You might not think this is a big deal, and maybe it’s not, but I love the idea behind the indie web: a people-focused alternative to the corporate web. Seeing everything you’ve ever linked to in one place really drives home how much of the web’s content, made by individuals, is under corporate control and identity.
Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020
Friday, June 19th, 2020
What I love about the web is that it’s a hypertext. (Though in recent years it has mostly been used as a janky app delivery platform.)
I am very much enjoying Matt’s thoughts on linking, quoting, transclusion, and associative trails.
My blog is my laboratory workbench where I go through the ideas and paragraphs I’ve picked up along my way, and I twist them and turn them and I see if they fit together. I do that by narrating my way between them. And if they do fit, I try to add another piece, and then another. Writing a post is a process of experimental construction.
And then I follow the trail, and see where it takes me.
Thursday, December 12th, 2019
For a closed system, those kinds of open connections are deeply dangerous. If anyone on Instagram can just link to any old store on the web, how can Instagram — meaning Facebook, Instagram’s increasingly-overbearing owner — tightly control commerce on its platform? If Instagram users could post links willy-nilly, they might even be able to connect directly to their users, getting their email addresses or finding other ways to communicate with them. Links represent a threat to closed systems.
Anil Dash on the war on hyperlinks.
It may be presented as a cost-saving measure, or as a way of reducing the sharing of untrusted links. But it is a strategy, designed to keep people from the open web, the place where they can control how, and whether, someone makes money off of an audience. The web is where we can make sites that don’t abuse data in the ways that Facebook properties do.
Tuesday, September 17th, 2019
Click around the site a bit and you’ll find yourself tied to an endless string of hyperlinks, hopping from one page to the next, with no real rhyme or reason to tie them altogether. It is almost pure web id, unleashed structurally to engage your curiosity and make use of the web’s most primal feature: the link.
Saturday, April 6th, 2019
Ignore the ludicrously clickbaity title. This is a well-considered look at thirty years of linking on the World Wide Web.
Monday, August 6th, 2018
This seventeen year old profile of Tim Berners-Lee is fascinating to read from today’s perspective.
Wednesday, July 11th, 2018
Links, tags, and feeds
A little while back, I switched from using Chrome as my day-to-day browser to using Firefox. I could feel myself getting a bit too comfortable with one particular browser, and that’s not good. I reckon it’s good to shake things up a little every now and then. Besides, there really isn’t that much difference once you’ve transferred over bookmarks and cookies.
Unfortunately I’m being bitten by this little bug in Firefox. It causes some of my bookmarklets to fail on certain sites with strict Content Security Policies (and CSPs shouldn’t affect bookmarklets). I might have to switch back to Chrome because of this.
I use bookmarklets throughout the day. There’s the Huffduffer bookmarklet, of course, for whenever I come across a podcast episode or other piece of audio that I want to listen to later. But there’s also my own home-rolled bookmarklet for posting links to my site. It doesn’t do anything clever—it grabs the title and URL of the currently open page and pre-populates a form in a new window, leaving me to add a short description and some tags.
If you’re reading this, then you’re familiar with the “journal” section of adactio.com, but the “links” section is where I post the most. Here, for example, are all the links I posted yesterday. It varies from day to day, but there’s generally a handful.
Should you wish to keep track of everything I’m linking to, there’s a twitterbot you can follow called @adactioLinks. It uses a simple IFTTT recipe to poll my RSS feed of links and send out a tweet whenever there’s a new entry.
Or you can drink straight from the source and subscribe to the RSS feed itself, if you’re still rocking it old-school. But if RSS is your bag, then you might appreciate a way to filter those links…
All my links are tagged. Heavily. This is because all my links are “notes to future self”, and all my future self has to do is ask “what would past me have tagged that link with?” when I’m trying to find something I previously linked to. I end up using my site’s URLs as an interface:
At the front-end gatherings at Clearleft, I usually wrap up with a quick tour of whatever I’ve added that week to:
Well, each one of those tags also has a corresponding RSS feed:
…and so on.
That means you can subscribe to just the links tagged with something you’re interested in. Here’s the full list of tags if you’re interested in seeing the inside of my head.
