Sidewiki: What Google should do

I spent yesterday marking the dangers around Sidewiki. Today, I’ll say what I think Google should do with it: close the toolbar app, open it up to the entire conversation, and turn it purely into an API. And probably buy Technorati.

I read a great deal of the discussion about Sidewiki yesterday: much of it in the comments on my blog post, much found through search in Technorati and Google News, much through trackbacks, much on Twitter, much through links on sites I read, and a tiny bit on Sidewiki itself (sorry, can’t find a URL to link to that).

Some of the comments said the conversation is already fractured and my trail would seem to prove the point. That was the common word – fractured. But I’d quibble with the choice and argue that the conversation isn’t broken; that it is occurring just where it should be: in the cloud, where it is controlled by no one.

I did complain about bifurcating the conversation on my own site and that’s because Google presents a second opportunity to comment from a site with comments and I do not see how that adds value there; it separates people. We should be doing the opposite.

I also complained about losing control of the comments and some folks, not surprisingly, thought they had me in a gotcha moment: “Hey, Jarvis, you tell newspapers to get over it and give up control but when it comes to you … heh, heh, heh.” OK. I, too, chose the wrong word. I should have complained instead that Sidewiki robs sites of the responsibility for comments. Many of the people who joined in my crusade yesterday said they work hard on the conversations on their sites to make sure they retain civility and quality – as good sites do – but now they can’t exercise that responsibility with Sidwiki comments that will appear essentially on their sites. Google promises an algorithm. Algorithms may be good at killing spam – albeit with syncopated delays – but they will not be good at policing the subtleties of trolls, prejudice, unfair competition, grudges, pettiness, and hate; those are human sins and it takes humans (and perhaps God) to see them.

The Guardian spends a great deal of resource on Comment is Free doing just that and when the conversation is about the Mideast, it knows from sour experience that it has to add extra precautions. There were no open comments on its Blogging the Koran. But now, with Sidewiki, there will be. Let’s say the Guardian gets too restrictive. Then there’s always the cloud. You can go to one of its competitors or create your own site and complain about what’s said on CiF and no one – except your hosts there – can stop you. That’s the essence of free speech on the internet.

It’s perhaps inconvenient that the conversation is distributed but wherever there’s such a problem, the wise see opportunities. Technorati saw that years ago and tried to bring the conversation together not by creating the ultimate conversation site but by adding organization and thus value to the conversation across the blogosphere. That was very Googley.

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it accessible – not take it over and centralize it. That’s what so many fear about Google book search: that is it not just linking to books but serving and thus controlling them (I still believe the settlement can cope with that). That is what I fear about Sidewiki: that it is not adding value to the conversation by organizing it but instead trying to hijack it. I’m surprised how tonedead [a happy typo I’m holding onto] Google is in this case. David Sleight called Sidewiki “a failure of empathy.” Or as a father says to a little kid: “What were you thinking?” One more metaphor: Google thinks its Snuffleupagus – big but cuddly and good – and just doesn’t realize that some people see it as a potential bully and so it has to act accordingly. With size comes responsibility.

So I think Google saw a problem where there wasn’t one: The conversation is not broken and doesn’t need fixing. It saw an opportunity to enable people to comment on sites that do not have comments – and to gain more beloved metadata from us about those sites – but it bigfooted the entire conversation trying to solve that; it went for a fly but put its fist through the wall. It wasn’t Googley.

Now I suggest that Google stand back and have that don’t-be-evil conversation about its mission and how it can add value to the conversation and to our collected knowledge about sites and entities without trying to take it over. Start by following Dave Winer into the cloud.

Google could try to organize – but not hijack – the entire conversation; no one has really done that yet. It could analyze comments on sites and understand them better and perhaps even try to find quality in them and their authors. It could use Friend Connect and Facebook’s APIs, as it has started to do, to enable those authors to establish and collect – on their own, via APIs – and burnish their identities across the web. It could bring together conversation about sites, whether those are blogs or companies’, as Technorati has done with blogs (that’s why I think buying it and putting it out of its strategic and technology misery would be the neighborly thing to do). It could then release an API (as it has done for Sidewiki) that doesn’t draw the conversation into one place but enables anyone to put up the conversation. So rather than starting another conversation, Google organizes it.

