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Thursday, June 22nd, 2017

And now, a brief definition of the web - The Verge

Analysing what the web is. It’s not the technology stack.

To count as being part of the web, your app or page must:

  1. Be linkable, and
  2. Allow any client to access it.

I think that’s a pretty good definition.

Mind you, I think this is a bit rich in an article published on The Verge:

The HTML web may be slow and annoying and processor intensive, but before we rush too fast into replacing it, let’s not lose what’s good about it.

Excuse me? Slow, annoying, processor-intensive web pages have nothing to do with the technology, and everything to do with publishers like The Verge shoving bucketloads of intrusive JavaScript trackers into every page view.

Still, we can agree on this:

Preserving the web, or more specifically the open principles behind it, means protecting one of the few paths for innovation left in the modern tech world that doesn’t have a giant company acting as a gatekeeper.

Friday, June 2nd, 2017

Daring Fireball: Fuck Facebook

…a full one-third of my window is covered by a pop-over trying to get me to sign in or sign up for Facebook. I will go out of my way to avoid linking to websites that are hostile to users with pop-overs. (For example, I’ve largely stopped linking to anything from Wired, because they have such an aggressive anti-ad-block detection scheme. Fuck them.)

Same.

Facebook forbids search engines from indexing Facebook posts. Content that isn’t indexable by search engines is not part of the open web.

And then there’s this:

And in the same way they block indexing by search engines, Facebook forbids The Internet Archive from saving copies of posts.

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

The Apophenic Machine — Real Life

To navigate the web is to beat a path through a labyrinth of links left by others, and to thereby create associative links yourself, unspooling them like a guiding thread onto a floor already carpeted with such connections. Each thread of connection is unique, individualized: everyone draws their own map of the network as they navigate it.

Monday, March 20th, 2017

Tim Berners-Lee ~ The World Wide Web - YouTube

There’s something very endearing about this docudrama retelling of the story of the web.

Sunday, January 29th, 2017

Calling Bullshit

A proposed syllabus for critical thinking: Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.

Our aim in this course is to teach you how to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences.

Practical tools and case studies are also provided.

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

Day 14: Posting to my Website from Alexa #100DaysOfIndieWeb • Aaron Parecki

Aaron documents how he posts to his website through his Amazon Echo. No interface left behind.

Monday, December 19th, 2016

Deep linking with fragmentions

When I was marking up Resilient Web Design I wanted to make sure that people could link to individual sections within a chapter. So I added IDs to all the headings. There’s no UI to expose that though—like the hover pattern that some sites use to show that something is linkable—so unless you know the IDs are there, there’s no way of getting at them other than “view source.”

But if you’re reading a passage in Resilient Web Design and you highlight some text, you’ll notice that the URL updates to include that text after a hash symbol. If that updated URL gets shared, then anyone following it should be sent straight to that string of text within the page. That’s fragmentions in action:

Fragmentions find the first matching word or phrase in a document and focus its closest surrounding element. The match is determined by the case-sensitive string following the # (or ## double-hash)

It’s a similar idea to Eric and Simon’s proposal to use CSS selectors as fragment identifiers, but using plain text instead. You can find out more about the genesis of fragmentions from Kevin. I’m using Jonathon Neal’s script with some handy updates from Matthew.

I’m using the fragmention support to power the index of the book. It relies on JavaScript to work though, so Matthew has come to the rescue again and created a version of the site with IDs for each item linked from the index (I must get around to merging that).

The fragmention functionality is ticking along nicely with one problem…

I’ve tweaked the typography of Resilient Web Design to within an inch of its life, including a crude but effective technique to avoid widowed words at the end of a paragraph. The last two words of every paragraph are separated by a UTF-8 no-break space character instead of a regular space.

That solves the widowed words problem, but it confuses the fragmention script. Any selected text that includes the last two words of a paragraph fails to match. I’ve tried tweaking the script, but I’m stumped. If you fancy having a go, please have at it.

Update: And fixed! Thanks to Lee.

Monday, November 7th, 2016

“If it’s not curlable, it’s not on the web.” by Tantek Çelik

It was fun spelunking with Tantek, digging into some digital archeology in an attempt to track down a post by Ben Ward that I remembered reading years ago.

Monday, October 24th, 2016

Research on evaluating technology

I’ve spent the past few months preparing a new talk for An Event Apart San Francisco (and hopefully some more AEAs after that). As always happens, I spent the whole time vacillating between thinking “this is good!” and thinking “this is awful!” I’m still bouncing between those poles. I won’t really know whether the talk is up to snuff until I actually give it to a live audience.

Over the past few years, my presentations have built upon one another. Two years ago, my talk was called Enhance! and it set the groundwork for using a layered approach to web design and development. My 2016 talk, Resilience, follows on with a process and examples for that approach (I also set myself the challenge of delivering a talk about progressive enhancement without ever using the phrase “progressive enhancement”).

My new talk goes a bit meta, but in my mind, it’s very much building on the previous talks. The talk is all about evaluating technology. I haven’t settled on a final title, but I was thinking about something obtuse, like …Evaluating Technology.

