Category Archives: links

a thought experiment: reading in parallel

I recently picked up Amiri Baraka’s The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones, as I’d been curious about the trajectory of the life of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, a man who pops up in interesting places. His autobiography is a curious work: for reasons that are unclear to me as a casual reader, names in certain sections of his life have been changed. His first wife, née Hettie Cohen, becomes Nellie Kohn. Yugen, the magazine they started together, becomes Zazen; the Partisan Review becomes The Sectarian Review. As a casual reader, the reasons for these discrepancies are unclear, but they were interesting enough to me that I picked up How I Became Hettie Jones, his first wife’s version of her life. She presents many of the same scenes Baraka narrates, with her own spin on events, a difference that might not be unexpected in the narration of a divorced couple.
The changes in names are an extreme example, but the basic situation is not one that uncommon in how we read: two books share the same subject matter but differ in particulars. As noted, I read the two books in series as a casual reader, but I found myself wishing there were some way to visualize the linkages or correspondences between the books. One could write in the margins of Baraka’s description of a party “cf. Jones pp. 56–57” to point out Hettie Jones’s version of events, but it strikes me that electronic representations of a book could do this better. What I’d like to see, though, isn’t something as simple as a hyperlink; these links should point both ways automatically. Different kinds of links – showing, for example, similarities and differences – might help. Presenting the texts side by side seems obvious; lines could be drawn between the texts. The problem could be expanded: consider comparing and contrasting a Harry Potter book with its film version.
This isn’t an especially complex reading behavior at all: we compare texts (of different sorts) all the time. We look at, for example, how Rudolph Giuliani reads the statistics on survival of prostate cancer and how the New York Times reads the same statistics. Why aren’t there online reading tools that acknowledge this as a problem?

reflections on the hyperlinked.society conference

Last week, Dan and I attended the hyperlinked.society conference hosted at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication. An impressive collection of panelists and audience members gathered to discuss issues that are emerging as we place more value onto hyperlinks. Here are a few reflections on what was covered at the one day conference.
David Weinberger made a good framing statement when he noted that links are the architecture of the web. Through technologies, such as Google Page Rank, linking is not only a conduit to information, but it is also now a way of adding value to another site. People noted the tension between not wanting to link to a site they disagreed with (for example, an opposing political site) which would increase its value in ranking criteria and with the idea that linking to other ideas a fundamental purpose of the web. Currently, links are binary, on or off. Context for the link is given by textual descriptions given around the link. (For example, I like to read this blog.) Many suggestions were offered to give the link context, through color, icon or tags within the code of the link to show agreement or disagreement with the contents of the link. Jesse discusses overlapping issues in his recent post on the semantic wiki. Standards can be developed to achieve this, however we must be take care to anticipate the gaming of any new ways of linking. Otherwise, these new links will became another casualty of the web, as seen with through the misuse of meta tags. Meta tags were key words included in HTML code of pages to assist search engines on determining the contains of the site. However, massive misuse of these keywords rendered meta-tags useless, and Google was one of the first, if not the first, search engine to completely ignore meta-tags. Similar gaming is bound to occur with adding layers of meaning to links, and must be considered carefully in the creation of new web conventions, lest these links will join meta-tags as footnote in HTML reference books.
Another shift I observed, was an increase in citing real quantifiable data be it from both market and academic research on people’s web use. As Saul Hansell pointed out, the data which is able to be collected is only a slice of reality, however these snapshots are still useful in gaining understand how people are using new media. The work of Lada Adamic (whose work we like to refer to in ifbook) on mapping the communication between political blogs will be increasingly important in understand online relationships. She also showed more recent work on representing how information flows and spreads through the blogosphere.
Some of the work by presented by mapmakers and cartographers showed examples of using data to describe voting patterns as well as cyberspace. Meaningful maps of cyberspace are particularly difficult to create because as Martin Dodge noted, we want to compress hundreds of thousands of dimensions into two or three dimensions. Maps are representations of data, at first they were purely geographic, but eventually things such as weather patterns and economic trends have been overlaid onto their geographic locations. In the context of hyperlinks, I look forward to using these digital maps as an interface to the data underlaying these representations. Beyond voting patterns (and privacy issues aside,) linking these maps to deeper information on related demographic and socio-economic data and trends seems like the logical next step.
I was also surprised at what was not mentioned or barely mentioned. Net neutrality and copyright were each only raised once, each time by an audience members’ question. Ethan Zuckerman gave an interesting anecdote that the Global Voices project became an advocate for the Creative Commons license because they found it to be a powerful tool to support their effort to support bloggers in the developing world. Further, in the final panel of moderators, they mentioned that privacy, policy, tracking received less attention then expected. On that note, I’ll close with two questions that lingered in my mind, as I left Philadelphia for home. I hope that they will be addressed in the near future, as the importance of hyperlinking grows in our lives.
1. How will we deal with link rot and their ephemeral nature of link?
Broken links and archiving links will become increasing important as the number of links along with our dependence on them grow in parallel.
2. Who owns our links?
As we put more and more of ourselves, our relationships and our links on commercial websites, it is important to reflect upon what are the implications when we are at the same time giving ownership of these links over to Yahoo via flickr and News Corp via

