SciencePunk

Who needs URLs anyway?

I spend a lot of time being frustrated by the constraints of blogging as it is usually done. Even now I’m squirting these words at you from a narrow gully of text some 500 pixel wide, while the rest of your screen goes mostly unused (and once we get below the fold, entirely unused. Were I to keep writing, my words will cascade endlessly in tight formation down the centre of a blank expanse of screen, like the kilometre-high waters of Angel Falls cutting through white clouds).

One of the questions that has become more prescient lately is whether location is relevant anymore. It used to be that you needed a snappy, memorable URL for you website. But in the advent of all-seeing search engines, nobody needs to remember URLs any more. Just type in what you’re looking for, or a half-remembered fragment of what you read last week, and uncle Google will find it. When you share these articles, you’ll do it in Twitter or on Tumblr or Facebook or Reddit or one of a dozen other social aggregators which will either conceal the URL or truncate it into an unrecognisable glyph. All that time spent coming up with a clever piece of unique wordplay will be wasted, sorry.

As these websites become the main driver for traffic to a website, homepages become less relevant. We don’t read title pages anymore, we skip through footnotes and end notes and internal links and bibliographies and the index and never do anything so old-fashioned as open the cover and read the contents page. At the end of the day, homepages were skeuomorphs, a hangover from the days before individualised content delivery when we were still trying to make websites look like paper magazines. Even internal traffic is driven through sidebars, or by little machine-generated epilogues that read “See also” or “Relevant articles”. I’d go a little farther and say that not only are homepages becoming irrelevant, but the whole idea of gathering content under one domain is growing obsolete. Gone are the days when you bought a Sunday newspaper and shook out all the sections you weren’t interested in.  Nowadays you can just grab the segment you want. Heck, just the article you want. Pull a hundred articles from different sources and curate your own newspaper.

So what would a blog look like if it didn’t have a URL? That’s the question I was pondering. I thought that a blog might be a filter through which you see the web. After all, so much of blogging is simply commentary on content somewhere else, and it’s a damn inefficient way of presenting that critique. The enduring caprice of so much skeptical blogging was that there was any significant overlap in the people reading a blog and the people reading the thing it was complaining about. In essence, these blogs were ammunition dumps for militant netizens to arm up before running sorties on the comment boxes below objectionable articles. What if we could force those together a little bit? What if your comments could appear in-line on the very websites you were discussing?

It’s been tried a few times (I believe Google abandoned a project involving virtual Post-It notes) to little success. Perhaps that’s because at the end of the day, it still involved someone subscribing to your filter, and that kind of uncontained criticism – letting a snarky commentator with a red pen loose on your entire web – is probably too intrusive. So here are a couple of ideas that might work, which I believe are not technologically difficult at the moment.

Firstly (and I find it hard to believe this has not been implemented yet – I’m sure someone will tell me in the comments that it has) why not create an add-on that ensures the first comments you see under any article are those made by your friends? Sure, Facebook is trying this with their conquest of the web’s comments systems, but it should be fairly straightforward for a plugin to search through your Twitter stream for out any tweets linking to the URL you’re currently on, and insert the associated text as a comment below the article. If you’re feeling adventurous, you might even expand the tweets it searches to include more people – your followers, or other people they follow, or so on.

Secondly, an idea I aired on Twitter yesterday – why not use Kindle’s Public Notes as a kind of parablog, reviewing the science (or whatever) in popular books? This commentary gets delivered directly into the book itself – it’s almost as if you’re able to take a pencil into the bookstore and scrawl your thoughts in the margins. Several people writing under one Kindle account could offer a valuable insight that would be worth subscribing to.

You’d have to think about the audience – are you serving their need, or yours? I doubt anyone reading Gillian McKeith’s dodgy diet books is going to be interested in barbed spleen interjected between the lines. But there are audiences who might want a little extra insight into the books they’re reading. Could an body such as FactCheck.org be adapted so that the fact-checkers combed through political books and marked up and egregious falsehoods they found within? Might ageing textbooks be annotated so that retracted, overturned or otherwise outmoded theories be flagged with links to more up-to-date science? A parablog that operated from this point of view – that of a genial custodian tidying up historical errors, rather than running an attack on things they don’t like – might have a chance of surviving, because it offers a service that people want. Think of it as a friendly librarian tucking a note into the margins of the book you borrowed.

Currently I’m only subscribed to Public Notes from individuals on my Kindle account, but wouldn’t it be great to see a parablog called something like “Error Margin” (because it flags errors as margin notes, geddit?), that I could subscribe to when I registered my Kindle, and that augmented my ebooks with informative, critical commentary? I think that would be pretty  ace.

Comments

  1. #1 Ol' Bab
    United States
    September 12, 2012

    Did I miss something?
    Suppose your treatise is in glowing favor of AGW.
    Or abortion.
    Or peak oil.
    Or cold fusion.
    Or the Bible as really bad literature.
    What stops the flood of crap from obliterating the few comments you want to see?

    Ol’ Bab

  2. #2 Frank Swain
    September 12, 2012

    Ol Bab – I should have made clearer – you need to subscribe to someone’s public notes to see them. So while this doesn’t resolve all the problems of different audiences, it’s the difference between following someone’s commentary about a book on twitter, and actually seeing it in the book itself.