I’ve now added over 100 annotations using Hypothes.is (h.), almost all within the last month. This includes a few non-public ones. Two weeks ago I wrote down some early impressions, to which I’m now adding some additional observations.

  1. 100 annotations (in a month) don’t seem like a lot to me, if h. is a regular tool in one’s browsing habit. H. says they have 1 million users, that have made 40 million annotations to over 2 million articles (their API returns 2.187.262 results as I write this). H. has been in existence for a decade. These numbers average out to 20 annotations to 2 articles per user. This to me suggests that the mode is 1 annotation to 1 article by a user and then silence. My 100 annotations spread out over 30 articles, accumulated over a handful of weeks is then already well above average, even though I am a new and beginning user. My introduction to h. was through Chris Aldrich, whose stream of annotations I follow daily with interest. He recently passed 10.000 annotations! That’s 100 times as many as mine, and apparently also an outlier to the h. team itself: they sent him a congratulatory package. H.’s marketing director has 1348 public annotations over almost 6 years, its founder 1200 in a decade. Remi Kalir, co-author of the (readworthy!) Annotation book, has 800 in six years. That does not seem that much from what I would expect to be power users. My blogging friend Heinz has some 750 annotations in three years. Fellow IndieWeb netizen Maya some 1800 in a year and a half. Those last two numbers, even if they differ by a factor 5 or so in average annotations/month, feel like what I’d expect as a regular range for routine users.
  2. The book Annotation I mentioned makes a lot of social annotation, where distributed conversations result beyond the core interaction of an annotator with an author through an original text. Such social annotation requires sharing. H. provides that sharing functionality and positions itself explicitly as a social tool ("Annotate the web, with anyone, anywhere" "Engage your students with social annotation"). The numbers above show that such social interaction around an annotated text within h. will be very rare in the public facing part of h., in the closed (safer) surroundings of classroom use interaction might be much more prominent. Users like me, or Heinz, Maya and Chris whom I named/linked above, will then be motivated by something else than the social aspects of h. If and when such interaction does happen (as it tends to do if you mutually follow eachothers annotations) it is a pleasant addition, not h.’s central benefit.
  3. What is odd to me is that when you do indeed engage into social interaction on h., that interaction cannot be found through the web interface of my annotations. Once I comment, it disappears out of sight, unless I remember what I reacted to and go back to that annotation by another user directly, to find my comment underneath. It does show up in the RSS feed of my annotations, and my Hypothes.is-to-Obsidian plugin also captures them through the API. Just not in the web interface.
  4. Despite the social nature of h., discovery is very difficult. Purposefully ‘finding the others’ is mostly impossible. This is both an effect of the web-interface functionality, as well as I suspect because of the relatively sparse network of users (see observation 1). There’s no direct way of connecting or searching for users. The social object is the annotation, and you need to find others only through annotations you encounter. I’ve searched for tags and terms I am interested in, but those do not surface regular users easily. I’ve collated a list of a dozen currently active or somewhat active annotators, and half a dozen who used to be or are sporadically active. I also added annotations of my own blogposts to my blog, and I actively follow (through an RSS feed) any new annotation of my blogposts. If you use h., I’d be interested to hear about it.
  5. Annotations are the first step of getting useful insights into my notes. This makes it a prerequisite to be able to capture annotations in my note making tool Obsidian, otherwise Hypothes.is is just another silo you’re wasting time on. Luckily h. isn’t meant as a silo and has an API. Using the API and the Hypothes.is-to-Obsidian plugin all my annotations are available to me locally. However, what I do locally with those notes does not get reflected back to h., meaning that you can’t really work through annotations locally until you’ve annotated an entire article or paper in the browser, otherwise sync issues may occur. I also find that having the individual annotations (including the annotated text, in one file), not the full text (the stuff I didn’t annotate), feels impractical at times as it cuts away a lot of context. It’s easily retrievable by visiting the url now, but maybe not over time (so I save web archive links too as an annotation). I also grab a local markdown copy of full articles if they are of higher interest to me. Using h. in the browser creates another inbox in this regard (having to return to a thing to finish annotation or for context), and I obviously don’t need more inboxes to keep track of.
  6. In response to not saving entire articles in my notes environment, I have started marking online articles I haven’t annotated yet at least with a note that contains the motivation and first associations I normally save with a full article. This is in the same spot as where I add a web archive link, as page note. I’ve tried that in recent days and that seems to work well. That way I do have a general note in my local system that contains the motivation for looking in more detail at an article.
  7. The API also supports sending annotations and updates to h. from e.g. my local system. Would this be potentially better for my workflow? Firefox and the h. add-on don’t always work flawlessly, not all docs can be opened, or the form stops working until I restart Firefox. This too points in the direction of annotating locally and sending annotations to h. for sharing through the API. Is there anyone already doing this? Built their own client, or using h. ‘headless’? Is there anyone who runs their own h. instance locally? If I could send things through the API, that might also include the Kindle highlights I pull in to my local system.
  8. In the same category of integrating h. into my pkm workflows, falls the interaction between h. and Zotero, especially now that Zotero has its own storage of annotations of PDFs in my library. It might be of interest to be able to share those annotations, for a more complete overview of what I’m annotating. Either directly from Zotero, or by way of my notes in Obsidian (Zotero annotatins end up there in the end)
  9. These first 100 annotations I made in the browser, using an add-on. Annotating in the browser takes some getting used to, as I try to get myself out of my browser more usually. I don’t always fully realise I can return to an article for later annotation. Any time the sense I have to finish annotating an article surfaces, that is friction I can do without. Apart from that, it is a pleasant experience to annotate like this. And that pleasure is key to keep annotating. Being able to better integrate my h. use with Obsidian and Zotero would likely increase the pleasure of doing it.
  10. Another path of integration to think about is sharing annotated links from h. to my blog or the other way around. I blog links with a general annotation at times (example). These bloggable links I could grab from h. where I bookmark things in similar ways (example), usually to annotate further later on. I notice myself thinking I should do both, but unless I could do that simultaneously I won’t do such a thing twice.

