3: Annotation Shares Commentary
What I shit is better than anything you have ever thought.
—Ludwig van Beethoven, annotated review of Wellington’s Victory, Op. 91
A gunman killed fourteen students and three staff members, and injured seventeen others, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14th, 2018. Amid myriad responses to the tragedy, student survivors demonstrated a savvy use of social media to grieve and advocate change. Students’ use of Twitter, in particular, was an effective megaphone to influence national debates about gun rights, school safety, and the priorities of politicians.
One noteworthy Twitter exchange occurred about a week after the tragedy between Sarah Chadwick, a student at Stoneman Douglas High School, and the conservative pundit and Fox News host Laura Ingraham. As a critique of Florida Senator Marco Rubio accepting campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association, Chadwick had tweeted: “We should change the names of AR-15s to ‘Marco Rubio’ because they are so easy to buy.” In response, Ingraham publicly chided Chadwick with a tweet that began: “HOW TEENS SPEAK TO AND ABT ADULTS.” In describing the student’s actions, Ingraham also referred to Chadwick as a sophomore.
About an hour later, Chadwick quote tweeted Ingraham and added the terse response: “I’m a junior.” The tweet went viral.
We previously discussed how annotation provides information. In this case, Sarah Chadwick’s tweet functioned to provide relevant information given an inaccurate statement. The tweet was a fact-check. At the time, she was a junior in high school. The subtext of Chadwick’s tweet, however, conveyed other messages, too. It presented fact as more powerful than posture. It demonstrated youth agency in the face of adult apathy. The tweet’s clarity mirrored the pain of unnecessarily infantilizing the bereaved. To borrow from the parlance of Chadwick’s generation, with just three words Ingraham had been “owned.”
Sarah Chadwick’s tweet is a note - a brief, accurate, and powerful note - added to a text. As annotation, not only did “I’m a junior” provide additional information about a referenced source, the tweet also shared commentary.
The author and literary critic Sam Anderson has written: “Twitter is basically electronic marginalia on everything in the world: jokes, sports, revolutions.”1 Anderson’s observation is a useful complement to our definition of annotation as a note added to a text. When composing her tweet on the morning of February 23rd, it is unlikely that Chadwick thought to herself, “Maybe I’ll annotate Ingraham.” Nonetheless, perceiving Chadwick’s tweet as “electronic marginalia” helps us to better understand how the note functioned as both a correction of and also a comment upon Ingraham’s statement.
We previously discussed how annotation provides information. In this chapter, we’ll examine how annotation is a means of sharing commentary.
Spend anytime online and you’re likely, sooner rather than later, to encounter a comment. Comments, today, are so pervasive and persnickety that we often caution our friends, family, and ourselves: “Don’t read the comments.”2 How useful is it, really, to read that one of our former college students took to the website Rate My Professor and anonymously observed: “He is borderline weird looking, some kind of frog-lizard hybrid going on. But that's ok. He is still crazy smart and really enthusiastic.” Of course, not reading the comments can be both impractical and inconvenient. By the end of 2018, the website Yelp, which “connects people with great local businesses,” included 177 million total reviews; maybe you’re among the 33 million people who use Yelp’s mobile app each month.3 From restaurant reviews on Yelp to feedback that improves Harry Potter fanfiction, there are many reasons why people chose to author, access, and share comments.
We likely know a comment when we see it. What may be less clear is a precise understanding of comment. Comment, according to communications studies professor Joseph Reagle, Jr., is a genre of communication that is reactive, short, and asynchronous.4 Reagle is expressly concerned with digital writing and commentary online. His view of comment emerges from a self-described “expedition” to the bottom and the margins of the web whereby he details how comment can inform, improve, manipulate, alienate, shape, and perplex. The casual click that upvotes a Reddit post, armchair analysis of breaking news, and the sarcastic fake product review (we hope you enjoy Amazon’s customer reviews for the Wenger 16999 Swiss Army Knife5) all demonstrate, in Reagle’s view, how “comment is easily seen but invisible to the extent that we take it for granted.”6
Reagle’s analysis provides a number of useful insights as we consider the relationship between annotation and comment. Like annotation, comment is a ubiquitous form of communication. Today’s prevalent forms of comment - part and parcel of the web, perhaps fueled by bots or like farms, and as likely to help a friend as to harass a stranger - are an everyday and extensive quality of our digital lives. Like annotation, comment also defines the commentator. From Beethoven’s rebuke to Chadwick’s tweet, we can appreciate how comment defines the self (“I’m a junior” is a literal assertion of self-definition). And like annotation, comment refers to something (as with the text to which an annotation is added), has both an author and an audience, and conveys a particular intention.
