Screens, Research and Hypertext

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The Web as It Should Have Been

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

Imagine, if you will, an alternate web. A hypertext system with a very different set of features. A web in which:

Markup systems are flexible and encode meaning. Instead of <p> or <div> tags, we have things like <lit:Novelist>Charles Dickens</lit:Novelist>, syntax that enables rules like lit:Novelist. RDF:type. bus:Profession that can in turn answer questions like What did Dickens do for a living? even though that information isn't directly encoded in your text.

A link points directly to a particular string of text rather than to an entire document. Authors embed strings of text into other documents much as we can embed video or media objects now.

Authors can designate different types of links with different types of behaviors. Some links might open inline, others as pop-ups, and still others as jumps to other texts.

Links exist outside of the texts. Authors and readers are equally able to add links between any sets of texts, effectively creating personal webs that can themselves be shared as original works of curation.

Content is served peer-to-peer. No more server farms owned by one of four enormous companies whose data centers are concentrated in a handful of locations. Instead, any machine that has downloaded a text can in turn serve it back to someone else who requests it.

Writing hypertext content happens in the same application used for reading it. No need for specialized tools, IDEs, etc.

Every link runs in both directions. There is no distinction between source and destination texts.

Nothing on this list is imaginary. This is no Project Xanadu-style wishful thinking. Indeed, most of the technologies needed to make each of these things happen are older than the web.

RDF/XML is the newest technology on this list, and even it dates back to 1996.

Microcosm—launched in 1988—could store links that referenced specific anchors inside a text. Users could add new anchors on-the-fly, meaning that each text could be linked in a near-infinite variety of ways.

Guide—a hypertext system from 1986—included three link types, each with different symbols to designate the types.

The link database (or linkbase) stores links outside of text. Intermedia—which launched in 1985—relied on such a system. Indeed, linkbases were built on top of the web as early as 1995.

Gopher—an Internet protocol that briefly competed with the web's http protocol—enabled peer-to-peer sharing of content. It enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the early 1990s, before it was eclipsed by the GUI web browser.

Bidirectional links were a staple of every hypertext system from the 1960s on. They are enjoying a resurgence today, though they are largely limited to niche platforms like Roam.

Pretty much all of these features were available to Tim Berners-Lee. Writing HTML in the browser was the only feature to make it into the initial web demo. Even that was killed by Marc Andreessen and Mosaic.

For more context

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