By way of experiment I have added, where they exist, annotations of my postings to the posting itself. Such annotations are made in Hypothes.is an online annotations tool, with social features.

Hypothes.is uses the W3C standard for annotations, and the service has an API. That opens it up for experimentation. For instance there is a Obsidian plugin that pulls in my annotations and brings them to my notes.

I now experimentally use the API to check for annotations that exist for a single posting. If such annotations exist, a page with a single blogposting will mention the existence of annotations just above the comments, and provide a link to them. For this I adapted the template for single postings in my WordPress theme. See the image.


The number of annoations, if any, is shown beneath individual postings above the comments.

Like with comments this opens up a surface for people to interact with my blog and have that interaction made visible on my site. As with comments and trackbacks of old, this also opens up a possibility for spam, especially as there is no way yet for me to moderate such annotations to be shown, nor a way to prevent them in general.

Hypothes.is has existed for a decade and reached 2 million annotated articles early this year. It’s relatively unknown, and not commonly used. This at the moment should be enough ‘protection by obscurity’ for now. Maybe in time I will reconsider, there are valid reasons to do so.

Existing users of Hypothes.is don’t need a link like I added to my postings, they see that in their browser already (depicted below). However it may encourage other readers of this blog to check out those annotations and perhaps create their own.

In a next step I may aim to list the existing annotations, and their authors, not just link to them, but not immediately. First I’ll think some more about how I might use the Hypothes.is API for other things in my personal workflow.


A screenshot of how a logged-in Hypothes.is user in their browser sees a post on this site that has annotations.

In Annotation by Kalir and Garcia, the authors observe that several things we now see as integral to what a non-fiction book is were actually also emergent phenomena from annotation by readers. Things like labels, rubrics, glossary and index. Kalir and Garcia make much of the social aspects of annotation, and the conversations those create. I’m fond of things that generate (distributed) conversations, I blog after all, but also have reservations when it comes to sharing tentative notes, associations and other annotations.

There are steps possible however to do a little bit more in allowing others to explore what I’ve written here. And an Index is an easy enough step to make. Easy enough because I can follow the footsteps of Chris Aldrich and Frank Meeuwsen who did this last year September/October.

Like them I installed the Multi column tag map WordPress plugin. Now this blog too has an Index, which shows you the tags I’ve used the past 20 years. Or rather the tags I’ve used at least 5 times.

It’s also immediately a useful tool for myself it turns out. Some postings had all their tags joined into a single tag (an error from when I imported posts while switching from Movable Type to WordPress, a decade ago), other tags are simple variations of the same word (e.g. singular and plural). Fixing these is easy, now that the Index list has surfaced the ones that need fixing.

