Until this weekend I’d never heard of “Purple Numbers” but they’ve been across the radar twice in the last day, first in some commentary by Chris Dent on the Atom-Identifier issue, then again over at Jonas Luster’s place. First I thought, why not? Then, why numbers? [Updated: Backed ’em out for now, needs more work.] [Updated again: put ’em back.]

The purple-numbers idea seems rooted here, where its description as “a makeshift solution to a relatively simple problem” immediately gave me a warm glow, because so is the Web.

I look at these things and the idea of sticking a visible anchor on each paragraph to make it addressable seems like, well of course! In particular here at ongoing where I’m prone to write thirty-paragraph rambles with multiple allegedly-related arguments, it would make Mark Pilgrim’s life so much easier if he could directly point at a paragraph that’s particularly wrong.

The more I think about this, the more it seems like every paragraph on the Web should have its own address. I also like the soft unobtrusive purple, #c8a8ff. But I don’t like the numbers.

If the link is visible so you can click on it to go there, or right-click on it to copy the hyperlink for pasting elsewhere, or drag it to another application if you have that kind of support, why do you need a distracting, otherwise-meaningless number? The appeals to node addressing and hierarchical addressing and Engelbart and Nelson leave me cold.

So, on an experimental basis, I stitched ’em into the ongoing software, it took about fifteen minutes. Other people who do this use elaborate javascript hacks and have tricks to turn them off. Given the nice soft color and the fact that my Purple Numbers aren’t numbers, I don’t see the need to turn them off. Maybe in a print stylesheet, but I never got that to work anyhow.

If, after a few days, I still like them, I’ll republish the whole site and make every ongoing paragraph a first-class Web citizen.

Not Ready for Prime-Time · Did this one ever get a reaction. I’ve turned the #-markers off for now because, as several people pointed out, they’d all change every time I added or subtracted a paragraph, and that’s not tolerable. (Gosh, I seem to remember writing about this recently).

Things to check out: Simon Willison’s fiendishly clever implementation, Mark Nottingham’s careful thinking, and more history from Chris Dent.

Purple Again · OK, I fixed things up so that the addresses are stable. Yes, this requires that the paragraph IDs be stored and managed upstream in the XML source versions of the ongoing fragments, but another three lines of elisp made that a single-keystroke operation.

That leaves issues of typography... several people have stated that they find the little #’s intrusive. Simon Willison’s solution is attractive, but I’m wondering if we might want to defer that for a little while until the whole world gets the idea that each paragraph is addressible.

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May 29, 2004
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