The web isn't proper hypertext
October 9, 2001 5:52 AM   Subscribe

The web isn't proper hypertext says Ted Nelson, who probably invented the idea.

"I define hypertext as non-sequential writing ... the World Wide Web is not what we were trying to create. The links only go one way. There's no permanent publishing. There is no way you can write a marginal note that other people can see on what's in front of you. There is no way that you can quote freely. "

So is everyone fully comfortable with the idea of a "two way web", or are we still too hung up on picket fence territorialism? And how would it work, anyway?
posted by walrus (18 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"There is no way you can write a marginal note that other people can see ..."

Well, there was Third Voice, but that was a plug in that became only mildly popular: big enough to annoy web designers and content developers, but not enough to really build that two way community.
posted by maudlin at 6:07 AM on October 9, 2001

Ted Nelson is just bitter -- I mean, he's had how long to come up with a workable idea? 30 years?

... so where is it, Ted?
posted by ph00dz at 6:11 AM on October 9, 2001

Wikis are close to the ideal, but delicate and localized.
(I'm sure there was a thread about Wikipedia here recently, but I can't find the damn thing!)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:17 AM on October 9, 2001

> So is everyone fully comfortable with the idea of a "two
> way web", or are we still too hung up on picket fence
> territorialism?

Ted's been hollering about his version of hypertext for as long as I can remember , and my first PC was an 8-bit Apple II. (In them days Ted was, briefly, editor of Creative Computing and bought an article of mine so I do regard him with some affection...) In all that time he's been telling us how reallyo-trulyo hypertext works but he's never made it work very well.

As for two-way communication, there are community blogs, aren't there? Or you can take it to email. Anybody who scribbles marginalia on a site of mine will be considered a defacement hacker. Where's my BFG?

(If you can't say something nice dept: the writers' guidelines sent out by Creative Computing on Ted's watch were the best of any mag I ever queried.)
posted by jfuller at 6:27 AM on October 9, 2001

And, oh yeah, Vannevar Bush described hyperlinks way back in 1945, though he didn't coin the buzzword. He described

> associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a
> provision whereby any item may be caused at will to
> select immediately and automatically another.
posted by jfuller at 6:40 AM on October 9, 2001

Yeah, a couple of years ago there were apps like Thirdvoices, Esgear, Utok, Zadu. All gone now. You still have, the original hypertext app. These companies formed during the dotcom boom, and some coasted along on VC financing for a while, until the inevitable occured.....

The thing that a lot of people who got in a bit of a twist over Thirdvoice and their like didn't realise, or didn't want to acknowlege, is that Ted Nelson always intended the net to have both text and hypertext. He intended HTML to go hand in hand with hypertext applications. However I don't blame people who dislike thirdvoice, because it had a fairly aggressive style of management, was invasive in that it didn't configure it's tools in such a way that it had any chance at all to build respectful communities. As anyone who ever used it knows, it was full of spam, junk and abuse. It was a pretty forgettable experiment all up.

The best hypertext app to date in my opinion was utok, however again there were various management problems and perhaps with the benefit of hindsight utok didn't build on it's strengths, which were it's simplicity and good programming and the in-built ability to post notes privately. A lot of people simply used it as an alternative to email.

I think there is a definite future for hypertext applications if someone can simply combine good programming with a real strength of vision. I think the best way to do this is via the open source community. There are no real (user friendly) hypertext applications at the moment that I know of, and I find that frustrating. It feels somehow natural to me to have a second layer to the web, to have the freedom of interaction of the type that hypertext applications provide.

I don't think it's an either/or argument. I think people can have their picket fences if they wish, by simply not downloading the software. However this is a contentious argument.
posted by lucien at 6:46 AM on October 9, 2001

It seems the web is both too fluid and too solid to fit his vision. I can see his point, but look at weblogs. Comments for annotation, permanent content, and the links cross index all over the place. Seems like just what he wants; somebody should send him the movabletype URL. *grin*

Of course, if you're talking research tool then most weblog content is chaff, but what topical information there IS will likely be cross linked, referenced, and commentable.
posted by Nothing at 6:49 AM on October 9, 2001

Well, Nelson doesn't believe in integrated markup: he's been looking for something like the One True Contextual Diff Engine for 30 years. And fair play to him: the current blather about the "Semantic Web" is simply a cack-handed attempt to implement Nelson's vision through (non-Nelsonic) integrated markup, which is only really useful with very restricted data.

So he's going to have to wait until the prototype Bayesian relevance engines get sophisticated enough to be used as "emergent browsers". Of course, it raises some of the same issues as IE6's short-lived Smart Tags, but that's one of the many ironies of Xanadu.

And Wikis are cool.
posted by holgate at 7:06 AM on October 9, 2001

I am attracted to the two-way idea. Practically everyone posts outward. You can already see some very primitive instances of posting inward in some of the blogs' ego-surfing and whenever a blogger X writes up material on other bloggers' comments on some previous item written by blogger X. In these cases, it's the blogger doing manual labor finding those inward links (thannks to Google and things like Daypop; to a lesser extent things like RSS and such, because you still have to scan/search manually for the most part).

