When we want to look for information on the web, a few years ago in the early days of the Internet, we used to go to Yahoo and use its directory, navigating through multiple levels to reach the site(s) we wanted. As time passes, we started using search engines – first Altavista and Excite, and now Google. In doing so, we have lost out on something important.
Let us consider Google Search. Of course, it is reasonably accurate in what we are looking for most of the time. Or at least that is what we think because we have no way to tell. But the results are the same irrespective of who does the search. We do not have an easy way of specifying clusters of documents to search, or a time period. In short, what is missing is a “context” for the search.
Navigating through directories like Yahoo also has its problems. There is a single global directory (or at best, country-level directories). Also, they do not take us to the document – they will leave us at the site’s home page. Most of the directories are also not scalable because of their centralisation and manual updation process. In fact, this is what created the opportunity for automatons like Google – the web had simply grown too big.
Into this Search Engine and Directory world have come bloggers. Think of them as a collection of ants, each of which makes its local decisions, and yet as a collective creates structures which no single ant would have been able to “command and control”. In other words, bloggers are creating an emergent system with their individual decisions of what to link to (and what not to link to). Bloggers are putting their own brains, their own knowledge at the centre and creating a nano-version of the Internet around their area of expertise.
There is a problem, though. What we say as a blog is actually a “what’s new” page – this is because it is organised reverse chronologically (by time, the newest entries on top). Yes, many blogs have categories, which is good, but even there, the entries are by date and time of post. What’s missing – even though its there embedded within the blog – is the overall context and perspective that is the blogger’s expertise. What’s missing is an Outline, or in other words, a blogger’s directory of the posts which are there.
Why is this important? When I go to a blog, I am not going there just for finding new links and comments on specific areas. I’d like to get a wider and deeper perspective, because I trust the blogger’s expertise. We like talking to experts because they help in putting things in context, like a good book. There is an introduction, there is a set of key ideas, each of which can be explored further, and there is also an overview of the latest developments. Today, most blogs and bloggers only make visible the last of these – the most recent ideas and news. As a reader, I want more.
As a reader, I want every blog to have an outline, a directory of the posts which provide the context. So, if there is an event or news item, I can now place it in the wider view of things, by just seeing where it is in the directory of items. The blogger has this mental map, it is just not visible on blogs today. The result is that it can make blogs and blogger’s viewpoints hard to understand quickly – one is just seeing a snapshot. It is like reading page of a book at random, without having the benefit of a Table of Contents.
Outlines – or Personal Directories – are the missing link in the information milieu. Imagine if each of us bloggers could create a set of pages which put our writings in context like a directory. So, now, if I wanted to find out more about WiFi or the Digital Divide and if I know that there is an expert in this area, then I can go to that person’s blog, knowing that I will get a complete perspective through the outline and links, rather than just what are the new developments. The blogger already has a mental map – a taxonomy, a context – of the space. With transclusion (the ability to connect and show outlines in place), all these individual outlines could be independently linked together to create paths through the web which a search engine or a directory can never do.
Blogs are thus just the first step. The next progression is for each blogger to put together the directory outlining and linking the posts being done, and connecting to other directories. Dave Winerwrote about this in a post last year.
What’s missing? The language – OPML – is already there. What’s needed is a mass-market outlining tool which can be integrated with blogging. Radio Userland has an outliner. But what’s needed is integration at the blog post level – so that when I am doing a post, besides categorising it, I can also place it appropriately in my directory. Into this ecosystem of personal directories should then come search, and the ability to narrow searches – in a way the RSS search engines are now doing to blogs. They still do not cover verticals or trusted blogs, but that can be expected soon enough.
What Outlines will do is provide a context for viewing information. Instead of just seeing news items as individual specks, we will start seeing the landscape as a whole – through the eyes of the experts. This will create a richer overlay on the world that already exists. The time for Outlines has now come.