind the online encyclopedia, I can’t help but to wonder why there’s still a heavy mistrust in the site (Jones also brings up this question). Wikipedia requires citations from trustworthy sources or else it will be removed from the article. So where lies the problem with it?

All in all, I think there needs to be a happy medium between the two types of tools. With sources like Wikipedia, you get solid, verified information, but no “spunk.” Open annotations offer a sense of freedom of speech and humility almost. However, it leaves the back door open to false information. Both have their drawbacks, of course, most things do. I feel like there should be a cross between both of their goals. Who knows, maybe there already is? Or maybe one in the making.

4 thoughts on “Open Annotation, Wikipedia, and the Line

  1. I’ve wondered about the heated hatred of Wikipedia for some time now… Sounds like a cool project that you are working with Wikipedia “under the hood.” I’ve played around with Wikipedia articles as data before, the entire corpus is too large to fit on a normal machine to download, but it was cool to see how it worked in that sense. I’d be interested in seeing the future of annotation as you frame it at the end.

  2. Thanks for raising this very timely issue, Anthony. I would agree that the technoutopian/libertarian celebration of untrammeled free expression looks less utopian in the era of Facebook and Trump: on the one hand, we realize increasingly that our “freedom” as writers unfolds within our being shackled to profit centers, giving our precious attention and metadata for others’ profit; on the other hand, we realize that the absence of discursive referees and editors and norms can result in a kind of violent mob rule.

    This would make an excellent research topic that could go in many directions. There’s a vibrant body of theory growing out of Juergen Habermas’s classic history of the creation of the “public sphere”: this work examines how largely unspoken norms of “rational deliberative discourse” emerged in 18thC Europe, and this general way of thinking about public debate has been both influential and controversial. One could also look at more recent debates centering on social media and norms of respectful discourse. Anyway, timely and thought-provoking post!

    P.S. I’m also a Wikipedia booster and think it’s a good example of how the utopian ideals of rational discourse and broad accessibility, both as reader and writers, can coexist.

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