Here’s my hastily scribbled description:

We work with technology every day. And every day it seems like there’s more and more technology to understand: graphic design tools, build tools, frameworks and libraries, not to mention new HTML, CSS and JavaScript features landing in browsers. How should we best choose which technologies to invest our time in? When we decide to weigh up the technology choices that confront us, what are the best criteria for doing that? This talk will help you evaluate tools and technologies in a way that best benefits the people who use the websites that we are designing and developing. Let’s take a look at some of the hottest new web technologies like service workers and web components. Together we will dig beneath the hype to find out whether they will really change life on the web for the better.

As ever, I’ll begin and end with a long-zoom pretentious arc of history, but I’ll dive into practical stuff in the middle. That’s become a bit of a cliché for my presentations, but the formula works as a sort of microcosm of a good conference—a mixture of the inspirational and the practical, trying to keep a good balance of both.

For this new talk, the practical focus will be on some web technologies that are riding high on the hype cycle right now: service workers, web components, progressive web apps. I’ll use them as a lens for applying broader questions about how we make decisions about the technologies we embrace, and the technologies we reject.

Technology. Now there’s a big subject. It’s literally the entirety of human history. I had to be careful not to go down too many rabbit holes. I’m still not sure if I’ve succeeded, but I’ve already had to ruthlessly cull some darlings.

One of the nice things that the An Event Apart crew started doing was to provide link lists for each talk to attendees. That gives me an opportunity to touch briefly on a topic in the talk itself, but allow any interested attendees to dive deeper at their leisure.

For this talk on evaluating technology, I’ve put together this list of hyperlinks for further reading, watching, listening, and researching…

People

Papers

Presentations

Books

Thursday, July 21st, 2016

t.co Remove - Chrome Web Store

Fight the scourge of performance-killing redirect-laden t.co links in Twitter’s web interface with this handy Chrome extension.

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

The Internet | Thought Economics

The World Wide Web, with all of its pages, blogs and so on- has allowed human expression in ways that would have been uneconomic and out of reach before. The most dramatic effect has been this ability for almost anyone to express himself or herself whenever they want to- and potentially be heard by many others.

Vint Cerf there, taking part in this wide-ranging discussion with, among others, Kevin Kelly and Bob Metcalfe.

The introduction leans a bit too heavily on Nicholas Carr for my liking, but it ends up in a good place.

The internet connects us cognitively and becomes a membrane through which our minds can interact, manifesting a whole new iteration of our species, who have begun to exist in a connected symbiotic relationship with technology.

The internet is the first technology we have created, that makes us more human.

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

<A>

The opening keynote from the inaugural HTML Special held before CSS Day 2016 in Amsterdam.

It’s all starting to come together.

The world exploded into a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else.
— Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

A is for Apophenia

Apophenia is the name for that tendency in humans to see patterns where none exist, to draw connections, to make links.

Every conspiracy theory is an example of apophenia. But you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to experience it. We do it all the time. We see shapes in the constellations in the night sky. We see faces in just about everything.

Stars

Today, I would like to engage the apopheniac in you.

A is for Anchor

An anchor is an odd device to represent a link. I can even remember seeing anchor symbols used in the interfaces of rich text editors. If it wasn’t an anchor, it was a chain. I suppose that was meant to represent a link …because chains have links.

Anyway, why A? Why Anchor?

It goes back to how the A element was originally used. When I say originally, I mean originally. Let’s look at the first A element in the first web page at the first URL.

<A NAME=0 HREF="WhatIs.html">
hypermedia
</A>

This looks pretty familiar to us today. There’s an A Element with opening and closing tags, some text in between, and an HREF attribute for the destination. But there’s also a NAME attribute. This has since been deprecated—now we can just use an ID attribute on any element. The idea was that A elements could be used to create destinations for inbound links. They were, if you like, anchors within a page that other pages could tether themselves to. Each anchor is given a unique identifier (unique within the page, that is). Here, the identifier is simply the number zero, because this page was created by a programmer and in the mind of a programmer, counting begins with zero.

This use of the A element—using NAME attributes to create in-page anchors—never really took off. But the other attribute, the HREF attribute, that spread like wildfire. It’s short for hypertext reference, and in this particular instance, the reference is to another page in the same directory on the same server. It’s a page about hypertext.

Hypertext is text which is not constrained to be linear.

The term was first coined by Ted Nelson. He didn’t just talk about text either. He also coined the term hypermedia. He coined lots of interesting words. He talked about things being deeply intertwingled. He also coined the term teledildonics, but that is not directly relevant to hypertext or hypermedia.

If hypertext is text which is not constrained to be linear, how did we ever manage with good old-fashioned non-hyper text and non-hyper media? We used archives.

A is for Archive

In 1965, JCR Licklider was commissioned to write a report on Libraries Of The Future. He—and his company Bolt, Beranek and Newman—would prove to be instrumental in creating our modern interconnected hypermedia world. More on that later. For now, let’s look at this report. It has two parts:

  1. Concepts and Problems of Man’s Interaction with the Body of Recorded Knowledge
  2. Explorations in the Use of Computers in Information Storage, Organization, and Retrieval.