Despite similarity, the relationship between annotation and comment is not one of strict equivalence. Following Reagle’s definition, we do identify some annotation as reactive. Yet annotation may also be instructive, complementary, or collaborative. While some annotation is short, annotation may also dwarf in volume a source text (as we’ll soon see with commentary in the Hebrew Talmud). And while some annotation is asynchronous, yet another addition to a years-old curation of comment, annotation in the fields of journalism and education, in particular, now demonstrate the utility of synchronous practices. Comment is often not collaborative (unlike annotation), is typically public by default (whereas annotation may be private and moderated among smaller groups), and commenting systems are frequently proprietary and siloed (in contrast to some open-source annotation technologies).7 Annotation and comment do share similar characteristics, but not all forms of annotation are synonymous with comment.
Many types of comment described in Reagle’s Reading the Comments - from likes and faves, to emojis and reactions, ratings, upvotes and downvotes - are contemporary kin of the small hands (☞) that twelfth century scribes drew while working in their scriptoriums to indicate importance.8 With each comment written online, whether in response to a news article, a blog post, or your neighborhood watering hole, you have added a note to a text. Every like on Facebook or rating on AirBnB is annotation, too; the source text, be it a friend’s post or host page, is amended by annotation. As we discuss throughout this chapter, a second purpose of annotation is to share commentary.
Commentary and the Talmud
The internet and our era’s preference for user-generated content has elevated commentary into an egalitarian affair. Anyone can comment about anything almost anywhere. Yet experts have written, shared, and curated annotated commentary long before the advent of the computer, much less the printing press. We need not look only to our social media feeds for examples of annotation sharing commentary. We can also look to the past and glean insight about the importance of annotation and commentary from a text like the Hebrew Talmud.
As we begin, an extensive account of the Talmud, as well as Hebrew religious texts and commentary practices more generally, is well beyond the scope of our volume. Nonetheless, we hope readers find the following introduction and referenced resources useful in appreciating how this distinctive example of commentary helps us to understand annotation today.9
For those who haven’t kept close score over the past few millennia, the following general orientation may be helpful. At Mount Sinai, in Egypt, God transmitted to Moses knowledge gathered together into five books - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Collectively this is the Hebrew Bible, or the Torah. Yet the popular image of Moses - and perhaps we recall Charleton Heston’s mighty beard and flowing red robes from the 1956 film The Ten Commandments, hefting high two intricately inscribed tablets and declaring, “There is no freedom without the law!” - is, unsurprisingly, an incomplete picture. Like the Torah, the Talmud was also communicated from God to Moses at Sinai. Yet the Talmud is described as the Oral Torah because its many laws, teachings, interpretations, and debates were not initially committed to writing but were transmitted, orally, among scholars and students for generations.
About a thousand or so years before the Common Era, Moses shared the Oral Torah with Joshua and other Hebrew elders who, subsequently, passed along this living collection of laws and teachings to the prophets and other scholars. At the turn of the Common Era, the Talmud was further transmitted among the zugot (“pairs”), or groups of influential rabbis. Like a game of theological telephone, the interpretations of these scholars were, in turn, eventually organized by a group known as the tana’im (or “teachers”) who, over the next few centuries, created the Mishnah.
The Mishnah are a collection of rabbinic teachings and pronouncements of law which serve as the primary source of information - and the core text - of the Talmud. Sometime around the fifth century, after millennia of oral transmission, the Talmud was codified as a collection of Mishnayot (the plural of Mishnah), a “rich world of meanings, issues, and arguments.”10
Sort of. There are, in fact, two different Talmuds. An earlier and shorter version, referred to as the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud, was compiled about the year 400 in Israel. And a second and longer version, including material about a greater variety of laws that references the Jerusalem Talmud, was compiled a hundred or so years later. This version is referred to as the Babylonian Talmud because the prominent centers of Jewish life, at that time, existed in present-day Iraq along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Today, when people generally refer to the “Talmud,” as we do here, they are actually talking about the latter and longer Babylonian Talmud (and it is long; today, a standard printing is over 6,000 pages). Moreover, the Talmud - as a comprehensive document - is more than the collected legal tractates of Mishnah. And that’s where annotation, and commentary, comes into view quite literally on the page.11
At this point, a visual tour of the printed Talmud may be useful to further describe this document and illustrate the prominence and utility of annotation sharing commentary. We’ll refer to Figure 14, a representative page from the Talmud. Look front and center; that’s the Mishnah, the core text. The central column in our sample page also features the Gemara, located below the Mishnah. The Gemara is a different text of rabbinic commentary about the Mishnah that was written between the third and sixth century CE in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. Together, the Mishnah (one text) and the Gemara (another text commenting on that first text) constitute the Talmud. But that’s not all that we see on the printed page of the Talmud as a document.
