Post-it Notes: Saving YouTube’s Video Annotations

YouTube took a decision In late 2018 to discontinue its video annotations feature. These were vital in the era before closed captions were available, not to mention unique in the interactivity they provided. Over the next few weeks, volunteers from across the internet would rush to rescue these video annotations. Below are some of their stories…

So I’m looking around and I find an automatic level of Yoshi’s Island on YouTube by some guy –wait, no, Some Guy. I follow him for a good while. There’s a minor crisis when one of the features of his videos is announced to be discontinued: YouTube annotations. This was how he delivered commentary. Those going away would be a bit of a sticking point.

Screenshot of Some Guy playing through Super Mario World, here video annotations are used to provide text-based commentary.

Flash forward to about a year later. He’s now using VideoPad and griping about the inability to go back and fix his typos (of which there are about 400 as of this current writing). A new project is started for a SMW hack called Magical Crystals. But there’s an ominous note in the description: annotations are going to completely disappear. I of course took this news spectacularly well. And by that I mean I have a backup of all of his videos on a flash drive.

I opened up youtube-dl and got six channels in their entirety out of fear: the previously referenced SomeGuy712x, PinkKittyRose, qzecwx which I’m surprised I remembered how to spell, Shinryu, Kit, and SuperMetalSonic360. It was only after doing that that I realized I was wasting time and storage space. Good job, me.

I then opened up a repository collecting various channels’ worth of annotation data, which you can find here. I looked around for other efforts to save annotations. (This is the only reason I have any sort of social media, namely a Reddit account, by the way.) And that is when I found the Discord server now known as the Internet Trash Heap. They had a worker to find and archive annotation files. I naturally ran three of them. We saved 1.4 billion videos worth. (Yes, I did have to look that figure up.)

In the end, they now survive on Invidious, thanks in part to my only merged PR. I feel a certain level of pride about this. Certainly why Fukkireta brings back memories for me.

Screenshot of the legendary Fukkireta upload, a hallmark of annotation-bombing. No longer works on YouTube, but can be viewed in Invidious.

– glmdgrielson

Over the past year, a lot of progress has been made in restoring YouTube annotations.

When YouTube removed annotations on January 15, 2019, they removed the XML data for them, but not the code needed to render them. Because of this, I wrote a Firefox extension called AnnotationsReloaded, which replaced the response to the request for annotation data with the archived data.

tech234a's Annotations Reloaded plugin, available as a Firefox extension

This worked until YouTube removed the rendering code from their player, which had started to break in August and was almost completely gone by the end of September. Because of this, glmdgrielson, afrmtbl, myself, and others began to work on re-implementing annotation rendering with new JS code. This code is now used in Invidious and in a new browser extension, also named Annotations Restored.

Also, an API has been added to Invidious for retrieving annotation data. A Reddit user by the name of Archivist has also collected some YouTube metadata, so we may be able to further expand the collection of data available on the API in the future.

– tech234a

The strange thing about YouTube’s annotation removal was that it was unnatural. So unnatural in fact, that even a year later the annotation switch in the YouTube player is still there.

General opinion at the time was either neutral, or in favor of the removal. People considered annotations to be a relic, which had served its purpose. Much like the removal of the video responses feature, the community celebrated the removal of annotations, bidding farewell to an outdated and frequently abused feature.

Yet it would seem that behind that vocal cheering was silent weeping… That common silence is strangely what brought us all together, which is kind of ironic when you think about how annotations themselves were at one point an alternative to comments. You could use annotations to connect channels or videos, many collabs often did.

A screenshot from "What if the Earth were Hollow", a collab between Minute Physics and Vsauce, linked through a video annotation.

The degree of connectivity between annotations was astounding. Back in January of 2019 while trying to make a tool of my own for gathering the video annotations, I started on a list of chuggaaconroy videos and ran a crawl from annotation link to annotation link. I was able to scan maybe upwards of 100 thousand videos. Unfortunately, I was not able to grab these, due to some kinks in the program. Still, with what we did end up salvaging I’m fairly certain it’s possible to see that interlinkage.

77804 links crawled, you'll have to take my word for it that it was eventually in the hundred thousands...
This is sadly the best screenshot I could find, but believe me I saw 6 digits, you’ll have to take my word for it.

So in fact, those of us freaking out in that large web of videos all knew each other, maybe like neighbors, we just hadn’t met yet… Funny enough my own biggest contribution was perhaps bringing some publicity to the whole endeavor.

The last few days remaining… It’s January, my efforts seem too insignificant and I’m not convincing anyone to join me. All seems lost…

In a shocking turn of events I managed to hit the jackpot with a certain post I made on Reddit. It was just a set of tools I’d made so people could back things up locally or on the WayBackMachine. Not my finest work to say the least, with me actually messing up the .exe versions. Nonetheless, I was able to stir much discussion in the comments helping a lot of people -myself included- find out about several independent archiving efforts, including the group who would later go down in history as the Internet Trash Heap.

That thread as far as I’m concerned is a treasure in its own right, and even if the actual topic that post was about is no longer relevant it really reflects the zeitgeist of those anxious days.

I’m glad to report those are just pleasant memories now…

– The Mad Programer

I, unfortunately, did not contribute much directly to archiving annotations. I first found out annotations were going to be removed completely from a tweet by Neil Cicierega about how he was editing the descriptions of an interactive video project he made so that the project would work without annotations.

Being someone who already cared about loss of digital heritage, I was quite worried about all the information which would surely go away. I tried in vain to beg YouTube via social media, but obviously this didn’t do anything. However, I did find the Discord server dedicated to mitigating this problem by gathering up all the annotations before they could be deleted.

  "batch_count": 231336,
  "batch_finished": 231336,
  "batch_remaining": 0,
  "content_size": 477980701872,
  "estimated_video_count": 2313360000,
  "estimated_video_finished": 2313360000,
  "estimated_video_remaining": 0,
  "worker_count": 1674,
  "worker_active": 43

In the end, while not all annotations could be grabbed, the project was still able to scan billions of videos and thus saved a sizable portion of them, especially ones from popular channels. While I don’t especially miss the feature (though YouTube hasn’t really added anything new which could replace their functionality), I am glad that this chunk of Internet history was not lost forever.



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