Hypothesis: This Company Enables Users To Annotate Online Content

By Amit Chowdhry • Aug 2, 2023

Hypothesis – which is Anno’s advanced web annotation software solution that implements a real-time conversation layer over the entire web – enables sentence-level note-taking or critique on top of a diverse array of texts, such as blogs, legislation, articles, and news with users creating over 50 million annotations so far. Pulse 2.0 interviewed Anno and Hypothesis CEO Dan Whaley to learn more.

Dan Whaley’s Background

Dan Whaley

Dan Whaley is a developer and entrepreneur passionate about open-source software and open standards. Whaley said:

“Earlier in my career, I started the first travel reservation company on the web, GetThere. The first reservation ever made over a web browser went through a server in my living room in Palo Alto. We took that company public and in 2000 sold it to Sabre, where it still runs as a wholly owned subsidiary today serving tens of billions in travel a year.”

“Since then, I’ve been involved in a variety of other companies, including Sauce Labs, the web testing company, and GetAround, the car-sharing company, which went public last December.”

Formation Of Hypothesis

How did the idea for Hypothesis come together? Whaley shared:

“In a previous venture we focused on climate solutions so I spent a bunch of time reading climate news, and seeing how basic facts were misrepresented by all sides. The news is a terrible vehicle for conveying information, but it’s where most of us still get our supply. I wondered if it would be possible to have a universal lens over that information. It turns out that is a very old idea— one that is relatively simple technically but more challenging socially. The Hypothesis here is that it is indeed possible to create this given the right strategy. We’ve made a ton of progress. It’s clear now we can get there.”

Favorite Memory

What has been Whaley’s favorite memory working for Hypothesis so far? Whaley reflected:

“Probably getting to work with John Perry Barlow, our first board member, before he passed. He was one of the most remarkable and brilliant people I ever met.”

Challenges Faced

What are some of the challenges Whaley faced in building the company, and has the current macroeconomic climate had any effect on the company? Whaley acknowledged:

“By far, the most difficult challenge has been the skepticism by folks that what we’re trying to do is even possible— technically, socially, commercially. With some projects, you can just write code, put it out there, and win. This one, because of its nature, has required buy-in along the way, and it’s because of key people at critical stages who said “yes” that we’re here. I am incredibly grateful to them.”

“The (macroeconomic) climate always has an effect, but we’ve been very fortunate to be growing rapidly in education. Success helps mitigate the macroeconomics.”

Core Products

What are Hypothesis’ core products and features? Whaley explained: 

“Hypothesis core product is an open-source platform that enables anyone to annotate or comment on any online piece of content. It is used to discuss key points, collaborate over content, find others with common interests, organize research, or take personal notes. New users can create a free account here, and then download a Chrome extension to use the tool. After those two simple steps, they can start using it.”

“We also offer an educational product that brings our core functionality within Learning Management Systems like Canvas and Blackboard so that students can help each other learn on every page of every assignment they’re given.”

Evolution Of Hypothesis’ Technology

How has Hypothesis’ technology evolved since launching? Whaley noted: 

“While I’d say the basic architecture, which is embedded in the W3C protocol and overall client-server approach, has remained consistent, we’ve rewritten much of the stack since we originally created it.”

“The front end used to be Angular, and we’ve moved towards React (actually preact) instead. More recently, we’ve moved to adopt Tailwind. Much of how we deploy in AWS has been reimplemented using Terraform. We’ve also eliminated Jenkins.”

Significant Milestones

What have been some of Hypothesis’ most significant milestones? Whaley highlighted:

“The adoption of Web Annotation by the W3C as a standard was a really big deal for us, as it signified that major players saw the importance of this and were willing to work together— and that the approach that we’d taken technically was recognized as appropriate by others.”

Customer Success Stories

Upon asking Whaley about customer success stories, he cited:

1.) University of Alaska Fairbanks – Assistant professor of psychology Kevin Walters has been using Hypothesis in his Intro to Psychology class of 60 students. The professor has used this tool in previous semesters, where his students have created about 2,100 annotations on the readings and content of the class. Professor Walters and his students are pleased with the tool. Professor Walters says that the tool has allowed him to create a learning community for his students without an excessive investment of time. At the same time, his students said it was a tool that allowed them to interact with their peers and make reading fun. For more info, click here.

2.) University of Southern Mississippi – Graduate teaching assistants Katherine Gaffney and Katie McKenzei used Hypothesis as a tool for their online and face-to-face classes. Katherine was looking for a way to develop collaborative engagement among students, and after using it, she discovered how it facilitated peer learning, making learning more equitable for her students. Katie found that her students felt more comfortable writing their opinions online than expressing them in the classroom, which could be stressful for them. She also noticed an increase in the number of annotations her students left on online documents, which increased their confidence to speak up during teamwork. To learn more about their experiences, click here.

3.) Kalamazoo College – Ph.D. Josh Moon was looking for a tool that didn’t feel artificial and like a requirement but one that would allow his students to engage organically. He intended to use Hypothesis to supplement and motivate his face-to-face classes and found that students who had difficulty expressing their thoughts in the classroom felt more comfortable doing so online. The professor mentions that social annotation allows students to find their voice. To learn more about the impact social annotation has had on Professor Moon’s class, click here.

Total Addressable Market

What total addressable market (TAM) size is Hypothesis pursuing? Whaley assessed:

“We think the market for universal collaboration and conversation infrastructure on planet Earth is worth hundreds of billions of dollars.”

Differentiation From The Competition

What differentiates Hypothesis from its competition? Whaley pointed out: 

“We believe in open source. We think for many applications it simply outperforms any other approach in terms of durability, competitiveness, and ultimately for the happiness of people working in these spaces. In the space we’re in, that’s definitely still a minority viewpoint. Our differentiator is that what we’re building should be universal and work everywhere, on every page, in every platform, and within every app. That’s a big vision.”

Future Company Goals

What are some of Hypothesis’ future company goals? Whaley concluded:

“We want to be behind thousands of actions and queries that nearly everyone makes daily. If we succeed, then in a few short years, people will forget that there was ever a time they couldn’t collaborate everywhere with anyone.”