How annotations are changing the way we interact with content

Annotations Image by Karl Steel FlickrFor as long as written word has existed, people have been annotating it. It’s how we instinctively collaborate with each other, share our thoughts and add meaning to existing content on a page.

A thousand years before the internet, rabbis used annotations to break down ancient teachings in the Talmud. Early newspapers were printed with wide margins and extra pages, so readers could add their own thoughts before passing the paper to others. Modern university students circle, highlight and scribble in rented textbooks, taking advice and study tips from the borrowers before them.

As written media has evolved throughout history, so have the annotations alongside it. As brands and media companies are beginning to offer this kind of content interaction to their users online, annotations are primed to fundamentally change the way we experience digital content.

Comments have long been a challenge for brands and media companies, many of whom have struggled against hateful or irrelevant comments that disrupt otherwise meaningful conversations. In the last six months, The Huffington Post has banned anonymous comments in an attempt to prevent trolling and several others have (reluctantly) sacrificed comments altogether.

In the midst of this saga, brands and media companies are beginning to turn to annotated comments, and the early adopters are seeing great success. In April, Livefyre (my company) launched Sidenotes, the first widely available web annotation technology, to a group of brands and publishers who agreed to beta test the product. And while still in early stages, web annotation is set to enhance collaboration for brands and show promising results:

More focused conversations: By allowing readers to engage directly with any piece of content on a page—whether it’s a quote, an image, a timestamp in a video—annotated comments inspire more focused conversations around that specific content. Research on the topic also shows that having access to annotations as we read promotes critical reading, which results in more thoughtful conversations.

Increased engagement: Annotations make content more digestible, opening new doors for engagement. Instead of interacting with just one comment stream for the entire piece of content, readers can choose precisely which moments to interact with. And while some readers may still prefer the generality of a traditional comments stream, several of our beta customers believe annotations welcome an entirely new facet of commenters who hadn’t previously pushed past the barrier to comment on an entire page.

Deeper connections with readers: Annotations can also be used by journalists, bloggers and community managers to make content itself more interactive. Journalists can use them to break down political speeches, analyse news stories, or answer reader questions. Musicians can annotate their lyrics to share insights on hidden meanings and give fans a unique opportunity to connect with their favourite artists.

Beyond improving conversations, annotations can bring new insights to content creators, who can use that information to develop more compelling content. Sam Kirkland at Poynter predicted that annotated comments could serve as real-time analytics for some sites, showing in which parts of an article get the most attention at any given moment. That knowledge could then be used to create pull quotes based on popular passages or recognise particularly shareable quotes to draw more readers to the site.

Because annotations allow readers to physically engage with the content on such a granular level, they’re no longer just talking about it—they’re becoming a part of it. Annotation, at its core, has always been about knowledge-sharing. From the jokes and notes in textbooks to the ‘popular highlights’ in Kindle eBooks, they make reading a more social experience. As annotated comments become available for the first time across the web, they’re setting a new paradigm for how we share and discover content, adding a layer of collaboration that we’ve never experienced before.

Jordan Kretchmer is founder and chief executive of Livefyre