We Need Hyperlink Literacy

A couple weeks ago, I was in a student discussion with James Grimmelmann, law professor at Cornell Tech who studies how laws regarding technology affect freedom, wealth and power. A large part of our discussion centered around search engines and media platforms, specifically how personalization and algorithmic filters may affect what users see, even when they don’t understand or know that they’re getting filtered content. One way to tackle this issue (in addition to regulation, or some form of opt-out) would be media literacy: teach people that what they see is not some kind of perfect, impartial truth, but might be tailored to their preference and past histories (and biased in other ways).

Fostering that kind of media literacy among the populace at large is at once sorely needed and immensely difficult. Given how much our society depends on the Internet, the World Wide Web, search engines, social media platforms and the (often inscrutable) algorithms behind them, it is crucial that people understand how they get their information, and what are the biases, agendas, and influences shaping what they see (and don’t see). This is clearly a massive challenge, and likely one that we don’t yet know how to overcome. Personally, I would settle for solving one much smaller piece of the puzzle first: a more general understanding and respect for hyperlinks.

The humble hyperlink is the foundation of the web as we know it. It takes the web from being just a digital version of a library or filing cabinet to something truly new: a system where direct access to a piece of information is as easy as naming it. Unfortunately, along with the rise of digital walled gardens such as Facebook (and to a lesser degree, Twitter) the hyperlink seems to be losing prominence. That’s ironic given that the hyperlink is a sharing mechanism, and Facebook would like to bill itself as a platform for sharing and connecting. On a normal web page, one can use snippets of text as anchors for a hyperlink, instead of using the raw link itself. Facebook doesn’t let you turn pieces of text in a status update into links. Furthermore, pasting more than one link at a time breaks the user interface. I suppose Facebook wants to give the link more prominence than what you have to say about it. People like Dave Winer and John Gruber have commented at length on how Facebook breaks the web. Poignantly, that last sentence (with two hyperlinks) would be impossible to write properly in Facebook.

And it’s not just Facebook. Twitter is approximately the same as Facebook. Slack supports links poorly in the same way: there’s no obvious way to use pieces of text as anchors for links. Adding more than one link is slightly better: giving previews for both links (though they are bigger and more prominent than the message containing the links). These systems are silos: they prefer you share and interact with posts within their own boundaries, rather than with content on the web as a whole.

By reducing the prominence of hyperlinks and truncating their utility, we create online cultures focused on sharing information, rather than ones that encourage combining and synthesizing multiple sources and viewpoints into coherent narratives. I would argue that in doing so we are giving up a large part of the power of the Web, to our detriment, and for no clear benefit.

So how do we fix this? Certainly, there is an argument to be made for reducing our dependence on platforms where we cannot sufficiently control our own writing. But beyond that, I would like to see hyperlinks become a more ingrained part of writing on a computer. I would love to see a world where whenever you write some text on a computer that references external sources, you link copiously to them, rather than just inserting references that readers have to look up manually. School and college writing classes would be the prime places to teach this. In the same way that we teach students to include citations to external sources, I would like to see students treat hyperlinks with the same importance and fluency.

In a deeply connected technological society such as ours, using the core technologies of the web should be a central part of any kind of digital or media literacy.

Advertisements

Multiplicity

Over the last weekend I played around with an interesting service called Editorially. It’s essentially a stripped down, online text editor, with support for Markdown formatting. However, it’s most attractive feature is its support for multiple versions, collaboration and editing. It’s an interesting project and it just added WordPress and Dropbox export (I wrote the first draft of this post in it and then exported to WordPress). Like many such services, I’d rather use a text editor and git to get the same effect. However, more than the service itself what interests me is something I read on their blog post announcing their export features:

On the web today, a single article may be published on the writer’s personal blog, collected in an ebook, syndicated on several magazine or news sites, and reblogged across different platforms and communities.

