posted Oct 05, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Representing Integrity . (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)
Annotation Derivation Tree One: Annotations and Original Content fully independent
Annotation Derivation Tree Two: Annotations using Original Content as source material for a new annotated composite message

Reducing the equation down to the Receiver, the Original Content, and the Annotations (encapsulating the rest of the details), the question is which diagram more accurately captures the spirit of the situation.

Obviously, an annotation defender would claim the first diagram is more correct. The annotations are separate from the original content, at no time are they truly "mixed", and the receiver is just choosing to use a program that happens to allow them to view both the annotations and the annotation target at the same time. The final viewed page with the annotation content is not a "derivative message", it's just two things being displayed simultaneously.

This argument falls down in many ways, any one of which is fatal.

  1. The annotation program and the annotators have full control over the annotated web page. By the previous discussion about senders, that means the annotation provider is the sender of a combined communication, since the annotation vendor can unilaterally make changes to the original web page, and the original web page owner can do nothing about it. Therefore the annotations do constitute a change to the message and the original sender does have the power to object to that.
  2. Having two communications, and two senders, implies that the two communications are independent, in the sense that a change to one should not affect the other. But that is not true, in either direction. A change in the annotations appears as a difference on the original content. A change in the original content has the power to completely shift the context of the annotation comments, or, depending on the technical implementation, "orphan" the annotations (by removing the text the annotation is anchored to). The first figure completely fails to capture this fact, and as such is not the correct way of looking at things.
  3. Perhaps most damning of all, the diagram does not capture our intuition of what is taking place. The annotations are intimately related to the web page, or they wouldn't be annotations. Trying to understand them as separate is a disingenuous attempt to justify something that can't be justified. (Many annotation supporters find themselves straddling this fence: On the one side, they defend annotation as being independent and totally unrelated to the original content, and therefore not constituting a derivative product. On the other side, they promote annotation in the first place as a way of commenting directly on the original content, because the very attraction of annotation is that it is directly based on the original content. Consciously or unconsciously, they find themselves dancing between these two propositions.)

The reality is that the second figure is far more accurate.

Annotation as an "overlay" on top of content

The other major argument can be summed up as a diagram as above. Translated roughly into English, this is the "Annotation as overlay" argument; that an annotation is just an overlay placed on top of other webpages and as such does not truly affect them. The problem with this argument is that it is only true in the abstract. Without mixing in the original web page, the annotations, well, aren't annotation at all, they're just posts on a message board somewhere. This argument runs smack into the fact that all human-experienced messages must consist solely of concrete parts. The act of "overlaying" is not an ethically neutral act, it can damage the concrete message it is overlaying, and annotation (and other integrity attacks) require the overlaying in order to be annotations at all.

The root of this disconnect is that people making the "annotation as overlay" argument are implicitly defending their right to comment on things, and believe the annotations themselves are being attacked. This is not true; it is the act of overlaying that is being attacked. Your "annotations" are free to exist as message board postings on another site, or as commentary on television, or whatever other independent message you care to use to comment on my message, but as soon as you "concretize" this abstract overlay by using my content as the "...", you have stepped over the line and created a derivative of my original message, no matter how cleverly you try to use technology to obfuscate the act of creating the derivative product.


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