Will You Annotate? I Would Prefer Not To.

While I was reading Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, I have to say I definitely preferred reading the story on its own, without any annotations. I could simply focus on the story itself and my own reactions to it.

When I began to read the annotated versions, I found I often felt frustrated. Many of the annotations offered potential interpretations of the text, which made me feel as though I was being robbed of the chance to interpret the story in my own way. It also felt as though I was letting other people do all the thinking for me. Perhaps if I had waited for a longer period of time in between reading the story on my own and reading the annotated versions, this frustration would not have been as strong. Presumably I would have had more of a chance to process and really ponder the story if I had waited longer.

Another frustration was how distracting the annotations were. Some of the annotations were entirely frivolous– for example, one annotation of the word ‘luny’ was simply a .gif of Homer Simpson. Even when they were not frivolous, the annotations could still be overwhelming or distracting from the story. In general, I found almost all annotations with images or video to be especially distracting, and they felt jarring to me.

I must admit, though, that there were times when I enjoyed the annotations. Occasionally, an annotation would explain a phrase, term, or cultural concept I didn’t understand, and I actually appreciated this. It enhanced my ability to understand the story, hopefully without overwhelming me with too much context or background information. There were also a few annotations that genuinely made me laugh (one simply was titled “Laugh at this” and said ‘It’s a joke’) while simultaneously being informative. I also sometimes appreciated that the annotations made me consider new interpretations. For instance, a small series of annotations suggested the possibility of homoerotic subtext to the story, which I had not before considered.

Another thing I noticed was how different my reactions were to the two different annotation websites. I strongly preferred Slate over Genius. Slate’s visual layout was clean, uncluttered, and it was still easy to read the text itself. The annotations were not very intrusive and it was much easier to ignore them if I wished to. Overall, I also felt the quality of the annotations from Slate was a lot higher. (That said, the annotations could also provide excessive information or give interpretations that I felt were reading an awful lot into things.) Finally, the tagging system on Slate was a nice bonus, making the annotations very well-organized.

Genius, meanwhile, impressed me a lot less. All the highlighted text was very ugly and distracting and the visual layout felt a lot clunkier and constrained. The extra interactable features to the annotations (being able to up vote, down vote, share or suggest an improvement) added a ridiculous level of distraction. I also found the content of the annotations to be of lower quality. Additionally, those writing the annotations tended to state their interpretations as if they were fact, which annoyed me.

However, Slate clearly has a professional staff creating their web pages and writing their annotations. Genius, on the other hand, is composed of crowdsourced annotations. This could certainly explain the differences I found. It only makes sense the quality of annotations from Genius would vary a great deal. This is still no excuse for a poor visual layout, though.

All things considered, I feel there’s much I can take away from this when writing my own annotations. I may not be able to control the visual layout of Hypothesis, but I can control the content of my annotations, in the very least. I will strive to give my own interpretations very rarely, and allow the reader to think on their own and draw their own conclusions. I will try my best to avoid frivolous annotations just for the sake of humor– they should actually have something to say. And if there is an area that I feel could benefit from further context, I will try not to overwhelm the reader with a massive wall of text that gives too much context.