Chris Berendes

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What are we to make of Sidewiki? Is it, as Phil Windley says, a way to build the purpose-centric Web? Or is it, as Mike Arrington suggests, the latest way to “deface” websites?

The arguments here were foreshadowed in the architecture of the Web itself, the essence of which has been lost to history — or at least to search engines.

Look up Wikipedia+Web on Google and you won’t find Wikipedia’s World Wide Web entry on the first page of search results. Nor in the first ten pages. The top current result is for Web browser. Next is Web 2.0. Except for Wikipedia itself, none of the other results on the first page point to a Wikipedia page or one about the Web itself.

This illustrates how far we’ve grown away from the Web’s roots as a “hypertext project”. In Worldwide: Proposal for a Hypertext Project, dated 12 November 1990, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Callao wrote,

Hypertext is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. Potentially, Hypertext provides a single user-interface to many large classes of stored information such as reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line systems help…

…There is a potential large benefit from the integration of a variety of systems in a way which allows a user to follow links pointing from one piece of information to another one. This forming of a web of information nodes rather than a hierarchical tree or an ordered list is the basic concept behind Hypertext…

Here we give a short presentation of hypertext.

A program which provides access to the hypertext world we call a browser. When starting a hypertext browser on your workstation, you will first be presented with a hypertext page which is personal to you: your personal notes, if you like. A hypertext page has pieces of text which refer to other texts. Such references are highlighted and can be selected with a mouse (on dumb terminals, they would appear in a numbered list and selection would be done by entering a number)…

The texts are linked together in a way that one can go from one concept to another to find the information one wants. The network of links is called a web . The web need not be hierarchical, and therefore it is not necessary to “climb up a tree” all the way again before you can go down to a different but related subject. The web is also not complete, since it is hard to imagine that all the possible links would be put in by authors. Yet a small number of links is usually sufficient for getting from anywhere to anywhere else in a small number of hops.

The texts are known as nodes. The process of proceeding from node to node is called navigation. Nodes do not need to be on the same machine: links may point across machine boundaries. Having a world wide web implies some solutions must be found for problems such as different access protocols and different node content formats. These issues are addressed by our proposal.

Nodes can in principle also contain non-text information such as diagrams, pictures, sound, animation etc. The term hypermedia is simply the expansion of the hypertext idea to these other media. Where facilities already exist, we aim to allow graphics interchange, but in this project, we concentrate on the universal readership for text, rather than on graphics.

Thus was outlined, right at the start, a conflict of interests and perspectives. On one side, the writer of texts and other creators of media goods. On the other side, readers and viewers, browsing. Linking the two is hypertext.

Note that, for Tim and Robert, both hypertext and the browser are user interfaces. Both authors and readers are users. As a writer I include hypertext links. As a reader with a browser I can follow them — but do much more. And it’s in that “more” category that Sidewiki lives.

As a writer, Sidewiki kinda creeps me out. As Dave Winer tweeted to @Windley, What if I don’t want it on my site? Phil tweeted back, but it’s not “on” your site. It’s “about” your site & “on” the browser. No?

Yes, but the browser is a lot bigger than it used to be. It’s turning into something of an OS. The lines between the territories of writer and reader, between creator and user, are also getting blurry. Tools for users are growing in power and abundance. So are those for creators, but I’m not sure the latter are keeping up with the former — at least not in respect to what can be done with the creators’ work. All due respect for Lessig, Free Culture and remixing, I want the first sources of my words and images to remain as I created them. Remix all you want. Just don’t do it inside my pants.

I’ll grant to Phil and Google that a Google sidebar is outside the scope of my control, and is not in fact inside my pants. But I do feel encroached upon. Maybe when I see Sidewiki in action I won’t; but for now as a writer I feel a need to make clear where my stuff ends and the rest of the world’s begins. When you’re at my site, my domain, my location on the Web, you’re in my house. My guest, as it were. I have a place here where we can talk, and where you can talk amongst yourselves as well. It’s the comments section below. If you want to talk about me, or the stuff that I write, do it somewhere else.

This is where I would like to add “Not in my sidebar.” Except, as Phil points out, it’s not my sidebar. It’s Google’s. That means it’s not yours, either. You’re in Google-ville in that sidebar. The sidewiki is theirs, not yours.

In Claiming My Right to a Purpose-Centric Web: SideWiki, Phil writes,

I’m an advocate of the techniques Google is using and more. I believe that people will get more from the Web when client-side tools that manipulate Web sites to the individual’s purpose are widely and freely available. A purpose-centric Web requires client-side management of Web sites. SideWiki is a mild example of this.

He adds,

The reaction that “I own this site and you’re defacing it” is rooted in the location metaphor of the Web. Purpose-centric activities don’t do away with the idea that Web sites are things that people and organizations own and control. But it’s silly to think of Web sites the same way we do land. I’m not trespassing when I use HTTP to GET the content of a Web page and I’m not defacing that content when I modify it—in my own browser—to more closely fit my purpose.

Plus a kind of credo:

I claim the right to mash-up, remix, annotate, augment, and otherwise modify Web content for my purposes in my browser using any tool I choose and I extend to everyone else that same privilege.

All of which I agree with—provided there are conventions on the creators’ side that give them means for clarifying their original authorship, and maintaining control over that which is undeniably theirs, whether or not it be called a “domain”.

For example, early in the history of Web, in the place where publishing, browsing and searching began to meet, a convention by which authors of sites could exclude their pages from search results was developed. The convention is now generally known as the Robots Exclusion Standard, and began with robots.txt. In simple terms, it was (and remains) a way to opt out of appearance in search results.

Is there something robots.txt-like that we could create that would reduce the sense of encroachment that writers feel as Google’s toolbar presses down from the top, and Sidewiki presses in from the left? (And who-knows-what from Google — or anybody — presses in from the right?)

I don’t know.

I do know that we need more and better tools in the hands of users — tools that give them independence both from authors like me and intermediaries like Google. That independence can take the form of open protocols (such as SMTP and IMAP, which allow users to do email with or without help from anybody), and it can take the form of substitutable tools and services such as browsers and browser enhancements. Nobody’s forcing anybody to use Google, Mozilla, any of their products or services, or any of the stuff anybody adds to either. This is a Good Thing.

But we’re not at the End of Time here, either. There is much left to be built out, especially on the user’s side. This is the territory where VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) lives. It’s about “equipping customers to be independent leaders and not just captive followers in their relationships with vendors and other parties on the supply side of the marketplace”.

I know Phil and friends are building VRM tools at his new company, Kynetx. I’ll be keynoting Kynetx’ first conference as well, which is on 18-19 November. (Register here.) Meanwhile there is much more to talk about in the whole area of individual autonomy and control — and work already underway in many areas, from music to public media to health care — which is why we’ll have VRooM Boston 2009 on 12-13 October at Harvard Law School. (Register here.)

Lots to talk about. Now, more places to do that as well.

Bonus Links:

[Later…] Lots of excellent comments below. I especially like Chris Berendes’. Pull quote: I better take the lead in remixing “in my pants”, lest Google do it for me. Not fair, but then the advent of the talkies was horribly unfair to Rudolf Valentino, among other silent film stars.

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