In the early days of the web, we built everything by hand. Having a web presence mostly meant having a homepage, handcrafted and fully bespoke. If you wanted more pages, you built each by hand, then painstakingly linked each to your homepage.
The homepage was a table of contents, each item carefully chosen to tell the world about what you found important.
The online world was much smaller then. This was the era in which search engine indexes were compiled by hand. They were literally lists of all the websites on the internet. The first attempt at cataloging the kinds of things we'd later call blogs found 23 of them. On the whole internet.
Then Movable Type happened. (The software version—though as it would turn out, this one was nearly as revolutionary as its earlier namesake.)
Suddently you could build a blog with almost no effort. You could have this beautiful, professionally designed space without knowing anything at all about HTML or CSS.
Movable Type wasn’t a revolution, technically speaking. It wasn’t a live web app like the CMSes of today; it didn’t serve up dynamic content. It wasn’t fancy.
All it did was exploit the power of Perl scripts to do the same exact work we all used to do by hand: spit out static HTML files.
Culturally, though, it was devastating.
Suddenly people weren’t creating homepages or even web pages, but they were writing web content in form fields and text areas inside a web page.
But the blog didn't just replace the hand-crafted homepage with forms and templates. It retained a thing called a homepage. But now it was populated with an automated list of links to posts, all arranged neatly in reverse-chronological order.
What once was a curated table of contents transformed almost overnight into the automated feed.
Social media took what the blogging revolution started and turned it up to 11. Even the pesky templates went away, replaced with a single form and a feed that looked exactly like everyone else's.
In some platforms (*cough* Instagram *cough*) even the hyperlink is verboten.
Hypertext problematized the sequential metaphor of print, decentering content in time. The feed brought temporal sequencing back with a vengeance.
The time around intent is perfect for the feed. Content streams by and we dip in and out as something catches our eye. It's all short enough to be consumed before the next register opens up.
The early days of the web were a nightmare of text editors and hardcoded content. (I hate that this sentence reminded me of the existence of Dreamweaver.) Web 2.0 — first blogging tools and later social media — democratized the web, but did so by introducing authoring environments that mimic word processors or lightweight email clients. Tools for writing books or letters.
It graced the still-capitalized Web pages of scientists, researchers and a handful of computer enthusiasts. Links were thoughtful, perhaps only to be expected when each had to be coded by hand.
Alas, the linkbase—like its even simpler cousin, the link storage service—has mostly died out, swallowed up by the ubiquitous feed.
In January 2016, Mandy Brown wrote a fascinating pair of articles about the nature of hypertext. The first essay explores the text part of hypertext, asking whether or not hypertext is (or ought only to be) text. The second article takes on the hyper part, extolling the virtues of getting lost in that act those of us old enough to remember the days before social media used to call “surfing the web.” Here’s a little taste:
It’s tempting to think of the Internet as a massive series of hub-and-spoke affairs, with each homepage serving as a hub where users land before exploring various internal pages that branch off as spokes. Indeed, that's how websites used to work.