Seven ways to think like the web

Update: For a simpler formulation of the ideas in this essay, see Doug Belshaw’s Working openly on the web: a manifesto.

Back in 2000, the patterns, principles, and best practices for building web information systems were mostly anecdotal and folkloric. Roy Fielding’s dissertation on the web’s deep architecture provided a formal definition that we’ve been digesting ever since. In his introduction he wrote that the web is “an Internet-scale distributed hypermedia system” that aims to “interconnect information networks across organizational boundaries.” His thesis helped us recognize and apply such principles as universal naming, linking, loose coupling, and disciplined resource design. These are not only engineering concerns. Nowadays they matter to everyone. Why? Because the web is a hybrid information system co-created by people and machines. Sometimes computers publish our data for us, and sometimes we publish it directly. Sometimes machines subscribe to what machines and people publish, sometimes people do.

Given the web’s hybrid nature, how to can we teach people to make best use of this distributed hypermedia system? That’s what I’ve been trying to do, in one way or another, for many years. It’s been a challenge to label and describe the principles I want people to learn and apply. I’ve used the terms computational thinking, Fourth R principles, and most recently Mark Surman’s evocative thinking like the web.

Back in October, at the Traction Software users’ conference, I led a discussion on the theme of observable work in which we brainstormed a list of some principles that people apply when they work well together online. It’s the same list that emerges when I talk about computational thinking, or Fourth R principles, or thinking like the web. Here’s an edited version of the list we put up on the easel that day:

  1. Be the authoritative source for your own data

  2. Pass by reference not by value

  3. Know the difference between structured and unstructured data

  4. Create and adopt disciplined naming conventions

  5. Push your data to the widest appropriate scope

  6. Participate in pub/sub networks as both a publisher and a subscriber

  7. Reuse components and services

1. Be the authoritative source for your own data

In the elmcity context, that means regarding your own website, blog, or online calendar as the authoritative source. More broadly, it means publishing facts about yourself, or your organization, to a place on the web that you control, and that is bound in some way to your identity.

Why?

To a large and growing extent, your public identity is what the web knows about your ideas, activities, and relationships. When that knowledge isn’t private, your interests are best served by publishing it to online spaces that you control and use for the purpose.

Related

Mastering your own search index, Hosted lifebits

2. Pass by reference rather than by value

In the case of calendar events, you’re passing by value when you send copies of your data to event sites in email, or when you log into an events site and recopy data that you’ve already written down for yourself and published on your own site.

You’re passing by reference when you publish the URL of your calendar feed and invite people and services to subscribe to your feed at that URL.

Other examples include sending somebody a link to an article instead of a copy of the article, or uploading a file to DropBox and sharing the URL.

Why?

Nobody else cares about your data as much as you do. If other people and other systems source your data from a canonical URL that you advertise and control, then they will always get data that’s as timely and accurate as you care to make it.

Also, when you pass by reference you’re enabling reuse (see 7 below). The resources you publish can be recombined, by you and by others, with other resources published by you and by others.

Finally, a canonical URL helps you measure how the web reacts to your data. If the URL is cited elsewhere you can discover those citations, and you can evaluate the context that surrounds them.

Related

The principle of indirection, Hyperlinks matter

3. Know the difference between unstructured and structured data

When you create an events page on your website, and the calendar on that page is an HTML file or a PDF file, you’re posting unstructured data. This is information that people can read and print, and it’s fine for that purpose. But it’s not data that networked computers can process.

When you publish an iCalendar feed in addition to your HTML- or PDF-based calendar, you’re publishing data that machines can work with.

Perhaps the most familiar example is your blog, if you have one. Your blog publishing software creates an HTML page for people to read. But at the same time it creates an RSS or Atom feed that enables feedreaders, or blog aggregation services, to automatically collect your entries and merge them with entries from other blogs.

Why?

When you publish an iCalendar feed in addition to your HTML- or PDF-based calendar, you’re publishing data that machines can work with.

The web is a human/machine hybrid. If you contribute data in formats useful only to people, you sacrifice the network effects that the machines can promote. If you also contribute in formats the machines understand, they can share your stuff amongst themselves, convey it to more people than you can reach through word-of-mouth human networks, and enable hybrid human/machine intelligence to work with it.

Related

The laws of information chemistry, Developing intuitions about data

4. Create and adopt disciplined naming conventions

When people publish calendars into elmcity hubs, they can assign unique and meaningful URLs and/or tags to each event they publish. And they can collaborate with curators of hubs to use tag vocabularies that define virtual collections of events.

