Have you ever looked at the Web pages you’ve been surfing through and thought to yourself “wouldn’t it be cool if I could write on those”?  I hadn’t, until today.

I wrote earlier on this blog that I was looking at FireShot, a Firefox add-on (which works for Internet Explorer as well) that allows you to take a screenshot of a Web page (either all or part of the page), and then annotate and mark up that screenshot image with comment bubbles, highlighting, pen stylus, color fills, and a range of other editing tools.  The application isn’t incredibly versatile (e.g. you can select and delete text comments, but not some of the highlighting/color changes), but it works very well for the purpose to which I’m hoping to put it: providing it as a grading tool for composition instructors who are having students produce Web pages as assignments.  

The instructors are part of a pilot program for next semester, called tentatively the 202C Online project.  We’re asking six Technical Writing instructors to use the Blogs @ Penn State platform (Moveable Type blogging software) to have students create E-portfolios of their work.  The goal is to introduce students to a new writing environment, and to begin paving the way for the Composition Program to introduce new media assignments to composition instructors more broadly.

Stuart, the professor in charge of the whole thing, pointed out to me today that FireShot only works for PCs, not for Macs (being a Mac user, he’s in a good position to notice those little discrepancies).  He asked if there was an alternative… and I ended up spending a large part of my afternoon finding an answer to that question.  

My email back to him included this summary of three options:

I’ve found a lot of different alternatives (I’m fascinated by the Web-annotating tools that are being developed right now, but a lot of them are still in their earliest stages…).  Unfortunately, none are a perfect fit.  Here are the top candidates so far (all Mac compatible, as far as I can tell):

1. Screengrab .  This Firefox add-on is a lot simpler than FireShot: it captures a screenshot of either the visible page or the whole Web page, and then saves it as an image file.  If I’m right, most PCs have some application like Paint that would then allow the instructor to annotate the image…but annotating in Paint is difficult (often counter-intuitive), and is just generally less functional than I would like.  This isn’t my favorite option, but in some ways it is the simplest.
2. Another option is ShiftSpace.  This open-source annotation tool seems meant more as a social-networking tool, but I think it could work as an annotation tool for our purposes.  Drawbacks: I think it might be overly complex, and it looks like it involves joining the “ShiftSpace community.”  The comments can be made private, but their default is public.  This is a cool idea, but probably too much for our purposes.
3. I think the best alternative might be ScrapBook , another Firefox add-on.  It allows for a lot of the editing functionality I think we’d need, but I haven’t figured out how to share the image file yet…
I didn’t mention to him the plethora of other annotation programs I’d come across, but rejected for various reasons.  I found, among other things, a popular link listing 9 annotation tools.  Also, A.nnotated.com offers a service which, while it looks perfect for our purposes, is for-profit (meaning they charge you lots of money for something that other programs do for free…although there is some added value they offer that is cool, but wouldn’t have been worth it).  There are a large number of “sticky note” programs that function primarily as bookmarking tools with added description (but which could possibly be used to give section-specific commentary on a specific page). 
Of all those options, though, ShiftSpace (#2 from my email) intrigued me the most.  As an opensource, freeware application, I liked what I knew of their politics.  The application is designed to connect people through the annotations they make: upon visiting a given Web page, a ShiftSpace user can look to see if anyone else has “shifted” the contents of that page.  If they have, the user can look at those “shifts” (alterations in content, annotation, or some other form of user-intervention), and add their own.  The introductory screencasts I watched put an emphasis on community and interaction with others, and suggested that this type of writing was an attempt to de-centralize what was supposed to already be a de-centralized medium.  
The whole exercise of looking through these tools got me thinking: if this is the direction online writing is moving in, what will websurfing look like ten, fifteen years from now?  I’m imagining an interface where users mark-up and alter anything they want, where parodies of corporate sites are more popular than the “official” version, where people offer each other annotated, altered “paths” through the Web as presents, as experiences to be given away and shared…  I don’t know if I’m making any sense, but this stuff is COOL.