So I could finally put the broader conversation about the ideas in Buzzmachine on Buzzmachine, adding functionality that let my readers follow links and authors. So I could create a consumer site tracking what people are saying, good and bad, about, say, computer makers. So I could use apps to track conversations about topics that mattered to me. So I could track authors and what they comment about across the web.

Google would add value to the conversation – as I firmly believe it adds value to news – without competing with its creators. That is what I argue to news creators: that Google doesn’t want to become one of them but instead wants to succeed by helping them succeed. It’s a great argument, so long as it stays true. Books bring the same opportunity and challenge for Google.

In a sense, Google thought too big, bigfooting the conversation everywhere. But the real problem, ironically, is that it thought way too small, creating a new conversation instead of trying to organize the conversation that is the internet itself. That would have been so much Googlier, don’t you think?

: LATER: I neglected to cover the question of the toolbar app itself. If Google doesn’t create a separate conversation, then there would be no means to add comments via the toolbar. I’d suggest that a toolbar app could display content about a site or its topics; there’s nothing to stop Google or any toolbar or browser plug-in maker from doing that. This still means that malicious content could be associated with a site but Google wouldn’t be in the position of enabling and hosting it, only displaying it. I would suggest, however, that anyone who thinks they can use this to display advertising associated with a site atop that site should look up the Gator link in my post below: danger and lawyers await.

  • I believe Google should be leading the charge in creating a open *protocol* for conversations. A protocol that can be usefully federated across service providers and lightweight enough so that small-players like standalone blogging software can play their part.

    Because the protocol would be open service providers can easily allow users to decorate other conversations with spin-off threads. Content sites could collect and curate part of the conversation that touched their site.

    A conversation, as I see it, would be an ongoing meta-conversation; a new layer of the link economy.

    Afterwards Google can come in provide the tools to search, index and find value in the linkages.

    Just my 2c. PS. – Jeff – loved WWGD, it was eye-opening

    • Ben Davies wrote concerning the need for “an open *protocol* for conversations”…

      Can you describe what services you would expect such a protocol to provide or otherwise provide “requirements” for such a protocol?

      bob wyman

      • Hi Bob,

        I provide more of my thinking on this on my blog at

        Briefly, I think a Conversations Protocol and Service should allow us to:

        -Identify a given element (or potential element) of a conversation
        -Identify new elements of conversation
        -Find and examine the full-text or full version of the contribution
        -Understand the direct antecedent, subsequent and possibly sibling contributions. Be able to reconstruct all contributions that led to a specific element, back to the original contribution. Effectively we should able to crawl the conversation in the same way that search engines spider web pages.
        -Facilitate a distribution and/or federated tracking and maintenance of elements that maintains the metadata required to identify the antecedent of each contribution.
        -Allow cross domain and cross media contributions
        -Allow a new element of conversation to register what antecedents it has.
        -Reliably identify the author of each contribution in a non-ambiguous fashion.
        -Allow contribution domains to control contributions on their own domain, but not others.

  • Google wave seems to me the way to go.

    That would be an answer for both the article and the first comment.

    • I worry that Google Wave is too heavyweight and will have a slow adoption curve.

      In some ways technology like RSS-Cloud is more exciting. RSS-Cloud fundamentally (and SIMPLY) changes news syndication to a 2 way disaggregated relationship. Of course right now it is just a way to move to ‘push’ news feeds, but it shifts the paradigm about who has links to who. With RSS-Cloud, both the recipient and the provider have a link to each other, which could be built upon by new (simple) technologies to find and stitch together conversation.

  • Snuffleupagus? Nailed it. The question now turns to, “What will Google do?” Will they reach out to the community, have a dialog about what bothers folks with Sidewiki, and adjust accordingly? Or will they play it as it lies, leaving everyone to reach their own (potentially misleading) conclusions?

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  • There is a Sidewiki RSS feed apparently for each author and each page.

    Here is the feed

    Google Sidewiki entry feeds

    also, your points about moderating comments are key.

