Layering update

I have not written about layering recently (you can search this site for the layer tag). A recent search for layering tools has prompted another post.

I use the term layering to describe an online service that allows a user to add content (annotations, highlighting, questions, external links) on top of the online content generated by a different individual. Actually, you could layer content on top of your own original content, but the core issues I want to address here involve the addition of content on top of what someone else has prepared. I use the word “layering” because the word offers a mental image I prefer. There is the content of the original author and there is the content generated by one or more different individuals. These “layers” of content are stacked so that the content of the original author appears as intended by that individual, but other content is added on top.

My interest in this capability is related to educational applications. I sometimes describe the opportunity a teacher has to take original content and to add elements to that content to generate a composite product that is more ideal as an instructional resource. These elements might include annotations intended to activate existing knowledge before reading new material, highlights added for emphasis, questions inserted to encourage beneficial cognitive activities or checks on understanding, etc.  I have written a small book for educators on this subject and offer free online resources.

Others see broader opportunities in what I describe as layering. Some describe the opportunity to “annotate the web” as a way to expand or criticize online content. For example, it would offer a way to identify falsehoods in online content or a way to add discussion to a primary source.

The opportunity to layer content on the work of other authors is not without controversy. I have written previously about the negative reaction some authors have to others commenting on their work. One comparison that might help you understand this negative reaction might be what happens when authors allow comments on their material – say a blog post or a YouTube video. Not only can comments be negative, but comments can be completely off target or involve personal attacks. To prevent such comments, content creators may turn off comments.

I can certainly see how such concerns could be valid, my focus has been on layering methods that are limited to a controlled group (a teacher and his/her class). A moderated use such as this would only reveal comments within the group and would allow the teacher to supervise. Some, however, may simply object to the appearance of a modification (even when the original content is still intact) without permission.

As I have explored various layering services I recommend to educators, I have become aware of a different concern. This concern is related to some of the various techniques by which a layer of content can be added to an existing web resource. I was investigating a service called Genius. This service has positive goals and influential technology backers. The service is very easy to use but it has been described as a proxy server that overrides certain security features  assumed by the original author. I have searched for more recent descriptions of how Genius works and sent an inquiry to the company for a comment on this concern, but to this point I am assuming the Verge concern (see link above) is still valid.

The practice of layering Internet content raises interesting questions. In what I consider the ideal application, the author’s original content is all presented (including ads) and the original content can be clearly differentiated from any annotations or added components by color or some other mechanism that makes clear what has been added. This composite is viewed by users who understand that what they see is a combination provided by multiple individuals and these viewers opt in to view this composite. By opt in, I mean the viewers must activate access to the service combining the inputs so that they understand what they are viewing is not the original. I don’t think existing copyright law would prevent this set of circumstances and I doubt the number of such services would exist should the practice be easy to challenge. You certainly don’t see comparable composites with print media, but similar composites in print would require republication of an original author’s work. This is a content model unique to the Internet.