As we’ve visually annotated, both the Mishnah and the Gamara are surrounded by many other texts. Some of these texts are commentaries. Others are analyses. There is navigational text, too, including indices to legal codes. Most prominent is annotated commentary by Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, better known as Rashi, a medieval French rabbi who lived from 1040-1105 and is generally considered the preeminent scholar of the Talmud.12 The significance of Rashi’s work is without question; his commentary has been included in every printed version of the Talmud since the early 1500s. Rashi’s commentary appears as the inner column closest to the book’s spine (recall that Hebrew volumes, like the Talmud, are read from right to left). The outer column, opposite to Rashi, features analyses known as the Tosafot. Written primarily by French, German, as well as Italian and Spanish rabbis, Tosafot are Medieval glosses that analyze and critique the Mishnah and Gamara. Finally, the outermost margin of a printed page contains additional annotation and cross-references, including more contemporary commentary such as that by the 19th century Talmudic scholar Rabbi Akiva Eger. Taken as a whole, a typical page of the Talmud, as a printed document, is a visual bricolage of annotation that shares commentary on the Mishnah and the Gamara, the Talmud’s two central texts.
What’s the significance of Talmud annotation given our interest in commentary? First, the prominence of annotation as commentary is not incidental; rather, it is instructional. The word “Talmud” is derived from the Hebrew root “lamad” meaning “to teach” or “to learn.” The Talmud can literally be understood as “the teaching.” Because the Talmud is a dense and confounding text of hermeneutic argumentation - a challenge of meaning-making even for those who have dedicated years of their lives to study - annotated commentary makes the Talmud more accessible and comprehensible. Rashi’s line-by-line commentary, in particular, is a scholarly scaffold intended to support readers’ engagement with and questioning of the text. As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz observes in The Essential Talmud, “the Talmud is perhaps the only sacred book in all of world culture that permits and even encourages the student to question it.”13 By sharing commentary, annotation is an entry point to participation in Talmudic teaching and learning.
The notion of scaffold highlights a second point about annotation in the Talmud. As the Oral Torah, the Talmud was initially memorized so as to pass from one generation to the next. What followed were handwritten versions of the Talmud that required careful copying but were prone to scribal error. It was the Venetian printer Daniel Bomberg who, in 1523, printed the first version of the Talmud featuring a page layout and pagination structure that persists today. The mass production of the printed Talmud codified a textual structure that privileged annotation. Like readers of blogs and online news media who expect digital commentary to appear at the bottom of a post or webpage, so too do readers of the Talmud know that the document is structured by annotation. The sheer volume of supplementary annotation within the Talmud far exceeds the combined length of the Mishnah and Gamara as central texts. Annotation shares commentary within and about the Talmud because annotation is infrastructural to the Talmud.
As noted, the Talmud features different annotated commentaries written by many different rabbis over many centuries. While Rashi’s commentary has been granted considerable real estate within the margins of the Talmud, a myriad curation of debate and divergence underscores a third insight about the importance of annotation sharing commentary. Annotation in the Talmud literally and figuratively highlights commentary as a valued social practice. Multiple interpretations are welcomed and invite consideration. Multiple perspectives are placed together as a conversation, with the intent of sparking subsequent discussion among those who study the text. While much contemporary comment may be associated with snark or the whims of social media, the Talmud is a reminder that alternative models of commentary have sustained and inspired both the scholarly and social activity of communities for millennia.
Social Media and Hashtags
The Talmud demonstrates how annotation sharing commentary can enliven and illuminate a document, influencing how people interact with text, knowledge, and one another. It’s also important to note that annotation in the Talmud was authored by experts in a community, specifically rabbis who specialized in Talmudic study. These rabbis were also all men.
Today, the ubiquity of social media - the many platforms and practices that shape the substance and style of our texts, knowledge, and relationships - has not only normalized comment as communication; social media has also democratized commentary. For better or for worse, our collective access to and use of social media has made annotation sharing commentary all the more ordinary and participatory, both pervasive and also problematic.
