Link languages for navigating through a landscape of words

“People writing in a wiki often put important concepts or terms on separate pages in order to refer to them. If the name of such a page is repeatedly used by many to point to an idea described or discussed on it, the page has become a part of the link language of the respective wiki-community.” – RadomirDopieralski & MattisManzelLinkLanguage2004

If you do a lot of writing on one topic, there are recurrent themes and key words and phrases that repeat themselves. The more specialized the topic, the more likely it is that the reader coming in for the first time will want to unpack some of the coded language that you are using and look for some background so that they can understand what precisely it is that you are trying to say. The coded language will include some special words that only you yourself understand, and you hope that by repetition in a variety of contexts that someone else will pick up eventually on what you are trying to say.

A test of your ability to participate in a specialized community is your ability to readily understand what is being said when those code words come up and appreciate some bundle of meanings and allusions that they are supposed to trigger. "Rosemary for remembrance", and when rosemary is mentioned in a song you are expected to bring that meaning with you. Close readers of Bible texts with their careful concordances share the same sensitive ear to all of the echoes of where a particular word or phrase is repeated for a specific effect that has been cultivated over the ages. 

The challenge in wiki is that the links are made explicit, and that they typically resolve to one particular concrete instance of one interpretation of an idea, as collectively edited within that wiki. If your link language is perpetually inward focused, you coerce the world you are building to look inward upon itself rather than providing some parallel outward-looking view.

If you back out of that system and consider broader possibilities, think of the problem as similar to constructing a readable command language in which invoking a particular phrase causes action to happen in the world. The Unix shell language is one particular instance of a command language, with its regular expressions as underpinnings for a system that expresses connections between processing elements as though there were data moving through plumbing pipes.

Command languages gain some value because some of the encoding is made explicit. The difference can be readily seen in systems where hyperlinks to corporate names behave differently than hyperlinks to concepts or ideas. A business newswire will generally encode the name of the ticker symbol for a stock into a specific referencable entity, so that you don't have to interpret or guess what is being mentioned on the wire. Similarly, a link to a person's name in a news article could readily reference a biographical page or trigger a search for that specific name over a set of contact databases.

An advantage of recognizing this as a command language and not just a syntax for easy linking is that you can avoid the naive assumption that everyone who reads the language interprets it the same way. The language describes links between two parts of an flexibly articulated wordscape, but it's up to the reader to resolve that link into something concrete. The modern web software fails to live up to the promise of understanding just how many variant interpretations there might be of one specific phrase, trading ease of linking for richness in expression.

Alas, the most prominent of command-based link languages degenerates into something very simple: "buy now". The corresponding linguistic improvement is almost always "make the buy button bigger". The language of electronic commerce degenerates into deducing which three weird words will make the reader click through a link, guaranteed.

Thanks to Mark Dilley for the idea, imperfectly explored here. John Lawler's Unix for Linguists gave inspiration, as did the great weird ideas of Pete Kaminski as we were sorting out wiki syntax at Socialtext. At some point along the way, there was a universal wish to avoid needing any syntax in order to make links among related items, but the details as ever are elusive. 


3 thoughts on “Link languages for navigating through a landscape of words

  1. MarkDilley

    Re-reading this and I find it to be more challenging – good 🙂
    This quote especially caught my attention as it resonates with the whole HashTag as search vs intention: “a universal wish to avoid needing any syntax in order to make links among related items.”
    Do you happen to recall why? I know the detail may not be up in the ole’ attic 🙂 just checking.
    Best, Mark

  2. Edward Vielmetti

    Mark –
    I suspect that the dream of a syntax-free wiki grammar is just that, a dream. Nevertheless, it’s a good dream, and one that needs to be explored.
    For instance, consider a system that knew that names of lots of people, and that had reasonably predictable behavior every time someone’s name was typed in the system bold face font. Facebook behaves mostly that way, in that when you type someone’s name it auto-links to them. Imagine the wiki which had Facebook-like behavior for automatic linking to a wiki-like landing page every time it ran across a phrase that was sufficiently interesting to merit linking.
    I’ll leave it to hand-waving to decide what would be interesting enough. For instance, since I have 2500-odd pages in Typepad, I’d love to use the word corpus from old posts here to autolink to, so that I could have a *power outage maps* post that auto-linked without me typing very much. That’s probably doable, if your phrase-to-link dictionary is neat and tidy, within something like Markdown.


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