Claiming My Right to a Purpose-Centric Web: SideWiki


Image representing Google Toolbar as depicted ...

Image via CrunchBase

Yesterday Google released a small project called SideWiki. SideWiki, enabled by the Google Toolbar, allows people to write commentary about Web pages and see the comments that other have left. The service is opt-in: people can install the toolbar or not and even when it's there, turn SideWiki off if they don't want to see it. But it's not opt-in for a site--you can comment on any page without the permission of the owner.

The reaction has been interesting. I've seen tweets from people about how they thought it was wrong for people to be able to comment on a Web site (likening it to graffiti or defacement). Dave Winer asked "what if I don't want it on my site?" That's a curious sentiment because it's not on your site. Rather it's about your site. What makes it difficult to accept is that the browser is displaying the comments alongside the page itself.

I don't want to debate the particulars of SideWiki itself. And there's plenty to discuss: Why is this better or worse than comments on the site? Is it OK for commentary to be split and "put behind a hedge." Will it become a SPAM machine? Is Google the right player to control this. And so on.

The real issue is larger than any of that: do people have the right to control how Web content is displayed in their browser? I'm intensely interested in the whole idea of client-side Web augmentation or modification. If you read my blog post from Tuesday on Building the Purpose Centric Web, you'll know that I'm an advocate of the techniques Google is using and more. I believe that people will get more from the Web when client-side tools that manipulate Web sites to the individual's purpose are widely and freely available. A purpose-centric Web requires client-side management of Web sites. SideWiki is a mild example of this.

The reaction that "I own this site and you're defacing it" is rooted in the location metaphor of the Web. Purpose-centric activities don't do away with the idea that Web sites are things that people and organizations own and control. But it's silly to think of Web sites the same way we do land. I'm not trespassing when I use HTTP to GET the content of a Web page and I'm not defacing that content when I modify it--in my own browser--to more closely fit my purpose.

For a different example, consider Adaptive Blue's Glue. Glue is a browser add-on that alerts you to what your friends are saying about movies, TV shows, and so on. The way it works, and even what it allows, are not all that different from SideWiki. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of interesting things to do on the client-side that mash-up, remix, annotate, augment, and just plain modify Web content (not the sites themselves) in the browser.

I understand why people who have cut their teeth and made their living creating Web sites would object when people start to mess with Web content inside the browser. The reasoning goes something like: "I worked hard to create this and want it to be just so and now you're changing it!" But it's ironic when people who've fought against that logic when the RIAA and MPAA used it in support of an outdated business model, apply that same reasoning to the Web.

With that, let me state something unequivocally:

I claim the right to mash-up, remix, annotate, augment, and otherwise modify Web content for my purposes in my browser using any tool I choose and I extend to everyone else that same privilege.

You may not like what people do with your Web content. We can debate the business model or ethics of specific applications of client-side technologies. But don't threaten my right to purpose-centric Web.