BoingBoing: StraightJacket? LinkJacket! Rhizome!
In July 2002 I posted a brief blurb about one of my favourite web sites, BoingBoing.net, talking about their interface some and wishing they would use more links in their posts. Here's a conversation that flowed out from that posting with the lead posting-agent on BoingBoing, author Cory Doctorow.the blurb:
BoingBoing: Single Link Straightjacket?Cory's Reply
I read BoingBoing online often. It's a lively locus of geekery, pop culture and technology activism. Still on each post they don't inline their links, they restrain them until the end. That's passing up on the fun fluency of the web, when links are sprinkled in, references resting behind words. Often their stories have multiple points of reference; often their stories could use more explanation. Their single-linking seems like a bit of a straightjacket.
"BoingBoing" began a print publication cataloging fun/weird culture published on the side by a co-worker at Wired, Mark Frauenfelder. So BoingBoing.net is an evolution from a funky old print 'zine into perhaps its more perfect incarnation as a leading culture weblog. Perhaps that explains the single-linking? It reeks of clarity, an attention span dating back to print publishing! BoingBoing.net is today maintained by active professional writers who cut their teeth making words before the web; this might explain the site's wide appeal, a weblog that's not too far floating in the hyperlinked ethersphere.
From: Cory DoctorowJustin's Reply
Sent: Tuesday, July 09, 2002 15:55
To: Justin Hall
I love the single-link form, and I cut my teeth writing for the web (and before, for Hypercard presentations). I am a great believer in hypertext.
Some BB posts are actually denser than one link, but not usually. I think that one of the great problems with more news-y, frequently updated blogs is that they're too clever. A headline like "You won't believe this!" and a three-word entry, with each word linked to a different URL, like "Oh. My. God" seems to be targetted at someone with more attention-span than I have -- someone with the spare time to follow links without knowing what's on the other end of them.
Boing Boing is, first and foremost, a mnemonic tool for *me*. When I boil down some interesting thing into a few sentences, a pull-quote and a link, I remember it later. The act of reduction to that form fixes the critical elements of the story in my mind forever.
Secondarily, it's a tool for informing others. What differentiates it from an arbitrary search or someone else's blog is twofold:
2. The context provided before the main link comes from BB's editors.
I think that BB's editors are actually worth reading, which is why the blog is structured the way it is: Here's something that I think is important for the following reasons, check it out for yourself: Link.
If you want to investigate the root causes of BB's modest success, you should look not just to the editors' ability to write clearly, but first to editorial judgement and second to a general commitment to not burying the lede underneath a clever-but-incomprehensible headline. Finally, look to the fact that every link one follows from Boing Boing, one follows not to find out not *what* is at the other end, but more *about* what is at the other end.
From: Justin HallCory's Reply
Sent: Tuesday, July 09, 2002 18:30
To: 'Cory Doctorow'
Good critique of the short trying-to-be-clever linkfests that comprise many of the posts on some of the very web-oriented weblogs. BoingBoing has a broader purview, and a more reasoned approach.
You make a solid point about the condensation of a thought or a media reference to a single paragraph, anchored finally in a link. It is an important discipline when confronted with so much media to figure out how to condense and hopefully understand it. Flooding the channel with links and information and unclear-but-clever gimmicry is entertaining at times but BoingBoing provides a welcome air of focus. And you draw an excellent distinction between following a link to see more _about_ what is on the other end, not simply _what_ is on the other end.
Still I would love to see a link to a site providing some background or pictures about Casa Loma and not just the article about its demise (which sadly had no pictures). Or Palladium, for example - your most recent post about Seth posting further on this topic sent me poking back through your archives to see if I could find the earlier BB post I remembered reading on the same subject, because the sole link from that entry was a bit too technical to get an overview.
As you pointed out, BB is a mnemonic tool for you. I wholeheartedly agree - I love my web site for that reason and when I don't update for a while I feel like I'm losing track of my thought-pattern. The popularization of weblogging software has given these tools to millions and it's changing the way we talk to ourselves.
Maybe I'm lazy, requesting more links from you. As I follow your mind at work I'd like to track some of the synaptic connections. Being a regular reader does reveal a lot.
With Links.net I run parallel chronological and non-chronological postings. My chronological text is sprinkled somewhat with links, mostly to my own pages introducing subjects. Then from those second-order pages I send people out to the web.
It's probably flawed, definitely old and maybe unsuited for your work. Still for all the posts about Disney, if there was some way to pull back from specific Disney news, and get a sense of your fascination with, study of, and use of Disney in your writing, that would add some richness for readers, even those who have some sense of things from following your regular updates.
Categorization, popular with a lot of the weblogs, actually seems to be a fairly useful way to group things. With the Palladium issue, maybe I could have zoomed back into the Computers and Privacy topic and found more info about Palladium. Still, ultimately a few fixed topics is a hack, a stiff way to group thoughts.