I love the scope of that first part, looking at the body of recorded knowledge.

It’s interesting that he talks about knowledge, not information, not data, but knowledge. How does data become information? How does information become knowledge?

The Library Of Babel

The Library Of Babel is a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, who I think of as the poet laureate of hypertext . He imagines a vast library that is filled with data, but frustratingly short on knowledge …because this library contains not only all the books ever written, but all the books that could ever possibly be written, with every possible permutation.

Here’s how it works:

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries… The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to each side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides… each bookshelf holds thirty-two books identical in format; each book contains four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, approximately eighty black letters.

Let’s figure out how many books are in the Library of Babel. First, we need to know how much data each book holds.

  • There are eighty symbols (or letters) per line, and
  • 40 lines per page.
  • There are 410 pages in each book.

Multiplying 80 by 40 gives us 3200, the number of symbols on each page. Multiply that by 410 and we get a total number of 1,312,000 symbols in each book.

We have two other pieces of information to work with. Borges tells us:

The orthographic symbols are twenty-five in number.

That’s 22 letters, the comma, the period, and the space.

Here’s the crucial bit of information that ensures that the library has boundaries:

In the vast library there are no two identical books.

Knowing that, we can calculate the number of books in the library. It’s the number of symbols (25) raised to the power of the number of symbols in each book (1,312,000).

25 to the power of 1,312,000 expressed in base ten is 10 to the power of 1,834,097. Remember that’s just the number of books: a figure that’s over 1,834,097 digits long. That number wouldn’t fit inside one book in the library (which, if you remember only holds 1,312,000 symbols).

So the number of books in the Library of Babel is not infinite …but it is really, really, really big. To give you some idea of just how big 10 to the power of 1,834,097 is, it has been calculated that the observable universe contains approximately 10 to the power of 80 atoms. There are more books in the Library of Babel than there are atoms in the universe.

And yet, thanks to the World Wide Web, you can theoretically peruse every single one of them.

Jonathan Basile has created libraryofbabel.info—an online representation of Borges’s creation. It contains all possible text. You can browse by hexagon, then shelf, then row, then book, then page. Or you can search for a specific piece of text, because—of course—that text must be in there somewhere.

The very words I am speaking now must be somewhere in the library.

There’s also a plug-in for Chrome so you can highlight any piece of text on the web, and then find its corresponding page in the Library of Babel.

This library has every possible piece of data …but it’s sorely lacking in information (although the online version helps).

A is for All

Having all the data isn’t enough. It needs to be organised—turned into information—for us to make use of it (and hopefully further transform that information into knowledge).

There have been many attempts to organise information. When those attempts are limited to a subset of data—instead of trying to create a Library of Babel—then they can be quite successful.

Carl Linnaeus organised the natural world using a naming convention for describing species—binomial nomenclature.

Charles Messier catalogued astronomical objects.

Melvil Dewey created the Dewey Decimal System to help librarians organise their collections. But this was a proprietary system, not an open standard. So the Belgian librarian Paul Otlet devised a Universal Decimal Classification system. I think it’s fair to think of him as the father of information architecture.

The crazy old uncle of information architecture would be bishop John Wilkins, who in 1668 wrote An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language. Centuries later, this would pique the interest of Borges who described Wilkins’s madcap idea in an essay called The Analytical Language of John Wilkins. The idea was that the world could be classified into sounds.

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.

It didn’t scale well.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—inventor of calculus and nemesis to Newton—had a similar idea to Wilkins, but whereas Wilkins was trying to classify information using sounds, Leibniz wanted to use symbols: characteristica universalis. His leap of genius was to realise that if you could do this—represent the world with symbols—then you could perform calculations on those symbols. He described the conceptual framework for performing such operations as a Calculus ratiocinator. Centuries later, Norbert Wiener, the creator of cybernetics would say:

The general idea of a computing machine is nothing but a mechanization of Leibniz’s calculus ratiocinator.

A is for Ada

Leibniz’s calculus ratiocinator was an idea, rather than a real machine. Charles Babbage was a Victorian inventor and entrepreneur who was given seed funding by the British government to create his Difference Engine: a machine for computing logarithmic tables …a computer, if you will.

The Difference Engine

The Wozniak to Babbage’s Jobs was Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the notorious Lord Byron. Ada’s mother did everything in her power to steer her daughter away from following in her father’s footsteps of becoming a poet. Instead Ada immersed herself in the world of mathematics. It was through mathematics that Ada hit upon the same insight as Leibniz—if we can perform calculations upon symbols, and those symbols don’t have to just represent numbers, then we can perform calculations on anything …maybe even poetry.

In enabling mechanism to combine together general symbols in successions of unlimited variety and extent, a uniting link is established between the operations of matter and the abstract mental processes of the most abstract branch of mathematical science.

