timothy falconer's semantic weblog
Big Fractal Tangle


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the web is flat

One thing’s clear to me about the Semantic Web: our current user interface metaphors aren’t gonna cut it. Lists and trees have served us well, but in the massively interconnected world to come, they’ll fall flat on their faces.

But wait, don’t we already have the World Wide Web? Isn’t that the point of hyperlinks? Aren’t we already massively interconnected? Well no, not really, at least not to most people. Yeah, we can do it, but most websites use hyperlinks as a kind of menu item, not an indication of inter-related resources. The “hyper” in hyperlink has become of secondary importance these days, taking a back seat to presentation and site navigation.

Truth is, the Web’s a lot flatter than any of us imagined it’d be ten years ago. Most people go to Google, type in a few words, and presto, they’re where they want to be. The Web’s become a kind of massive library, with Google as its card catalog. Yeah, the books are interconnected if you bother to read the bibliographies, but who does that? The Web’s become this massive hub (Google) with a zillion spokes, all leading to separate sites that rarely link to each other.

And why should they? As a web designer, it’s often a dumb move to link to other sites. Hyperlinks draw traffic away, when the goal is usually to keep it there. Yeah, certain sites position themselves as portal or resource sites, but the vast majority are better off not diluting their message with tangential offsite links. Yes, there are exceptions, particularly the blogging world, which has benefited greatly from the kind of cross-pollination that hyperlinks can bring. But blogs are relatively new. For every blog, there are likely hundreds of “castaway” sites, cut off from everyone but Google and maybe Yahoo.

Why is the current web so flat? Two reasons come to mind. First, it’s too hard for people to make links, so they don’t. Second, and more importantly, people have a hard time visualizing interconnectedness, so they stick to what’s familiar: lists and trees. Clearly for the Semantic Web to really take off, we need engaging ways for people to visualize interconnectedness. We need new UI metaphors.

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