Engadget had a post about a novel delivered to cell phones in 1,600 word installments, which sounded interesting but I held off posting about it for a while. The concept does have some initial “neat” factor to it, but I wanted to mull it over for a little while. This post is really about communication methods changing and shaping the content of communication, and not just about this novel delivered to cell phones. The novel does display a lot of factors I want to talk about however. Most important, that the structure of the novel was based in part on the delivery method. Not just that it was broken up, but that the author chose a writing style that was more concise and action oriented. But that got me thinking about how often communication is not targeted to the methods being used. In particular, the use of hyperlinks in web pages. The use of links we see today is almost nothing like the way they were intended to work. If you want to see the way they were intended to work, take a look at online documentation about programming languages. Just about anything from the Java docs at Sun should do. Links have mostly turned into menu items, leading to other areas you can go to and not necessarily threading together thoughts or concepts.
One area where this is reversing somewhat is within the blogging community. The links that people put in their blogs do point to related topics, and they do point to writings by others on like issues. But they remain relatively isolated nodes. Most entries only have one link to the story being commented on, and then perhaps trackback links for others who have responded. I have a vision of linking in which the links from a number of terms on the same page lead off to related thoughts or further information. Probably because I still remember the initial description of hypertext I heard when Tim Berners-Lee gave instantiation to the mostly theoretical concept. I can’t find the page right now, but I once saw someone’s writing who made excellent use of hyperlinks and bolding within the document. If I ever find it again it might serve as my shining example of proper use of a medium. The bolding and the hyperlinks together served as perfect markers for speed reading. There is a Style Guide for Hypertext, and it does have a section on the use of links, but it’s a very cursory treatment. I have no idea what effect it really would have on a large scale, but just imagine if most major news stories were really marked up with background info. Currently almost everything on the major news sites has no real markup in the stories. Maybe a company name or two, or very simple definitions - but even that is uncommon.
Since I’ve started reading Interface Culture I know I’ve been paying a lot more attention to my use of links in my entries. Is that a good or a bad thing? I’m not quite sure yet, but I should know in a few weeks. I suspect that it will change the way that I think about the information I put up. Much the way that the act of blogging has changed the way that I process the information that I run across. Now that I pull little tidbits of news out of the flow of information and write my own entries about them I am a lot more introspective. I actually feel more in touch with both the things I’m doing and the things I read about. The vast galaxy of information has started to resolve into a couple of relatively distinct constellations. And I have something of an idea about how I think my projects relate to what others are working on. Sure, last year I could have regurgitated a list of a dozen people working on like projects. I had all the information. The difference is that this year I can answer questions like “how does that really relate to what you’re doing” and “why do you think they’ve chosen to do things that way”. However, it also means that there are some issues I don’t know about which last year I might have. I can only assume that this is a good thing. I must have been operating beyond my true capacity to process before. I was gathering and storing, but not processing.
How does that relate to our rather half-assed use of hypertext? Does the lack of craft put into transferring content online mean that everyone is trying to work beyond their real capacity? Or does everyone just think that hypertext is useful only within a relatively limited set of applications? And that it’s serving as best it can within online publishing and doesn’t need to be pushed further? I don’t think I buy that. I think the information that goes online does need to be marked up more. And it might not just mean inserting some hyperlinks either. The people working on making the Semantic Web a reality probably really are onto something. Maybe the reason it looks so far off is because the web is so heavily populated by information which is ill suited to the medium. Does that mean that the semantic web demands too much? I don’t think so.
This post has no real conclusion by the way. I don’t really know what I think about the issues as a whole. Some recent thoughts about online collaboration and the mixed forms of documents and content have gotten me thinking about the nature of communication in general. I’m still trying to figure out what those thoughts are, but I think most of The Internet has really been under-realized. Probably because smaller and more obvious goals were in place at the time. A lot more can be done to facilitate communication and collaboration online.