The irony of Hypothes.is's EdTech pivot

What is Hypothes.is?

Hypothes.is is a platform and tool for annotating any web page. Such a tool has great potential to realize a key missing and long-envisioned functionality of the web: open collaborative annotation.

I have used Hypothes.is for 3–4 years – not as a research or knowledge management tool, but to allow comments on technical documents in HTML format, similar to a shared Google Doc in comments-only mode. While Hypothes.is met many of my core needs for live collaborative annotation, I have not seen any serious progress on desperately needed features, like access controls (annotations are public by default), in years.

Hypothes.is pivoted to EdTech

Sadly, Hypothes.is has basically pivoted completely towards being a software for educational institutions (LMS/classroom software) and stopped working on the many essential missing features for individuals. (I guess there was no money to be made from it.)

This seems to have started around late 2018, with a more overt pivot in early 2020. Browse their issue trackers, e.g. [1] [2], to see that they’re not even interested in open-source contributions to fix years-old issues.

I almost want to recommend it to more people in the hope of getting important old issues bumped and getting Hypothes.is to maybe consider individual annotators’ priorities, but then you’d probably just be as disappointed as me. I have stopped trusting the product to continue meet my needs in the future.

The irony: Hypothes.is now endorses a traditional worldview

Learning and annotation are not, and should not be, monopolized by traditional educational institutions. This is especially true now due to the democratizing promise of the Internet era. But by pivoting away from general-purpose annotation software (which the world badly needs, with misinformation rampant) and towards educational institutions only, Hypothes.is implicitly endorses, and bets its business model on, a worldview in which education is dependent on traditional institutions and not something that individuals may do independently.


Original source (I was cajoled to post my thoughts as a topic here):
https://discord.com/channels/727903265437777944/728175737479233568/744983811057516615
https://discord.com/channels/727903265437777944/728175737479233568/782361518539800626

A related discussion:

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First of all ! I really appreciate you for taking the effort to start a post :slight_smile: We are glad that our efforts paid off :wink:

Great summary of your thoughts regarding Hypothes.is . While they started with a visionary path , they seemed to have dwindled down to a legacy app that not many non-academics use currently .

I, for one, enjoy using #WorldBrain-Memex as the web annotation tool . They are slowly building up their features and are inclining towards social annotation and curation . Do give it a shot , i do know that you are very wary about trying out new apps :wink: . Still , worth a shot !

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Wow, I really appreciate your summary of your experience with it! I have been dipping my toe into annotation tools a bit recently and I do find the idea quite promising. But so far I haven’t been able to actually get myself to use one regularly. Part of that is being uncertain which one to “bet on”. It takes time to understand each option’s functionality and, perhaps more importantly, future potential and trajectory. I would argue, in fact, that the latter is both one of the most important and most difficult to understand aspects of software from a user perspective.

For example, imagine you are discovering Notion today. Hooray, this is so cool, it does all these things! You get excited and you put all your stuff into it. But those of us who have been following Notion for some time know that Notion has a questionable development history and might not be a good long-term bet as an “all knowledge in one place” tool. If Notion continues to have problems, you might run into a similar issue to what you’ve found with Hypothesis.is. What’s interesting though is that if it were easier to have a deep understanding of the context of the tool from the moment you discover it, you could be much more able to adequately compare it with other tools and weigh the benefits and risks of adopting it.

What you’ve done here is given everyone the gift of your experience to understand the context, and therefore consequences, of Hypothesis.is’ trajectory as a tool and a company. So thank you for that, you’ve saved me a lot of time. :grin:

Yes, I know this desire well. And as you probably also know, it seldom - if ever - actually helps. :slightly_frowning_face:

This is a really interesting point! And a compelling one for me. Have you tried to have any direct or out-in-public dialog with the developers and/or community around this apparent contradiction of their earlier espoused values/goals?

