Language / XML · 2005-02-26

Third-party linking manifesto

Ben Hyde, mentioned just below, has a post yanking on the Google Toolbar feature, called AutoLink, which offers what XLink called “third-party links” (though perhaps the Google presentation model might not result in a pure example of a true third-party or out-of-line link; I’m not sure, not having tried it). He’s not the only one; Dave Winer systematically rips apart the feature.

I think Dave’s criticisms are valid, though I think it’s eminently possible to follow implicit guidelines he provides. Some people have always had discomfort about out-of-line linking and the potential for confusion and even legal liability problems. I think the presentation context (in the larger sense, as well as the specific XLink sense) makes a big difference here. It should always be possible to distinguish author-provided links from third-party links, and if doing a View Source or a copy-and-paste obscures or removes the provenance of links, that’s a serious problem. We have an old and venerable system of distinguishing “foreign” content in quotations; we need the same for links.

Here’s an example of what seems to be a relatively unobtrusive, unconfusing addition of links to content authored by someone else. The latest version of the Trillian messaging/chat client has something called Instant Lookup, which I think I like (I’ve only been using this version for about a week). As you and your messaging partner(s) type, the log puts a dotted line under words and phrases that have a Wikipedia entry. When you hover your pointer over the word, the entry loads (pretty quickly) and then displays. It’s obvious that the people exchanging the messages didn’t insert the links and it’s obvious where the entry content comes from, so any problem you might have with that content can be taken up with the appropriate people — and, of course, you can turn the feature off entirely if you like.

Another kind of “third-party” linking is trackback and pingback systems. These are opt-in systems that typically demarcate original author content and added-later content in an obvious way.

(Moving from a scare-quote version of third-party linking to the entirely metaphorical, there’s the ability of blog authors to update a post to reflect activity going on elsewhere as a result of the original version of the post. When I first started reading blogs (aside: why is there no single word for a “blog reader” like there is for “blog writer”? how about “bloggee”?), I was entranced by the magical ability of blog posts written by different people to get entangled from a linking perspective, seeming to leap forward in time to comment on each other and to comment on such commenting.)

We saw that the XLink model of “third-party links for all” didn’t exactly light the world on fire. I seem to recall that there was a proprietary product that offered roughly the same capability around the same time, but I can’t recall the name and searching isn’t helping to jog my memory. It didn’t do very well, either. However, it seems that there’s a new spate of client-side systems that add links in this fashion and at least some of them may stick.

What if we were to come up with a crisp manifesto for the design and usage of third-party links and their presentation systems, and then use it to hold the developers of such systems to account? Defining “third-party links” as “links added by any party other than the original author of the content”, and leaning heavily on the indispensible RFC 2119 :-), we might have something like this:

  • By default, third-party links SHOULD NOT be added by a presentation system. Users MUST be able to opt out of being presented with them. Creators of content MUST be able to opt out of having third-party links applied to their content.
  • Third-party links MUST, by default, be presented differently from originally authored links. This distinction MUST persist in all forms of the content (formatted on a screen, spoken, view-source…).
  • The origin of various third-party links created by different third parties SHOULD be distinguished from each other, ideally indicating their authorship or provenance and a way to contact the link author.
  • Commercially sponsored third-party links MUST, in addition, be separately controllable from other third-party links in the manners listed above.