The same strategies work in all web contexts. Most familiar is the first order of business at every conference attended by web thinkers: “The tag for this conference is ______.” When people agree to use common names in shared data spaces, effects like aggregation, routing, and targeted search require no special software.

Why?

The web’s supply of unique names (e.g., URLs, tags) is infinite. The namespace that you can control, by choosing URLs and tags for the things you post, is smaller but still infinite. Web thinkers use thoughtful, rigorous naming conventions to manage their own personal information and, at the same time, to enable network effects in shared data spaces.

Related

Heds, deks, and ledes, The power of informal contracts, Permalinks and hashtags for city council agenda items, Scribbling in the margins of iCalendar

5. Push your data to the widest appropriate scope

When you speak in electronic spaces you can address audiences at varying scopes. An email message addresses one or several people; a blog post on a company intranet can address the whole company; a blog post on the public web can address the whole world. Web thinkers know that keystrokes invested to capture and transmit knowledge will pay the highest dividends when routed to the widest appropriate scope.

The elmcity example: a public calendar of events can be managed in what is notionally a personal calendar application, say, Google Calendar or Outlook, but one that can post data to a public URL.

For bloggers, this principle governs the choice to explain what you think, learn, and do on your public blog (when appropriate) rather than in private communication.

Why?

Unless confidentiality precludes the choice, web thinkers prefer shared data spaces to private ones because they enable directed or serendipitous discovery and ad-hoc collaboration.

Related

Too busy to blog? Count your keystrokes

6. Participate in pub/sub networks as both a publisher and a subscriber

Our everyday calendar programs are, in blog parlance, both feed publishers and feed readers. Individuals and organizations can publish their own feeds to the web of calendar data while at the same time subscribing to others’ feeds. On a larger scale, an elmcity hub subscribes to a set of feeds, and in turn publishes a feed to which other individuals (or hubs) can subscribe.

Why?

The blog ecosystem is the best example of pub/sub syndication among heterogeneous endpoints through intermediary services. Similar effects can happen in social media, and they happen in ways that people find easier to understand, but they happen within silos: Facebook, Twitter. Web thinkers know that standard protocols and formats enable syndication that crosses silos and supports the most open kinds of collaboration.

Related

Personal data stores and pub/sub networks

7. Reuse components and services

In the elmcity context, calendar programs are used in several complementary ways. They combine personal information management (e.g., keeping track of your own organization’s public calendar) with public information management (e.g., publishing the calendar).

In another sense they serve the needs of humans who read those calendars on the web while also supporting mechanical services (like elmcity) that subscribe to and syndicate the calendars.

In general, a reusable web resource is:

  1. Effectively named
  2. Properly structured
  3. Densely interconnected (linked) both within and beyond itself
  4. Appropriately scoped

Why?

The web’s “small pieces loosely joined” architecture echoes what in another era we called the Unix philosophy. Web thinkers design reusable parts, and also reuse such parts where possible, because they know that the web both embodies and rewards this strategy.

Related

How will the elmcity service scale? Like the web!, How to manage private and public calendars together

78 thoughts on “Seven ways to think like the web

  1. Pingback: Seven ways to think like the web at techandsoc.com

  2. Pingback: links for 2011-01-24 « Talkabout

  3. Pingback: Two recommended reads from Jon Udell « ConnectedEd – A blog about learning and technology

  4. Peter da Silva

    Make sure your data on yourself really is authoritative. The first time someone decides it’s not may be the last. Especially if you’re important enough to matter to Wikipedia.

    If you pass by reference, make sure you keep the reference live, and accurate. Don’t change it without a good reason, because the first time someone decides your data’s losing value they’ll start keeping a mirror. And that might well become authoritative.

    Make sure your stuff is archived in archive.org to keep you honest. It might seem painful, but it’s better to have people accessing out of data information about yourself than information actively managed by someone who doesn’t trust you to do it right any more.

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Life's simple, why change it? » Blog Archive » Think like the web or even like Jon Udell

  6. Pingback: AOL’s Patch enshrines the event anti-pattern « Jon Udell

  7. Pingback: Bookmarks for January 26th < fugaz

  8. Pingback: Software Carpentry » Thinking Like the Web

  9. Pete

    As I violate these principles by commenting here… Jon, what do you think of posterous and similar services as enablers of these principles? For example, posterous groups for private group publishing (widest possible in some cases) and regular posts for the widest public group…?

