Friday, 2 May 2014

Fragmentions and the future of URLs

I read something recently, via Twitter, that made me stop and think. So I will pass it on to you; or at least those of you who haven't come across it already.

We start with the difference between a URL and a search engine (go on ... say 'Google') as a means to finding something on the web. As Kevin Marks points out if you want to refer to a piece of text (his example is a quote from Tom Stoppard) a Google search link is more reliable, long-term, than a URL. To continue with another quote from Kevin:
Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the URL was a brilliant generalisation that means we can refer to anything, anywhere. But it has had a few problems over time. The original "Cool URLs don't change" has given way to Tim's "eventually every URL ends up as a porn site".
This reminds me of the Gaiman/Pratchett theory that any music cassette left long enough in a car will morph into Queen's Greatest Hits. But I digress ...

In the interests of full disclosure I must note that I know Kevin as we worked together for years. He's a demon programmer now in California and that's the UK's loss. But I digress ...

Kevin's musings led to the suggestion that by extending the use of a hash (#) in a URL you could easily link to any piece of text on a web page, without having to specially mark it up. He called this fragmentions and it would look like this:

www.website.net/webpage.html##any piece of text

If you like the idea you can try it now. Open your copy of Chrome and search for an extension called Fragmentions by Jonathan Neal (or click on this link in Chrome). Then, when you've installed it click on this link to my Domesday Project page and you'll find it's jumped to a piece of text that says "The system was operated using a trackball". And I didn't have to mark up my page in any way. You can check.

The benefits of this become clear if you're an academic needing to keep track of references in web pages since you can use the ## fragmentions method to go to whatever part of the page you need ... assuming the text is unique ... no matter how long the page might be (and some academic pages are very long).

The Fragmentions idea apparently kicked off about a month ago and Kevin is now on phase two, with a plug in for Word Press (also by Jonathan Neal) and a suggestion that you might not actually need two of those # thingies after all.

With such a short life so far, and the possibility of further changes as it develops, Fragmentions might be a bit too much too soon for web sites you're building for your clients. But in the longer term it does address a growing concern over how best to provide meaningful access to a large body of work on the web ... and that wouldn't be a digression would it?

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