Whose Side(wiki) Are You On?

What are we to make of Sidewiki? Is it, as Phil Windley says, a way to build the purpose-centric Web? Or is it, as Mike Arrington suggests, the latest way to “deface” websites?

The arguments here were foreshadowed in the architecture of the Web itself, the essence of which has been lost to history — or at least to search engines.

Look up Wikipedia+Web on Google and you won’t find Wikipedia’s World Wide Web entry on the first page of search results. Nor in the first ten pages. The top current result is for Web browser. Next is Web 2.0. Except for Wikipedia itself, none of the other results on the first page point to a Wikipedia page or one about the Web itself.

This illustrates how far we’ve grown away from the Web’s roots as a “hypertext project”. In Worldwide: Proposal for a Hypertext Project, dated 12 November 1990, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Callao wrote,

Hypertext is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. Potentially, Hypertext provides a single user-interface to many large classes of stored information such as reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line systems help…

…There is a potential large benefit from the integration of a variety of systems in a way which allows a user to follow links pointing from one piece of information to another one. This forming of a web of information nodes rather than a hierarchical tree or an ordered list is the basic concept behind Hypertext…

Here we give a short presentation of hypertext.

A program which provides access to the hypertext world we call a browser. When starting a hypertext browser on your workstation, you will first be presented with a hypertext page which is personal to you: your personal notes, if you like. A hypertext page has pieces of text which refer to other texts. Such references are highlighted and can be selected with a mouse (on dumb terminals, they would appear in a numbered list and selection would be done by entering a number)…

The texts are linked together in a way that one can go from one concept to another to find the information one wants. The network of links is called a web . The web need not be hierarchical, and therefore it is not necessary to “climb up a tree” all the way again before you can go down to a different but related subject. The web is also not complete, since it is hard to imagine that all the possible links would be put in by authors. Yet a small number of links is usually sufficient for getting from anywhere to anywhere else in a small number of hops.

The texts are known as nodes. The process of proceeding from node to node is called navigation. Nodes do not need to be on the same machine: links may point across machine boundaries. Having a world wide web implies some solutions must be found for problems such as different access protocols and different node content formats. These issues are addressed by our proposal.

Nodes can in principle also contain non-text information such as diagrams, pictures, sound, animation etc. The term hypermedia is simply the expansion of the hypertext idea to these other media. Where facilities already exist, we aim to allow graphics interchange, but in this project, we concentrate on the universal readership for text, rather than on graphics.

Thus was outlined, right at the start, a conflict of interests and perspectives. On one side, the writer of texts and other creators of media goods. On the other side, readers and viewers, browsing. Linking the two is hypertext.

Note that, for Tim and Robert, both hypertext and the browser are user interfaces. Both authors and readers are users. As a writer I include hypertext links. As a reader with a browser I can follow them — but do much more. And it’s in that “more” category that Sidewiki lives.

As a writer, Sidewiki kinda creeps me out. As Dave Winer tweeted to @Windley, What if I don’t want it on my site? Phil tweeted back, but it’s not “on” your site. It’s “about” your site & “on” the browser. No?

Yes, but the browser is a lot bigger than it used to be. It’s turning into something of an OS. The lines between the territories of writer and reader, between creator and user, are also getting blurry. Tools for users are growing in power and abundance. So are those for creators, but I’m not sure the latter are keeping up with the former — at least not in respect to what can be done with the creators’ work. All due respect for Lessig, Free Culture and remixing, I want the first sources of my words and images to remain as I created them. Remix all you want. Just don’t do it inside my pants.

I’ll grant to Phil and Google that a Google sidebar is outside the scope of my control, and is not in fact inside my pants. But I do feel encroached upon. Maybe when I see Sidewiki in action I won’t; but for now as a writer I feel a need to make clear where my stuff ends and the rest of the world’s begins. When you’re at my site, my domain, my location on the Web, you’re in my house. My guest, as it were. I have a place here where we can talk, and where you can talk amongst yourselves as well. It’s the comments section below. If you want to talk about me, or the stuff that I write, do it somewhere else.

This is where I would like to add “Not in my sidebar.” Except, as Phil points out, it’s not my sidebar. It’s Google’s. That means it’s not yours, either. You’re in Google-ville in that sidebar. The sidewiki is theirs, not yours.

