Musings

Redesigning the Map of the Web

Leverage what information representation can be

It may seem like old news to some, but I very recently got around to reading Frank Chimero’s treatise about the essence of a pixel medium in What Screens Wantand found myself musing about a potential Web that doesn’t conform to our assumptions of what sites and pages are supposed to be made of. I also found myself explaining the whole article to a couple of developer friends that didn’t want to read it themselves.

One key point

The article leverages some historical references with materials in product design, but most convincingly compares the state of the Web as we know it to our centuries-old use of maps.

In the way that a map is a representation of territory, which is likely skewed for one purpose or another, we can use a new one that suits our needs and changing the map doesn’t mean changing the territory. In that same breath, using a different map doesn’t imply the territory was “bad.” The lesson for technology and the Internet here is that we have long since built off of one convenient representation of data, information, and the nature of its exchange. Our concept of a web page is just one map upon the territory of computers and the protocols to connect them.

Chimero quotes Ted Nelson to reiterate our position in the digital world:

“The world is not yet finished, but everyone is behaving as if everything was known. This is not true. In fact, the computer world as we know it is based upon one tradition that has been waddling along for the last fifty years, growing in size and ungainliness, and is essentially defining the way we do everything. My view is that today’s computer world is based on techie misunderstandings of human thought and human life. And the imposition of inappropriate structures throughout the computer is the imposition of inappropriate structures on the things we want to do in the human world.”
— Ted Nelson, creator of hypertext

For more context, I recommend that everyone visits — or revisits — the site. The grand takeaway is that we can and should build something greater/better than than web pages. Not only can information be represented differently, but I think we are just barely touching on how flexibly it can respond to, and be interact with users. Laying back in a metaphorical Summer meadow with arms behind your head and eyes tracing the clouds, I could come up with wilder takes on a new Web, but it may be practical to focus on some softer, more accessible points.

Soft Revisions

Web content should branch off into more applications. While this already happens in mobile environments (perhaps too much so), the trend is inverted on desktop. As a service reaches a critical mass of content+popularity, or if the interaction is constrained by browsers, then it should live in more software than just a handful of browsers. Facebook is a great example of this thinking. Most people are using the app on mobile, but there is only a web interface on desktop. In the early days of twitter, I used the website and SMS to send tweets, but as soon as a desktop application appeared, that became my primary interface with the service. In that respect, it’s almost crazy that Facebook is just a website.

I’m not advocating for a fragmentation of the Internet into hundreds of desktop applications — that would be disastrous on many levels. When user adoption is no longer a huge issue, it could make sense for some sites tomature into internet-based software. Specifically to Facebook, as many people use it so frequently and often for long periods of time, it deserves an option to break out of the browser.

I think there’s a big opportunity for Finance; not necessarily a single bank, but perhaps a broader service (yes, MS Money tried that but I don’t see newanswers). I’m hesitant to list other recommendations, and can already see the counter-arguments, but I prefer to see that as a point of discussion.


Medium Revisions

No pun intended, but…

It’s already apparent that some sites are innovating how we share and interact — Medium.com being one of my favorites, for the side-line commenting that other sites are starting to adopt.

Hyper-specific sharing

I’m putting this in the bucket of “medium” revisions to the Web because it would require a bit more work than what already exists. With this idea I’m taking a note from two existing functions:

  • With Medium’s comment system, you can highlight a string of text, write a comment, and any user that reads the comment also see the same text highlighted again. This is the digital equivalent of pointing your finger to a point on the page that you’re referring to in a detailed discussion, or a well-loved book borrowed from a friend that shows underlines of passages that directly affected your friend.
  • Anchor links are a classic HTML tag that is seeing interesting use in contemporary websites. Long scrolling pages will use anchor link navigation to push users down to a segment in their single page site. Articles will reference specific explanations in a foot note. A List Aparttakes a subtle, but very useful approach by segmenting their articles so that an HTML literate user can share a specific section of the page to someone else. If you visit an article (example), and hover your mouse on a section title, it will display gray #anchor text that you can’t click but — with an experimental mindset — can append to the article URL as a bookmark you’re referencing when shared (example).

Combining the two features above would be a very interesting, and more personal method of sharing. Posting an article link on your social media account might interest a portion of your friends/followers, but it’s open-ended; a suggestion that “hey, you might be interested in this topic.” If you can highlight a paragraph or sentence, and have the page generate a dynamic anchor link to share with someone, that’s direct and suggests more intention. Akin to reading a book across from a friend, and handing it across the table so they can read just that one pithy paragraph, dynamic anchor linking and highlighting the referenced text is an excellent way to rekindle the human connections that seem to be fading away in our “social” media culture lately.


Hard Revisions

This the domain of true revolutionaries

Having been invited — so to speak — to think about an internet that doesn’t run on HTML, PHP, CSS, or any of these languages it has been raised on, I am starting to dream in abstractions. There must be alternative representations of our information-rich landscape, and most of us can only iterate or improve upon the existing system. These scrolling pages with various media buckets — usually requiring some kind of chrome/framework — that fit inside of a screen (if: responsive web design) are our current maps, representations of information.

What about the integration of more user info? Contextual browsing, listing, etc.? This implies some things that exist (foursquare), some things that don’t (the local paper where you’re online), and might be horrible ideas (who wants to read the local paper), but a very thin slice of that implication might be the turning point of something new and amazing.

Break the rules. If you can!

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