TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: OPML

OPML (Outline Processor Markup Language) is the third element which is the foundation of the Memex. What OPML enables is the creation of outlines, which in turn enables the creation of personal directories. Why do we need personal directories? Isnt Yahoo or DMOZ good enough? The short answer is no. Heres the long answer.

There are two ways to navigate the Web today: search via a search engine like Google, or navigating a hierarchical directory like Yahoo. Both are impersonal. Both lack context. I had discussed this in a blog post entitled: The Missing Link In Information Management:

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.

Tomorrow: OPML (continued)

TECH TALK Constructing the Memex+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.