This also works for my journal entries. If you’re only interested in my blog posts about frontend development, you might want to subscribe to:
Here are all the tags from my journal.
You can even mix them up. For everything I’ve tagged with “typography”—whether it’s links, journal entries, or articles—the URL is:
The corresponding RSS feed is:
You get the idea. Basically, if something on my site is a list of items, chances are there’s a corresponding RSS feeds. Sometimes there might even be a JSON feed. Hack some URLs to see.
Meanwhile, I’ll be linking, linking, linking…
Monday, November 20th, 2017
An associative trail
Every now and then, I like to revisit Vannevar Bush’s classic article from the July 1945 edition of the Atlantic Monthly called As We May Think in which he describes a theoretical machine called the memex.
A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.
It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.
1945! Apart from its analogue rather than digital nature, it’s a remarkably prescient vision. In particular, there’s the idea of “associative trails”:
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities.
Many decades later, Anne Washington ponders what a legal memex might look like:
My legal Memex builds a network of the people and laws available in the public records of politicians and organizations. The infrastructure for this vision relies on open data, free access to law, and instantaneously availability.
As John Sheridan from the UK’s National Archives points out, hypertext is the perfect medium for laws:
Despite the drafter’s best efforts to create a narrative structure that tells a story through the flow of provisions, legislation is intrinsically non-linear content. It positively lends itself to a hypertext based approach. The need for legislation to escape the confines of the printed form predates the all major innovators and innovations in hypertext, from Vannevar Bush’s vision in ” As We May Think“, to Ted Nelson’s coining of the term “hypertext”, through to and Berners-Lee’s breakthrough world wide web. I like to think that Nelson’s concept of transclusion was foreshadowed several decades earlier by the textual amendment (where one Act explicitly alters – inserts, omits or amends – the text of another Act, an approach introduced to UK legislation at the beginning of the 20th century).
That’s from a piece called Deeply Intertwingled Laws. The verb “to intertwingle” was another one of Ted Nelson’s neologisms.
There’s an associative trail from Vannevar Bush to Ted Nelson that takes some other interesting turns…
Picture a new American naval recruit in 1945, getting ready to ship out to the pacific to fight against the Japanese. Just as the ship as leaving the harbour, word comes through that the war is over. And so instead of fighting across the islands of the pacific, this young man finds himself in a hut on the Philippines, reading whatever is to hand. There’s a copy of The Atlantic Monthly, the one with an article called As We May Think. The sailor was Douglas Engelbart, and a few years later when he was deciding how he wanted to spend the rest of his life, that article led him to pursue the goal of augmenting human intellect. He gave the mother of all demos, featuring NLS, a working hypermedia system.
Later, thanks to Bill Atkinson, we’d get another system called Hypercard. It was advertised with the motto Freedom to Associate, in an advertising campaign that directly referenced Vannevar Bush.
And now I’m using the World Wide Web, a hypermedia system that takes in the whole planet, to create an associative trail. In this post, I’m linking (without asking anyone for permission) to six different sources, and in doing so, I’m creating a unique associative trail. And because this post has a URL (that won’t change), you are free to take it and make it part of your own associative trail on your digital memex.
Monday, January 25th, 2016
The ability to follow links down and around and through an idea, landing hours later on some random Wikipedia page about fungi you cannot recall how you discovered, is one of the great modes of the web. It is, I’ll go so far to propose, one of the great modes of human thinking.
Sunday, April 12th, 2015
Writers and artists have long been fascinated by the idea of an English eerie – ‘the skull beneath the skin of the countryside’. But for a new generation this has nothing to do with hokey supernaturalism – it’s a cultural and political response to contemporary crises and fears
I liked it a lot. One of the reasons I liked it was not just for the text of the writing, but the hypertext of the writing. Throughout the piece there are links off to other articles, books, and blogs. For me, this enriches the piece and it set me off down some rabbit holes of hyperlinks with fascinating follow-ups waiting at the other end.
Back in 2010, Scott Rosenberg wrote a series of three articles over the course of two months called In Defense of Hyperlinks:
They’re all well worth reading. The whole thing was kicked off with a well-rounded debunking of Nicholas Carr’s claim that hyperlinks harm text. Instead, Rosenberg finds that hyperlinks within a text embiggen the writing …providing they’re done well:
I see links as primarily additive and creative. Even if it took me a little longer to read the text-with-links, even if I had to work a bit harder to get through it, I’d come out the other side with more meat and more juice.
