Hypertext, the web, and progress

by Bob DuCharme

In a May weblog posting, Tim Langemann claimed that I said that "hypertext has not advanced." Like Langemann, I've described potential improvements I can picture in the future; I also enjoy researching and publicizing cool linking applications from the past, but I never said that hypertext has not advanced.

One might read this into a discussion of past hypertext achievements, though, because similar discussions often harp on how the modern web falls short of the systems developed back in the day. A typical complainer (and Ted Nelson is not alone here) is still waiting for the web to catch up to his original vision, unaware that while that vision contributed to the web's progress, it was only The Vision for a small group of people, and other visions and new ideas were bound to contribute as well. The most interesting new things often come out of nowhere, instead of being the implementation of a detail of a grand vision. Who could have predicted the effect of webcrawler-aggregated content? Of Google's page rank system? Of wikis? Of XML (well, who besides the SGML folk)? Or of XML-based standards such as XSLT and SVG? Of weblogging, and the capabilities contributed to it by trackback, IRC, and for that matter, relational databases?

When I discuss something that might improve the web, I promise never to get bitter if it doesn't catch on. For example, it looks like there's no critical mass of people who believe that link typing adds enough to the web to be worth the trouble. There are still plenty of other new ideas being tried, and plenty of impractical old ideas that Moore's law may yet render practical. If a new idea improves the web experience for enough people, they'll adopt it, and if not, they won't.

It's nice to see that even Microsoft marketing muscle can't force the adoption of a perceived web need. Tell people what they want or need and, as with any other report of new technology, they'll try it if it's not too expensive and then either continue using it or move on. Instead of wringing hands and pointing fingers when they move on, I'd rather keep on the lookout for new reports.

What signs do you see of positive evolution of the web, hypertext, or linking?