Many people assume that web thinking comes naturally to anyone born after 1990. Yes and no. Yes, the experience of 21st-century digital natives is qualitatively unlike what all prior generations shared, as far back as the dawn of genus homo over a million years ago. But no, the virtual dimension hasn’t fundamentally changed us — at least not yet.

Consider the physics of things in the real world. As hominids we have a million years of experience with the properties and behavior of physical things. And as individuals we have lifetimes of such experience. Based on those experiences, here are some things we know:

  • If I give you a thing then it’s yours until you give it back. We can’t both use it.

  • If I want to make a collection of things, I get a bucket and put things into it. A thing is either in the bucket or it isn’t. The same thing can’t be in two buckets at the same time.

  • If I invite you to work on a project using my collection of things, you have to visit my house.

In the virtual dimension none of these laws apply.

  • I can give you a link to a thing, and we can both use it. If either of us improves it, we both share the improvement.

  • If I want to make a collection of things, I can invent a tag that identifies things in a collection. We can invent many tags for many collections. A thing can be in more than one collection.

  • If I invite you to work on a project using my collection of things, you can join me in a virtual place.

As we begin to colonize the virtual dimension, we begin to learn about the physics of virtual things. But we still haven’t fully internalized the laws and properties that govern them. All of us, digital natives included, still tend to treat virtual things as if they were physical things.

Making and sharing collections of things is a common scenario that illustrates the tension between these two different sets of laws. When the things are physical objects — say, coins — there’s no choice about how to collect them.

Scenario 1: Somebody passes around a bucket, people toss coins into the bucket, whoever holds the bucket has the coins.

But when the things are virtual objects — say, chunks of information, existing as web resources, identified by URLs — there is a choice. Somebody can still pass around a virtual bucket, people can still toss virtual coins into it, and whoever holds the virtual bucket will have access to the collection of coins. That’s exactly what happens when we use an email conversation as the virtual bucket. Or:

Scenario 2: We can invent a name for a virtual bucket, and toss web resources into it by tagging them with that name. Now anyone who searches for the tag will have access to the collection of resources.

This new scenario raises important questions. How do we choose a name for the collection? How do we choose a service that binds the name to things in the collection? How do we restrict access to the collection? On what terms are these name-binding and access-control services provided to us?

I can’t answer all these questions at once, so let’s start with the most fundamental one: How can we name things?

In A tale of two dams I made up a tag, WestStDamKeene, that could be used by anyone to co-ordinate web resources related to an ongoing conversation in my city about the fate of the Ashuelot River dam on West Street. The tag is 14 characters long. With 14 characters you can make quite a lot of names. If each character can be a letter or a digit, then there are 36 choices for each character — 26 letters plus 10 digits. There are 3614 strings of 14 such characters. When faced with big numbers like that I turn to my favorite scientific calculator, WolframAlpha. It evaluates the number like so:

In a recent talk I failed (spectacularly) to convey the point I’m about to make, so I’ll try it again and more carefully here. We can make about as many 14-character tags as there are grains of sand on Earth. True, a lot of those won’t be nice mnemonic names like WestStDamKeene, instead they’ll look like good strong unguessable passwords. But there are still unimaginably many mnemonic names to be found in this vast namespace. Each of those can serve as a virtual bucket that we can use to make and share collections of arbitrarily many web resources.

The implications take a while to sink in. Grains of sand are inert physical objects. They just lie around; we can’t do much with them. But names can be activated. I can create a 14-character name today — actually I just did: WestStDamKeene — that won’t be found if you search for it today on Google or Bing. But soon you will be able to find at least one hit for the term. At first the essay I’m now typing will be the only hit from among the 30 billion indexed by Google and 11 billion indexed by Bing. But if others use the same term in documents they post to the web, then those documents will join this one to form a WestStDamKeene cluster.

This isn’t even tagging in the conventional sense. Set aside, for now, the clusters that can form around that tag on Delicious, or on WordPress, or on Flickr, or on Twitter, or even at the intersection of all those tag-oriented services. Consider only what can happen when you make up a never-before-seen term, utter it in a document placed on the web, and invite others to utter it in documents that they place on the web. When we enact this scenario we are, in effect, creating an ad hoc web service that we can use to make and share collections of things related to (in this case) a particular dam project in a particular town. Of course tag-oriented services enhance our ability to make and share such collections. But even without them we can still do it. In the realm of virtual things, names are as plentiful as grains of sand. But they aren’t inert. We can wake them up and use them to co-ordinate our activities.