I have to say, while it can often be disappointing, it is hard for me to begrudge any for-profit company for pivoting to something that I can see is a more profitable approach. It is in the nature of business. And in this case I can certainly imagine that open and general knowledge annotation is not likely a profitable business (makes me curious how well the business model of #WorldBrain-Memex is working out and/or will work out in the future). Perhaps this suggests that a non-profit approach to these issues/ideas/tools is necessary for overall success, and frankly my immediate reaction to that thought is it seems a lot more comfortable and congruent to me to approach it that way. Do we really want a for-profit business being at the helm of what could ultimately become a truly precious volume of knowledge curated on their platform?

As discussed in that Hackernews thread, annotation is an idea that has been around and has been tried many times before and has simply never caught on. It could be because the technology or UI/UX hasn’t been developed yet to make it popular, or it could be that the fundamental idea itself, while valuable to a certain subset of people, does not have broad enough appeal. That said I do think the robust life of Wikipedia as a knowledge maintenance community demonstrates that there are enough such people to power valuable knowledge projects for humanity. The question then might be how to build a Wikipedia-like community around annotation instead of centralized knowledge…

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It should be mentioned that Hypothes.is is a basic implementation of the W3C Web Annotation Data Model specification, which is an open standard. It was only published a few years ago, so applications implementing the standard are just beginning to exist.

This is true. To be clear, I do not begrudge the company. I only lament that it is another promising tool I can no longer trust to meet my needs, and that our society does not offer a sufficient incentive to realize some of the web’s long-envisioned promises.

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I agree with the general notion of this post. It’s a bummer that Hypothes.is didn’t develop their consumer facing product further along. It was one of the early frustrations I had and reason why Memex added annotations.

I am in regular exchange with Dan Whaley and some of the former team and know about some of the background information on those product decisions.

The decision to add annotations either public or in groups was particular fateful and the subsequent technical debt they couldn’t easily reverse anymore AFAIK. And each annotation can only live in one context.
Huge bummer for the flexiblity of using this in real world scenarios where a note can be in many contexts, and the ability to collaborate privately with non-Hypothes.is users.

Their decision to Edtech may not be the best for the consumer and seems in the first sight as an endorsement of classic power systems, but I think it’s great that they take that place. Reason: It takes huge amount of funding and stamina to get those legacy systems with incredible amounts of knowledge hooked into an interoperable knowledge ecosystem (with the W3C Web Annotation Data Model) . I am glad they do that work, so we don’t have to. It’s a huge PITA to work with those legacy systems and organisations. They managed to get that funding from foundations that support more science and education segments.

Also, their technical progress to afford web and PDF annotation saved us 1-2 years of development work, and any other tool that wants to build annotations in an open-source way.

Do we really want a for-profit business being at the helm of what could ultimately become a truly precious volume of knowledge curated on their platform?

Generally speaking I think for-profits are more likely to succeed in getting things to the necessary scale. In non-profits people can not be incentivised to go the extra mile besides the passion motivation - and that is a big competitive disadvantage. Wikipedia I consider to be a one-hit wonder when it comes to creating such a community. Though many burn out and there are big power centres in the Wikipedia community. So its also not ideal. Btw Hypothes.is is a non-profit.

However, I think it’s not about for profit or non-profit overall what is behind this justified anxiety.
What I observe the problem is that most for profit companies have uncapped upside for investors, creating strong incentives for profit maximisation of the company, leading to exploitative behaviour like creating lock-ins, or monetising data without user consent. This also does put social responsibility in direct competition with investor’s expectations for making more profit.

I consider that the root, not if a company is for or non-profit. Although you do wanna make sure in some way that vital functions of an ecosystem are put gradually into the hands of trustworthy custodians - a non-profit organisation may be better suited in some cases.
You may wanna check out this post explaining how we raised money for building Memex with different principles. In short: The company can never be sold and investor upside is capped.

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Wow, thanks for a super insightful response!

This is a particularly interesting and valuable point, which I wouldn’t have considered otherwise. It makes a lot of sense, too.

I would generally agree as far as scale, but of course scale is not the only important measure (although it is a key aspect to consider). It sounds like you may have found a good “hybrid” model of sorts. I haven’t read the post you linked to, but will definitely do so soon and possibly update my reply further. I’m curious if the Firefox hybrid model has any relevance here too…