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Perspective on knowledge: Links then and now

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The World Wide Web is such old news that referring to it by its full moniker now feels old-fashioned. It’s just “the Web,” or, as the style guides now mistakenly insist, “the web.” But the old Web is still very much with us. Its meaning, however, has evolved as the meaning of links has changed.

Way back at the beginning of the Web, when hyperlinks became a routine tool, there was a sense among at least some of the early users that linking was a social obligation, for it made the Web into a web worth inhabiting. Each was a thread that together made a fabric.

Now I think we’ve lost that sense. The fabric is in place. With so many billions of linked pages, we don’t need to link ours in order to turn it into an irreplaceable worldwide resource. So, we link for other reasons: to explain an idea, to provide evidence for a claim, to signal that we have done our homework, to draw attention to a page or an author whom we want to support, or just to Rickroll someone.

Oh, and sometimes we link to make money: to flog a product. Ads obviously make up a very high percentage of the links on the Web. But it seems to me that we generally don’t take them as constitutive of the Web, any more than you’d point to an ad as an example of what a magazine is like.

Broken links

Our assumption of the permanence of links has also changed. Broken links used to be like potholes. Now there are entire neighborhoods that are gone. If you click on a link from more than 10 years ago, you probably expect that it may not work. As for links from 1995, good luck. (Thank you for the second chance, Internet Archive!)

So, I think it’s fair to say that while we expect the Web itself to continue for the foreseeable future, over the past 25 years we’ve come to expect any links to any particular item on the Web to break after 10, 15, or 20 years. Of course, this varies depending on where the links point to: Links to old blog posts are likely to end with an error message, but links to the National Archive or The New York Times are likely to still work. But, overall, while links rot, the Web itself endures.

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