Zoe Weitzman
Jul 7, 2016

How brands can leverage the rise of Internet annotation

The internet is starting to offer a whole new layer: the ability to annotate anything. Zoe Weitzman of Flamingo examines the trend and its implications for brands.

Source: Hypothes.is video
Source: Hypothes.is video

On today’s Internet, reader input is no longer relegated to the comment section. Browser plug-ins from Genius and Hypothes.is have unrolled a new layer atop the Web we knew—an extra-textual plane where viewers can annotate all the content they find online, down to the last comma. In other words, the Internet’s been equipped with public margins. Ready your pencils.

When college buddies launched Genius (then Rap Genius) in 2009, it was a cramped URL devoted to spelling out allusions in hip-hop lyrics. Today, Genius users close-read any and everything, and annotators include Vice President Biden (marking up this year’s State of the Union address on the White House website) and Lena Dunham (fleshing out excerpts from Not That Kind of Girl).

Hypothes.is has slightly more earnest goals; the non-profit seeks to out sloppy journalists by “peer-editing” the Internet; the plug-in boasts academic users who combat online fabrications with hard facts.

Despite their differences, Hypothes.is and Genius both admit entry to a quiet—but growing—network of fact checks, tie-ins, and line edits. It’s a network that hovers above all the sites we know and love.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Sure, Genius and Hypothes.is signal a sea change in journalistic practice and information gathering, but they also represent a potential shift in the way we connect with brands. FILA has used Genius for years to annotate footwear-related song lyrics with images, comments, and buy-here hyperlinks. Click on the line “cream feet all leather,” in Randy the Musical (a track by rapper Action Bronson) and you’ll find a note from FILA corporate about their “T-1 Mid sneaker model in a classic cream colorway” (they even threw in a hashtag, #AllLeather).

But in the future, brands needn’t restrict themselves to suggestive song lyrics in deploying these annotation tools. The real power of sites like Hypothes.is and Genius is grounded in their capacity to generate understated emotional attachments. Think to the last time you borrowed a book from a friend. You’re reading (in bed, on the subway) and you come across a few chicken-scratch words in the margin. One note gives way to a flock of such notes, then asides and quibbles, snaking handwritten brackets, asterisk constellations. You rub a finger over a penciled-in question mark and wonder if you’re breaching some code of privacy. Is there any literary experience more intimate than sharing a book that’s already been marked up?

In print, annotation punctures the flat surface of a text, ushering in a multi-dimensional community of past and present readers. Hypothes.is and Genius are the digital successors of handwritten marginalia, but they inspire the same sense of intimate membership. Before long, brands nimble enough to use these tools with nuance should be able to leverage such intimacy to deepen their impact. Givenchy could annotate their Vogue.com NYFW slideshow with explanations of what influenced their designers, accompanied by pictures and links. Frito-Lay might annotate a Buzzfeed write-up on high-low foodie culture with pairings that incorporate their newest snacks.

Beyond product tie-ins, brands can use Hypothes.is and Genius to speak up about cultural tensions and share their mission beyond the confines of their sites or social platforms. All in all, annotation gives brands unprecedented access to the e-touchpoints that consumers already inhabit: listicles, news sites and influencer blogs, to name a few. Ultimately, allowing brands to target specific communities in more subtle, intimate and genuine ways. Internet note taking is on the rise—marketers should take note too.

Zoe Weitzman is research executive at Flamingo New York


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