Perhaps we are at a liminal stage with these brilliant electronic mnemonic devices, where the information space becomes reverse chronological - a giant long spool of paper being printed into giant piles. I want to see more hypertext within rich sites like BoingBoing, where the new references the old and each post contributes to a sense of a growing web. At least let's make a rich tangle of our paperspools! Not just joined neatly, moment to moment, weblog to weblog, but folding back on themselves, information resembling rhizomes.
From: Cory DoctorowJustin's Reply
Sent: Tuesday, July 09, 2002 20:04
To: Justin Hall
Subject: Re: Rhizome!
> Still I would love to see a link to a site providing some background
> or pictures about Casa Loma and not just the article about its demise
> (which sadly had no pictures). Or Palladium, for example - your most
> recent post about Seth posting further on this topic sent me poking
> back through your archives to see if I could find the earlier BB post
> I remembered reading on the same subject, because the sole link from
> that entry was a bit too technical to get an overview.
Right -- that's just laziness. I don't have time to look up some good shit on Google and link it in -- for me, the trade off is how many links I can post in the spare time in one day versus how much I can say about each link versus how much I can research as supplementary material for each link.
> It's probably flawed, definitely old and maybe unsuited for your work.
> Still for all the posts about Disney, if there was some way to pull
> back from specific Disney news, and get a sense of your fascination
> with, study of, and use of Disney in your writing, that would add some
> richness for readers, even those who have some sense of things from
> following your regular updates.
I really want Blogger to expose their database-searching interface to bloggers, so that I can just say, "Posts with the following words/phrases are also relevant to this story" in the Blog This! form and have those posts appended.
> Categorization, popular with a lot of the weblogs, actually seems to
> be a fairly useful way to group things. With the Palladium issue,
> maybe I could have zoomed back into the Computers and Privacy topic
> and found more info about Palladium. Still, ultimately a few fixed
> topics is a hack, a stiff way to group thoughts.
I wrote a somewhat notorious rant about categorization and why I hate it, at http://www.well.com/~doctorow/metacrap.htm
> Perhaps we are at a liminal stage with these brilliant electronic
> mnemonic devices, where the information space becomes reverse
> chronological - a giant long spool of paper being printed into giant
> piles. I want to see more hypertext within rich sites like
> BoingBoing, where the new references the old and each post contributes
> to a sense of a growing web. At least let's make a rich tangle of our
> paperspools! Not just joined neatly, moment to moment, weblog to
> weblog, but folding back on themselves, information resembling
I'd love to do that, but I need better blogging-engine tools to make it happen. I've spoken to Ben and Mena about exposing this in MT, but Ben's very reluctant, because the interface would be very vulnerable to DoS attacks. Radio might actually be better for this, because of the built-in RSS aggregator, which can retain all the posts you've ever made. A couple checkboxes ticked and a bunch of related posts are auto-appended/referenced.
From: Justin Hall
Sent: Wednesday, July 10, 2002 09:52
To: 'Cory Doctorow'
Subject: Solar Panel for a Sex Machine
Nice rant about categorization. Talking about the universe and washing machines, you nail a problem I've had writing on the web about my life. For example, I'm in love with a woman and I want to write about her on my site. Where do I file her in my heirarchical life-cum-directory structure? Under San Francisco, where we met? Or Oakland, more precisely, which was somehow created as a subdirectory of San Francisco? Or maybe Japan/Tokyo where we had the first date of the rest of our lives. Maybe I'll marry this woman and so maybe she should be her own subdirectory! Or a subdomain off Justin.org. I link to her site in the meantime; but wouldn't it be nice to say a few tender words as I pass a web surfer from my site to hers?
Outside of heirarchy, I'm not sure what keywords she deserves either. This is a problem with all language that I usually try to solve through piling - lover, friend, accomplice, partner, playmate, teacher.
I'm interested to watch these experiments with information processing file by; there are millions of web logs now but interesting content provokes me to envision better interfaces. Glad to hear you are in contact with the people making these tools to request features and explore structure. I've never adopted a tool for my site other than simple HTML and directories; I've always figured I would wait for a truly kick-ass approach to implicit meta-data, annotation and cross-linking. My grandchild's mind-logging software perhaps. But that software won't come without people imagining the right shape for it.
Ted Nelson talks about this sometimes during his brilliant rants. He knew he wanted to write in a hypertext so he decided to create _the ideal hypertext environment_. It has slowed his writing perhaps, but his software research has contributed to our weblog world. It depends on what you want to make I guess. I've always wanted to write, and when I found the web I got started in earnest. I've considered designing my perfect web-publishing system and I started to for bud.com (the system I wanted in 1998 pretty much turns out to be Moveable Type today, with email submission). But my personal data demands either markup that's stupid and malleable or software deeply advanced, smarter than I am. In the meantime I'm too impatient to keep my fingers offline for too long.
Either way, it's exciting to see what people are making of these perhaps broken tools. And now to watch these tools evolve!