Annotation in the Open: Part 3

This is an open letter to my amazing graduate learners in INTE 5320: Games and Learning. My letter is motivated by recent debate about open annotation, free speech, abuse and harassment, and the challenges of expression and interaction in a networked and open web. As background, blog readers and/or graduate learners are encouraged to also read these articles – and the accompanying Hypothesis annotations – here, here, here, and here. – Remi

To INTE 5320 Games and Learning,

It has been nearly three months since we began playing in the open with our annotation of course texts. What began as a means of facilitating annotation-as-discussion in the margins of our readings has – and perhaps not surprisingly – transformed into a more complex social practice. Our use of Hypothesis has now spread beyond what was originally intended as a replacement for LMS-based (and closed) threaded discussion. We’re becoming playful in our use of annotation. We’ve paired annotation with Twitter to engage the authors of our texts (a special shoutout to Ian Bogost!). We’re also layering annotation atop our blogs as a means of feedback and continued conversation (examples here and here). And – especially in the past week – we’ve begun following and joining conversations about the impact and importance of open web annotation:

And it is that ongoing conversation – or, more accurately, a set of conversations – that I’d like to reference and extend for the purpose of our collective learning. This is, after all, quite the teachable moment. Yet teachable about what?

Hypothesis founder Dan Whaley wrote recently about a need to:

rethink how the technology we are building can be used not only to discuss and enlighten, but also to harass and abuse. Here’s the heart of the matter: most web annotation systems, ours included, don’t currently provide adequate tools to prevent abuse.

I became aware of various conversations – and concerns – at the intersection of open annotation, free speech, and abuse early last week. Here are some brilliant people (and familiar faces, thanks for reaching out!) who first invited me into this debate:

I’m neither a lawyer nor an ethicist, and sometimes conversation about free speech and harassment can quickly become abstracted beyond recognition. But that’s not the case here. The scenario on the tip of everyone’s tongue can be summarized along these lines:

I set up a blog, probably for free, and on a platform that gives me a lot of choice with limited hassle in return (like this blog, on WordPress). It’s my blog, where I write and share important thoughts about my life. [And, thanks Jon Udell, a blog is also this, too.] And based upon what I write, I chose to moderate and approve comments so that any ensuing conversation via commentary is appropriate and not hateful. All of sudden I learn that I have no control over what anyone writes atop my blog because of tools like Genius and Hypothesis. Why can’t I moderate those annotations? Can I opt-in or opt-out? And what happens when I write something very personal on my blog and then someone else comes along and spews hatful, sexist, racist, or abusive garbage using one of these annotation platforms? To whom do I turn in that case, the company or organization that created the platform? And does that group have a policy in place for me to report – or challenge – abusive annotation? Even though I can chose to “turn off” the annotation platform and not see such abuse, the annotations are still there as an invisible layer – can the annotations be permanently deleted?

These are challenging and necessary questions for the developers of any open annotation platform (Genius, Hypothesis, others) to hear and consider. And, as noted, the good folks at Hypothesis are taking careful next steps to prevent abuse:

At this point – especially as as a graduate learner in INTE 5320 – you may be asking yourself: Given this conflict, why would Remi advocate the use of open web annotation in our learning this semester? Here’s the teachable moment – my brief rationale, followed by a set of questions that I hope we consider as a learning community.

First, our Information and Learning Technologies (ILT) graduate program prides itself on a core set of values and associated practices. Among them, we seek to position our learners as active producers of knowledge through the creative use of tools, platforms, and media. We also advocate engagement with real world challenges that are pertinent to professional problems of practice. Whether you’re an instructional designer or a middle school mathematics teacher, our courses provide theoretical perspective and practical strategy applicable to your real world needs and curiosities. And our program – because we’re housed in CU Denver’s School of Education and Human Development – embraces a strong stance toward issues of social justice and equity. In this respect, it is the responsibility of every ILT instructor to address injustice, power, and privilege through our study and use of learning technologies. For example, INTE 5320 began by foregrounding equity (i.e. access, participation, expression) during Cycle 1, engaged directly with the misogyny and sexism of Gamer Gate during Cycle 4, and now concludes (in Cycles 5 and 6) with an emphasis on educators as designers – an expression of agency contrary to the often disempowering position that constrains many K-12 and higher education practitioners. In sum, experimentation, relevance, and equity are core principles that we practice.

It is this rationale – this orientation to the co-design and shared facilitation of a graduate course – that prompted the prominent inclusion of open web annotation as one of our shared practices. While any tool has the potential to be used abusively or for abuse (open annotation, Twitter, the internet, a billboard, a blimp, the Manhattan Project’s reactors), so too do many tools allow those with less privilege to speak truth to power, to question official knowledge, to respectfully dissent without retribution. And, in this respect, open web annotation has the potential to serve as a transformative tool in our INTE 5320 repertoire. You can share curiosity with – and speak your inquisitive and critical truth to – both reading authors and to me. You can react (more) honestly, a bit more “openly” in the open. And you can turn the margins – literally of a given text, and more conceptually of our entire course – into a playground where my power as a professor is de-centered; I’m less the police, more a participant.

I’ll conclude my open letter with a few questions that I hope will guide a very necessary and productive struggle with our tools, practices, and (divergent) orientations to annotation in the open:

  • How would you respond to someone layering abusive annotation atop your blog?
  • What recommendations do you have for platforms like Genius and Hypothesis to manage (the potential for) abuse? Are there technical solutions you would like to see developed and enacted?
  • As we use Hypothesis this semester, what are the benefits – and the limitations – of serving as an early(ish) adopter?
  • How is your learning enhanced – and also complicated – when debate about social and technical dilemmas become part and parcel of our shared experience?

Thanks INTE 5320, I appreciate your willingness to play along with consequential tools and ideas, and I look forward to your responses, concerns, and questions. Take care – RH




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