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Links: The Humble Hyperlink

Simon Pitt | Internet | Monday 27th July 2009

If I do this, you've been conditioned to think that you could click on the word and get taken to a different page that is, at some level, described by the underlined word. Just then, that wasn't the case - I tricked you by writing a word in blue and underlining it.

Fifteen years ago, this wasn't the case - if I wrote a word in blue and underlined it, it meant I had a blue pen and that the word was probably a title. Now, all that has changed, and today people are more likely to pick their nose and flick it at a vicar than they are to write a word in blue and underline it on a website if it isn't a link. Yes, today, I am talking about the humble hyperlink: never has "click here" been written so many times by so many people in so many different countries.

The hyperlink is so common now that it's easy to forget that i) it's quite revolutionary ii) it didn't necessarily have to be like this and iii) it could be better.

The hyperlink is at the heart of the world wide web. It has created not only a way of navigating but also a way of thinking about connections between information, and a new way of organising data. Without it, it would be impossible to browse the Internet in the ways we do today.

Although I keep doing it, it's often very difficult (not to say misguided) to put major, revolutionary inventions down to one person. You could, if you wanted, put the invention of the hyperlink down to Paul Otlet, who, in 1934, suggested the idea of interlinked documents. Or you put it down to Vannevar Bush, who suggested a microfilm based "link", creating a trail across documents. Or maybe to Ted Nelson who didn't manage to make Xanadu (a sort of better version of the Internet). Or, maybe, we should put it down to good old Sir Tim Berners-Lee who put it together with TCP and DNS and invented the world wide web.

The problem with the link is that all it is is basically an address. If that address is wrong, or if the document at that address changes location, the link "breaks". Even if you create a link that is correct and works, chances are next time you click on it the site has moved or gone offline, and then, your carefully created hyperlink doesn't work anymore, and makes you look like an idiot. More than that, how do you know that someone at the other end hasn't made a link that says something like "click here to see an idiot" and then linked to you. That would be a bit annoying.

Basically, this all comes down to one thing - links are one way only. Those clever bods at the W3C have already noted this (quick aren't they?) and suggested a new type of link called an XLink that offers a multidirectional connection. Inexplicably, this hasn't taken off yet.

For those of you who know more than nothing about the Internet, you'll be familiar with the way of making a link:
<a href="link">Name of link</a>
what you may not know is that the bamboozling "href" is an abbreviation for "H(ypertext) REF(erence)". A bit contrived that I must say.

Still, the hyperlink might seem like a simple, trouble-free concept, mightn't it? Only if you're an idiot! No sooner has someone invented something than someone finds a way of suing someone else for it. In 2000, BT tried to sue Prodig for infringing their patent on hyperlinks. Obviously, this was thrown out of court. Fat chance BT. In Taiwan, Jo Ho stuck some links on her webpage, and was then held responsible for the content, and was charged with creating "hyperlinks that corrupt traditional values". What a lot of bollocks! Luckily, she was acquitted.

The problem is brought to a head with sites like The Pirate Bay, that provide links to torrent files, that are, themselves, just "links" to where copyrighted data is available. The hyperlink may seem like a simple idea, but it leads lawyers into some troublesome grey areas regarding law and the Internet. It's only really when you stop and really think about the hyperlink that you realise it is one of those things, like the screw or the nut and bolt, that really holds everything together. It's ubiquity in the modern world has made us forget just how clever it really is.


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