In a recent ongoing piece, I mentioned the “Canada Line”, a huge construction project currently disrupting Vancouver. Motivated in part by the 2010 Winter Olympics, it’s a subway/elevated train connecting the city core, the airport, and everything on the path between them, including a big strip of central Vancouver and Richmond, the suburb with the airport. (It’s called the “Canada Line” because the biggest chunk of funding is from the Federal, as opposed to provincial or city government). Since I’m writing for the Net, I wanted to link to it. I did a quick search for its Web site, which also turned up a pretty good Wikipedia entry on the subject. The question is, which to link to? The answer isn’t obvious.
Why Wikipedia? · One great thing about the Web is that everyone can be part of it, and another is that anyone can link to anyone, and a particularly great thing about blogs is that they do so a lot.
The trouble with the Web is that like everything else, per Sturgeon’s Revelation, 90% of it is crap. In particular, a lot of institutional sites are pathetic self-serving fluff served up in anodyne marketing-speak with horrible URIs that are apt to vanish.
Linking to the Wikipedia instead is tempting, and I’ve succumbed a lot recently. In fact, that’s what I did for the Canada Line. After all, the train is still under construction and there’s no real reason to expect today’s links to last; on top of which, the Line’s own site is mostly about selling the project to the residents and businesses who (like me) are getting disrupted by it, and the taxpayers who (like me) are paying for it.
Wikipedia entries, on the other hand, are typically in stable locations, have a decent track record for outliving transient events, are pretty good at presenting the essential facts in a clear, no-nonsense way, and tend to be richly linked to relevant information, including whatever the “official” Web site might currently happen to be.
At this point in history, the Wikipedia continues to look good, and the cheap-shot artists who dislike it when the general public is allowed to help write the Great Books, such as Bob “Wikipedia is like a public toilet” McHenry and Andrew “Khmer Rouge in Daipers (sic)” Orlowski, are looking bad. (The jury is still out on Nicholas Carr’s contention that the Wikipedia is inexorably evolving away from its populist roots into something like a conventional reference-publishing project.)
Why Not Wikipedia? · But this makes me nervous. I feel like I’m breaking the rules; being able to link to original content, without benefit of intermediaries, is one of the things that defines the Web. More practically, when I and a lot of other people start linking to Wikipedia by default, we boost its search-engine mojo and thus drive a positive-feedback loop, to some extent creating a single point of failure; another of the things that the Web isn’t supposed to have.
I’d be astonished if the Wikipedia suddenly went away. But I wouldn’t be very surprised if it went off the rails somehow: Commercial rapacity, legal issues, or (especially) bad community dynamics, we’ve seen that happen to a whole bunch of once-wonderful Internet resources. If and when it did, all those Wikipedia links I’ve used (396 so far, starting in June 2004) become part of a big problem.
[Let me be clear: I am an unabashed partisan of Wikipedia. I think it is a triumph, a piece of evidence that being human is no bad thing; and I’ll do what I can, when I can, to help it. If I think I see it going sideways I’ll be in there shrieking and fighting.]
Learn From History? · Obviously, the notion that writers should insert links to other relevant information didn’t first appear on the Web: it’s at the core of academic publishing. The word “scholarly” applies to work in which no assertion may stand unaccompanied by supporting evidence; I think scholarly is good.
Academic citations, the stuff of scholarship, are not simple one-way pointers, they are little bundles of metadata: a page (or section) number in a particular edition of a particular published work, identified by author, title, date, publisher, and so on. Given the way the library system works, there’s a high degree of confidence that, given the contents of a citation, you’ll be able to track down the original.
Web links are clearly transient and fragile by comparison (the appeal of linking to Wikipedia is precisely that, at the moment, it feels a little less so). On the other hand, you can click on them and follow them, right here right now; and you can spin “transient and fragile” the other way, as “dynamic and fresh”. I don’t think, on balance, that they’re a step backward.
Fragile Links ·
When I first started writing the ongoing articles
and content, in parallel, I was thinking about a
attribute on links, to be inserted when I thought that
there was a good chance that the ongoing piece would
outlive them. The idea was that I’d fiddle the stylesheet so that
“fragile” links would look different, by way of a warning.
The idea was not entirely lame. But it needed me to make a whole bunch of judgment calls, and I quickly decided I probably wasn’t very good at guessing at longevity; so I discarded it.
Solution: Link Bundles? · If we really care about links being useful in the long term (and we should), maybe we need to abandon the notion that a single pointer is the right way to make one that matters. If I want to link to Accenture or Bob Dylan or Chartres Cathedral, I can think of three plausible ways: via the “official” sites, the Wikipedia entries, and Google searches for the names. [More generally, I should say: direct links, online reference-resource links, and search-based links. I’ll come back to that.]
What I want, then, is a link to a bunch of things at once. It turns out that there’s a perfectly good, if lightly-implemented, way to do this in XML, called XLink [Disclosure: I helped create it.]. It’s been lightly-implemented mostly I think because the browser writers just didn’t feel any particular pull for such a thing. This has struck me as a little odd because every financial Web site in the world is full of multi-ended links: every time they mention a company they’ll typically link to its share price, some analysis, and previous articles: check out almost any page at TheStreet.com, for example.
One Level of Indirection · I want more than multi-way links: I don’t want to jump into bed with Wikipedia or Google or any potential single point of failure. I’d be willing to bet that if Wikipedia goes off the rails and some new online reference resource comes along to compete, there’ll be an automated mapping between Wikipedia links and the new thing; so the actual URIs may retain some value. Similarly, a search string needn’t be tied to any one search engine.
Linking 2.0 · So here’s what I’d like: a way to write multi-ended links with simple indirection, and a reasonable way for users to display them in whatever browser they’re using. Fortunately, I have a nice link-rich testbed here at ongoing, with software I control, and the era of GreaseMonkey and AJAX, who needs to wait for the browser builders? Unless someone points out why this line of thinking is clueless or (much more likely) points at where someone’s already solved the problem, maybe I’ll take a run at the problem.