The challenge of adding context to content

There are scores of IT industry executives who wouldn’t dare speak to me, or any other journalist, without a public relations person in the room. Most of the time these people take notes quietly alongside their client, but an irritating few can’t resist piping in. “What I think so-and-so meant to say was that we think sales are going to be really strong,” they might add, for example, after a VP of operations has given a more ambiguous answer to my question. These kinds of people are going to love Google’s latest content strategy.

A new feature on the search engine’s news aggregator will allow those who are involved in a story to add their own comments to the articles. So, if you were quoted in a story and felt the media got it wrong (as we often do), you’d have a chance to set the record straight. Of course there’s no reason you couldn’t do the same thing through a letter to the editor or through the comments area on most media Web sites, but Google News obviously has much farther reach. And Google has also stipulated that, even though it scrapes content from other sites, the comments on the news stories users post cannot be scraped by third parties.

This is not a media story. It’s an IT story, because it is a sign of what will soon become the preoccupation of technology professionals everywhere. We used to refer to this as the information age, but that’s no longer appropriate. This is the annotation age, where data can not only be manipulated electronically but substantially edited or added to. This doesn’t just create more content, it creates more context. In the early parts of this decade a lot of us were talking about being overwhelmed by the amount of information. Eventually we’ll winnow down our choices of information to selected, proven sources, but we’re still likely to be overwhelmed by the context around those sources.

The dawn of the annotation age did not begin with Google News, obviously, but with blogs, wikis and other social networking tools. It presents challenges not simply because user-generated information is so hard to control but because computing systems are increasingly being designed to figure out what kind of information is important to a user. Annotations are, by definition, extra bits of information. Sometimes they help. Often they can be ignored. Developing applications capable of sifting through this will be no small feat, but a necessary one because we’re not going to have time to pay attention to all the marginalia surrounding our content. In fact, as businesses we will run the risk of becoming so distracted by what’s going on in the margins that we miss out on what a piece of content can teach us or help us to do.

In the information age, one of the key issues has been censorship. Although it won’t totally go away, it’s getting harder to silence those in cyberspace. The annotation age will be more concerned with access – who gets kicked off Wikipedia, for example, or what kind of walled gardens the likes of Google choose to erect. The other key issue will be version control. The more content is annotated, the harder it becomes to recognize its original state. We’re still struggling to set up systems in the enterprise today that tell a “single version of the truth.” The annotation age will prove that no single version exists, and that it’s a case of tracking the ones you’ve chosen to trust.

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