  • I have no particular opinion on how successful Sidewiki will be, but as to Jeff’s concerns about malicious content being “associated with the site,” it seems to me that we’re just one legal disclaimer away from solving that problem, no? Given that you have to install Sidewiki on your browser to use it, isn’t it safe to assume that you can tell the difference between what belongs to the site owner and what belongs to Google?

    • If you use Chrome, it will come as a default. And remember how different libel laws are elsewhere. In the UK, one can be held responsible for what you link to and for others’ distribution.

    • Andy Freeman

      Jeff continues to assume that sidewiki is “associated” with his site. It isn’t.

      Sidewiki hosts discussions. It’s a separate site. Sidewiki is no more “associated” with his site than his site is with the NYT. The fact that sidewiki is available via a toolbar doesn’t change that.

      As to libel, does Jarvis really think that the NYT can be held liable for libel wrt something that appears on Jarvis’ site in a discussion about an NYT article?

  • Google is very intensively studying what users want, they try to go ahead in detecting opportunities. If they took this move it may well be that they detected an opportunity in dragging conversation out of sources.
    If it were to be this way, then, it does not really matter if what would google do ;) because, in a demmand driven world, if there is a need, or, what is the same, an opportunity, someone else will do it.

  • offtopic: Jeff, could you install the Subscribe To Comments plugin? :) it would be really useful to follow debates on your comments.

  • There is a feed for each article with their comments.
    I wouldn’t be posting without having an easy way to check new posts.

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  • Eric Gauvin

    Hi Jeff,

    You’re basically saying google should emulate itself, which makes me wonder as others have:

    Why would google do something that an expert in the ways of google says is contrary to what google would do? (I’m getting dizzy.)

    a) google isn’t capable of emulating itself so your theories about what google represents are flawed


    b) google is emulating itself so your theories about what google represents are flawed

  • Andy Freeman

    > Let’s say the Guardian gets too restrictive. Then there’s always the cloud.

    Sidewiki is (part of) the cloud….

    > Many of the people who joined in my crusade yesterday said they work hard on the conversations on their sites to make sure they retain civility and quality – as good sites do – but now they can’t exercise that responsibility with Sidwiki comments that will appear essentially on their sites.

    Except that Sidewiki conversations don’t “appear essentially on their sites”. It appears on MY screen because that’s what I want. You remember me – I’m the reader. I’m the guy who owns the screen. Who are you to say that I shouldn’t be allowed to have sidewiki on my screen?

    Yes, sidewiki hosts conversations about things outside of the control of the owner of said things. So do you. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s a good thing.

    Sidewiki will only succeed where its conversations are better than the alternatives.

    You say that you work hard on conversations on your site. Great. That means that the conversations on your site will be better than the ones on SideWiki.

    • A great response by Andy Freeman. I think Andy arguments are really strong and deserve our consideration.

  • peter cowan

    i fail to see how this is any different that any other content channel, other than the fact that it is hosted by google. this is not the first web page overlay technology, these already exist for facebook digg, several twitter clients, url shorteners, and so on. the argument about centralization could be valid, but for the fact that the other actors in this space are going after a centralization strategy themselves. i checked out the toolbar and sidewiki is clearly not attempting to look like it’s part of the site. i agree, it would be nice if more aggregating was going on (there is some already, with the links to relevant blog posts), and i am surprised that google did not create a web element that could just be copied and pasted into any web page if a website owner wanted to host the comments inline, but at least they provided an api, and make the sidewikis accessible by an actual url, so the toolbar is not an absolulte requirement.

    it’s going to be interesting to see where this goes.

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  • Jeff, I love your show. Thanks for having me on.

    You and a host of others seem to think we’ve somehow lost control with the launch of Sidewiki, that Google just hijacked all the juicy future user-generated content that would otherwise plump our personal domains.

    This view feels like an odd mix of insecurity and hubris. It shows zero confidence in authors/publishers being interesting enough to keep an audience engaged and participating when that audience suddenly finds there’s another place to type.

    Wait… there have always been other places to type, other conversations. Even the most loyal reader/contributor reads/contributes to other conversations (sometimes simultaneously with browser windows side-by-side – loyalty and promiscuity are not mutually exclusive on the Web).