The Difference Engine was abandoned in favour of an even more ambitious project: The Analytical Engine. Finally, the world would get a mechanical machine capable of performing calculations on symbols that could represent concepts or thoughts—a thinking machine!

As with so many start-ups, Lovelace and Babbage never quite managed to make it to market. But at least they did genuinely have an incredible journey before going broke.

A is for Alan

The Analytical Engine, like the calculus ratiocinator, remained an idea. It would be another century before we’d get a real nuts’n’bolts computing machine, thanks to the brilliant Alan Turing.

But as well as having a hand in creating the world’s first physical computer, he also presented us with an imaginary machine. This theoretical machine was described as having:

…an infinite tape marked out into squares, on each of which a symbol could be printed.

Like Leibniz’s calculus ratiocinator, a Turing machine would operate on symbols. How many symbols are we talking about here? Remember the Library Of Babel had twenty five symbols to work with.

Two. Two symbols. One and zero. On and off. True and false. With an infinitely long piece of tape and infinite amount of time, two symbols are enough to calculate literally anything.

This reduction of the world into its smallest pieces was the brainchild of Claude Shannon. He coined the term "bit" to describe this indivisible unit of information.

By the way, Turing himself referred to his theoretical machine as an automatic machine, or a-machine. A is for A-machine.

A is for Atlantic

There’s another imaginary machine that serves as a wonderful conceptual prototype for working with hypertext and hypermedia. In 1945 Vannevar Bush published an article in the Atlantic Monthly called As We May Think. In this article, Bush describes a machine called the Memex, a contraction of Memory Index.

Memex

The Memex is built into a desk. Screens and switches on the surface of the desk allow the user to interact with huge amounts of information stored within the desk on microfilm. This would provide an "enlarged intimate supplement to one’s memory."

Because everyone’s mind is different, no two people would use the Memex in quite the same way. Bush described these individualistic approaches to linking concepts together as 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 information stored in the Memex is the same for everyone, but the associative trails created by the user in navigating this information are unique. Bush also proposed that these associative trails could be shared. Users of the Memex could follow the breadcrumbs left by others.

This is hypertext.

A is for Augmentation

So many ideas about hypertext confined to the imagination! When do we get a working demo?

Ladies and gentlemen, on December 9th, 1968, we get the mother of all demos, courtesy of Douglas Engelbart. Six years previously, he had set out his goals for human-computer interaction in a work entitled Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework. To achieve this aim of augmenting humanity, he created a working demo of his oNLine System, abbreviated to NLS.

Oh, and for this demo he just happened to invent video conferencing, the graphical user interface, and the mouse. He also implemented hypertext.

With Bush’s Memex and Engelbart’s NLS, concepts could be linked together, turning them from text storage devices to hypertext storage devices. But for hypertext to reveal its true power, we need a network greater than anything seen up to this point. Towards the end of the mother of all demos, we hear the first rumblings of just such a network.

A is for Arpa

ARPA stands for the Advanced Research Projects Agency.

This government agency turned to our old friend JCR Licklider, author of Libraries Of The Future. His company—Bolt, Beranek and Newman—set about designing a communications system that used this new-fangled packet switching that Leonard Kleinrock was so excited about. With packet switching, information was broken down into discrete chunks, routed around a network independent of each other, and then re-assembled at the destination.

At the same time, this idea of packet switching was independently discovered by Paul Baran at the Rand Corporation, who was trying to find a resilient network architecture capable of surviving nuclear attack.

The packet-switching idea was put to the test with the creation of a new network called the ARPANET. The very first message sent over the ARPANET was at 10:30pm on October, 29th, 1969. It was the command: LOG IN.

The message was sent and… the system crashed after the first two characters. Fittingly, then, the real first message sent over this proto-internet was "LO".

But they fixed the bugs and they kept working on making the system better as it grew bigger. It morphed from being a single network, the ARPANET, into being a network of networks, or an Inter-network, soon shortened to simply Internet.

For this internet to work, it was essential that all the individual networks connecting to it were using the same protocols to communicate. That’s what really makes the internet the internet—regardless of what kind of hardware is being used, there’s an agreement on how to switch those packets around. That’s really all a protocol is: an agreement. They’re more like treaties than code.

Bob Kahn, Vint Cerf, Jon Postel

Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf were the statesmen crafting the internet’s protocols, and Jon Postel was the diplomat ensuring adoption went smoothly. They wanted a robust network, resilient not to nuclear attack, but to any kind of top-down control. They set out to create a protocol that would work for a network with no centre.

Together they crafted TCP/IP: the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol. TCP/IP is a deliberately dumb set of protocols. The protocols care not a whit for the contents of the packets being switched around the network. It’s a simple low-level agreement. They used to joke that you should be able to implement TCP/IP using two tin cans and a piece of string.

You can then create more complex protocols on top of this simple, low-level, dumb foundation. You can create protocols for sending and receiving email, protocols for telnet, gopher, file transfer protocols that sit atop TCP/IP. Best of all, you don’t need to ask anyone for permission. If you want to create a new protocol today, you can just go ahead and do it. All you need is rough consensus and running code. It turns out that running code isn’t the hard part. The hard part is convincing people to use your protocol. Otherwise you don’t benefit from Metcalfe’s Law:

The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.