A photo of a book index, by Ben Weiner, license CC BY ND

I’ve been musing about the use and value of a shared annotation tool like Hypothes.is. Chris Aldrich kindly responded in detail on my earlier questions about Hypothes.is. Those questions, about silo-effects, performativity if the audience for annotations isn’t just me, and what group forming occurs, are I think the key issues in judging its use to me. Circumventing the silo, integration with my own internal workflows and preventing performativity so fragile explorative learning may take place are the key concerns, where the potential of interaction and group forming in stimulating learning are the value it may yield.

I don’t yet readily see how I can use hypothes.is for annotation, as I think it would largely mean a switch away from annotating locally to doing so in-browser or rather in Chrome which is less a browser and more an adtech delivery vehicle. In general the browser is not a helpful environment for me when it comes to making notes. I now close a browser tab after clipping a web text to markdown which I then annotate locally later.

A first useful step I do see is bringing how others annotate my postings back to my own notes. Currently there are 66 annotations on my blogposts, stretching back three and a half years (mostly by the same person). I should be able to pull those in periodically through Hypothes.is’ API, or from an RSS feed, and integrate them into my local notes or perhaps show them alongside my blogposts (maybe by generating WebMentions about them, as I did here manually). As I have stated often, blogging means having distributed conversations and if Hypothes.is is where some of those conversations originate it is worthwile to make them visible.

Bookmarked Web Annotation Data Model by World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)

I wasn’t aware of it, but there’s a W3C model for annotations (in JSON). It was mentioned in the book Annotation I’ve been reading in the past weeks. Not sure if this is something I have a use for, but it may be an interesting way to transform and share book notes on this site. It was suggested that Hypothes.is uses this model. There’s also a Hypothes.is API which suggests it might be possible to pull annotations from there, although I don’t suppose you could push them there as a way of publishing annotations.

The Web Annotation Data Model specification describes a structured model and format to enable annotations to be shared and reused across different hardware and software platforms. … The specification provides a specific JSON format for ease of creation and consumption of annotations based on the conceptual model …, and the vocabulary of terms that represents it. This specification was derived from the Open Annotation Community Group’s outcomes. … This document was published by the Web Annotation Working Group as a Recommendation

W3C

I’m taking the liberty to put three questions before Chris Aldrich about his Hypothes.is experiences, after reading Annotation by Remi Kalir and Antero Garcia. Kalir and Garcia make much of the social affordances that annotation can provide. Where annotation is not an individual activity, jotting down marginalia in solitude, but a dialogue between multiple annotators in the now, or incrementally adding to annotators from the past. Like my blogposts are an ongoing conversation with the world as well. Hypothes.is is one of the mentioned tools that make such social annotating possible. I am much more used to individually annotating (except for shared work documents), where my notes are my own and for my own learning. Yet, I follow Chris Aldrich’s use of Hypothes.is with interest, his RSS feed of annotations is highly interesting, so there’s a clear sign that there can be benefit in social annotation. In order to better understand Chris’s experience I have three questions:

1. How do you beat the silo?

Annotations are anchored to the annotated text. Yet in my own note making flow, I lift them away from the source text to my networked set of notions and notes in which emergent structures produce my personal learning. I do maintain a link to the right spot in the source text. Tools like Hypothes.is are designed as silos to ensure that its social features work. How do you get your annotations into the rest of your workflow for notes and learning? How do you prevent that your social annotation tool is yet another separate place where one keeps stuff, cutting off the connections to the rest of one’s work and learning that would make it valuable?

2. What influence does annotating with an audience have on how you annotate?

My annotations and notes generally are fragile things, tentative formulations, or shortened formulations that have meaning because of what they point to (in my network of notes and thoughts), not so much because of their wording. Likewise my notes and notions read differently than my blog posts. Because my blog posts have an audience, my notes/notions are half of the internal dialogue with myself. Were I to annotate in the knowledge that it would be public, I would write very differently, it would be more a performance, less probing forwards in my thoughts. I remember that publicly shared bookmarks with notes in Delicious already had that effect for me. Do you annotate differently in public view, self censoring or self editing?

3. Who are you annotating with?

Learning usually needs a certain degree of protection, a safe space. Groups can provide that, but public space often less so. In Hypothes.is who are you annotating with? Everybody? Specific groups of learners? Just yourself and one or two others? All of that, depending on the text you’re annotating? How granular is your control over the sharing with groups, so that you can choose your level of learning safety?

Not just Chris is invited to comment on these questions obviously. You’re all invited.


Opticks, with marginalia, image by Open Library, license CC BY