Links, you see, do so much more than just whisk us from one Web page to another. They are not just textual tunnel-hops or narrative chutes-and-ladders. Links, properly used, don’t just pile one “And now this!” upon another. They tell us, “This relates to this, which relates to that.”
The difference between a piece of writing being part of the web and a piece of writing being merely on the web is something I talked about a few years back in a presentation called Paranormal Interactivity at ‘round about the 15 minute mark:
Imagine if you were to take away all the regular text and only left the hyperlinks on Wikipedia, you could still get the gist, right? Every single link there is like a wormhole to another part of this “choose your own adventure” game that we’re playing every day on the web. I love that. I love the way that Wikipedia uses links.
That ability of the humble hyperlink to join concepts together lies at the heart of Tim Berners Lee’s World Wide Web …and Ted Nelson’s Project Xanudu, and Douglas Engelbart’s Dynamic Knowledge Environments, and Vannevar Bush’s idea of the Memex. All of those previous visions of a hyperlinked world were—in many ways—superior to the web. But the web shipped. It shipped with brittle, one-way linking, but it shipped. And now today anyone can create a connection between two ideas by linking to resources that represent those ideas. All you need is an HTML document that contains some
A elements with
href attributes, and a URL to act as that document’s address.
Like the one you’re accessing now.
Inventing the next twenty years, strategic foresight, fictional futurism and English rural magic: Warren Ellis attempts to convince you that they are all pretty much the same thing, and why it was very important that some people used to stalk around village hedgerows at night wearing iron goggles.
There is definitely the same feeling of “the eeriness of the English countryside” in Warren’s talk. If you haven’t listened to it yet, set aside some time. It is enticing and disquieting in equal measure …like many of the works linked to from the piece on the Guardian.
There’s another link I’d like to make, and it happens to be to another dConstruct speaker.
From that Guardian piece:
Yet state surveillance is no longer testified to in the landscape by giant edifices. Instead it is mostly carried out in by software programs running on computers housed in ordinary-looking government buildings, its sources and effects – like all eerie phenomena – glimpsed but never confronted.
I love being able to do this. I love being able to add strands to this world-wide web of ours. Not only can I say “this idea reminds me of another idea”, but I can point to both ideas. It’s up to you whether you follow those links.
A really great piece by Scott Rosenberg that uses the myopic thinking behind “deep linking” in native apps as a jumping-off point to delve into the history of hypertext and the web.
It’s kind of weird that he didn’t (also) publish this on his own site though.
Wednesday, January 7th, 2015
But as people spend more time on their mobile devices and in their apps, their Internet has taken a step backward, becoming more isolated, more disorganized and ultimately harder to use — more like the web before search engines.
Thursday, January 10th, 2013
I really like Mark’s idea of standardised “sparkicons” …for a while there, reading this, I was worried he was going to propose something like Snap Preview. shudder
Wednesday, December 14th, 2011
The great thing about the web is linking. I don’t care how ugly it looks and how pretty your app is, if I can’t link in and out of your world, it’s not even close to a replacement for the web. It would be as silly as saying that you don’t need oceans because you have a bathtub.
Friday, August 5th, 2011
- Can I bookmark this information? (stable URIs)
- Can I go from here to there with a click? (hyperlinks)
- Can I save the content locally? (open accessible formats)
Tuesday, February 8th, 2011
What a brilliant idea! This book on dreams uses physical threads as hyperlinks. The result is a gorgeous object.
Saturday, April 11th, 2009
I was away in Berlin for a few days, delivering a DOM Scripting workshop to the good people at Aperto. I had a good time, made even better by some excellent Spring weather and the opportunity to meet up with Anthony and Colin while I was there.