Think about it. The first person to own a telephone had a completely useless object. As soon as one other person had a telephone, it suddenly become exponentially more useful. That was the challenge facing the creator of a new protocol at the start of the 90s: that protocol was HTTP—the HyperText Transfer Protocol.

HTTP is one part of a three-part stack: HTTP is the protocol, URLs are the identifiers, and HTML is the format. Together they form the World Wide Web project.

The project was the brainchild of a young computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee. This wasn’t his first attempt at creating a hypertext system.

In the 1980s, he created a system called ENQUIRE. It was named after a Victorian book of manners called Enquire Within Upon Everything, which I always thought would be a great name for the web.

Enquire didn’t work out in the end, but it would influence the design of the World Wide Web project.

Another influence on the design of the system was the place where Tim Berners-Lee was working. CERN—the European Centre for Nuclear Research. It’s an amazing place. The greatest experiment in the history of our species is being conducted beneath the border between Switzerland and France. In the 16-mile wide ring of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, human beings are recreating the conditions from the start of our universe. Protons are smashed together at velocities approaching the speed of light. It’s a truly awe-inspiring endeavour.

CERN

When I visited CERN, I expected to be blown away by the science, and I was. I also expected to be blown away by simply being at the birthplace of the web, and I was. But what I wasn’t expecting was to be blown away by how things get done at CERN. There is very little hierarchy. People from all kinds of backgrounds—from Nobel prize winning physicists to students on a Summer internship—collaborate on experiments for pure scientific research.

Trying to manage the flow of information in this collaborative but chaotic place was the challenge that Tim Berners-Lee was trying to solve. You can’t just mandate a particular operating system or piece of software—people at CERN can and will use whatever they want. In the same way that the internet is a network of networks, what CERN needed was some way of allowing all these different computers with different operating systems to share information with each other.

Tim Berners-Lee submitted a paper to his supervisor, Mike Sendall. It had the uninspiring title Information Management: A Proposal. Well, Mike Sendall must have seen some potential, because he scrawled across the top:

Vague, but exciting.

The proposal described:

…a solution based on a distributed hypertext system.

Tim Berners-Lee was very familiar with previous hypertext systems. All of these fed into his project:

  • Vannevar Bush’s Memex,
  • Douglas Engelbart’s oNline System,
  • Ted Nelson’s Xanadu, although it was still vapourware at this point,
  • Apple’s Hypercard system for the Mac,
  • and his own Enquire project.

But just creating the code wasn’t enough. He—and his colleague and collaborator, Robert Cailliau—needed to convince the scientists at CERN to use this technology. To start with, they needed a catchy name.

For a while, they floated the idea of calling it the Mesh.

Then they kick around the idea of calling it The Information Mine. But Tim Berners-Lee wasn’t keen on this one. He knew that, whatever name they chose, it would end up getting abbreviated, and he was worried it would look a bit egotistical.

And so they settled on World Wide Web. You have to admire the chutzpah of calling it World Wide Web when, at that point, it only existed on one person’s computer.

Sure enough, it did end up getting abbreviated. Except in this case, there are actually more syllables in the so-called abbreviation—WWW—than there are in the full name.

WWW

They even made a logo. Graphic designers they are not. But there is a reason for the green colour of the Ws. Robert Cailliau is a synesthesiac—he “hears” the W sound as the colour green.

And so the web was born. Good job!

Where the web was born

Learning from the lessons of TCP/IP, Tim Berners-Lee made sure to keep the individual parts of the system as simple as possible (but no simpler). The World Wide Web didn’t succeed because the technology was the best; far from it. It succeeded because the technology was just simple enough—but also powerful enough—for people to get started with straight away.

Take HTML, for example. There was no official Version 1 specification for this hypertext markup language.

Instead there was a document called simply HTML Tags, presumably written by Tim Berners-Lee. This document listed the entirety of HTML, which was a grand total of 21 elements.

Most of those elements weren’t even invented by Tim Berners-Lee. Instead, he borrowed the vocabulary already being used by scientists at CERN. They were used to writing documents in GML, which is supposed to stand for Generalised Markup Language, but was coincidentally created by three people whose last names were Goldfarb, Mosher, and Lorie: G, M, and L.

There was one element that was completely new to HTML:

A

This one single element is what enables the HT part of HTML. With this element, and its href attribute, anyone could link to anything on the web. It is brilliant in its simplicity.

Pleased with the way their project was progressing, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau submitted a proposal to present their World Wide Web at a hypertext conference.

They were rejected. Hypertext experts thought the World Wide Web was stupid.

As Ted Nelson put it:

Today’s one-way hypertext—the World Wide Web—is far too shallow. The Xanadu project foresaw world-wide hypertext decades ago, and endeavored to create a much deeper system. The Web, however, took over with a very shallow structure.

