Friday, May 22, 2009

Linking is a Good Thing

Twenty years ago, Oxford University graduate Tim Berners-Lee wrote a memo to his boss while he was working at CERN. This memo was an information management proposal for a distributed hypertext system that we now know of as the World Wide Web. Note the major feature that he describes which was not video blogging nor banner ads nor even online chat. The major feature in this proposal was hypertext or "human-readable information linked together in an unconstrained way."

This past February, the same visionary gave a presentation at the annual TED Conference where he was still advocating for more or less the same thing. This time, instead of web pages linking to each other, the data that feeds web pages should also be available online and link to each other. This is what is called Linked Data.

Linked Data is collectively intelligent. Individuals contribute relationship information when they link. This relationship information aggregates into fantastic models of our world. Models that help researchers, journalists, and ordinary folk span problem domains in order to solve new and ever increasingly complex challenges.

But there are barriers in the adoption of Linked Data whose measure of success and effectiveness will depend directly on its ubiquity. One big problem is that many organizations value their data and quite naturally wish to protect it. Propriety and intellectual capital are profound cultural barriers to linked data that I, for one, do not understand how to overcome. I think that it's going to be a little more of a challenge than simply to ask you to stop it.

Here is another, even bigger, cultural problem to Linked Data. In our current web society where page rank is the coin of the realm, nobody wants to provide links anymore. Linking is passé. When you link out to another site, you contribute to their page rank. If you compete with that site, then that diminishes your page rank. It's some weird mind-share zero sum game. It's the new variation on the tragedy of the commons all over again. You're so protective of your own page rank that you dare not provide outbound links. Thus, the original, fundamental, collectively intelligent value of the World Wide Web is tragically subverted by individual or organizational greed. This mindset has gotten so bad that many sites automatically flag your content as spam if it includes a link in it. I link a lot in my posts so I can tell you from first hand experience that many prejudiced people will dismiss you as a spammer if you provide a link, even if you are linking to something that you have no official relationship with.

Once again, this noble visionary has provided a map to a more intelligent world but we are going to have to revisit our current values in order to completely embrace the gifts that he has given us.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting post... thanks!

I think that we'll see something akin to what happened to the newspapers. Some folks will have the "NO WAY am I linking to someone else!" attitude, and some will. Those who don't will disappear, eventually, complaining bitterly about how things didn't go the way they wanted them to.

Time will tell :-)