Screens, Research and Hypertext

Powered by šŸŒ±Roam Garden

The Hyperlink's Fatal Flaw, Part II

That the hyperlink is broken is overdetermined.

Yes, they're blind. They're also kind of dumb.

Links are meant to document relationships between content. Consider a very simple type of link: a reference for a quotation, like the following which I wrestled with throughout my years in graduate school:

Mill Quotation

I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

A human can look at this passage and know that the hyperlink most likely points to the source of the original quotation. If we were to state that relationship formally, it would look something like:

Quotation publishedIn Source

Obvious enough, right?

But now suppose that you are a machine whose job is to help people find content. Because you're a machine, you're a bit limited. You understand syntax, but not semantics. So all you see is a string of text that matches the string of text someone has queried. And you can see that there are a couple of linksā€”one right before the string and one right after. If you follow those links, you'll see more strings of text in both places.

As a machine, what will you know having followed those links?

Basically nothing.

You have no idea why the different things are linked, only that they are connected. What's more, if you found the graduate school or the reference passage first, you wouldn't even know that this page exists. The link you've found goes from the quotation to the source. But it doesn't go the other way.

If you'd been asked the question, "Where has this passage been quoted," the question would basically be unanswerable, at least via standard hyperlinks.

Luckily, there are ways to make links smarter. That starts with making them bidirectional.

For more context

What to read next

Because references aren't relationships.

Other items of interest

The web is one of the great inventions of the 20th Century. It could have been so much better.

How would we even get relational information into our website?

Referenced in

Transclusion and URLs

The typical hyperlink has a third fatal flaw, through in this case the problem isn't really with the link itself. The problem is that links mostly point to pages. But it's pretty rare that anyone wants to transclude an entire page. Much more common is to include a few words, sentences, maybe even a couple of paragraphs.

Roam Research

But what it boils down to is that Roam allows users to add bidirectional links to notes, which results in a set of massively interlinked notes. And because those notes can also store relationships between notes, they can surface connections that the note-taker wasn't aware of.