This notion of having the same piece of work shared in multiple places is not new, but is becoming increasingly popular, especially with the rise of of group blogs (often with guest authors), online curation, and services like Medium. Craig Mod, whom I find to be one of the most insightful writers on the intersection of technology and publishing, started one of his recent pieces with this not-quite-disclaimer:

This was originally published in Hiut Denim’s yearbook. I’ve republished it here, over on Hi and over at Medium because, well, the beauty of the web is multiplicity. More on that later.

Multiplicity. I like that word. And yes, there is something to admire in just how easy it is to copy and share on this, the modern Web. But is it a thing of beauty? I’m much less certain than Mr. Mod, especially since this form of multiplicity is heavily dependent on third-party, often proprietary services with motives that are unclear at best and
questionable at worst.

What Mr. Mod dubs “multiplicity” and call beautiful can be explained in older, cruder terms: copy-and-paste. In many ways, the current web does us a disservice — we have been taught to accept and we settled for multiplicity when what we really wanted was transclusion, first described by an early pioneer of applied computation — Ted Nelson.

Whereas multiplicity on the web takes the form of copy-and-paste, transclusion would take the form of reference. Instead of taking the literal text (and perhaps the styling and images) of a document and replicating it for each copy, we have a single canonical copy of a document (and by document I mean any information object) that can be referenced and transcluded from other places. For example, Mr. Mod could have published the original piece on his website and Hi and Medium would simply transclude it in their own versions. When someone visited the Hi or Medium pages, they would reach out and embed the original post’s content within their contexts.

Transclusion offers many advantage over copy-and-paste. For one, any changes to the original are automatically reflected wherever it is transcluded. Second, attribution becomes much easier. Instead of carefully maintaining references to where you found a particular piece of information or text, the transclusion machinery can manage it for you. In fact, such a system needs to keep proper source information to work properly. Transclusion also makes the job easier for automated systems like search engines. Instead of coming across multiple versions of the same text in different places, a crawler would simply follow back the transclusion links and be able to index the original authoritative copy.

Copy-and-paste certainly has a place, even in a hypothetical transclusion-enabled Web. One major application is of course backup and archival, which would be impossible if there was only ever a single copy. That being said, personally I would rather have transclusion than not. For one thing it would make navigating the current morass of social media and publication startups easier.

Today, if I write something (say this blog post) and want to put it online, I have to decide where to put it. I could put it on my own website, hosted on my own server, accessible at my own domain name, where I retain full control. However, maybe I want the attention generated by publishing on a platform like Medium or Tumblr. Maybe I also want to post a link and excerpt to Facebook and Twitter and Google+. Once people read it, they might want to make posts about it on their blogs and reference it. It might get picked up discussed on random forums and message boards, discussion sites and Q&A sites.

To do that today requires a lot of manual intervention and thought. First I’d have to copy and paste the text into all the different services. Then I’d have to copy-and-paste a link into the various social media services. If I wanted to add an excerpt, I’d have to do more copy-pasting and editing. If there was discussion on other places, there’s no guarantee I’d find out about it. I’d have to keep a close eye on all the discussion sites, and hope that any individuals talking about it on their own sites send me an email (or some other kind of notification) about their posts.

In a world where transclusion is the default, things become much simpler. As we’ve already discussed, the various other publishing platforms would simply transclude the content of my post. Social media services would transclude particular paragraphs (or even particular sentences). Similarly, discussion sites and other people’s blogs would transclude the particular parts of the post they want to discuss. This has a secondary benefit: I can look up the transcluders and automatically be aware of who’s talking about my post (and what parts in particular). In summary, transclusion would make sharing and discussion on the web a whole lot easier, smoother and interactive.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that we’ll achieve transclusion any time soon. In particular, I would say most publishing and social media services have incentives to prevent transclusion — they want a unique piece of your work. Deferring to a canonical copy elsewhere that others can transclude as well is the last thing they want. That being said, we can still dream, can’t we? Perhaps, with the continuing popularity of ebooks and DIY publishing we might even start having some limited forms of transclusion. And maybe, just maybe, people like Mr. Mod and services like Editorially will start pushing for a transclusion-capable world.