Excellent! I’d just like to add one piece of advice to anyone implementing or thinking of implementing
rev="canonical": if you are visibly linking to the short url of the current page, please remember to use
rev="canonical" on that
A element as well as on any
LINK element you’ve put in the
HEAD of your document. Likewise, for the coders out there, if you are thinking of implementing a
rev="canonical" parser—and let’s face it, that’s a nice piece of low-hanging fruit to hack together—please remember to also check for
rev attributes on
A elements as well as on
LINK elements. If anything, I would prioritise human-visible claims of canonicity over invisible metacrap.
Actually, there’s a whole bunch of nice metacrapital things you can do with your visible hyperlinks. If you link to an RSS feed in the
BODY of your document, use the same
rel values that you would use if you linked to the feed from a
LINK element in the
HEAD. If you link to an MP3 file, use the
type attribute to specify the right mime-type (
audio/mpeg). The same goes for linking to Word documents, PDFs and any other documents that aren’t served up with a mime-type of
text/html. So, for example, here on my site, when I link to the RSS feed from the sidebar, I’m using
href="/journal/rss" rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml". I’m also quite partial to the
hreflang attribute but I don’t get the chance to use that very often—this post being an exception.
rev="canonical" convention makes a nice addition to the stable of nice semantic richness that can be added to particular flavours of hyperlinks. But it isn’t without its critics. The main thrust of the argument against this usage is that the
rev attribute currently doesn’t appear in the HTML5 spec. I’ve even seen people use the past tense to refer to an as-yet unfinished specification:
rev attribute was taken out of the HTML5 spec
As is so often the case with HTML5, the entire justification for dropping
rev seems to be based on a decision made by one person. To be fair, the decision was based on available data from 2005. In light of recent activity and the sheer number of documents that are now using
rev="canonical"—Flickr alone accounts for millions—I would hope that the HTML5 community will have the good sense to re-evaluate that decision. The document outlining the design principles of HTML5 states:
When a practice is already widespread among authors, consider adopting it rather than forbidding it or inventing something new.
The unbelievable speed of adoption of
rev="canonical" shows that it fulfils a real need. If the HTML5 community ignore this development, not only would they not be paving a cowpath, they would be refusing to even acknowledge that a well-trodden cowpath even exists.
The argument against
rev seems to be that it can be confusing and could result in people using it incorrectly. By that argument, new elements like
footer should be kept out of any future specification for the same reason. I’ve already come across confusion on the part of authors who thought that these new elements could only be used once per document. Fortunately, the spec explains their meaning.
The whole point of having a spec is to explain the meaning of elements and attributes, be it for authors or user-agents. Without a spec to explain what they mean, elements like
A don’t make any intuitive sense. It’s no different for attributes like
rev. To say that
rev isn’t a good attribute because it requires you to read the spec is like saying that in order to write English, you need to understand the language. It’s neither a good nor bad thing, it’s just a statement of the bleedin’ obvious.
Monday, October 1st, 2007
An excellent overarching article looking at the current state of microformats adoption.
Friday, June 2nd, 2006
The deed is done. I had the pre-lunchtime slot at Reboot to speak about a very simple subject: the hyperlink.
Unlike any previous presentations I’ve done, I had written out everything I wanted to say word for word. I began by describing this as a story, a manifesto, but mostly a love letter. For once, I was going to read a pre-prepared speech. I still had slides but they were very minimal.
I ended up using two laptops. One iBook, controlled from my phone using Salling Clicker, was displaying the slides done in Keynote. I used the other iBook as a teleprompter: I wanted large sized text continually scrolling as I spoke.
Web 2.0. Love the term or hate it, you’ve certainly heard it. Even if you’re a hardened cynic and you pride yourself on not drinking Tim O’Reilly’s koolaid, it’s hard to deny that something is going on: something new, something that is just the start of a brave new world 2.0.
The theme of this year’s Reboot is renaissance. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to compare that term with the ubiquitous “Web 2.0”.
The common perception of 15th century Northern Italy is to view it as the birthplace of a whole new movement in art and culture: a Culture 2.0, if you will. We tend to think of the Renaissance as an almost revolutionary movement, sweeping aside the old-school 1.0 dark ages.