He’s not wrong. Hypertext on the web is shallow. It is stupid. Like TCP/IP, it is not smart.

The thing is, if you’re hoping to get mass adoption, being smart is a bug. Being stupid is a feature.

Just about every other hypertext system embodied the idea of two-way linking. There was an awareness at both ends of the link. If the resource being linked to were to move or change, the link could be updated. It’s robust, but it’s complicated.

On the World Wide Web, by contrast, links only work in one direction. If the resource being linked to ends up moving or changing, well, tough luck. The result is link rot. That’s the price we pay for a very simple hypertext system.

But, now that the web has been around a couple of decades, there is a sort-of, kind-of implementation of two-way linking.

It uses the humble rel attribute.

Rel is short for relationship. The value inside the rel attribute describes the relationship of the linked resource to the current document.

<a href="…" rel="…">

Some rel values were officially canonised in HTML.

rel="prev" means that the linked resource has the relationship of being the previous document to the current document.

<a href="…" rel="prev">

rel="next" means that the linked resource has the relationship of being the next document after the current document.

<a href="…" rel="next">

rel="author" means that the linked resource has the relationship of representing the author of the current document.

<a href="…" rel="author">

You get the idea.

Incidentally, there was once a corresponding rev attribute that described the reverse relationship. In other words, the relationship of the current document to the linked resource.

<a href="…" rev="…">

So you could simultaneously say the current document has a relationship of being the previous document to the linked resource and that the linked resource has a relationship of being the next document to the current document.

<a href="…" rev="prev" rel="next">

Confused? Well, that’s why the rev attribute was eventually dropped from HTML. It was just too complicated.

There was an attempt to use the rev attribute in an early microformat called vote-links. This was proposed way back in 2004. Blogs were hot. Political blogs were very hot indeed: Bush Jr.—no relation to Vannevar—was running for re-election in the States, and John Kerry was the challenger. There was much blogging and gnashing of teeth.

The problem was the rise of PageRank, the algorithm that drove Google’s search engine. The fundamental premise of PageRank was that linking to something counts as an endorsement. But there were many bloggers linking to articles that they disagreed with very strongly.

By using a rev value of “vote-for”, authors could explicitly say that this document is a vote for the resource being linked to.

Or by using a rev value of “vote-against” they could make it clear that this document is a vote against the linked resource.

It never really took off because, as I said, the rev attribute was just too hard to grok.

And that’s okay. The whole point of microformats is that they are the very embodiment of the motto of the Internet Engineering Task Force: rough consensus and running code. There just wasn’t enough take-up of vote-links for it to thrive.

Another early idea—that actually preceded the official creation of microformats—was XFN, which stood for XHTML Friends Network: the most Web 1.0 format name ever.

XFN built on existing behaviour. Bloggers would often have a list of links in their sidebar pointing to other bloggers they had some kind of relationship with. If you assume that a URL can represent a person, then the rel attribute is perfect for encoding that relationship information.

I can link to a friend’s website and say that the person represented by the linked resource has a relationship of being a friend to the person represented by the current document: me!

<a href="…" rel="friend">

Or I can link to a colleague’s website and say that they have a relationship of being a colleague to me.

<a href="…" rel="colleague">

And because rel values—like class values—can be space-separated, I can combine rel values into one attribute. I can link to someone and say that they are both a friend and a colleague.

<a href="…" rel="friend colleague">

I still have XFN values in the sidebar of my blog, but again, it never really took off.

Except for one value, that seems at first glance to be completely pointless:

A rel value of "me": the linked resource has a relationship of being …me?

<a href="…" rel="me">

A is for Adactio

My website is adactio.com. I love my website. Even though it isn’t a physical thing, I think it might be my most prized possession.

It’s a place for me to think and a place for me to link.

But my web presence isn’t limited to adactio.com—I have profiles on lots of different sites: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Medium, Dribbble, Flickr, Tumblr, CodePen …the list goes on.

None of those places are as important to me as my own website, but they are representations of me.

I link out to these profiles from my own website using that rel value of "me". That’s me on Twitter. That’s me on Github. That’s me on Flickr.

<a rel="me" href="https://twitter.com/adactio">
<a rel="me" href="https://github.com/adactio">
<a rel="me" href="https://flickr.com/adactio">

Nothing unusual there. These are regular one-way hyperlinks.

What’s interesting is that many of those profiles on other websites provide a URL field where I can enter my own website. These third-party profiles then link back to my website also using a rel value of "me".

<a rel="me nofollow" href="https://adactio.com">

(They also use a rel value of "nofollow" to discourage spammers. The phrase "nofollow" makes absolutely no sense as a rel value—you can’t have a relationship of "nofollow" to anything—but it was invented by Google. We don’t get to argue with the 900 pound Google gorilla.)

Anyway, the result of having these reciprocal links, both using rel="me" means that we’ve kinda, sorta got two-way linking on the World Wide Web.

But …so what?

A is for Authentication

Some of those third-party profiles I’m linking to—Twitter, Github, Flickr—have something in common. They allow third-party authentication using OAuth.

