Screens, Research and Hypertext

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Reusable text is a holy grail. Everyone's looking for it, and most die in the attempt.

You may not have heard the term transclusion, but chances are you're pretty familiar with the concept. Transclusion is the act of inserting all or part of one piece of electronic media inside another piece of electronic media.

These days, we know it better as embedding and it's something we do pretty regularly—think about all the articles you see that include YouTube videos, tweets or soundcloud files. If you're a really forward-leaning research organization, you might be doing something similar with charts or other types of data visualization.

But what we don't see very often—at least not in the research space—is embedded text.

Partly that's down to dumb luck.

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee built the three protocols that underlie the web—the hypertext transfer protocol (or http), the uniform resource locator (or URL) and a hypertext markup language (or HTML)—he prioritized linking between resources over embedding content. Indeed, in some ways, "linking between resources" overstates things. Properly speaking, HTML doesn't link resources so much as it provides an address where a relevant resource should be located. And even then, those links run in only one direction.

The idea of transclusion predates the web by nearly a decade. Ted Nelson coined the term in Literary Machines, his 1981 articulation of the principles behind Project Xanadu. Among those principles:

Every document can contain links of any type including virtual copies ("transclusions") to any other document in the system accessible to its owner.

You see lots of talk today about content reuse.

Some of Soapbox's clients do this at a very small level—adding a standard "about us" blurb to the end of press releases is a common example. And, of course, plenty of organizations add the same chart to a report and a blog post. Sometimes said blog post is on another site (usually Medium).

Reusing text across different websites is basically unheard of.

For more context

What is Xanadu?

What to read next

The biggest impediment to text transclusion? The good old URL.

Other items of interest

Tell me more about linking that runs in both directions.

See an example of transclusions in action—the sections explaining paratext and the transmedia model are both transcluded.

Referenced in

Version Control and Transclusion

It's tempting to think of transclusion as a fancy word for embedding. After all, they do both involve inserting a live piece of content from one website inside another website. But there is one really important difference between embedding as it has been implemented on the web and transclusion as envisioned by hypertext theorists.

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.