In Claiming My Right to a Purpose-Centric Web: SideWiki, Phil writes,

I’m an advocate of the techniques Google is using and more. I believe that people will get more from the Web when client-side tools that manipulate Web sites to the individual’s purpose are widely and freely available. A purpose-centric Web requires client-side management of Web sites. SideWiki is a mild example of this.

He adds,

The reaction that “I own this site and you’re defacing it” is rooted in the location metaphor of the Web. Purpose-centric activities don’t do away with the idea that Web sites are things that people and organizations own and control. But it’s silly to think of Web sites the same way we do land. I’m not trespassing when I use HTTP to GET the content of a Web page and I’m not defacing that content when I modify it—in my own browser—to more closely fit my purpose.

Plus a kind of credo:

I claim the right to mash-up, remix, annotate, augment, and otherwise modify Web content for my purposes in my browser using any tool I choose and I extend to everyone else that same privilege.

All of which I agree with—provided there are conventions on the creators’ side that give them means for clarifying their original authorship, and maintaining control over that which is undeniably theirs, whether or not it be called a “domain”.

For example, early in the history of Web, in the place where publishing, browsing and searching began to meet, a convention by which authors of sites could exclude their pages from search results was developed. The convention is now generally known as the Robots Exclusion Standard, and began with robots.txt. In simple terms, it was (and remains) a way to opt out of appearance in search results.

Is there something robots.txt-like that we could create that would reduce the sense of encroachment that writers feel as Google’s toolbar presses down from the top, and Sidewiki presses in from the left? (And who-knows-what from Google — or anybody — presses in from the right?)

I don’t know.

I do know that we need more and better tools in the hands of users — tools that give them independence both from authors like me and intermediaries like Google. That independence can take the form of open protocols (such as SMTP and IMAP, which allow users to do email with or without help from anybody), and it can take the form of substitutable tools and services such as browsers and browser enhancements. Nobody’s forcing anybody to use Google, Mozilla, any of their products or services, or any of the stuff anybody adds to either. This is a Good Thing.

But we’re not at the End of Time here, either. There is much left to be built out, especially on the user’s side. This is the territory where VRM (Vendor Relationship Management) lives. It’s about “equipping customers to be independent leaders and not just captive followers in their relationships with vendors and other parties on the supply side of the marketplace”.

I know Phil and friends are building VRM tools at his new company, Kynetx. I’ll be keynoting Kynetx’ first conference as well, which is on 18-19 November. (Register here.) Meanwhile there is much more to talk about in the whole area of individual autonomy and control — and work already underway in many areas, from music to public media to health care — which is why we’ll have VRooM Boston 2009 on 12-13 October at Harvard Law School. (Register here.)

Lots to talk about. Now, more places to do that as well.

Bonus Links:

[Later...] Lots of excellent comments below. I especially like Chris Berendes’. Pull quote: I better take the lead in remixing “in my pants”, lest Google do it for me. Not fair, but then the advent of the talkies was horribly unfair to Rudolf Valentino, among other silent film stars.

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26 comments

  1. Dave Winer’s avatar

    The problem is that Google may at some point have a throttle, a way to control how almost everyone reads my words. At that point it completely matters how they present it, otherwise I no longer have the ability to speak for myself.

    My objection to Third Voice wasn’t that they had the throttle, rather it was that they might provide the excuse for the company that did, at the time, have the throttle, to take control of my speech.

    The beauty of the web is that it gave all of us a way to speak without interference from big companies and government.

  2. George’s avatar

    aturner at Digihub also runs the robots.txt-like idea: http://digihub.brisbanetimes.com.au/node/1354

  3. Steven Hodson’s avatar

    I have written a couple times on this and talked about on the Daily Edition podcast. As a result I have been called a dinosaur by some and told by others that I`m basically over reacting and re-hashing the whole fragmented conversation meme which is old hat by now.

    My original post at The Inquisitr ( Google`s Sidewiki is a bad idea – very bad http://bit.ly/ch1Gi) I tried to explian my big problem with this isn`t that Google wants to get into the comments business but rather t hey are forcing use both as users and creators to download and install their toolbar in order to know what is going on *our* sites.

