Read Tim Berners-Lee's "Weaving the Web"

Perhaps it was the fact that we are meeting Sir Tim Berners-Lee soon that at last prompted me to read “Weaving the Web” (combined with the fact that a plane journey is a good time for reading), but in any case I managed to read this book on my flight from Shannon to Boston on Tuesday.

It’s a wonderful story of how the visionary efforts of one and then a few like-minded souls can leverage many, many others towards an amazing vision in a relatively short period of time. The Web is still just a teenager, but it must be marked in dog years squared or something because it is so much more than I’m sure even Tim himself could have imagined it would be 17 years ago.

I am usually a fairly slow reader, but I just seemed to get into a flow reading this book and during that I marked out some parts of interest to today’s Web and some of the work that I am involved in. There’s also a lot of prescient stuff, for example, the browser / editor systems he describes are like today’s blogs, the annotation services are like, and the collaborative tools are our wikis. I’d like to quote / paraphrase some parts and comment briefly on them (maybe this will be interesting for you readers, maybe not). [Let me also say that while these are just some things that personally interest me, if they resonate with you I’d advise you to get the book and find out what other ideas may form…]

Connecting disparate things, like discussions and pages

“I had to show how this system could integrate very disparate things, so I provided an example of an Internet newsgroup message, and a page from my old Enquire program.”

“All [W3C] mail is instantly archived to the Web with a persistent URI.”

Years later and this is still so relevant. It’s an aim of SIOC to integrate data from Usenet newsgroups and mailing lists and of course other discussions with any other relevant pages on the Web. And some more related thoughts, if you can imagine full histories of communities of interest and their discussions being semantically described…

“When new people joined a group they would have the legacy of decisions and reasons available for inspection. When people left the group their work would already have been captured and integrated. As an exciting bonus, machine analysis of the web of knowledge could perhaps allow the participants to draw conclusions about management and organisation of their collective activity that they would not otherwise have elucidated.”

And by describing exactly who says what (expert finding), another problem is solved:

“A larger company fails to be intuitive when the person with the answer isn’t talking with the person who has the question.”

It’s not all about dollars

“What is maddening is the terrible notion that a person’s value depends on how important and financially successful they are, and that that is measured in terms of money.”

Hooray! I loved this bit, and so many [let me call them shallow for want of a stronger adjective] people cannot understand that there can be no applied (i.e. commercialised) research without basic (i.e. scientific) research. And strange as it may seem, there are many people who will get much more satisfaction out of such basic research too…

Web endorsements

“I would like to see similar endorsement techniques used to express other subjective notions such as academic quality.”

A great idea. As often happens, some academically-brilliant papers can be overlooked and some not-so-good stuff can be published due to two or three unpredictable human reviewer outcomes. Having an endorsement by the masses on papers (or any web resource) could help greatly with locating relevant information. CiteULike does something like this for the academic papers, and of course there’s IBIS could be used to implement this on a more general level…

“Here’s a nice, fast commercial partner website that you should use (we’ll just block / slow down the ones we don’t want you to see)”

Tim talks about the possibility of ISPs who may give better connectivity to affiliate sites, unbeknownst to the end user. I haven’t heard of any regulation in this area either. Maybe a browser plugin would be good here to alert users if the site is responding slowly in comparison to its normal speed (e.g from the periodic Alexa measured responses).

“Happily the Web is so huge that there’s no way any one company can dominate it.”

Unfortunately, I think this has changed in the past five years. The media conglomerates are starting to dominate, by buying up the biggest sites and making their influence show (at the moment, it’s the social networking services [SNS] that are becoming the most accessed and these can be easily used by big companies to control opinion). According to Compete (via Read/Write Web), the top 10 domains account for 40% of the total page views on the Web, and this in part is due to these SNS sites. The long tail effect isn’t in power here. And of course, this may lead to…

“One [concern] is that information can be collected much more easily, and the other is that it can be used very easily to tailor what a person experiences.”


“To be able to really work together on the Web, we need […] more intuitive interfaces for editing and changing information…”

Leigh Dodd’s FOAF-a-matic made it very easy for us to become part of the Semantic Web. It’s been a few years since it was created, and we need something that can allow non-techies to just install some plugin and easily define their FOAF data, using whatever fields they want. I’d call this EasyFOAF (not that I’ll be making it just yet, but I know Aidan Finn is interested in this topic too) – it could be a WordPress plugin or a standalone thingy – it just has to be user friendly 🙂

This is related to this

“We should be able not only to follow links, but to create them – between all sorts of media.”

Even if you don’t have access to either of the two targets, this could be done using third-party services – just tell it what two things are related and how.

“This all works only if each person makes links as he or she browses, so writing, link creation and browsing must be totally integrated. If someone discovers a relationship but doesn’t make the link, he or she is wiser but the group is not.”

A nice little “link this with…” plugin is needed!

Typed replies in discussions

“People are already experimenting with new social machines for online peer review, while other tools such as chat rooms developed quite independently and before the Web. […] By experimenting with these structures, we may find a way to organise new social models that not only scale well, but can be combined to form larger structures. […] I’d always been frustrated that the essential role of a message in an argument was often lost information. […] We created a sub-directory called Discussion [… that] allowed people to post questions on a given subject, read and respond. A person couldn’t just ‘reply’. He had to say whether he was agreeing, disagreeing or asking for clarification of a point. The idea was that the state of the discussion would be visible to everyone involved.”

“Imagine having servers for comments in different forums, perhaps family, school and company. Each point and rebuttal is linked, so everyone can see at a glance the direct agreements and contradictions and the supporting evidence for each view, such that anything could be contested by the people involved. If there was some sort of judicial, democratic process for resolving issues, the discussion could he done in a very clear and open fashion, with a computer keeping track of the arguments.”

This is a much-needed extension to the SIOC idea, with agreement and disagreement forming the reply structure of discussions. Again, IBIS can be used to model this.

Linking discussions to other discussions and topic channels

From HyperText and CERN:

“Typically, a discussion under one newsgroup will develop into a different topic, at which point it ought to be in a different part of the [uucp News] tree.”

In SIOC, it is possible that a discussion post (or threaded set of posts) will need to be in more than one forum. This can be easily done in RDF, but in the post itself some new tag or typed link would be necessary, which ties in with the next quote:

“It is sometimes possible to enhance an existing storage system by coding hypertext information in, if one knows that a server will be generating a hypertext representation. In ‘news’ articles, for example, one could use (in the text) a standard format for a reference to another article. This would be picked out by the hypertext gateway and used to generate a link to that note. This sort of enhancement will allow greater integration between old and new systems.

This is something that I touched on in my mf and SIOC post and in a forthcoming ICWSM paper, where I suggested that some tagged references could be used within legacy systems to link discussion posts.

1 thought on “Read Tim Berners-Lee's "Weaving the Web"

  1. The Web is still just a teenager, but it must be marked in dog years squared or something because it is so much more than I’m sure even Tim himself could have imagined it would be 17 years ago.

    I’m wrong here about Sir Tim’s expectations of what the Web would be, especially reading this interesting article from the Economist.

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