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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
James Bridle has been confronting just that. His recent series The Nor took him on a tour of a parallel, obfuscated English countryside. He returned with three pieces of hypertext:
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.
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.
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.
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 type and rel attributes: 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.
The 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: the 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 header and 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 P and A don’t make any intuitive sense. It’s no different for attributes like href or 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.