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