    I think we need tools that make it easy for people to be the authoritative sources for their own content. We can only pass by reference if we’ve published somewhere that DNS can find.

    Curious on your take on the best tools for citizens (not limited to calendars).

    -Pete

    Reply
  10. Jon Udell Post author

    @pete: As I violate these principles by commenting here…

    Exactly. You’re quite right to point that out. In many cases, things aren’t (yet) arranged in a way that makes it easy and natural to adopt the first principle.

    In the case of blog comments, I’d like all of mine to live in one place that I control. And I’d like the operation of commenting to be (without overtly seeming to be) the passing of a reference to an entry in my cloud, rather than the passing of a value into the site’s cloud.

    Given how a lot of things work today this is clearly aspirational, but I think it’s a really important aspiration.

    In the case of private Posterous groups, and similar features based on the sharing of a secret URL, you’re still putting your stuff into their space not yours. Now we’re getting /really/ aspirational but I’d rather syndicate from my cloud to Posterous or elsewhere and use a common mechanism for identity and access control on my end. That implies that identities coming to my cloud from Posterous or elsewhere match identities known to the identity and access control service that protects my cloud.

    All very blue sky to be sure, but I can clearly envision it, I’d like to get there, and I think these kinds of arrangements would open the door to paid services that providers would love to offer and users would be happy to buy.

    My most memorable mantra for this year so far: If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. I want to pay reasonable sums to keep my stuff in the cloud coherent, and to be able to manage it sanely.

    Reply
  11. Pingback: Seven ways to think like the web | Andrew Spittle

  12. Jeff

    Jon, what are your thoughts on the scalability issues? That is, responsiveness for example, when there are 1000 comment references to a blog post)? I guess that’s just a matter of AJAX (or future idea) and a mindset change that will have to be accepted — clicking “Show next 20 comments” could take ~5-10 seconds? This idea has some serious TCP overhead, no? Though I suppose one could bundle related (comment, etc) queries to common Lifebits Providers over a single TCP transaction.

    I’m fascinated by all of this.

    Thoughts on the data format aspects of all of this? Lots of microformats? For example, how would we choose to represent a “comment”?

    Reply
  13. Pingback: Six Links Worthy Of Your Attention #32 | 香港新媒體協會

  14. Pingback: This Week in #REST – Volume 32 (Jan 8 2011 – Jan 28 2011) « This week in REST

  15. Pingback: Know the Difference Between Unstructured and Structured Data «

  16. Pingback: Farewell FriendFeed. It’s been fun. | What You’re Doing Is Rather Desperate

  17. Pingback: Los 7 principios del ‘pensamiento computacional’ | GeeksRoom

  18. Jon Udell Post author

    @jeff: We shouldn’t expect (or accept) that Show Next 20 Comment will take 10 seconds. The web’s design includes provisions for caching at many levels, and in many places, and the emerging cloud infrastructures embrace that design.

    Though I suppose one could bundle related (comment, etc) queries to common Lifebits Providers over a single TCP transaction.

    There’s that too.

    Whenever I’m tempted to make an assumption about what is or isn’t possible on the web, I reread Roy Fielding’s wonderful essay, Paper Tigers and Hidden Dragons: http://roy.gbiv.com/untangled/2008/paper-tigers-and-hidden-dragons

    Roy’s point is that given a hypermedia system made of linked resources, there can be enormous flexibility and creativity in the design of the resources. Which goes exactly to your point: how /would/ we choose to represent a comment, or a stream of comments, in order to satisfy such requirements as authoritative provenance and efficient delivery? It’s a very useful thing to be thinking about.

    Reply
  19. software consultants

    Interesting post. On the topic of authority. Is anyone really an authority? We konw what we know and if we are intelligent we are always striving to learn and grow. Does that in and of itself bar us from being authoritative in any subject matter? Even the brightest scientists can and do postulate incorretly. I think there might be to much emphasis on ‘being right’ and not enough on the constant education of ones self. Thanks for the post it makes one think.

