Study Stickies – Some Thoughts on Effective “Web 2.0” Annotation Systems

Amir Michail, the developer of a new service called Study Stickies, wrote an email asking me to look at and comment on his new service. Study Stickies is a ‘social’ note taking service for students. It allows them to enter info about textbooks, vodcasts, podcasts, PDFs and URLs and add study notes, linked to specific sections of these resources, which can also be tagged for finding and re-finding by others. It also seems to handle mathematical notations with ease.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea; indeed it reminded me of the “conversations” I’ve had with previous owners of second hand textbooks, evoked by their marginalia.

My issue, and what feels like it may be a challenge to adoption for a service like this, is around “where” the annotation takes place, “how” it occurs, both of which tie into the “why.” For instance, to annotate a textbook one needs to first enter in it’s ISBN number. But we already have a few places where students can find their textbooks online, either their library catalogues or A “web 2.0” approach, that took seriously the value in leveraging existing services, would either offer a way (say a bookmarklet) for users to cite the thing they are commenting on *in context*, or, say like LibraryThing, at least tie into the APIs of Google and library catalogues everywhere to offer a query service. This is the kind of thing I often hear dismissed as an “implementation detail” (god how I hate that phrase) but it’s one of those small things that has lead to the uptake of countless web 2.0 sites that ‘get it’ and which is not done in countless web 1.0 sites that don’t. This is the “how” I refer to above.

The second piece is the “where” – the annotation systems that really excite me, for this is in essence what Study Stickies is, are the ones, like Trailfire, that reveal the annotations in context, while I am looking at the very thing that is annotated, especially for the “re-finders.” Think back to my above comment about marginalia in second hand books; this is how the experience should work like, instead of like finding someone’s notebook from last year’s class and then piece by piece connecting it back to the pieces of content on which it is commenting.

And both of these minor “implementation details” for me tie into the “why” people do (or do not) use services like this. If it allows me to easily add a note, while I am studying materials online, then I am motivated to use it for my own uses, and the network benefits from my personally motivated actions. People often point to “tags” as being the fundamental reason for success, but I would argue that the bookmarklets and toolbars that allow you to easily add to it were equally part of its success. And if, while looking at a resource, I am told that there are already notes from others which may be of relevance to me, I become motivated, again for selfish reasons, to take advantage of the network resource and increase its value.

Maybe these issues are not fatal flaws for Study Stickies. I can see ways in which they can address these as they move forward, and clearly it is a very young system. But I’d suggest that small “implementation details” like this are actually some of the things that lead to explosive growth for many of these new systems.

Yet there is an important thing Study Stickies has which the more “internet-wide” systems don’t, and that’s context. When you find an annotation in Study Stickies, by definition it’s a “study note,” something that a user in a likely not-too-dissimilar context to your own made, which offers a good chance of enhancing its value to you. In an internet-wide system like Trailfire, who knows who made the mark and whether it has any value to you. Sure, sometimes they’ll bear serendipity, but as many times, not, and worse, things that by right and by law we are often required to shield out. Or else, what is now more common with the current generation of social software systems, you can form a group, but its yet another ad hoc group built anew with each app that comes along.


I have been trying for almost a week to finish this post. I wanted to talk about the critical need for not just open identification but, as importantly, open authorization. How their absence has allowed things like the Blackboard patent to flourish (read it, what do you think it’s about). And how these will provide the impetus for the next huge round of innovation, truely, social computing. But I couldn’t figure out how to do it in the time I have. So there. Rather than let this post go totally stale, click ‘Publish’ and be done with it. – SWL

5 thoughts on “Study Stickies – Some Thoughts on Effective “Web 2.0” Annotation Systems”

  1. Hi Michael, actually I’m pretty comfortable saying 1000% no, that’s not what I’m talking about, interesting as it may be for Moodle adopters.

  2. “Open authorisation” is a term I haven’t heard before (though maybe I just haven’t been reading in the right areas!). I’ve done a quick search on it and haven’t come up with any set definitions so far…

    It does sound very much like “trust users from specified trusted networks”. I can see the benefit for my group in being able to set our system, or certain courses on it, to automatically allow users from partner universities to have access. However, having seen your comment that Moodle Network is not what you mean, I guess you had something else in mind.

    Can you elaborate a bit more on what you mean by this phrase, and how it differs simply from open access?

  3. Bec, the comment in regards to Moodle networks was perhaps too strong; Moodle Networks does actually start to do this, but it’s focused on doing it between Moodle installations. That’s not a slight to it, what else would it focus on?, but what I’m more interested is the emergence of standards based approaches like SAML or less formal approaches that would allow us to leverage our existing social networks in new apps. Maybe this is crazy talk, but it seems conceivable that a social network like Facebook or Explode (which already kind of does this) could offer OpenIDs for each its users, along with an API which would allow other apps let you assert “show me only the contributions by people in my Explode network.” Calling this “authorization” might go too far, but it strikes me as potentially far-reaching if we can start to do this. Anyways, I fear my thinking on this is much too fuzzy-headed, which is why I bailed at the end of this post in the first place. I am supposed to do a talk on this in November so I guess I better start getting my thoughts in order.

Comments are closed.