    In both the follow-up podcast (http://bit.ly/Pgmmj) and post (http://bit.ly/XOQAK) at Shooting at Bubbles I again re-interated this fact since it seemed that those poking at me seem to have missed it. On the whole if Google wants to get in on the comments game I don`t have any problem with that. What I have a really big problem with is the forcing of their toolbar just to be able to read *and* respond (after all isn`t that the whole point of the `conversation`) what people are saying about what we write.

    I have also stated that the moment any, or all, of the 3rd party commenting platformas like Disqus incorporate the API for Sidewiki and also provide a way to incorporate it back to our databases then I will withdraw my objections to Sidewiki. Until then this is not a good thing.

  4. KD’s avatar

    Okay, I’m annoyed — I forgot to fill in the email address, the error message popped up, and my whole comment was gone. Would you make it not discard the comment when complaining about a missing email address?

    So here is my attempt to reconstruct what I had written:

    I’m not sure I understand what it is about Sidewiki that people are concerned about. I haven’t used it, but I followed the link to Google’s page to read about it and warch their video.

    As far as I can see, Sidewiki doesn’t deface web pages, since it puts its stuff off to the side. So I don’t believe it could hide the author’s intent. I suppose that if someone went to the effort of making a pleasing page layout, crowding the page over to the right to make space for the Sidewiki stuff would disturb the view. But if I understood what I read on Google’s page correctly, the user can view the page without the Sidewiki stuff by just clicking the button to turn it off.

    I also don’t see how Sidewiki can be used to build a purpose-centric web, but that might be because I spent only a minute skimming the page about that which was linked to, above.

    So I’m guessing that what people are concerned about is not Sidewiki itself, but that it is the start of an approach that eventually might do those things. Is that the correct impression to get from this post, or have I gone off into the weeds?

  5. Otto’s avatar

    If Winer and Arrington are all upset at SideWiki, then they must think Greasemonkey is the tool of the devil. I mean, after all, anybody can make a script to directly modify the sites themselves, not just stick comments in a sidebar…

  6. Lonnie Olson’s avatar

    Your location fixation (“not in my pants”) is common among many web publishers. However it is, as @windley points out quite incorrect.

    The web and browsers have long had options to customize the appearance of websites, different from the intention of the author, in many ways. The include custom styles, disabling styles, disabling javascript, greasemonkey, different browsers (lynx), etc. Your intentions are not required to be followed by the consumers of your content. Just asked. My right to remix as I choose is not new. SideWiki has just made it easier and more globally accessible.

    This remix idea is not different from cutting up a magazine to make a collage. I can cut up, parse, extract, mix, mangle, or any other action to your content for my own consumption. If I want a sidebar (another browser window) that automatically loads another page *about* your page, I can, and should.

    Now Sidewiki specifically doesn’t sound that interesting. I think it will just be full of un-moderated garbage. But these debates it’s creating are important.

  7. Jill Carpenter’s avatar

    This is a spam monster waiting to happen. I am currently adding sidewiki blockers to my sites that dump comments left by others to be seen on my sites. This needs to stop. Who is to stop anyone from commenting anonymously and saying bad things about you and destroying your web business? This is not like a blog where I can moderate your comments – NOOOO – this is open door for web graffiti. Google is sticking signs in my front yard, letting people do what they wish. I am not amused. Agree? Please see the petition below.

    http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/sidewiki/index.html

  8. James Dellow’s avatar

    One defence (for the moment at least) against SideWiki are encrypted (HTTPS) pages.

  9. W. Ian Blanton’s avatar

    Science Fiction writer John Varley summed it up pretty neatly, I think:

    “I realize that there is no way for me to prevent anyone from accessing my site, and until today I couldn’t have imagined that I’d ever want to do that. But if you deface this site, make no mistake about it, you are not welcome! Sidewiki postings will be regarded here as about as amusing as a deer tick or a bloodsucking leech.”

    http://varley.net/Pages/VarleyNews/The%20Sidewiki%20Abomination.htm

    People were offended back when this was SmartTags, don’t see much difference now.

  10. Mike Warot’s avatar

    I was hoping for the actual markup of hypertext (a perpetual dream of mine)… but alas, Sidewiki doesn’t seem to allow much of it either.