But the Renaissance didn’t come out of nowhere. The word itself means rebirth, not birth. The movers and shakers of the Renaissance — the analogerati of Florence — weren’t trying to make a break with the past. They were trying to get back to their roots. At its heart, the Renaissance was a very conservative movement with an emphasis on reviving and preserving classical ideas. By classical, I mean Greek and Roman. There is a direct line of descent from the Acropolis in Athens to the beautiful buildings built in Copenhagen during the Danish Renaissance. The building blocks of the Renaissance were centuries-old ideas about mathematics, aesthetics, and science.
There is a lesson for us there. With all this talk of a Web 2.0, there’s a danger that we as web developers, whilst looking to the future, are forgetting our past. In our haste to forge a new kind of World Wide Web, we run the risk of destroying the fundamental building blocks that helped create the Web that we fell in love with in the first place.
I don’t intend to run through all the building blocks that form the foundation of the Web. Each one deserves its own praise. HTTP, for example, the protocol that enables the flow of pages on the Web, is worthy of its own love letter.
I’d like to focus on one very small, very simple, very beautiful building block: the hyperlink.
The hyperlink is an amazing solution to an old problem. That problem is classification.
The Garden of Forking Paths
Language is the most powerful tool ever used by man. Together with its offspring writing, language enables us to document things, ideas, and experiences. I can translate a physical object into a piece of information that can be later retrieved, not only by myself, but by anyone. But there are economies of scale with this kind of information storage and retrieval. The physical world is a very, very big place filled with a multitude of things bright and beautiful; creatures great and small. If we could use the gift of language to store and retrieve information on everything in the physical world, right down to the microscopic level, the result would be transcendental.
To see a world in a grain of sand And heaven in a wild flower
The first person to seriously tackle the task of cataloguing the world was born after the Renaissance. Bishop John Wilkins lived in England in the 17th century. He was no stranger to attempting the seemingly impossible. He proposed interplanetary travel three centuries before the invention of powered flight. He is best remembered for his 1668 work, An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language.
The gist of Wilkins’s essay is explained by Jorge Luis Borges in El idioma analítico de John Wilkins (The Analytic Language of John Wilkins).
He divided the universe in forty categories or classes, these being further subdivided into differences, which was then subdivided into species. He assigned to each class a monosyllable of two letters; to each difference, a consonant; to each species, a vowel. For example: de, which means an element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba, a part of the element fire, a flame.
You can find more delvings into Borges’s essay on a weblog by Matt Webb; the fittingly named interconnected.org.
The problem with Wilkins’s approach will be obvious to anyone who has ever designed a relational database. Wilkins was attempting to create a one to one relationship between words and things. Apart from the sheer size of the task he was attempting, Wilkins’s rigidity meant that his task was doomed to fail.
Still, Wilkins’s endeavour was a noble one at heart. One of his contemporaries recognised the value and scope of what Wilkins was attempting.
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz possessed one of the finest minds of his, or any other, generation. It’s a shame that his talent has been overshadowed by the spat between Newton and himself caused by their simultaneous independent invention of calculus.
Leibniz wanted to create an encyclopaedia of human knowledge that was free from the restrictions of strict hierarchies or categories. He recognised that concepts and notions could be approached from different viewpoints. His approach was more network-like with its many to many relationships.
Where Wilkins associated concepts with sounds, Leibniz attempted to associate concepts with symbols. But he didn’t stop there. Instead of just creating a static catalogue of symbols, Leibniz wanted to perform calculations on these symbols. Because the symbols correlate to real-world concepts, this would make anything calculable. Leibniz believed that through a sort of algebra of logic, a theoretical machine could compute and answer any question. He called this machine the Calculus ratiocinator. The idea is a forerunner of Turing’s universal machine.
The general idea of a computing machine is nothing but a mechanisation of Leibniz’s calculus ratiocinator. - Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics, 1948
Let me tell you about another theoretical device. It’s called the memex (short for “memory extender”). This device was proposed by Vannevar Bush in 1945 in an article in the The Atlantic Monthly called As We May Think. Bush described the memex as being electronically linked to a library of microfilm. The device, contained within a desk, would be capable of following cross-references between books and films. This almost sounds like hypertext.
But there may be a form of proto-hypertext that precedes the memex.
Shite and onions
In recent years the works of James Joyce have been revisited and re-examined through the prism of hypertext. Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake make sense when viewed, not linearly, but as a network of interconnected ideas. Marshall McLuhan was heavily inspired by Joyce’s communication technology. The medium was very much the message.
