The web has spread a lot of knowledge, but also helped propagate a lot of untruth. From Sarah Palin’s "death panels," to bogus science linking vaccines to autism, the democratization of information, while a fine idea, hasn’t always furthered understanding. Sometimes, it’s simply given license to liars, bullshitters, and worse.
Of course, there are controls. Sites freeze out spammers and trolls, moderate discussion, and have voting systems that bring more useful remarks to the top. But comment sections are not ideal. There’s a lot of verbiage to wade through. It’s not contextual. And, you never really know if a commenter is an honest broker, or in the pay of some company or interest group (yes, people do write shit for money). More fundamentally, the conversation increasingly doesn’t belong to us, if it ever did. That comment on Facebook is just another opportunity for the ad sales team.
To give truth more chance, an ambitious start-up named Hypothes.is wants to add a new layer to the web—one that’s not owned by anybody, but is open-source, and part of the commons. Call it the "annotation layer," or "crowd-sourced peer-review." Essentially, it is annotation capability that brings the information-validation of Wikipedia to everything that’s not Wikipedia.
"It’s infrastructure for the analysis of information," says founder Dan Whaley. That could be just fixing a spelling error, or having 1,000 experts go line by line through the healthcare bill, or financial filings. Using reputation-modeling that privileges people who actually know about stuff, the system creates information trails, showing what research or news preceded the text in question, and what other work it led to afterwards. "This is collaborative research that blurs the line between pre- and post-publication," he says.
Whaley wants Hypothes.is to be available in several forms, including as a browser plug-in (download an early version here) and an API that’s open to third-party developers. Crucially, though, nobody will own it. Sites won’t need to enable the technology; it will be part of the open toolkit of the net itself.
The idea of a conversation "around the web" has a long history, as Whaley admits. The creators of the first browser imagined annotation capability, but ditched the idea when they realized how much server capacity they would need to facilitate it. Since then, the likes of Third Voice and Fleck have wanted to do similar things. Whaley doesn’t see such projects as reason for pessimism, but rather as evidence of need. "The fact that it’s such a persistent pursuit of so many people for so long is testament to how important it is that we find a way to make it happen," he says.
And those ex-ventures can be instructive. Before starting Hypothes.is, he spoke with many people involved, learning about mistakes to avoid. Poor user interfaces, a lack of reputation management, that the companies were for-profit—all either invalidated, or made those ventures less attractive, he says.
Whaley isn’t against making money. In the late-'90s, he made a fortune from GetThere, an early travel reservation tool that went public, before being acquired by Sabre for $757 million. He just thinks that something standards-based, rather than owned by one entity, has a better chance of success. "For something like this, you need a little more Wikipedia and Mozilla, and a little less Facebook and Google."