Cloud Street

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Nor mine, now

I nearly installed Hyperwords this morning; the only reason I didn't is that I haven't moved to Firefox 1.5 yet (and don't intend to until I'm confident it won't break any of the extensions I'm already using). And, in principle, it looks great:
With the Hyperwords Firefox Extension installed just select any text and a menu appears. You can search major search engines, look things up in reference sites, check dictionary definitions, translate, email quickly and much more.
So why does the thought of actually using it give me the creeps? Alex is similarly ambivalent:
In principle, it's a handy tool. But I would have to overcome a few personal adoption barriers before I started using it on a regular basis. As a consumer, I can see the appeal of opening up texts to interact with the rest of the Web; but as a writer, I instinctively bristle at the idea of giving up that kind of control. I suspect that disposition colors the way I read things on the Web; I like my documents to feel fixed, not fluid. And the Web feels squishy enough as it is. That, and somehow the premise of cracking open someone else's document with a toolbox of Web services feels like a kind of violation. This is undoubtedly my own personal neurotic hangup.
Well, if it is, it's mine too. Mark Bernstein gets some of it:
In the very early days of hypertext research, people worried a lot about hand-crafted links. "How will we ever afford to put in all those links?" We also worried about how we'd ever manage to afford to digitize stuff for the Web, not to mention paying people to create original Web pages. Overnight, we discovered that we'd got the sign wrong: people would pay for the privilege of making Web sites. The problem isn't the 'tyranny' of the links, and replacing it with the tyranny of the link server might not be a great solution.
Authors don't offer navigation options to be "useful"; thoughtful writers use links to express ideas. Argumentation seeks understanding, not merely access.
Let's put some of that together: cracking open someone else's document with a toolbox of Web services; the tyranny of the link server; thoughtful writers use links to express ideas. In other words, Hyperwords doesn't extend existing hyperlink practice but undermines it. In the Hyperwords world you'll no longer read a document, you'll mine it for information - or rather, mine it for jumping-off points for retrieving information from authoritative sources. (Or retrieving whatever other stuff you may want to retrieve.)

Alex mentioned Xanadu, but I don't think Hyperwords is a step in that direction. If anything, it's a step backwards. (One of Xanadu's key words is "author-based".) Hyperlinks and the Web of dialogic, socially-produced content go together just fine; as Mark says, mass amateurism is already providing an answer to the question of where all those links are going to come from. It's messy and incomplete, but it's here - and it's, well, ours (as a writer, I instinctively bristle at the idea of giving up that kind of control). You can see two visions of the Web here: the mass amateurisation of writing as against the 'consumer'-oriented, authority-led, broadcast Web. Hyperwords ostensibly enhances horizontal, transverse linkage, but its effect would be to pull the Web further towards broadcast mode - albeit an 'empowered', roll-your-own broadcast mode.

Can't keep quiet for long - I'm a human being!
Can't help singing this song - I'm a human being!
You won't listen to me,
I'm not an authority...

- Steve Mason, "Eclipse"


  • Hi Phil. Good points. I have blooged a response at

    By Blogger Frode Hegland, at 2/3/06 21:08  

  • Generic links and the "Microcosm" architecture are very apt parallels. It needs to be smarter as I mentioned in my blog.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/3/06 00:59  

  • And I should add: people already use documents as starting-off points. At least we should hope we are compelling enough to create that kind of response! I much prefer the Hyperwords approach to the tying that to a kind of auto-link approach ala google :)

    For me, it needs to be smarter to be really useful. I personally think that links from my writing to some resource devoid of context is relastively useless. At the same time, I don't like the idea of creating value by reinforcing artificial walls and barriers. In that sense, generic links as an optional, controlled supplement could have some value.

    Sorry about the earlier post, I meant to reference a specific post.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/3/06 01:04  

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