    If what you have to say is interesting, people will continue to talk to you. If you’re LUCKY, they may even talk about what you have to say in other conversations. Maybe in Sidewiki. If what you have to say is not interesting (or inflammatory or abusive), good luck.

    If an individual or entity makes a public statement free to anyone via the Web, I believe any and all reactions should be publicly stated (if desired) at no cost on the spot. Many sites still operate under the old print paradigm of one-way communication and make no provision for public user response. We’re well past the days of one-way. Other sites require membership which requires the payment of valuable demographic goodies and/or personal contact info. That may be a good business model, but in social, conversational terms, it’s extremely impolite.

    So, let’em have Sidewiki. I firmly believe the audience at large has thoughts and opinions enough to fill every available channel to capacity. They’ll fill them with suggestions and praise, corrections, indignation and bile (and spam). It will get messy. So? Clutter can be adjusted for. It could get ugly. Welcome to the Web.

    Fear of trolls, prejudice, unfair competition, grudges, pettiness, hate and other human sins does nothing to dispel them. Bringing such filth into the light and up to the surface may make for easier cleanup.

    With every contributor also acting as moderator, Sidewiki should be self-correcting. Posts will reach dominance through consensus (and a little algorithmic help).

    Sidewiki isn’t just “another” conversation. And it isn’t an evil Google-devised content sinkhole. If Google has gained more control, it’s only after offering every single one of us a new degree of personal control over our collective conversation via this peer-to-peer-to-peer, dynamic, context-sensitive community of interest.

    It seems to me the only thing lost with Sidewiki is the ability to pretend contrary views don’t exist (ha ha Foxnews).

    OR maybe I’m wrong. It’s really hard to tell sometimes with Google. They’re shady.

    I appreciate your time. I’ll take your comments off the air.

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  • Jeff, I’m only sort of half-hearing you on this subject. Do you think Google is centralizing the conversation away from your page, or do you think their binding unmanageable comments to your page? It seems that it can only be one way or the other.

    • It can be both. They’ll attract some number away from the comments into a separate conversation. they’ll also attract trolls i’d kill to leave droppings associated with the page using sidewiki.

  • Of course, if you’re going to look at rssCloud, then you should also take a look at PubSubHubbub (PSHB)– which provides a much more efficient and useful solution to the problem that rssCloud attempted to address, and much more. In particular, consider the protocol comparison that is detailed at:
    As you will see, rssCloud is vastly inferior to PSHB in many ways…

    rssCloud was first introduced almost 8 years ago. Because of its technical failings, it was implemented by virtually no one and was eventually dropped even by those few people who did implement it. It laid dormant in the supposedly “frozen” RSS V2.0 specification for years until just a few weeks ago (July?) when there began a sudden flurry of attempts to revive this broken protocol and present it as an alternative to PSHB. However, rssCloud still maintains all the critical failings that have caused it to be ignored for years. “Light pinging” systems are simply not what we need on the Internet today. “Fat pinging” systems are vastly superior — for all the reasons explained in the protocol comparison. Also, PSHB is being developed through an open process of discussion with the community while rssCloud is essentially the work of a single individual… Additionally, PSHB is open source and there are a variety of open source versions being developed.

    rssCloud is *not* the answer to any problem you might have… PSHB is the way forward in this area.

    bob wyman

  • Dan Hanegan

    It seems to me that the negative reaction of many site owners to sidewiki is that they feel Google is taking ownership of their site away from them. It seems to me the simplest response to their fears would be for Google to allow site owners to opt out of sidewiki. Simply create an HTML or XML tag site owners can add to their site, and modify the Google sidewiki code to check for that tag. Sidewiki would not operate for sites with the tag. The tag might be structured so the site owners could include a comment about why they choose to opt out that would show in the sidewiki browser pane, but sidewiki comments could not be added.

    • Brinn Thedell

      I agree with Dan. Sidewiki will be short lived. The technology of the Internet will solve the problem that Jeff has pointed out. I’m Looking forward to see how this conversation progresses on Buzzmachine and other blogs, but not on the side.

