It’s the link economy, it’s the foundation of the World Wide Web, it’s the reason for the funny “aitch tee tee pee” that still confuses people when reading out URLs, but is the hyperlink dying? Or at least falling into dull maturity?

Let me explain: I’ve been a bit fluey this week and haven’t been doing much. Which is okay, in that it gives me a bit of time to relax. I spent an hour watching this “fantasy documentary” by Douglas Adams from the 90s, where he’s in love with the “interactive”.

As the Watchification blog says:

“although much of the ‘browsing’ mechanism feels familiar and obvious, this documentary was created in 1990. That’s two years before the first web browser. The internet was a very different place then.”

And yes Douglas does get a ton of things right, or finds time to listen to the right people — the experience of “browsing” does feel very much like, well not so much the internet but those “interactive CD ROMs” we experienced before browsing proper.

Watchification: Hyperland

There is a — for the time — a hugely interesting project featured, and it’s a multimedia version of hypercard — illustrating how stories can be woven around aand snake away from a single event. In this case Picasso’s Guernica, which gets placed in history, in location and in art the different timelines weaving around each other. Which could lead to 100s of different user journeys (you could even get a 90 second “here’s your best bits” clip afterwards to blipvert yourself back to knowledge when the memory started to fade).

But however you navigate through this mutimedia (or interactive TV as the documentary calles it), it’s not truly interactive — it’s multi-pathed at best. So when people start to talk about “interactive TV” they’re meaning nothing so much as a very expensive version of a Chose Your Own Adventure book.

File:Cave of time.jpg - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Lots of paths, lots of choice it’s just in the end a series of derived and constructed narratives. Unlike a game, where it’s possible for you to lose quite quickly — with the promise of you getting better and the experience getting longer — the interactive media has to provide a worthwhile experience for people, no matter what choices they make.

It may be that a lot of the paths end in defeat, as in this analysed adventure: (JPEG Image, 545Õ·06 pixels) - Scaled (97%)

At that point, in our documentary, as with the books and Don Bluth lazerdisc game, every path is human created. The authors didn’t think of user generated paths — how could they, their content was hard fought, researched and seemlessly interwoven. And “who wants to hear about what people had for breakfast”.

But moving around created paths wasn’t “surfing”, surfing is dangerous and unpredictable, — and wasn’t possible until the means of content production were democratised — and… hang on… isn’t  “surfing” a really bad metaphor for how people use the internet?

Or perhaps not, because: no mater what the path of a surf you end on on the beach, slightly wetter than when you started, and when you “surf the web” these days you eventually end up on Wikipedia, slightly better informed than when you started.

When did you last “surf” the net in that early 00’s aimless wandering way? Today’s hypelinks are often factual dead-ends. The ones in this blog post are destinations, not way points on some greater “internet experience”. Two end in Wikipedia, a site that (while facilitating the in-wiki-flâneur) offers the last (or as last as we normally need) word in most discursive journeys.

Do you surf off for related information, do you click on those links to “find out more”? I’d say that almost 90% of links in user-generated content are these dead ends — official homepages, user accounts, and wikipedia articles. And those links overwhelm the search engine mechanisms becoming the top results for any search anyway. If I’m writing a blog post and want to link out for some facts, I’m ether going to know the URL (the homepage) or search — with almost always will lead me to the Wikipedia article or official homepage anyway.

Where’s the huge rip curl, the danger of wipeout or the shark? Are we likely to get a nougties Jan and Dean penning paens to the the joy of knowing exactly what you’re going to get when you click on a link? That and that you’ll be back to continue the original narative.

Is the personally curatored link dead or dying? When was it last a human recommendation at the end of the blue underlined phrase for you? With the rise of the microblog, most links are in plain view anyway (or obscured only through the magician’s sleight of hand of the URL shortener) — misdirection is frowned upon.

My point: if all we’re linking to is the obvious fact, machines can do with for us, language processing, search recommendations, browser tech and we’ll never have to link again. Watch Tom Baker as the “agent” — the on screen guide in the video, he’s automatically making the connections. That’s were the programme is most prescient.

The danger we once felt, the intellectual wanderings we once took are now usual, every destination is discrete and intended. We are awaiting attention profiling and auto peer “likes”  to generate our chanced upon content — but won’t we just get sucked into more of the same?

Brink back the random hyperlink? Go see if you can catch a wave.

3 Responses

  1. You’ve got me thinking where I go looking for random stuff now. I sometimes go have a gawp at the fresh & popular links on Delicious and the popular & upcoming on Tumblr. Very rarely I’ll go see what’s on the YouTube homepage or hit the Stumbleupon button. Not often though.

    Even then, that’s using known, destination sites and trundling around those curated networks – it’s structured randomness.

    I haven’t done so much blogroll hopping recently. Last time it was around the subject of museums/tech which took me down rabbit hole after fascinating rabbit hole. That was good.

  2. I do actually wander around the net aimlessly, but it’s mostly due to my 15-seconds-at-best attention span rather than anything structurally inherant. Each link might lead to the complete thought (so to speak), but there are enough of them out there for me to see something shiny and wander off sideways.

    I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. “You can if you want but you’re not forced to if you don’t” is a reasonable system in which to “surf”, I’d say.

  3. This is true for links to big, “obvious” facts. If you write the word “chemistry” and link to the Wikipedia article then that is probably redundant. Or “USA” or something.That is, unless you want to bold the word, which is another unsung benefit of links – they aid human skim-reading.I find myself disrespecting people when they link unnecessarily! It’s like telling me a restaurant is awesome, only for me to find it’s rubbish. Or to find it’s not even a restaurant at all. (An example would be Guardian links to their own tags.)The link will never die for deep links to super-niches. That’s the value and joy of specialist knowledge – it will always be in the specific niche recommendations, not the big homepages or Wikipedia articles. But I suppose what’s “chemistry” or “USA” to one person could be a totally unknown vista to another. Yes there have been amazing times when a casual link to something opened up a WORLD for me. Increasingly that will happen for young people surely? Imagine being 7-years-old and clicking “jazz” having not seen the word before… Is that possible?I also find Digg a bit redundant for my own purposes. My Digg is Google and if you want to Digg something, then link to it. I’ll see it in your blog post or I’ll find it via Google for the niche topic you’re discussing.I just clicked your Choose Your Own Adventure link. Yes there is no way I could have found that specific page otherwise.But! I think maybe you’re implying there’s something permanent and definitive about Wikipedia. Its status could change over time. I agree that in 2009 it is very dominant. Maybe we should think of it as another, separate web… I don’t mean in size terms, I mean in influence, link juice and traffic.Here’s an idea – try going for a week running a Greasemonkey script that removes Wikipedia from your Google results and see what happens.Experiments aside, on another level Wikipedia is just another website. It’s managed to gather reputation and link juice because of the way it’s set up and the good bargain it has with its content creators. But there are problems with it being so dominant.

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