The Web Has a Missing Feature You Never Knew About

Few people in this world can point to a decision they made at some point in the past and say with absolute certainty that if they’d taken a different route, it would have changed the world. Marc Andreessen is one of those people. As the co-founder of Netscape, Andreessen made an entirely rational decision to drop a feature that would mean they could ship a working product much faster. However, the result is that he’s spent a lot of time wondering how things would have turned out if the feature had stayed the course.

The feature in question is annotation - the ability to layer knowledge on web pages. Much of the information on the internet is in a read-only format, which doesn’t allow us to interact with it in the same way that readers and researchers have for centuries, writing notes in the margins of printed publications. It wasn’t intended to be like that. Mosaic, also co-founded by Andreessen, was the world’s first widely distributed web browser, which later grew into Netscape as a for-profit enterprise. When Andreessen and Eric Bina, his Netscape co-founder, were building the updated browser, they had initially included an annotation feature.

Writing in a blog post in 2012, Andreessen stated:  “It seemed obvious to us that users would want to annotate all text on the web – our idea was that each web page would be a launchpad for insight and debate about its own contents. So we built a feature called “group annotations” right into the browser – and it worked great – all users could comment on any page, and discussions quickly ensued.”

The only problem was that this was 1995, and cloud storage wasn’t yet available. Keeping the annotation feature required a server to store all the annotation data, which would have taken time to build. So Andreessen and Bina decided to drop the feature. 

“Big Missing Feature”

Andreessen’s regret at what was lost with the annotation feature has been evident in his writings and investments since then. The blog post in question was published on the website of Genius, an explainer of why he’d chosen to invest in the firm. It came down to the fact that Genius, then called Rap Genius, offered a feature that allowed users to annotate web pages, in the words of Andreessen: the web browser’s “big missing feature.” He goes on to state:  “I often wonder how the Internet would have turned out differently if users had been able to annotate everything — to add new layers of knowledge to all knowledge, on and on, ad infinitum.”

What Would Be Different? 

You may be wondering, what exactly is it about annotation that makes Marc Andreessen think our online lives would be so fundamentally different? Well, it’s impossible to say precisely how the last 25 years would have turned out if annotation hadn’t ended up in the trash. 

But it’s undeniable that the internet has become an attention economy based on an advertising model worth around $200 billion a year. Even the language of how we use the internet has changed – we used to surf the web, a term that conjures up the idea of active choice-making. Now, we browse the internet and look at our feed – passive phrases to describe largely passive activities. 

Arguably, an ad-based model was inevitable even with annotation. However, if it had been available, annotation could have provided other models for monetization that don’t necessarily involve being served up with an endless stream of ads. 

Furthermore, the ad model provides zero incentives for the publisher to facilitate readers leaving their website to explore the web in all its breadth and depth. Most commercial websites actively eschew outbound links, meaning that context and attribution are often missing. In a world where websites could be annotated, fake news and misinformation would be more quickly and easily weeded out and identified as such, increasing information integrity and therefore trust in the web itself. 

The Spawn of Social? 

To some extent, the inability to annotate websites must be partially at the root of the success of social media. Much of the re-sharing that happens on Facebook and Twitter is simply someone providing information with their own thoughts or opinions on the matter and inviting others to do the same. 

And, of course, social media took the attention economy and super-sized it. Would Facebook have been quite so popular, or so influential at this point in time, if there’d been a big enough server for Netscape’s annotation feature back in 1995? 

As things stand today, there’s no reason why we can’t have annotation on the internet. The technical barriers that existed in 1995 were resolved years ago with the emergence of cloud computing and blockchain. Moreover, with today’s internet speeds, there is no reason why annotation of web pages in real time can’t happen just as quickly and interactively as a conversation on Twitter or other social media. 

Rather than the single-dimensional transactional browsing that we undertake today, each session will become an immersive, multi-layered experience comprising information, interactions, and all the rich history of information connections that were built before we happened on that particular website. Annotation may seem too simple a concept to enable such a seismic change. But given that the father of the browser implies annotation could be the internet’s greatest missed opportunity, we have everything to gain by looking deeply into this collective blind spot. 

Author Bio:

Daveed Benjamin has held a number of leadership roles in startups, nonprofits, and social enterprises in emergent fields. He is currently the CEO of a technology company focused on building decentralized applications in a trust layer over the current web, and founder of The Overweb project, He holds a B.S. and M.S. from Stanford University, and is currently based in Tulum, Mexico, the first stop of the Overweb Tour.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.