Sidewiki – bad idea

Google Sidewiki has got many excited, not because it is neat or cool, but because it is a bad idea – something that feels instinctively wrong and that, after not much further thought, clearly is wrong.

Sidewiki installs on the Google Toolbar and allows anyone to comment on any web page, displaying ranked comments in a sidebar to the page which is revealed by clicking on the Sidewiki button. The site owner has no say in this. Thus is Google hijacking comments; and it will use them for its own purposes.

By encroaching on content creation and publishing (news, video, books, now comments) Google is departing rapidly from its mission to “organise the world’s information” to controlling the world’s information.

Per John @ amusing ourselves:

Google has a history of riding roughshod over the rights of content owners, Booksearch, YouTube and Google News are notable examples of the company building a network on the back of others’ intellectual property, using its power and wealth to grind down opponents in the courts. And when they were going after the big guys … Google’s libertarian stance seemed justifiable. Even democratic. But now Google has come after everyone who runs a site on the web, with what is, in effect, a global commenting, and potentially adserving, system.

Even prominent Google fan Jeff Jarvis is worried:

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.

Power corrupts. “Don’t be evil” is not enough.

8 thoughts on “Sidewiki – bad idea

  1. I am not sure (yet) that I see the harm. Is it any different from readers on Amazon commenting on books or products, or indeed professional journalists writing book reviews? In neither case does the content originator (the writer, publisher, producer et al) have any say or control over what people say or write about their products. They must take the rough with the smooth. Moreover, Amazon presumably uses (or hijacks in your terms) the reviews and comments for its own purposes too. Is that sinister? I think much worse of google for hijacking other people’s original intellectual property, than I do for facilitating what is in essence the creation of new content (by the commentators).

  2. Paul

    I’ve no problem with comments about my products/sites anywhere else on the web. Amazon, Facebook, Twitter etc don’t hijack anything.

    The key differences with Sidewiki are (1) Google’s size and influence (2) Sidewiki comments are attached to and displayed with the “target” page.

  3. Indeed, it’s (2) that is key for me. To answer the Amazon analogy you are looking at the wrong ‘owner’. The comments are only on Amazon because Amazon has requested them. What Amazon puts on its own website is up to them and, when deciding to sell through Amazon, sellers take this in to account. What appears on a website should be controllable by the website owner. Just like Nick could delete my comment here if he chose to, site owners should be able to delete comments displayed next to their own website if they choose to.

    To get to what I believe to be the real issue; what positive is to be gained for the web as a whole if I go to the websites of all my competitors adding a comment stating that they should be using my services instead? Suddenly my competitors advertising tool, their website, is also advertising mine own. Surely that cannot be right.

  4. On further consideration, I am more inclined to agree, particularly in regard to point (2). It is a bit like Amazon not just putting comments on the site where you buy the product, but repackaging the product itself when they mail it out to you, or stickering it with rude and probably ignorant comments by other users. As James points out, it is open to not just vulgar abuse but what could amount to commercial sabotage.

  5. The Amazon analogy doesn’t work because apart from the fact that Amazon invite the comments, they are also not published without first being moderated, just as with blog comments.

    Sidewicki allows unmoderated commentary, spam, and blatant advertising without the consent of the site owner. And even if he objects, there is nothing he can do to remove it.

    Many have said that webmasters should be able to opt-in to the Sidewicki experience but Google will never go down that route as they know that very few will ever opt-in.

    Sidewicki needs to die a quick death. In a class action, Google would lose, but the problem is that the legal process would likely be drawn out over 2 to 3 years and in that time too many casualties would ensue thanks to this terrible product.

  6. I’m a bit late to this discussion, but I’ve an interest in copyright and such, and found this through searching around about side wiki and annotation.

    Anyway, adopting a more user orientated viewpoint, I have some questions about the opposition to this. My thinking runs along a number of different lines, but let me start with this – does the user have the right to engage in a conversation in the context of a page or to add to a page independently of the page’s author? Real life analogies would say yes. For example, I can write something on a newspaper or a book and create a ‘personal copy’ if you like. I think most consider that fair use. Indeed, furthermore, I could pass this copy onto a friend, or pass my annotations on to a friend with relevant instructions on where to put them in his own copy of the book. It’s content creation in the context of someone else’s work that happens independently of that someone else.

    So that leads me to ask if online page authors should have the right to monopolise control of end user engagement with their pages?

    The argument I see often given here is that such uninvited engagement or modification or addition to the page is effectively spam. That indeed for the end user it could create a terribly spammy experience also. However, let’s pretend SideWiki enforced a system where a user has to explicitly opt-in to see another user’s sidewiki comments. Thereby when they visit a page, their sidewiki is personalised so they only see people they’ve explicitly opted-in to see – does the spam argument then hold up? I think it may be tricky to define spam in terms of what the page author allows versus what the end viewer allows…if the end viewer has invited that content it may be difficult to class it as spam, particularly if done so on a user-by-user basis. And arguments about stealth marketers tempting customers away from your site seem to weaken…such a marketer is only going to be as influential as the number of people subscribed to see his comments, and end-users also shockingly don’t like marketers much, so I think under this kind of regimen his influence would be significantly weakened…

    I know with the above I’ve changed the goalposts a bit, made an imaginary modification to the sidewiki service, but I can easily see such a change happening. It’s not difficult to imagine Sidewiki or a service like it enforcing this kind of ‘user to user’ system.

    From a user perspective I also just personally feel that this whole thing is quite in keeping with where the web has been headed – giving over ever greater control to users. I’ve seen many tech bloggers report with glee how the internet has disrupted and democratised traditional media and has torn down traditional paper media, elevating the ordinary user to a new level of participation and importance. But now that this revolution is perhaps knocking at their own door, in terms of the user’s control in their relationship with the webpage, you see a certain amount of shirking back. For example I was absolutely astounded to read Jeff Jarvis’s commentary on this. So much of it reads contrary to the ‘Google Rules’ and the sentiment he presents in his book. When I first read about side wiki I actually figured it would be something Jeff would love, would be the epitome of all the things he waxes lyrical about in his book – about ceding control to the user, and the disruption this brings, and how people who claim to ‘own’ anything anymore- let alone conversation – need to face up to the fact that the barbarians are at the gate. The core core principle he talks about is giving control to the user. How the web is becoming something personal and filtered and ‘edited’ (his word!) by your peers. But when this little revolution threatens to disrupt the relationship between his webpage and its users, all of those nice things he talked about in the book seemed to go out the window in favour of personal concern about his rights as a content owner and his ownership over the conversation in that content. He starts talking like the people he rails against in WWGD. I think somewhere, one of the dinosaurs in old media was having a chuckle at his new found predicament.

    Anyway, I digress. I’ve just found the response to this to be quite interesting.

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