“The process of tying two items together is the important thing,” wrote Vannevar Bush in a seminal essay titled “As We Think,” published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1945. Bush described a hypothetical device that would allow the storage and retrieval of data, the memory of mankind. It would be constructed of associative “trails,” which future generations could consult and further enhance with new information. He called it “memex.

Cyberia logo

For many, Bush was a trailblazer of not only the PC but also the Internet. Almost 20 years later another visionary named Ted Nelson introduced the concept of hypertext, which would be integrated into his grand Xanadu project. Although neither Bush nor Nelson ever produced any actual solutions, they wrote the Rosetta Stones for integrated electronic data systems, and their legacies reverberate on the Web.

Last month, we could hear some temblors at a Silicon startup company called Third Voice when it unveiled something akin to Web Post-Its. Unlike real-world Post-Its, those invaluable little visual reminders and annotations, the cyber-equivalent is largely intended for the public forum. Heretofore on the Net, if you had something to say, you voiced your views in a newsgroup, a mailing list or, if you had the time, on your own Web page. Likewise, many sites have invited visitors to participate in discussions related to their content, but Third Voice takes this a step further, by allowing users to post on top of any document.

Say you beg to differ with a columnist’s faulty logic, or want to protest the sweatshops of a multinational company. Or perhaps you want your students to comment on a relevant document, or you’d like your relatives to see praise you’ve given to your cousin’s first Web page.

With the Third Voice plug-in, which burrows itself into your browser window, you can “virtually” embed comments in Web pages. While some might see it as Hacking Lite, the posts don’t actually modify the original document’s content. The comments are cached on the Third Voice server, and they can be viewed at the site for an indefinite period. These are only visible to those who have the Third Voice plug-in, and only registered users can post.

More than most Web gizmos, Third Voice has touched a nerve. The advent of virtual graffiti naturally terrifies most Webmasters. It challenges their autonomy, threatens their creations. Consumer complaint sites are listed alongside the official sites at Yahoo!, but Third Voice permits the merging of both. It is public relations’ worst nightmare.

Critics have stated that companies have a right to present their products in a pristine fashion. This type of virtual graffiti could easily be seen as the distortion of a corporate image and intellectual property. But what of the unsatisfied consumer, the exploited employee, the victimized taxpayer? They need a voice. Question is, should this be the tool of revolution?

An emphatic “no” is the response on the several anti-Third Voice pages that have been erected in the wake of the Third Voice beta release. One of them, Say No To TV (nototv.hypermart.net), offers links to Javascript that blocks users of Third Voice. Another Webmaster worries that links-embedded notes could lure children away from her “family safe” sites and into dens of sin. Similarly lively discussions of the pros and cons of Third Voice have sprung up in diverse corners of the Web from AuctionWatch.com to MacOpinion.com (which is ironic since the software is for Windows only).

The creators of Third Voice are waving a familiar banner, emblazoned with the crest of Net freedom. They say they are restoring a balance between users (consumers, readers) and Web publishers. While their intentions may be virtuous, there is ample room for abuse. Granted, a telephone can be wielded with malicious intent (hello all you telemarketers), but defamatory graffiti from a Third Voice poster could be likened to a prank call to a thousand people.

The problem here is the lack of accountability. Unlike newsgroups, e-mail addresses aren’t displayed in a Third Voice post, just a moniker. Newsgroups plagued by anonymous flamers have either attempted to attain some form of civil discourse or been sucked into a whirlpool of noise. Third Voice has a policy of booting errant posters (i.e., spammers, flamers) off the system, but is it enough?

Third Voice’s creators would like a community to arise, even though their technology is, by nature, nomadic. Their home page aspires to be a portal by pointing users in the direction of hot discussions. Whether you’ll find intelligent dialogue is another matter. Most posts tend to be one-liners severely lacking great pith and moment. Also, many posts I saw were unconnected to previous posts. Seeing this is like watching a dozen trees falling silently in the forest. Without continuing dialogue, communities perish.

Many of the comments I saw on various Web sites pertained to Third Voice and, ironically, ignored the content of the Web pages themselves. Users will be grappling with these issues for quite some time.

They would do well to check out the discussion at Crit.org, a site that provides a similar Web annotation tool called CritSuite. Since it is an Open Source endeavor, the atmosphere is noncommercial, and since it’s been available since last fall, users and developers have had more time to work out the kinks and chew on the issues.

The technology behind Third Voice might appear more advanced, but the dialogue at Crit.org is higher quality. The community here is much more attuned to the ethics involved. For example, the CritSuite software allows users to edit comments that they’ve already posted, and also allows posters to specify what documents can be annotated.

In his writings, Vannevar Bush saw technology taking man to a higher level of thinking. Third Voice users would do well to think hard before they exercise their freedom of expression.

P.S.: This will soon be an annotatable document at www.japantimes.co.jp. Dozo yoroshiku.