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Lessons We (Should) Have Learned from the Web

There are a number of basic principles that those of us in the Information Technology field should have learned from the tremendous success of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

  1. Information of any enduring interest should be stored on the Web.

  2. Every topic in which we have an interest should have its own unique address on the Web. The Internet calls this a Uniform Resource Locator (URL).

  3. Each unique address should be permanent. The content at such an address can and should change over time, but the address at which we find that information should never change.

  4. Information should be exchanged with others by passing the unique address back and forth — not by passing the information itself.

  5. The unique address should be an intelligent identifier made up of words that identify the topic, rather than an arbitrary series of numbers and letters. It should be as concise as possible, but long enough to be meaningful. Another way to say this is that the unique address should be human-readable.

  6. Revision or version identifiers should generally not be part of the unique address, unless the changes are so great that there is a need to identify a new and separate topic, and to preserve the location of the existing topic.

  7. People who are knowledgeable about a topic should be able to update that topic’s information on the Web as easily and quickly as possible, with some way of preventing any lasting damage caused by mistakes.

  8. Rather than duplicating existing information, we should freely refer to it via hyperlinks as needed. A hyperlink offers a gateway from one topic on the Web to another, related topic.

  9. The information on a topic should be separated from its formatting. That is, people who are knowledgeable about a topic should be able to provide and update a topic’s information without worrying about things like fonts, colors and page layout.

  10. All of the information on the Web should be accessible through a single application, known as a Web Browser.

For those of us actually working on the World Wide Web, none of this should come as a surprise. The Web is the engine of the Information Economy and, just as it was necessary to minimize mechanical friction in the Industrial Economy, it is essential to minimize communication friction in the Information Age. The principles above all serve to do exactly that: to make the latest and most accurate information on a topic available in as frictionless a manner as possible.

Examples of the success of these principles can be found everywhere you turn on the Web. Look at Wikipedia; look at Google; look at the URLs used by a company like Apple. Look at the success of Wikipedia. It uses every one of the principles stated above. And these principles have brought it success, not because someone thought they were cool, or because they were in political favor one year, but because they were found to work.

So why is it important to state these principles — now somewhat obvious to most of us — at this late date? Well, only because, even though these principles are now sacred canon on the Web, they are still violated with reckless abandon everywhere I look on corporate information networks.

Is this because these principles are unimportant inside the walled gardens of corporate intranets? No — minimizing communication friction is just as important there as it is on the open Web.

So why are these principles so often ignored? Well, because we have captive audiences inside corporations, and so we do not have the benefits of competition to teach us the importance of these principles through the hard lessons of failure.

One of the great lessons of evolution is that the best designs emerge through open competition — through the work of the blind watchmaker.

Those of us with eyes to see cannot always predict these things in advance, but we should be smart enough to identify and leverage them once they emerge.


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July 26, 2015

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