  • I’ve commented on this and many sites’ Sidewiki since installing this afternoon, and definitely see both sides. Also listened to him talk to Leo on This Week in Google at TWiT, where I new it’d be center stage.
    I too would have preferred some sort of uber-conversations/forum system from Google that could be part of, rather than beside the site itself.
    That could create a truly global forum/conversation network, bigger than any that’s come before. Sidewiki also seems wedded to one’s Google Profile, which surely is more expansive than I recall and could be another conversation topic. It’s gathering of one’s comments on Sidewikis around the Web reminds me of things like the Ning networks.
    To see more of my thoughts, check my sidewiki post (hmmm, did I just help Jeff make his points?;-)

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  • Ken


    Fractured conversations are just the law of nature. Let’s take for example the new show Flash Forward. (Awesome show by the way). There are conversations by reviewers, by the NY Times, and a great discussion by my favorite Detroit morning radio hosts. The writers of Flash Forward have no control or responsibility over the content I just heard, right? Why should internet content be any different?

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  • cs1380

    There is now a free script that blocks SideWiki comments without blocking or redirecting all GTB users. The site below is the only one I know of that currently has it available. There are others working on additional scripts that may be even more transparent to visitors.

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  • John

    You Tube, Book Search, Sidewiki all share the same essential features, i.e. hijacking other people’s content without permission, riding roughshod over complaints and using their deep pockets to bully people with lawyers.

    And the reason they do it is not altruism, as some posters here seem to think. It’s because they’re the biggest advertising company in the world and they need more more real estate one which to serve their ads. And they will do anything they can to get it.

    Sorry to say it, but Google has turned into a big evil advertising company.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Sorry to say it, but Google has turned into a big evil advertising company.

      “turned into”? Google has always been an advertising company.

      However, you’re wrong about sidewiki. It isn’t “hijacking” anything. It gives users another choice in where to hold conversations about content.

      Yes, it’s displayed on my screen next to said content if I so choose. Since it is my screen, that’s my choice to make.

      • John

        Google hasn’t always been an advertising company, they started as a purepaly tech/search company with a licensing model, and indeed they almost sold the company before deciding to go with an ad-supported model.

        And it’s only relatively recently that they started to act like a bully, stealing the rights of content owners without permission – Booksearch, You Tube, Sidewiki all have this common feature.

        The company hides behind the rhetoric of enpowerment, but all it’s interested in is profit. I sort of bought the idea when they were sticking it to the big content companies, but I didn’t really reckon on them coming after us little guys.

        Also, you’re wrong about sidewiki. It’s my content and I have a right to chose what is served over my page on my domain.

        Which is why I’ll be using one of the growing number of scripts to block GTB user agents.

        I reckon this accounts for about 0.03 of my visitors, so it’s no great loss, particularly as toolbars are only used by the lower wattage bulbs.

      • Andy Freeman

        > It’s my content and I have a right to chose what is served over my page on my domain.

        It’s my screen/display. My decision to show some of your content on my screen does not give you any rights wrt what else is shown to me on said screen.

        You only have rights wrt what is sent from your servers. You have no rights wrt what is sent from someone else’s servers.

      • John

        I have both the right and the ability to block you serving content served in association with my domain.

      • Andy Freeman

        I’m not serving content. I’m requesting content.

        You have neither the right nor the ability to say that I can’t see other content if I request your content.

        You clearly disagree, so I’ll ask for the relevant details. How do you stop me from requesting content from sidewiki, content that isn hosted on a site that you do not control?

        As to the “right”, how does that work, exactly. What other sources get to say “if you see our content, we get to tell you what content from other people you can’t see.”

        How is my screen different from my bookshelf?

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  • It’s not about you, J² …

    If it weren’t for Google + Sidewiki, there’s little chance I would have ever run across your site.

    Google is simply responding to a felt information-societal need, a crying social-information need that is long past needing someone to address it.

    That need arises from the Pwnership Model of the Command And Control Communication that those Raving Hawk Militant DOS Kapitalists at DARPA foisted on us when they invented the Internet in the foist place.

    That’s why they set up an Information Market with owners who own and just can’t stop themselves from having to dominate domains.

    That market-cornering ownership model has led to the increasing impoverishment of information — Why, because information gets controlled — one more time — by the Biggest Bullies on the Block.

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