I think it really comes down to setting up a universal resource locator (whoops!). I mean something, though, where the reference is centrally or distrbutedly available to everyone in a manner where incorporation into one's replies is easy. Of course, I'm talking some simple data scheme done on a massive scale.

Another problem here is the software used to perform the above. If it's proprietary, forget it.

For what it's worth.
posted by mmarcos at 7:23 AM on October 9, 2001

It seems to me that Ted Nelson lost out to the web because he was pushing hyptertext as a way to structure and control information. He had complicated ways to preserve ownership of hypertext bits and enforce payment. That is exactly what the web wasn't. There is no central control over the web. There is no workable (despite whatever hype some company pumps out every few years) way to enforce royalty systems. HTML was (and is) a stupid and simple language. So everybody and his sister has made web sites and thrown them out into the ether. That's why the web was sucessful. That (and the fact that Xanadu is still a big mess) is why the web prospered and Ted Nelson's excellent ideas failed.

Two way links are a cool idea but they assume a static universe where the website you are pointing back to still exists three months from now. If a hypertext system could spring into existence from nothing and the architecture of such a system were designed by companies looking to make money from it, then there might something that looked a lot like Xanadu in existence. Maybe that's what the web will eventually look like. However, to grow large enough to be interesting the web had to start off as a decentralized, chaotic system.

BTW, thanks for a thread that's actually interesting.
posted by rdr at 7:52 AM on October 9, 2001

Nelson, who coined the term "hypertext," is correct: the Web isn't really full hypertext. And I would argue that that is one of the reasons for the Web's success: links lead to discreet information chunks and allow a user-defined "narrative," which is easier to understand at this point. In his book about inventing the Web, Tim Berners-Lee talks about going to a hypertext conference in the early-1990s and seeing vendors who couldn't sell their hypertext software to anyone. The Web, which allows for what I would call an indexing (list) approach to resources, along with quasi-hypertext, turned out to be a powerful bridging technology.

The XLink standard for XML includes inbound, multiple-resource, and third party linking, addressing some of Nelson's criticisms.
posted by tranquileye at 7:53 AM on October 9, 2001

That's one of the most disjointed, unfocused, ambiguous articles I've ever read.

Anybody have a link to a cogent explanation of "real" hypertext??
posted by yesster at 8:24 AM on October 9, 2001

Could it be the kind of thing that shows who is linking to your ideas? I've seen that feature used before in an article by someone who hates Weblogs. Whenever anyone outside would link to it, it would show up on that Web page. So let's say you said in a post, "xxxx is wrong." If xxxx linked to that post and said, "No, yyyy is wrong", it would show on yyyy's post that xxxx had linked back to it.
posted by timothompson at 8:53 AM on October 9, 2001

As long as we're talking about Ted Nelson, I suppose someone ought to link to Xanadu. It may be vaporware, but it's the coolest vaporware ever. BTW, has anyone played with the bits of software they've released, like ZigZag? Are they at all promising?

It seems to me that, while the web isn't really full hypertext, it could be a good platform on which to build a hypertext system. HTML doesn't handle things like two-way links or annotations, but those could be built into a web site (or even a group of websites) using the right server software, and for now we at least have something. Seems like another victory for Worse Is Better: the good news is that in 10 years we'll have a good hypertext platform and markup language; the bad news is that they'll be the web and HTML.

Oh, and yes stavros, wikis are amazing. I never would have believed that a system that open could even survive, yet it does, and produces some of the best content I've seen.

Wiki is also (to bring this back to hypertext) the place where I found the backlink bookmarklet:
If you save this as a bookmark, then when you go to it, it will (in IE at least--I'm not totally sure about Mozilla and such) search Google for links to whatever page you happen to be on at the time. Good stuff.
posted by moss at 9:04 AM on October 9, 2001

But the blog concept of links for individual posts has benefitted the advancement for this concept, because then you escape the concept of pages and enter the concept of ideas and linking thoughts in a collage style. What if you could take various people's blog posts (thoughts) and collage them into new assemblages of ideas that would evince a totally different end concept, almost like when samplers use riffs to create new music?
posted by timothompson at 9:25 AM on October 9, 2001

BTW, has anyone played with the bits of software they've released, like ZigZag? Are they at all promising?

ZigZag works like a funkier version of tkdiff. Looks nice as a demo, but practically unusable.
posted by holgate at 11:13 AM on October 9, 2001

moss, that is one of the coolest tricks i've ever seen. thanks. oh, and it works fine in opera.
posted by lotsofno at 12:01 PM on October 9, 2001

FWIW, I think it's a cool but impractical idea, like anarcho-communism.

We do it to the extent that we want to on our own pages, and to the extent that we're allowed on others. This is all perfectly normal.

I like watching the ways in which we invent it ourselves evolve though. Cheers moss ;)
posted by walrus at 12:04 PM on October 9, 2001

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