smarter links for a better wikipedia

As Wikipedia continues its evolution, smaller and smaller pieces of its infrastructure come up for improvement. The latest piece to step forward to undergo enhancement: the link. “Computer scientists at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany have developed modifications to Wikipedia’s underlying software that would let editors add extra meaning to the links between pages of the encyclopaedia.” (full article) While this particular idea isn’t totally new (at least one previous attempt has been made: platypuswiki), SemanticWiki is using a high profile digital celebrity, which brings media attention and momentum.
What’s happening here is that under the Wikipedia skin, the SemanticWiki uses an extra bit of syntax in the link markup to inject machine readable information. A normal link in wikipedia is coded like this [link to a wiki page] or [ link to an outside page]. What more do you need? Well, if by “you” I mean humans, the answer is: not much. We can gather context from the surrounding text. But our computers get left out in the cold. They aren’t smart enough to understand the context of a link well enough to make semantic decisions with the form “this link is related to this page this way”. Even among search engine algorithms, where PageRank rules them all, PageRank counts all links as votes, which increase the linked page’s value. Even PageRank isn’t bright enough to understand that you might link to something to refute or denigrate its value. When we write, we rely on judgement by human readers to make sense of a link’s context and purpose. The researchers at Karlsruhe, on the other hand, are enabling machine comprehension by inserting that contextual meaning directly into the links.
SemanticWiki links look just like Wikipedia links, only slightly longer. They include info like

  1. categories: An article on Karlsruhe, a city in Germany, could be placed in the City Category by adding [[Category: City]] to the page.
  2. More significantly, you can add typed relationships. Karlsruhe [[:is located in::Germany]] would show up as Karlsruhe is located in Germany (the : before is located in saves typing). Other examples: in the Washington D.C. article, you can add [[is capital of:: United States of America]]. The types of relationships (“is capital of”) can proliferate endlessly.
  3. attributes, which specify simple properties related to the content of an article without creating a link to a new article. For example, [[population:=3,396,990]]

Adding semantic information to links is a good idea, and hewing closely to the current Wikipedia syntax is a smart tactic. But here’s why I’m not more optimistic: this solution combines the messiness of tagging with the bother of writing machine readable syntax. This combo reminds me of a great Simpsons quote, where Homer says, “Nuts and gum, together at last!” Tagging and semantic are not complementary functions – tagging was invented to put humans first, to relieve our fuzzy brains from the mechanical strictures of machine readable categorization; writing relationships in a machine readable format puts the machine squarely in front. It requires the proliferation of wikipedia type articles to explain each of the typed relationships and property names, which can quickly become unmaintainable by humans, exacerbating the very problem it’s trying to solve.
But perhaps I am underestimating the power of the network. Maybe the dedication of the Wikipedia community can overcome those intractible systemic problems. Through the quiet work of the gardeners who sleeplessly tend their alphanumeric plots, the fact-checkers and passers-by, maybe the SemanticWiki will sprout links with both human and computer sensible meanings. It’s feasible that the size of the network will self-generate consensus on the typology and terminology for links. And it’s likely that if Wikipedia does it, it won’t be long before semantic linking makes its way into the rest of the web in some fashion. If this is a success, I can foresee the semantic web becoming a reality, finally bursting forth from the SemanticWiki seed.
I left off the part about how humans benefit from SemanticWiki type links. Obviously this better be good for something other than bringing our computers up to a second grade reading level. It should enable computers to do what they do best: sort through massive piles of information in milliseconds.

How can I search, using semantic annotations? – It is possible to search for the entered information in two differnt ways. On the one hand, one can enter inline queries in articles. The results of these queries are then inserted into the article instead of the query. On the other hand, one can use a basic search form, which also allows you to do some nice things, such as picture search and basic wildcard search.

For example, if I wanted to write an article on Acting in Boston, I might want a list of all the actors who were born in Boston. How would I do this now? I would count on the network to maintain a list of Bostonian thespians. But with SemanticWiki I can just add this: <ask>[[Category:Actor]] [[born in::Boston]], which will replace the inline query with the desired list of actors.
To do a more straightforward search I would go to the basic search page. If I had any questions about Berlin, I would enter it into the Subject field. SemanticWiki would return a list of short sentences where Berlin is the subject.
But this semantic functionality is limited to simple constructions and nouns—it is not well suited for concepts like 'politics,' or 'vacation'. One other point: SemanticWiki relationships are bounded by the size of the wiki. Yes, digital encyclopedias will eventually cover a wide range of human knowledge, but never all. In the end, SemanticWiki promises a digital network populated by better links, but it will take the cooperation of the vast human network to build it up.