Playful Annotation in the Open: Part 3

This post is the third in an ongoing series about playfulness in open web annotation. Here’s Part 1 and Part 2. Hope you enjoy. – Remi

A central observation in my previous post about open web annotation was that through playful expression – such as a reader’s experimentation and sarcasm – it is possible for the practices of digital annotation to appropriate (con)texts. That is, through open annotation an attitude of playfulness can imbue a context not intended for play (like a graduate course or asynchronous online discussion) and also a text not intended for social annotation (such as a video or medical research). Moreover, such playful appropriation creates something new – a (con)text, or a liminal and hybrid space:

somewhere between social networking and academic inquiry, somewhere between close reading and distributed commentary, somewhere between content consumption and media(ted) production.

Since writing last week about two qualities of playful annotation (experimentation and sarcasm), I’ve had – and no surprise here – the pleasure of furthering my own learning about open annotation. I’ll begin by sharing two complementary perspectives on open annotation. I will then utilize these perspectives to share two additional qualities of playful annotation in the open that I have experienced as graduate learners in INTE 5320 Games and Learning annotate their course readings.

A Play on Appropriation

In describing open annotation I have made repeated reference to Miguel Sicart’s (2014) qualification of playful as an attitude that results in the appropriation of a context not intended for play. Sicart’s definition prompted this Hypothesis annotation from Enkerli, quoted in full:

My own (playful) pun, which I’ve been using for a while (long before this interview), is that appropriation is about making something our own and making it appropriate in a context. Was told (by an English teacher) that it wasn’t “what appropriation means”. Been prefacing it more since then. But it’s a way to distinguish the concept from the negatively-loaded “cultural appropriation” while keeping the same principles as drivers for a different kind of change. Been especially interested in technological appropriation, overall, and now in technopedagogical appropriation.

Enkerli’s playful pun seeks to (re)frame “something” – an action, someone’s speech, perhaps a comment in the margin –  descriptively; appropriate is now an adjective. Here, appropriate describes a “something” that is suitable and relevant within a given context. For example, Gene Kelly signing and dancing in the rain is behavior that not only appropriates a street at night (a context not designed for play), it is appropriate given his character Don’s experiences (falling in love with Debbie Reynolds’ character Kathy – “From where I stand, the sun is shining all over the place.”). Irrespective of the police officer’s condescension – his stern gaze brings this improvisational playfulness to an end – Kelly’s actions are (to him, and to us as viewers!) entirely appropriate.

Consider another aesthetic example, though one with a bit more bite. The street artist Banksy not only appropriates contexts (such as buildings, streets, and parks) with provocative visual commentary, the content of this art further underscores a subliminal argument – it is appropriate, perhaps even necessary, to reimagine the Queen, or to resist occupation, or to reconsider where (and how) dreams come true.

In contrast to stereotypes of play as superfluous and inconsequential, Enkerli reminds us that playful activity – like open annotation – can appropriate (con)texts, and that in doing so such activity may be entirely appropriate (if not imperative) across those (con)texts.

Annotation as Social Reading

In the past week I have also seen open (that is, web and/or digital) annotation referred to – and on multiple occasions – as social reading. First, my friend and colleague Noah Geisel referred me to his blog post about Authentic Student Collaboration Through Social Reading. Noah’s post reviews three annotation platforms (Subtext, Ponder, and Genius), with a bent toward pedagogical affordances for K-12 classroom teachers. Preferring the term uptexting to social reading, Noah concludes:

all of three of these tools (and others that surely exist or soon will) offer teachers and students a valuable communication device to share with parents, colleges and employers. Student’s annotations can be displayed as a part of their portfolios, serving as powerful artifacts that are the evidence of a child’s learning.

And earlier today, Mia Zamora wrote for DML Central about Reading as a Social Act. As I have done with this blog, Mia highlighted the open annotation platform Hypothesis and noted the ease with which Hypothesis “invites communities of readers into an extended (and asynchronous) close reading conversation.” Whereas Noah discusses the specifics of pedagogy, Mia attends to the political implications of open annotation-as-social reading. As she observes in her conclusion:

A collaborative reading environment seems to me a fair foundation for dynamic and thoughtful interaction, which, in turn, holds the potential to mirror the kind of rich and complex dialogue we aspire to in a working democracy.

Two Additional Qualities of Playful Annotation

So what happens if we mash together Enkerli’s playful pun with Mia and Noah’s concern for social reading? And how do these perspectives help to identify – and explain – additional qualities of playful annotation? If open annotation appropriates (con)texts, then certain annotation qualities, like sarcasm and experimentation, are not only appropriate, they are socially acceptable among a given community of practice.  I’ll now discuss two additional and socially acceptable qualities of playful annotation that I have seen appropriate – and emerge across – (con)texts associated with the teaching and learning activities of INTE 5320.

