A browser plugin called Dissenter has grabbed headlines lately. Dissenter lets users leave comments on any webpage, with the comments appearing through the plugin rather than as part of the page. This means users can comment even on sites that don't do comments, or skirt moderation on sites that do allow comments.
I don't want to say too much about Dissenter in particular. Its community is not one I would want to listen to. Dissenter touts moderation circumvention as its main feature, and as one Hacker News user said, "if you start from an anti-censorship anti-moderation position, in this day and age, you are likely to attract the worst of society right off the bat." Sad but true.
And that's doubly true given that the driving force behind Dissenter is Gab, a Twitter-like platform for alt-right degenerates whose penchant for hate speech runs up against Twitter's terms of service. Banned from Twitter for threatening minorities? Move over to Gab -- they'll be glad to have you.
So I'll have to pass on Dissenter.
But I'm glad it exists, and has gotten attention, even if it's a perfect example of how "everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism"1.
The general premise of Dissenter -- allowing visitors to a specific URL to easily communicate with one another, independent and apart from the page -- really interests me. But more importantly, some of the comments I've read about Dissenter have shed some light on similar programs from the past, one of which I've been searching for for years.
Around 2000 I used a browser plugin that let me chat with other people who were visiting the same URL. I didn't use it for very long, mostly because I could never find other users visiting obscure left communist Geocities sites, but the idea (if not the name) stuck with me. Years later, I started searching for it, hoping to find something as meagre as a blurb and a screenshot. Ever few years I'd try searches like "per site chat" or "chat based on URL." I hope it's no surprise that these search terms got me nowhere.
But thanks to some of the comments about Dissenter (particularly in this Hacker News post about cmntr, a similar tool but not noxiously political) I learned that Dissenter is an example of what were once apparently called "metaweb" or "virtual presence" applications. Digging just a bit deeper, I finally found the program I've been looking for.
It was probably Gooey. Gooey was launched in 1999. It enabled "people who are simultaneously browsing the same Web site to communicate with each other ... As a Gooey user, you get a constantly updated list of all the other online users on any site you visit. With its friendly, intuitive interface, Gooey lets you conduct group and private chats, exchange information or files, and meet new friends while exploring your favorite sites." That's per its archived page. The domain started serving up pornography in 2001, so I guess Gooey disappeared when the dot-com bubble burst. But it was neat while it lasted, as this review attests.
Interestingly, even a 1999 debut meant that Gooey was late to the party. According to virtual-presence.org there have been similar applications since the dawn of the web. Here are just a few noteworthy ones:
As early as 1993 NCSA Mosaic had a feature called group annotation. It's described here in more detail. Essentially, users could host a group annotation server. These users could then visit any internet site and make annotations, which would be stored on the group annotation server so that others with access to it could retrieve those annotations any time they visited a site. This is pretty cool, but it sounds as if small group of users (each LAN?) were expected to use their own isolated annotation server. This might've worked for annotating a small set of internal pages, but it definitely did not suffice for even the early and small World Wide Web.
In 1998 Third Voice launched. Third Voice was "a free browser utility [that] 'snaps onto' the bottom of a Web browser window, and invites people to annotate a site with their views on news, products, and politics." That quote's from Wired. The Third Voice Wikipedia page is also interesting. Third Voice didn't seem to offer real time chat, just comments. Here is an archived version of the Third Voice page.
Something called Crowd Burst sounds similar to Third Voice, only a little later. CNET covered it in 2002. One feature new to Crowd Burst was an ability to lead other users to new URLs as if on a "tour" of the internet.
But that just scratches the surface. virtual-presence lists many similar applications, some of which must've been obscure even in their day.