Google’s SideWiki is a great new tool which allows you (yes, you) to add your thoughts to somebody else’s website. Your comments can then be viewed by anybody who has the Google toolbar, ie tens of millions of people, and rising fast. We’ve tested it by adding comments to Wal-Mart, Wikipedia and BBC news pages. There’s also one on this page; you’ll see a little tab symbol top left of the screen if you have the toolbar installed. Although there were a few delays before some of our comments appeared, they all got there in the end. One can just imagine some of the uses this technology will have, particularly where people’s patience has been eroded by spin doctors hiding the truth regarding abuses of corporate social responsibility. In effect, we suddenly have the ability to slip a leaflet into the company’s annual report.
Before we discuss this any further, we need to add a voice of caution. SideWikis are not anonymous. Security issues mean that you’d be well advised to think twice before using this tool as digital aerosol for subvertising! A link from your comment takes viewers back to your profile, which also includes links to any other SideWikis you have created. Your profile can also include (if you like) biographical information, a few droll details, and photos/video etc. There may be ways of using the SideWiki tool anonymously, but I wouldn’t bank on it. Nor, in looking at the history of this kind of application, is that necessarily a bad thing.
Workers’ rights activist Jeff Ballinger has written to us about earlier attempts to achieve this kind of functionality back in the ’90s. He even sent us an old clipping from the Dallas Morning News (1999), which contains this background:
“Known as viral applications, Web notes or overlays, this type of program began appearing… with Third Voice (www.thirdvoice.com) and has expanded with the recent release of various permutations, including Gooey, uTok, Odigo and Cliqueme.”
The ethos and model behind these earlier programmes was rather different, and led to some concerns within the Net community:
“On popular news sites such as CNN (www.cnn.com), it is not unusual to find thousands of annotations cluttered together in such mass that the page becomes almost unreadable.”
In fact a group of 500 Web designers set up a site (Say No to Third Voice) which monitored use of the application. They claimed:
“Many of these notes contain links to pornographic sites, vulgar language and links to warez [illegally opened commercial software]”. A survey by the group showed that only 44% of the notes in 15 major commercial Web sites were content-related. As Jonathan Zittrain, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society put it: “It’s certainly not ideal for everyone to have it as a megaphone only for 12-year-olds and spam.” However, he then went on to add: “The underlying idea – enabling people to realize that others are surfing just as they are and that there might be information of interest to exchange – seems quite solid to me, though.”
It’s worth bearing these earlier experiments in mind when considering the way Google has implemented this technology. We have a great new tool, undoubtedly, but it has been introduced in a way that balances responsibility and freedom. Also, all credit to Google for realising that people are likely to make a few errors of fact and judgement along the way… they have considerately included both Edit and Delete functions.
There will be abuses, we can be sure of that. There will also be threatening lawyers’ letters and test cases. But more importantly, there will also be lots of great complementary information, critique, debate, counter-spin, insider gossip, consumer information, whistle-blowing and yes, smart-ass one liners.
You can download the Google toolbar here. Feel free to practice using it on this page. And if we make a point of clicking ‘Useful: Yes’ under each other’s comments, we’ll also be supporting each other’s SideWiki ranking (meaning that our comments will appear more prominently).
We’ll be updating this story as members’ experience with this technology grows. In particular, we’ll be looking for examples where SideWikis have lead to real change. Out in the real world; in real time. Please feel very welcome to send us your thoughts at… (damn, I was just about to add my email address!). Just