New: Google Sidewiki

Google Sidewiki is an app you can install for Firefox and Internet Explorer as part of the Google Toolbar. It lets you discuss any webpage out there with others – by adding messages in a side bar displayed on a given page. If you’re not a toolbar fan, then Sidewiki being part of that bar means you’ll have to install a bit of clutter along with it (and moving the Sidewiki out of the toolbar and then hiding the bar is buggy in Firefox).

Here’s an example screenshot. For instance, when visiting the Sidewiki icon will be gray. But when visiting, it will jump into an animation and turn yellow, meaning that someone left a message for – a new collapsed bar appears to the left:

You can then click the left hand bar and expand the comments. For, Google’s Marissa Mayer left a comment talking about Google holiday logos, for instance. The message can be up and downvoted (“Useful? Yes ... No”), abuse-reported (as spam and more might turn into a problem for this type of app), and shared. A nice touch is that you can share a link to the individual comment, which can be seen by others even without having Sidewiki installed. You can also access the Sidewiki Data API to grab the wiki entries, as in the entries Atom feed for

Further than just showing Sidewiki comments, Google also links out to related content found on the web. For, blog posts from sites like Mashable (and Blogoscoped too) appeared. The bar may also include Sidewiki comments made by users referring to the same quote but in the context of another page, as Google explains in a blog post. And if you’re authenticated as the page owner via Google Webmaster Tools, you can also write a “sticky” comment for your own page, i.e. one that will always be above other comments.

Writing a new entry opens up a subject and comment field. Additionally, you can highlight a part of the page you’re on to comment specifically on that part. There’s no editing help in sight and no preview button either, so you might feel a bit lost (and trigger double encoding errors) when trying to do stuff like adding reference links (just pasting in a URL seems to work fine). Feel free to do some testing on this blog post. Note messages you’ll add may appear on your Google Profile.

The base idea of Sidewiki is old and has been tried before in different forms – like a decade ago by the name of Third Voice – but I’m curious if Google will give it a new push. One of the bigger issues facing this type of app may not be technological, but social (and perhaps even legal): What happens if people loudly rant about, and the owner doesn’t feel like it’s fair that this is all written “on top of their homepage"? And what if some of the ranting people happen to be competitors of Let’s take a look into the history books of Wired (from 2001) to see what happened to Third Voice:

In 1999, [Eng-Sion Tan] and two colleagues launched Third Voice, a free browser plug-in that allowed Web surfers to annotate any site with their comments. The idea was to spark “inline discussions” among Web users, promoting a new civic mindedness that would keep corporations, government and the media honest.

But the seemingly innocuous “sticky notes” gained enemies quicker than users. Launching a grassroots campaign called Say No to TV, some 400 independent Web hosts banded together to gag Third Voice, which they likened to “Web graffiti.” (...)

On Monday, Third Voice posted a short message on its site, notifying users that the service had been discontinued (...)

Despite its opponents’ claims that people used the software to post lewd or libelous comments, Third Voice didn’t go down in a lawsuit. The company’s conundrum was much more banal: Third Voice couldn’t generate enough advertising revenue to raise consumers’ awareness of its free service, and it couldn’t generate enough consumer awareness to raise the advertising revenue it needed to stay in business.

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