Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Falling into the web

I don't even remember exactly how it happened, except that I happened to follow a link from Wikipedia, but I managed to end up entangled in TV Tropes. Apparently I'm not alone.

If you haven't visited it already, be warned: This is one of the more potent timesinks out there.  Thinly masquerading as a collection of motifs and plot devices from television, it's really a compendium of archetypes from all sorts of fiction, clearly and wittily explicated and extensively cross-linked.  The piece on William Shatner alone is worth the price of admission, as is the Evil Overlord List.  Think Joseph Campbell meets Wikipedia meets Remote Control.

Somewhere around the Space Whale Aesop, the obvious occurred to me: It's the extensive cross-linking, that is, the webbiness of the site, that makes it so addictive (that, and there dependably being something worth reading at the other end of the link).  A little bit later (Fridge Logic?) it occurred to me that really webby sites like TV tropes are relatively rare.  Yes, most blogs include links, but mostly external links.  Even Wikipedia isn't as densely linked as TV Tropes (or at least it doesn't feel like it).

In fact, I find a large part of my web experience consists either of directly visiting a favorite site, or doing a search and then following a small number of links to what I'm looking for.  Most of the time, I'm using the web to find some particular piece of information, not to browse at random.  Nothing wrong with browsing at random -- it's just not my main mode.

As essential as links are to the web, they may not be its most essential feature.  If links went away tomorrow and individual sites were flattened into giant, unwieldy documents, it would still be possible to find useful information via your favorite search engine.  If search engines went away instead, no one would be able to find much of anything.  Furthermore, if search engines had never existed, sites would be much less richly linked than they are now, because authors would have been less able to find good links.  Searchability supports links at least as much as the other way round.

In short, search engines may well be more important than links, except when it comes to a particular digressive mode of chasing links to see where they go [But then, I would say that after a few months at Google, wouldn't I? -- D.H. Dec 2015].

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