The current discussion started for me when @ironick quoted @Microsoft "The Web is about sites, and your browser should be, too." and asked "What's the difference between a site and an app?" @Cybersal quoted @dtapscott's alternative "web not about sites but platforms 4 collaboration". So @ironick asked "What's the WWW really a web of? sites, apps, pages, data... "
My first observation is that if the Internet is merely a collection of sites, apps, or even platforms, then it's not exactly a web. The word "web" appears to focus our attention on the connections rather than sites themselves. There are of course two kinds of connection that exist in the Internet, which we could roughly categorize as syntactic and semantic. A syntactic link is a hotlink coded in HTML, while a semantic link involves some kind of content relationship. For example, you'll note that in this blogpost I've gone to the trouble to add hotlinks to the tweets by Nick and Sally: if you wanted, you could go directly to Twitter to check their exact words. (Go directly to Twitter, do not pass Google, do not collect 200 cookies).
But even if I hadn't added the hotlinks, you'd still be able to find Nick and Sally and their Tweets, by copying their names or their words into a search engine. So I'm creating a semantic link just by referencing something that exists somewhere on the Internet, even if I don't tell you its exact location.
The original hypermedia experience was largely dependent upon syntactic links. For @ironick "the web still feels like hypermedia 2me: clicking from context (page, song, video, snippet, site, app) 2 cntxt 2 cntxt 2..." I agree that it often still feels like that, but I find that a lot of my Internet browsing these days involves typing terms into search engines, and I don't find myself following long chains of hotlinks. In other words, I tend to regard the semantic links as more interesting and more useful than the syntactic links.
Here are some of the many problems I experience with syntactic links
- Sometimes the links aren't provided at all.
- Thanks to an aversion to deep linking, many websites only provide a link to the home page.
- Sometimes the links don't go direct but via some tedious aggregator or intermediator page. Spurious links whose sole purpose is to manipulate the search engines or generate advertisement traffic.
- Sometimes the links take you somewhere boring or irrelevant or obvious (like a Wikipedia page), not-safe-for-work, or someone's idea of a joke (not Rick Astley again).
- Often the links are compressed, so you can't see where you are being led. (No, I don't want to watch a YouTube video right now, thank you.)
- Often the links contain all sorts of other coded information, to pass contextual information to the receiving website.
- And then to cap it all, half the time the links don't work for you anyway, because they are out-of-date, or because the person providing the link has a subscription and you don't, or because there is some kind of context or syntax error.
Of course, there are problems with semantic links as well, above all the danger of over-reliance on the chosen search engine. But I still feel I'm more in control of the experience.
When we talk about the Internet as a world wide web (WWW), the word "web" seems to suggest a network stretching endlessly in all directions, allowing and encouraging the kind of browsing experience Nick mentions. But of course the fly's experience of the spider's web is quite different: being caught in one place, trapped for the benefit of the spider. For a long time, it has been the desire of major internet providers to trap users in one place: this desire is now apparently satisfied whenever users do not stray more than one or two clicks away from their favourite search engine or social networking site. Maybe that's what Microsoft is getting at.
What shape is the internet (continued)? (May 2014)
What shape is your intranet (May 2014)