For most of us, Finnegan’s Wake remains an impenetrable book, at least in the narrative sense. It might make more sense to us if we suffered from a medical condition called apophenia: the perception of connections and meaningfulness in unrelated things.
This isn’t necessarily an affliction. In his book Pattern Recognition, William Gibson describes an apopheniac cool-hunter hired by marketers to detect the presence of Gladwellian tipping points in a product’s future.
Apophenia is a boon for conspiracy theorists. If you’re fond of a good conspiracy theory, I recommend staying away from the linear and predictable Da Vinci Code. For a real hot-tub of conspiracy theory pleasure, nothing beats Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.
…luck rewarded us, because, wanting connections, we found connections — always, everywhere, and between everything. The world exploded into a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else…
For a conspiracy theorist, there can be no better tool than a piece of technology that allows you to arbitrarily connect information. That tool now exists. It’s called the World Wide Web and it was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
Enquire Within Upon Everything
There was no magical “Eureka!” moment in the invention of the Web. It was practical problem solving, not divine revelation that resulted in the building blocks of Universal Resource Identifiers (URIs), the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Berners-Lee’s proposal built on top of the work already done by Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart, the inventors of the first true hypertext system in 1965.
US Patent Number 4,873,662
If there was anything revolutionary about the World Wide Web, it was the fact that it was not patented, instead being declared free for all to use. That spirit of scientific sharing clearly didn’t rub off on British Telecom who attempted to enforce a patent which they claimed gave them intellectual property rights over the concept of hyperlinks. The claim was, fortunately, laughed out of court.
Model View Controller
The World Wide Web is the ultimate MVC framework. URIs are the models controlled by HTTP and viewed through HTML. While the view may seem like the least significant component, it is the simplicity of HTML that is responsible for the explosive growth of the Web.
There was nothing new about markup languages. Standard Generalised Markup Language had been around for years. Before that, red pens allowed editors to literally mark up text to indicate meaning.
Like SGML, HTML used tags — delineated with angle brackets — to nest parts of a document in descriptive containers called elements. The P element can be used to describe a paragraph, the H1 element describes a level one heading, and so on.
Alpha and Omega
The shortest element is the most powerful. A stands for anchor. Nestled within the anchor element is the href attribute. This attribute, short for hypertext reference, is the conduit through which the dreams of Leibniz, Joyce, and a thousand conspiracy theorists can finally be realised.
The vision I have for the Web is about anything being potentially connected with anything.
Anybody could create anchors containing hypertext references. Just about everybody did. The Web grew exponentially in size and popularity. With every new web page and every hyperlink, the expanding Web became a more valuable and powerful aggregate resource.
This power was harnessed by Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page. The concept behind their PageRank algorithm is simple: links are a vote of confidence. If a lot of links point to the same page, that page is highly regarded. By combining this idea with traditional page analysis, they created the best search engine on the Web; Google.
In order to measure the PageRank of everything on the Web, the googlebot spider was unleashed. In some ways, the googlebot is like any other user agent: it visits web pages and follows links. It’s also possible to see the googlebot as a kind of quantum device.
When you or I visit a web page that has, say, ten links, there are two theories about what happens. According to superposition, the next page we visit exists only as a probability. Not until we make a decision and click on a link does the page resolve into one of the ten possibilities.
The alternative view is the many worlds interpretation. According to this theory, visiting a page with ten links would cause the universe itself to branch into ten different universes. You or I will remain in the universe that matches the link we clicked. But the googlebot is different: it follows all ten links at once, spidering alternate worlds.
I have first hand experience of Google’s stockpile of parallel universes. To celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day, I created a simple server-side script. You can pass in the URL of a web page and the script will display the contents interspersed with choice pirate phrases such as “arr!”, “shiver me timbers!”, and “blow me down!”. The script also rewrites any hrefs in the page so that the pages they point to are also run through the pirate-speak transmogrifier.
It was amusing. It even appeared on Metafilter. The problems started later on. I began to get irate emails, even phone calls, from website owners demanding that I remove their files from my server. I was even threatened with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. I was fielding angry emails from people all over the world in charge of completely disparate websites.