1. Uncertainty

Open annotation appropriates (con)texts through uncertainty. It can be terrifying to publicly acknowledge uncertainty or ignorance – and whether for kindergarteners, graduate learners, or educators (including professors!). In the too-frequently sanitized forums that pass for the trappings of interactive online discussion, learners rarely – if ever – admit to public not-knowing. Because so many online discussions rely upon a question-and-answer-with-evidence format, a recognition to one’s learning community of confusion is an admission of defeat. “Go ahead,” such a response would read, “Subtract this week’s points.” And what a wasted opportunity. Why not learn more about people who are learning? Why not grapple with emergent not-knowing? Why not embrace ambiguity and curiosity?

And yet uncertainly can – and does – emerge as a distinctive quality of open annotation. The last INTE 5320 cycle examined two topics related to games and learning – GamerGate and neuroscience. Having previously shared examples of sarcastic and experimental annotation atop GamerGate texts, I’ll highlight an example of uncertainly associated with Bevelier and colleagues’ (2012) lauded article “Brain plasticity through the life span: Learning to learn and action video games.” In a passage that explains the elements and demands of a player first acquiring and then adapting her “neural architecture” to successfully play a game (like soccer), two INTE 5320 learners – bjauw and Hoffmaca – voice their uncertainty about “representations that are invariant to irrelevant internal limb motions.” Yes, it is a wordy – and confusing – passage:


bjauw begins by offering a “translation,” suggesting this means a player is learning how others are moving during game play. And then bjauw qualifies – in parentheses, as if distancing and yet still owning – the contribution: “I think… I might be wrong on this one.” This public uncertainty elicits Hoffmaca’s response, equal parts interpretation and skepticism: “I’m not really clear on the ‘internal’ part. Otherwise, I’d just say that they’re cutting out some of the ‘noise’ with mental models, yes?” Rarely have I seen such close reading as candid confusion shared in the threaded discussion forums of an LMS.

Hoffmaca and bjauw’s social reading – their conversation with one another, with Bevelier and colleagues, and publicly before their peers – interjects uncertainty as an appropriate response to the playful appropriation of (con)texts.

2. Honesty

Open annotation also appropriates (con)texts through honesty. Annotations have – at times and under certain circumstances – expressed candor atypical of more prescriptive (online/asynchronous) course discussion. I wonder if the honesty present in playful annotation reflects the fact that I am not formally assessing learners’ annotation. As I have previously written in response to questions about assessment:

…no, I have not mandated a quantitative frequency for annotation – whether of a given text, or throughout a two-week reading cycle. And no, I did not create an a priori rubric to assess either a single annotation, or a reader’s annotation practice… And no, I had little expectation about the emergent semiotic qualities of annotation.

Maybe it is this lack of summative assessment that motivates, in part, instances of honesty in open annotation. Or maybe not. Whatever the case may be, I appreciate those moments when honest commentary serves as both annotation means and end. One example appeared as a complement to our reading of Ian Bogost’s article Gamification is Bullshit. In response to Bogost’s claim that “gamification is reassuring,” LisaDise and SusannahSimmons participated in a conversation about the connections among gamification, faculty professional development, and digital badges. Here’s the exchange, also pictured below:


To summarize, LisaDise is discouraged by social and technical limitations associated with the use of digital badges in faculty professional development activities that she helps to facilitate. SusannahSimmons’ question – “Do you think the faulty sees the badges as meaningful?” – identifies core concerns with gamification, like internal versus external motivation, the role of rewards, and whether meaning-making is possible or even valued through such learning. The forthright question elicits a revealing response from LisaDise: “Honestly? I don’t think they care.” This exchange utilizes honest questioning and assessment to appropriate the (con)texts of:

  • Course annotation-as-discussion, given SusannahSimmons’ role as the annotation facilitator;
  • Gamification, as the text content and a familiar (and critiqued) strategy; and
  • Faculty professional development as the site of LisaDise’s professional practice (and a context not intended for play).

I hope this observation of honesty is not misrepresented as conveying naïveté about the role and prevalence of honest conversation in learning – whether in a classroom, online, as guided by various pedagogies, and as critical to many fields of study. Rather, I am pleasantly surprised that open annotation as social reading so seamlessly affords honest expression as acceptable.

And so I’ll leave it there, at least for now. Open annotation, as a form of social reading, can be playful. As playful learning, open annotation appropriates (con)texts not designed for play – whether neuroscience research, GamerGate media, or faculty professional development. And various socially acceptable qualities describe such playful annotation in the open – including sarcasm, experimentation, uncertainty, and honesty.



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