    Some day we’ll be able to highlight something we didn’t write, and add notes while preserving the context. (Instead of having to cut, paste and point to the original like we do now)

  11. Hanan Cohen’s avatar

    “Do no harm” indeed

  12. Jack Hughes’s avatar

    The main problem with sidewiki is that it pulls users away from my site. How can I build a community on my site if google is constantly trying to pull the community into sidewiki?

  13. Christoph Berendes’s avatar

    Consider this blog as a Broadway show, with Doc as a producer. Doc can’t (and shouldn’t) control critics at the New York Times, or at a nearby cafe. But it would be galling if someone set up a “slam the show” booth out front, in part because the booth owner is drawing on the foot traffic that Doc’s “show” has brought in; in contrast, the New York Times has to build its own traffic.

    Sidewiki is building on each site’s traffic, and I think that’s problematic.

  14. Mark Dittmer’s avatar

    I think the quote from Phil completely ignores the major issue here. Everything he said defends his right to do things to content in HIS browser. The whole purpose of Sidewiki is that you SHARE your thoughts with the multitude of users who have Sidewiki and are visiting the same site.

    For that reason, the quoted discussion is entirely beside the point. I think Christoph’s theatre analogy captures the issue much more accurately.

  15. Steve Fulling’s avatar

    Christopher makes a good point. I would argue though that the “audience” is Google’s not the New York Times. Google created the “audience” of Toolbar participants.

    Btw, I posted this on Sidewiki yesterday, but it has yet to post.
    http://bit.ly/gH7nU

    –Steve Fulling

  16. Christoph Berendes’s avatar

    Thanks, Mark.

    But now to contradict myself:
    1. This sort of thing is inevitable.
    2. In particular, I want a sidebar that tells me that overstock.com has the same blender Amazon is showing me at a better price. Amazon probably likes that idea as little as Winer does and as my incarnation above does.
    3. My best defense as an author/producer is to host a better conversation directly on my site than Sidewiki provides. And I need to make that conversation just as visible as Sidewiki.

    In Doc’s terms, I better take the lead in remixing “in my pants”, lest Google do it for me. Not fair, but then the advent of the talkies was horribly unfair to Rudolf Valentino, among other silent film stars.

  17. James Stein’s avatar

    As a website developer of more than 15 years I am sick of large companies trying to take everything over and now google has crossed the line and wants to force me to allow spam, competitors, warez users, and anyone else post comments on the site of my sites .. No way will I take this sitting down and many webmasters are enraged.

    I set out to create a real solution because some created a javascript solution that does not fully work and does not fully block. So I created a php, mysql, and ajax solution to block sidewiki comments from websites.

    What google has done is created the most evilest tool ever known to the internet and I do not see it lasting very long. If it does last then developers like me will just start created more higher end apps to fight them all the way ….

    James

  18. Doc Searls’s avatar

    James,

    Can you point us to your work on that project? Thanks!

  19. Don Hodges’s avatar

    I’m Conflicted but In for Now

    Too many sites (politicians, government, corporate propaganda) don’t allow comments and are taking positions that demand discussion. I see the vast potential for abuse but I also see an opportunity to participate without an invitation.

    If it becomes an embarrassment I’ll have to reconsider, but for now I’m in as a Sidewiki user.

  20. NoNo’s avatar

    Sorry James, but by charging for this script (using incredibly cheesy marketing/sales techniques, I might add), you’re just as bad as Google.

    I was on your side when I read your second last post, thinking that you were actually a web developer that cared enough to help people block Sidewiki, but then I went to your site and realized you’re nothing more then a cheesy programmer that’s trying to make a quick buck, veiling your sleaziness in BS that’s meant to make visitors think you’re on their side.

    Lame.

  21. Jonh’s avatar

    Sidewiki – Crabzy – same but less powerfull.
    I believe Sidewiki is nothing more than what offers Crabzy, and even less because Crabzy offers forum’s functionalities, where you can have dialogs, exchanges between users.
    I’d rather go to Crabzy.com, but they both offer great value as this kind of service, if more developped, could really enrich the Web !!!!
    For everyone’s benefit !!!!

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