Earlier we discussed Twitter, a sprawling network of layered conversation propelled by more than 200 billion daily tweets. Thanks to technical features like quote tweets and hashtags, many tweets (like Sarah Chadwick’s) are compelling examples of annotation sharing commentary. Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform, has long trafficked in annotation as comment. Users are encouraged to tag friends in photos and videos as both identification and invitation for subsequent conversation. The blue, ubiquitous “Like” button is an interactive iteration of the marginal ☞ signaling that which is noteworthy. Facebook’s like button was complemented, in 2015, by an expanded set of visual “reactions.” Users can now “love” someone’s post with a heart, laugh via the addition of a “haha” emoji, and express their amazement, sadness, or anger.
Consider, as well, how social media companies like Instagram, which Facebook purchased in 2012, and Snapchat have transformed the selfie into an exercise of annotation sharing commentary about our looks, location, and likes. Thanks to filters, we expect to see ourselves bedecked in psychedelic flowers, sporting dog ears, or vomiting rainbows; we may even find our faces swapped with those belonging to friends or pets. Visual annotation has redefined the social life of our images. Our everyday media - and our proclivity for relationship as mediated by retweets, likes, reactions, and snaps - is all the more social because of annotated commentary.
Social media has come to define an era in which we annotate texts every day, we easily share this commentary across contexts, and in doing so we iteratively define who we are. The literal archetype of annotation sharing commentary via social media - agnostic of platform, with ease, and to express and to amplify - is the hashtag, or tag. The hashtag (a # or pound symbol as prefix) was first introduced on Twitter by Chris Messina in 2007. While Messina’s use of #barcamp was novel, the idea of identifying and curating information is not new. The hashtag is metadata, a statement about a referenced object.14 It is a means of creating and sharing an index term. Thanks to the network effects of social media, the hashtag - and the social practice of tagging - has passed from specialists familiar with controlled vocabularies to the parlance of the everyday. Hashtags, now a taken-for-granted social media convention, illustrate the power and prevalence of annotation sharing commentary.
As our digital era’s gloss, hashtags exemplify Anderson's observation about “electronic marginalia on everything in the world.” Hashtags comment upon social and political concerns, as with #BlackLivesMatter, #NeverAgain, and #MeToo. Aiming for viral marketing, hashtags are used by corporations to comment upon the relevance of their products, from Charmin’s #TweetFromTheSeat to #OreoHorrorStories at Halloween. While some hashtags are used primarily to identify something, as with tags of cities and products which aid accessibility and curation, the line between tag-as-information and tag-as-comment is easily blurred.
Is the annotation #NoFilter a useful description of your vacation or a humblebrag about your unrivaled photographic prowess? Whether the hashtags #FakeNews, #Snowflake, and #DeleteYourAccount (and much, much worse) are read as information or commentary, the tags demonstrate the divisiveness and potential harm associated with tagging as everyday annotation. “Comment,” as Reagle reminds us, “is a characteristic of contemporary life: it can inform, improve, and shape people for the better, and it can alienate, manipulate, and shape people for the worse.”15 From activism to advertising, and whether added as a note to your own social media posts or those created by someone else, hashtags exemplify the ways in which annotation shares commentary across social media.
Annotation as Evaluation
In this chapter, we have argued that annotation, whether in a religious text or your social media timeline, can be written and read as commentary. Many of the conventions of modern-day comment - as with short, reactive, and asynchronous notes added to texts across the web - can help us to both understand and analyze how annotation shares commentary. Yet your average Twitter user likely does not perceive their tweets as a way to share digital marginalia. If you “gram it” and then add hashtags to your post in the hopes of viral fame, do you pause to consider - much less to care - that these tags are glosses of your brunch photo? Probably not.
There are, however, people who author notes referred to as annotation with the express purpose of sharing a particularly useful form of commentary - evaluation. This intentional awareness of and appreciation for annotation sharing commentary helps to critique or improve. Such annotation as evaluation is understood to serve a particular need for a given group; it’s more a useful norm than an incidental mark. To conclude our chapter about commentary, we’ll briefly discuss two groups of people who author annotation as evaluation: chess players and climate scientists.
Chess players are fluent in annotation as evaluation. Whether or not you’ve ever played chess, or enjoyed chess, or can’t live without the game, you’re likely familiar with the basics: the checkered 8x8 board, black and white pieces including lots of pawns and various royalty, and plenty of confusing patterns and complex strategy.