If I can log into my Twitter, or Github, or Flickr profile using OAuth, and those profiles have two-way links with my website, then I can “borrow” that authentication flow for my own site.

That’s the idea behind IndieAuth. I enter the URL of my own website. It finds the links from there to my other profiles using rel="me". Then I can choose which one of those profiles I want to authenticate against. Once I’ve authenticated with that service, I’ve also authenticated my own website.

Just by adding a short rel value to some links, I can use my website as a log-in.

My website also has a small write API. The API is called micropub. By combining IndieAuth and micropub, I can log into somebody else’s posting interface using my website, and then use that interface to post to my own website.

These building blocks—microformats, IndieAuth, micropub—have emerged from a small but dedicated group of people.

We gather together at fun little events called Indie Web Camps.

An Indie Web Camp takes place over two days. The first day is split into discussions of technology and design. The second is all about implementing what we’ve discussed on the first day. I’m always amazed by how much gets done when you’re in the same space as like-minded people.

Still, the technologies being discussed and implemented aren’t the real focus of Indie Web Camp. The core tenet of Indie Web Camp is an idea. It’s a very simple idea, that at one point would have been uncontroversial. That idea is that you should have your own website.

But who’s got time for that? Especially when it’s so much easier to write and share and link using platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Medium. That’s a good point. A lot of the time at an Indie Web Camp is spent reverse-engineering what those services are doing so well, and applying them to personal websites.

Also, we don’t necessarily want to stop using those services. After all, that’s where the people are (for now). Instead we want to figure out ways of making use of these services, while still keeping the canonical versions of what we create under our own control.

There’s a fantastic little Indie Web service called Brid.gy that allows you to not only post from your own site out to third party networks, but also receive replies, and likes, and retweets back at your own site, using another Indie Web building block called webmention.

In a way, webmentions allow a kind of two-way linking. I can cross-post something from adactio.com to Twitter, or Instagram, or Facebook. Then when someone replies on Twitter, or Instagram, or Facebook, I get notified with a ping back to my own site.

All of this is possible because I’ve verified the identity of those third-party profiles using nothing more than a simple rel attribute on a hyperlink.

The Indie Web uses a grab-bag of deliberately simple technologies that combine to create something so much more powerful than the sum of its parts …just like the web itself.

We often talk about places like Facebook, or Instagram, or Medium as walled gardens. Walled gardens are as old as the web itself. AOL was a well-cultivated walled garden back in the day.

To The Garden

There’s nothing wrong with walled gardens. They’re safe spaces. They take care of your enjoyment and entertainment, so you don’t have to.

But there also a bit boring. I certainly don’t relish the idea of spending my days within the boundaries of someone else’s vision.

There’s a different kind of garden. It takes its name from another short story by Borges.

The Garden of Forking Paths. It is uncontrolled. It is full of possibilities. It’s a bit scary. It takes more dedication to explore. You might get lost. But is that so bad? When was the last time you were truly lost on the World Wide Web, when you clicked through link after link—no cheating by opening new tabs, now—until you ended up somewhere, blinking and asking yourself “what I was looking for?”

I would like us all to spend more time in the garden of forking paths. I would like us all to continue to grow this garden of forking paths. Add your own website to this garden of forking paths. Use it to make more links.

On your website, you can link to this thing over here and that thing over there, and in doing so create an entirely new forking path.

Remember, the web, like the internet, has no centre. In theory I could start from any single A element, and by following all the forking paths, traverse the entire World Wide Web.

That opening hyperlink could be on your own website. One single A element can be the portal to an entire universe of knowledge.

Sunday, June 12th, 2016

Declarative Design Tools | Jon Gold

Jon introduces a new tool with a very interesting observation: up until now, all our graphic design tools have been imperative rather than declarative

With our current tools we’re telling the computer how to design the vision we have in our head (by tapping on our input devices for every element on the screen); in our future tools we will tell our computers what we want to see, and let them figure out how to move elements around to get there.

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

turbolinks/turbolinks: Turbolinks makes navigating your web application faster

I really, really like the approach that this JavaScript library is taking in treating Ajax as a progressive enhancement:

Turbolinks intercepts all clicks on a href links to the same domain. When you click an eligible link, Turbolinks prevents the browser from following it. Instead, Turbolinks changes the browser’s URL using the History API, requests the new page using XMLHttpRequest, and then renders the HTML response.

During rendering, Turbolinks replaces the current body element outright and merges the contents of the head element. The JavaScript window and document objects, and the HTML html element, persist from one rendering to the next.

Here’s the mustard it’s cutting:

It depends on the HTML5 History API and Window.requestAnimationFrame. In unsupported browsers, Turbolinks gracefully degrades to standard navigation.

This approach matches my own mental model for building on the web—I might try playing around with this on some of my projects.

Thursday, February 4th, 2016

Link rel=serviceworker - Chrome Platform Status

Ooh, I really like this idea! Pointing to your Service Worker the same way you point to your style sheet makes a lot of sense to me.