The googlebot had landed on my Talk Like a Pirate page (perhaps it followed a link from Metafilter). Then it began to spider. It never stopped. Somewhere within the Googleplex there is a complete one to one scale model of the World Wide Web that’s written entirely in pirate-speak.
Now when site owners do a search for their websites to check their ranking, the pirate facsimile often appears before the original. I can’t help it if my Googlejuice is better than theirs.
I began to feel remorse when I heard from the proprietor of a spinal surgery clinic in Florida who told me that potential customers were being scared away by messages detailing “professional treatment, me hearties!”
I have since added a robots.txt file but it can be a long time between googledances. Parallel universes don’t just disappear overnight. I guess the googlebot isn’t a quantum device after all because, it seems, it can’t be everywhere at once. That’s where it falls down. How is it supposed to deal with websites that are updated frequently?
Blog, short for weblog…
Trying to define what a blog is can be a slippery task. Most definitions include the words “online journal”. I’ve been told that my online journal isn’t a blog because I don’t have comments enabled. I must have missed the memo.
What really makes a blog a blog isn’t the addition of comments or the fact that it’s an online journal. The defining characteristic of a blog is the presence of permalinks. Permalink, a portmanteau word from permanent and link, should be a tautology. All links should be permanent.
Permalinks, and by extension, blogs, encourage linking. Instead of simply saying “here’s my opinion”, blogs allow us to say “here’s a permanent linkable address for my opinion.”
The earlist blogs were link logs, places you could visit to find links that somebody thinks are worth visiting. Even now, I find that the best blog posts are often ones that point out the connections between seemingly separate links. Bloggers are natural apopheniacs; conspiracy theorists who can back up their claims not just with references to their sources but with hypertext references… hrefs.
Even though all blogs have permalinks, there’s something inherently transient in the nature of blogging. It’s a tired cliché but the aggregate web of blogs really is like a conversation. The googlebot can’t hope to follow all the links spawned by all these voices speaking at once. Technorati does okay though.
Technorati is also the breeding ground for some infectious little ideas called microformats. These microformats embrace and extend the Hypertext Markup Language. Making use of the little-known rel attribute, the anchor element can be made even more powerful. In XFN, XHTML Friends Network, the addition of rel equals friend, colleague, met, and other descriptors adds extra semantic weight to a link (as yet there is no Enemies Network, but Brian Suda and I are working on a draft specification).
The bonus semantics offered by microformats can be harvested and collated to form a clearer picture of the connections that were previously less defined.
Microformats are the nanotechnology for building a semantic web.
That’s lowercase semantic web. The uppercase Semantic Web still lies in our future. Another theoretical future technology is XHTML 2, wherein any element whatsoever can have a hypertext reference.
Perhaps we aren’t worthy of such a bounty of hrefs. Right now hrefs exist only in the anchor element and yet still we manage to abuse them.
a href="#" onclick="..."
Using a pointless empty internal page reference is almost as bad. If you can’t provide a valid resource for the href value, don’t use the anchor element. Anchors are for links. Don’t treat them as empty husks upon which you hang some cool Ajaxian behaviour. Respect the link.
If we value and cherish the links of today, who knows what the future may bring?
Maybe Bruce Sterling is right. Maybe we’ll have an internet of things. Spimes, blogjects, thinglinks… whatever the individual resources are called, they’ll have to be linkable: hyperlinked addressable objects existing in our regular, non hyper-, space.
It sounds like an exciting future. We live in an equally exciting present.
We have all come together here in Copenhagen because of how much we love the World Wide Web. I bet every one of you has a story to tell about the first time you “got” the Web. Remember that thrill? Remember the realisation that you were interacting with something that was potentially neverending; a borderless labyrinth of information, all interconnected through the beautiful simplicity of the hyperlink. We may have grown accustomed to this miracle but that doesn’t make it any less wondrous.
We are storytellers, no longer huddled around separate campfires, we now sit around a virtual hearth where we are warmed by the interweaving tales told by our brothers and sisters. Everyone is connected to everyone else by just six degrees of separation. Thanks to the hyperlink, we can find those connections and make them tangible.
The dream of hypertext has become a reality.