You may also know that there are multiple chess notation methods used by players to record how pieces are moved and positioned throughout a game. Today, the most common chess notation method is algebraic notation, which is traced to twelfth century France though was likely developed in the Islamic empire well before the year 1000.16 While the history and use of chess notation is beyond the scope of our discussion, it’s sufficient to mention the following: all 64 squares are assigned a unique coordinate pair (one letter and one number, like e4); pieces are identified by uppercase letters (except for pawns); and symbols are used to indicate the state of play, as when a piece is captured (x), when a king is placed in check (+), or when a game concludes via checkmate (# or ++). Notation provides an accurate record of play, helps to resolve disputes, and is used to teach the game.
In addition to chess notation documenting gameplay, there is also a method of chess annotation that evaluates each move in a game and is understood as commentary. As a means of evaluation, it is accepted that chess annotation is subjective; nonetheless, chess annotators generally use an agreed upon set of question marks and exclamation marks to evaluate moves.17 Though there are some alternative marks, the prominent chess annotation system features the following symbols:
! Good move
!! Brilliant move
? Bad move
!? Interesting move
?! Dubious move
When Garry Kasparov played IBM’s Deep Blue computer for the first time, in 1996, the chess world was shocked when the Grandmaster lost the first game (he would ultimately win the match four games to two). Evaluation of the game suggests this was the decisive moment:
32. Rc7 Re8??
During the 32nd move of the game, Deep Blue, playing White, moved a rook to position c7. Kasparov responded by moving his Black rook to position e8. That’s what the notation tells us. It’s the annotation that suggests this was Kasparov’s critical blunder (??). Five moves later, the game was over. Thanks to an annotation method used to comment upon and evaluate gameplay, it’s possible for novices and aficionados alike to study chess history, learn strategy from the Grandmasters, and improve their own play.
Another group of people who rely upon annotation as evaluation are climate scientists working to promote accurate, evidence-based journalism. Climate Feedback is a global collective of scientists who influence media reporting about climate change through annotated commentary. This non-profit and non-partisan organization relies upon a distributed community of volunteer scientists who, since 2015, have used the digital annotation tool Hypothesis to evaluate climate change journalism following an article’s publication. Climate Feedback’s annotation is a form of post-publication peer review intended to hold journalists accountable for reporting factual science.
When New York Magazine published “The Uninhabitable Earth” in July, 2017, the article went viral and became the most-read in the magazine’s history.18 However, skepticism about the article’s claims spread just as quickly. In response, 17 scientists affiliated with Climate Feedback - specializing in meteorology, mathematical modeling, carbon cycles, and numerous other areas of expertise - authored nearly 100 open annotations atop the online version of the article.19 For instance, the article’s author David Wallace-Wells suggested: “... the geological record shows that temperature can shift as much as ten degrees or more in a single decade.” In response, Alexis Berg, an Earth systems scientist from Princeton University, began a public annotation that read: “I am not sure, again, what the author is referring to here.”
Collectively, scientists’ annotation were used to evaluate the article’s overall credibility. It was judged to be low. Just two days after publication, New York Magazine and Wallace-Wells responded to Climate Feedback’s public peer review by republishing their own annotated version of the article.20 In doing so, the updated version included many clarifying contributions and fact-checks. That claim about temperature shifts? It was rewritten to read: “… the history of the planet shows that temperature can shift as much as five degrees Celsius within thirteen years.” And an annotation added by Wallace-Wells to the revised sentence further explained: “This phrase has been updated to more accurately reflect the rate of warming during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.” Annotation as evaluation compelled the magazine’s editors, author, and fact-checkers to revise and improve their reporting.
And the work of Climate Feedback continues. Annotation-driven “feedbacks” authored by Climate Feedback-affiliated scientists regularly review articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and National Geographic, among other major publications. Climate Feedback demonstrates how annotation can usefully evaluate and correct media inaccuracies, keep the public informed of credible reporting, and make more accessible an archive of reliable journalism about climate change.
In this chapter, we’ve discussed how annotation shares commentary, can be read as comment, and may be synonymous with commentary in the context of religious texts, chess games, and fact-checking. Whether with Beethoven cursing out that critic or a scientist refuting a journalist’s claim, we should also consider what happens when this commentary leads to more sustained dialogue. What if people keep talking? And how might annotation help fuel such discussion? Let’s consider, next, how annotation sparks conversation.