    Reply
  20. Pingback: 7 Principles of Computational Thinking from Software Carpentry « Computing Education Blog

  21. Pingback: Fear not, book lovers. The future of marginalia is bright! « Jon Udell

  22. Pingback: Web thinkers are not confused by shiny new things « Jon Udell

  23. Pingback: Web thinkers are not confused by shiny new things « Internet Linking Blog :

  24. Pingback: Operational Excellence and Knowledge Management in an R&D Laboratory Environment | Elisabeth Goodman's Blog

  25. Pingback: Pub/sub networking for enterprise awareness « Jon Udell

  26. Pingback: ongoing by Tim Bray · Tab Sweep — Technology - Tech News- Tweets

  27. Pingback: Installing TED (The Energy Detective): a tale of two cultures « Jon Udell

  28. Pingback: links for 2011-05-05 « innovations in higher education

  29. Pingback: Can elmcity and Delicious continue their partnership? « Jon Udell

  30. Pingback: Awakened grains of sand « Jon Udell

  31. Pingback: Liberating the Swamp Bats calendar « Jon Udell

  32. Pingback: Liberating the Swamp Bats calendar « Internet Linking Blog :

  33. Pingback: Can elmcity and Delicious continue their partnership? (2nd try) « Jon Udell

  34. Pingback: Learning to automate work « Jon Udell

  35. Pingback: Be authoritative to stay DRY « Jon Udell

  36. Pingback: Why Sears doesn’t want you to think computationally « Jon Udell

  37. Pingback: Software Carpentry » The Simplest Web That Could Possibly Work

  38. Pingback: Ann Arbor’s public schools are thinking like the web « Jon Udell

  39. Pingback: Teaching is about conveying a way of thinking « Jon Udell

  40. Pingback: Blogs and Baobabs « Gardner Writes

  41. Pingback: The Personal Cloud | Streaming Media Hosting

  42. Pingback: The Personal Cloud: The Future’s Here, But Unevenly Distributed | JLD Express Shopping

  43. Pingback: Software Carpentry » What’s the Model, Kenneth?

  44. Pingback: TransAlchemy » Blog Archive » What’s In a Name? In the Cloud, a Data Service!

  45. Pingback: What’s In a Name? In the Cloud, a Data Service! | Streaming Media Hosting

  46. Pingback: What’s In a Name? In the Cloud, a Data Service! | cloudserverhosting.co.za

  47. Pingback: What’s In a Name? In the Cloud, a Data Service! | JLD Express Shopping

  48. Pingback: Writing on the Web / Writing For the Web - CogDogBlog

  49. Pingback: Infoskills 2.012 – Practical Exercises in Social Media Network Analysis #change11 « OUseful.Info, the blog…

  50. Pingback: Writing About Data for a Public Audience | Pearltrees

  51. Pingback: On Web Thinking - CogDogBlog

  52. Pingback: Searching for Andy: an Ob-Platte puzzle « Jon Udell

  53. Pingback: Networks within Networks: Humans, Technologies, and Metaphors | bavatuesdays

  54. Pingback: Refocusing and Refueling: Keene, Caulfield, and Udell | bavatuesdays

  55. Pingback: Visualizing structural change - O'Reilly Radar

  56. Pingback: Seven ways to think like the web « Jon Udell « Sociedade dos Programadores Mortos

  57. Pingback: The blotter: Week ending 20 February 2011 | ARTS & FARCES internet

  58. Pingback: Domain of One’s Own [visualized]]

  59. Pingback: The everyday exchange of virtual objects | Jon Udell

  60. Pingback: Why Do Even Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter Fans Need Their Own Websites? - Realbasics.com

  61. Pingback: Opting out of line-of-business software | Jon Udell

  62. Pingback: Unpeeling Big Data and Goofy Movie Genre Generators: I Can Dig It - CogDogBlog

  63. Pingback: 3D printing isn’t the digital literacy that libraries most need to teach | Jon Udell

  64. Pingback: /~space | bavatuesdays

  65. Pingback: Opportunities and Predictions, 2014 A.D. |e-Literate

  66. Pingback: Reclaim Workshop | bavatuesdays

  67. Pingback: Creating New Stars

  68. Pingback: From Training to Engagement | Mozilla Science Lab

  69. Pingback: Classes I want to teach | bavatuesdays

  70. Pingback: Helping Teachers Think Like the Web | Teaching Software Carpentry

  71. Pingback: Bookmarks for December 27th | Chris's Digital Detritus

  72. Pingback: Living the Dreams begins Tuesday–and now | Gardner Writes

  73. Pingback: WEEK THREE: THE WEB | #mscret – MSc Research in Emerging Technologies

  74. Pingback: McGee's Musings : Why I Teach – Learning to Think Like the Web – #ccourses

  75. Pingback: Why you need to participate in pub/sub networks as both a publisher and a subscriber? | Dannik1

  76. Pingback: Diverse Literacies and Thinking Like the Web | bavatuesdays

  77. Pingback: Bought by Some Chinese Concern | bavatuesdays

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s