Annotations for articles are great – except when they’re not

August 13, 2013 (updated on April 16, 2014)

Below the line comments are finally being challenged as the default format for reader contributions on news sites. Per paragraph annotations as seen on Medium and Quartz have recently gained some traction (Update April 2014: Lifefyre is introducing annotations, as well). They are, rightly so, praised as a more intuitive and inclusive way to comment on a subject matter.

However, annotations won’t work for all kinds of contributions, just like comments at the end of an article didn’t.

The simple and hard truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Let’s have a look at the spectrum of possible user contributions and what format might fit each of them.

This is not meant to provide a solution – I wish I had one. It’s meant to smash the notion that annotations are the new best practice for comments and to spark a conversation about where we can take user contributions. It’s a wicked problem worth solving, so let’s try this together.

Motivation for contribution: Citation needed!

Possible solution: Mark and flag the part that needs to be supported by a link, pretty much like on Wikipedia. Disappears once the link is added.

Hey, this fact seems wrong, double-check it!

Mark and flag the part that you feel needs be checked. The more people challenge a passage, the more it fades out. The author of the piece can dismiss the challenges or change the passage.

I’ve got some more facts on this

Per paragraph annotation, either public or only visible to the author of the piece.

I don’t understand this

One-click per paragraph annotation, giving the author a heatmap of the parts of his article people understand the least.

Here’s some further reading on the subject matter

Per paragraph annotation or a separate Wiki-style list of further reading (Medium already has this feature)

I’ve got insider information to share on this subject matter

Option to privately and securely contact author of the piece.

I’ve got additional material on the subject matter

Could be an «article inbox» to which users could send material, either to be displayed right away or only for the author’s eyes.

There’s a typo, fix it!

User fixes it, sends a Github-like pull request to have the edit accepted. These requests could go directly to the correction department for review.

I want to express my opinion about this part

Per paragraph annotation, maybe enhanced with sentiment data (agree, neutral, disagree).

I want to express my opinion about the whole piece

Traditional comments, enhanced with sentiment data (agree, neutral, disagree) and user related data (age, political views, profession, etc.). Maybe with Quora-like limitation: one comment per person.

I disagree with the whole piece and want to write a reposte

Same as above, plus: Submit your comment for reposte.

I want to discuss the matter with other readers of the piece

Open a thread and own it (the Gawker-model). Other option: Realtime chat of people who are on the same page, fleeting, not recorded (like Husky Chat).

I want to discuss the matter with people who I actually like to discuss with

Open a thread that is only visible to people you invite or who are in a predefined group with you (similar to Facebook Groups).

I just want to reach the public (and troll)

Whatever your intentions, this motivation will be one of the most dominant ones. Limit number of contributions a user can post based on their track record.

I have an idea for a follow up piece on this

Again, «article inbox» to which users could send their ideas, either to be displayed right away or only for the author’s eyes.

I’m a person addressed in the piece and want to engage in the conversation

Verify users and display their contributions, of whatever type they may be, more prominently in the piece they are addressed in.

I have a question

Separate list of questions to the author, which he can answer inline or with a new story.


You see, this is a pretty big mess. Which is my point.

The big challenge, of course, is to find a mix of tools and interface elements meet most of these diverse needs, without making things so difficult that nobody likes to contribute any longer.

One way to think about this is enabling only certain ways to contribute, based on what kind of piece it is or who the user is (as in: you need to earn a «reputation» to be granted access to certain tools).

You could also, on the other end, allow readers to define what kind of contributions they are interested in and let them hide the other types.

Again, don’t take this list as a blueprint. It’s a conversation starter. Let me know what you think (and, yes, sorry for the limited commenting options…)!

Hello, nice to meet you. I'm David Bauer. I’m a journalist by training, a product person by conviction, and a generalist at heart. I love complex issues and helping people navigate them. Learn more →

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