Monday, February 1st, 2016

Links, Buttons, Submits, and Divs, Oh Hell | Adrian Roselli

Use the right element for the job.

  • Does the Control Take Me to Another Page? Use an Anchor.
  • Does the Control Change Something on the Current Page? Use a Button.
  • Does the Control Submit Form Fields? Use a Submit.

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

AMBER

This is intriguing—a Pinboard-like service that will create local copies of pages you link to from your site. There are plug-ins for WordPress and Drupal, and modules for Apache and Nginx.

Amber is an open source tool for websites to provide their visitors persistent routes to information. It automatically preserves a snapshot of every page linked to on a website, giving visitors a fallback option if links become inaccessible.

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Follow the links | A Working Library

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.

Friday, December 11th, 2015

Where to start?

A lot of the talks at this year’s Chrome Dev Summit were about progressive web apps. This makes me happy. But I think the focus is perhaps a bit too much on the “app” part on not enough on “progressive”.

What I mean is that there’s an inevitable tendency to focus on technologies—Service Workers, HTTPS, manifest files—and not so much on the approach. That’s understandable. The technologies are concrete, demonstrable things, whereas approaches, mindsets, and processes are far more nebulous in comparison.

Still, I think that the most important facet of building a robust, resilient website is how you approach building it rather than what you build it with.

Many of the progressive app demos use server-side and client-side rendering, which is great …but that aspect tends to get glossed over:

Browsers without service worker support should always be served a fall-back experience. In our demo, we fall back to basic static server-side rendering, but this is only one of many options.

I think it’s vital to not think in terms of older browsers “falling back” but to think in terms of newer browsers getting a turbo-boost. That may sound like a nit-picky semantic subtlety, but it’s actually a radical difference in mindset.

Many of the arguments I’ve heard against progressive enhancement—like Tom’s presentation at Responsive Field Day—talk about the burdensome overhead of having to bolt on functionality for older or less-capable browsers (even Jake has done this). But the whole point of progressive enhancement is that you start with the simplest possible functionality for the greatest number of users. If anything gets bolted on, it’s the more advanced functionality for the newer or more capable browsers.

So if your conception of progressive enhancement is that it’s an added extra, I think you really need to turn that thinking around. And that’s hard. It’s hard because you need to rewire some well-engrained pathways.

There is some precedence for this though. It was really, really hard to convince people to stop using tables for layout and starting using CSS instead. That was a tall order—completely change the way you approach building on the web. But eventually we got there.

When Ethan came out with Responsive Web Design, it was an equally difficult pill to swallow, not because of the technologies involved—media queries, percentages, etc.—but because of the change in thinking that was required. But eventually we got there.

These kinds of fundamental changes are inevitably painful …at first. After years of building websites using tables for layout, creating your first CSS-based layout was demoralisingly difficult. But the second time was a bit easier. And the third time, easier still. Until eventually it just became normal.

Likewise with responsive design. After years of building fixed-width websites, trying to build in a fluid, flexible way was frustratingly hard. But the second time wasn’t quite as hard. And the third time …well, eventually it just became normal.

So if you’re used to thinking of the all-singing, all-dancing version of your site as the starting point, it’s going to be really, really hard to instead start by building the most basic, accessible version first and then work up to the all-singing, all-dancing version …at first. But eventually it will just become normal.

For now, though, it’s going to take work.

The recent redesign of Google+ is true case study in building a performant, responsive, progressive site:

With server-side rendering we make sure that the user can begin reading as soon as the HTML is loaded, and no JavaScript needs to run in order to update the contents of the page. Once the page is loaded and the user clicks on a link, we do not want to perform a full round-trip to render everything again. This is where client-side rendering becomes important — we just need to fetch the data and the templates, and render the new page on the client. This involves lots of tradeoffs; so we used a framework that makes server-side and client-side rendering easy without the downside of having to implement everything twice — on the server and on the client.

This took work. Had they chosen to rely on client-side rendering alone, they could have built something quicker. But I think it was worth laying that solid foundation. And the next time they need to build something this way, it’s going to be less work. Eventually it just becomes normal.

But it all starts with thinking of the server-side rendering as the default. Server-side rendering is not a fallback; client-side rendering is an enhancement.

That’s exactly the kind of mindset that enables Jack Franklin to build robust, resilient websites:

Now we’ll build the React application entirely on the server, before adding the client-side JavaScript right at the end.

I had a chance to chat briefly with Jack at the Edge conference in London and I congratulated him on the launch of a Go Cardless site that used exactly this technique. He told me that the decision to flip the switch and make it act as a single page app came right at the end of the project. Server-side rendering was the default; client-side rendering was added later.

The key to building modern, resilient, progressive sites doesn’t lie in browser technologies or frameworks; it lies in how we think about the task at hand; how we approach building from the ground up rather than the top down. Changing the way we fundamentally think about building for the web is inevitably going to be challenging …at first. But it will also be immensely rewarding.

Web History Primer

Written in 2001, this history of the web takes in CERN, hypertext, the ARPANET, SGML, and lots more.