With the recent rise of Roam Research, the idea of bi-directional linking is having a bit of a moment.
We're all very used to the mono-directional link the World Wide Web is built around. They act as one-way pointers we follow in a linear sequence.
While we can link to any site, the destination page hasn't a clue we've done so.
We set up all these single direction paths, trying to signal relevance and context, only to have the other side completely ignore our efforts.
Our monolinks are trying to establish relationships in vain.
We're starting to look around our mono-linked environment, and wonder why it's so hard to surface relevant, contextual relationships.
Manually interlinking content takes an awful lot of human curation and effort. Effort we should probably slog off onto our systems.
✶ Enter the bi-directional link ✶
A bi-directional link has social awareness - it knows about other pages or 'nodes' that point to it, and can make them visible to people. This means we get a two-way conversation flowing between our web locations.
Vannevar outlined this hypothetical gadget in an essay in The Atlantic called As We May Think. He wanted a system capable of "associative indexing... whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another... [so that] numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail."
This essay turned out to be a foundational document for the ideologies that directly led to both the internet and the Web. Yes, those are two entirely seperate pieces of technology. Vannevar was one of the key movers and shakers rallying folks to help build the original internet infrastructure. He coralled folks at MIT, the US Department of Defence, the National Science Foundation and various research labs like the Standford Lincoln Lab, Bell Labs, the RAND corporation, and Xerox PARC to get involved. Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (London: Simon & Schuster, 2015).
Suffice to say, the guy was driven by a belief that enabling people to connect information and share knowledge would expand the scope of human understanding. The Memex was one idea of how that might manifest in material form.
Vannevar even created a small informative diagram of this desk-bound vision. Marketing chops 101.
Vannevar's evocative description of the Memex is especially impressive given that digital computers had only come into existence 5 years earlier. Most were still the domain of large military operations like Bletchley Park, and seen as inconveniently large calculators.
Implementing a wildly interactive computational personal knowledge base wasn't much of an option.
So the idea went into hiberation, and didn't resurface until the idea of personal computing began blooming in the sixties and seventies. Ted Nelson, an unlikely film director and sociologist, stumbled into a series of computing lectures and began to imagine how graphical interfaces might reinvent the way we write and connect ideas. He took inspiration directly from Vannevar's essay, and in 1965 when he coined the term hypertext to describe his vision for a sprawling network of interlinking information.
Nelson planned to implement these hypertextual dreams in his perpetually-imminent Project Xanadu. If you have some time, this is quite the internet history rabbit hole to run down.
Ted Nelson is on another level.
The Xanadu project was a hypertext system that imagined that every sentence, block, and page would be part of a vast bi-directionally linked network.
A design mockup of how Project Xanadu might visually connect pieces of text across multiple documents
You'd be able to trace information back to its origin the way current web links do. But you'd also be able to see who had referenced, remixed, and expanded off that original. The full Pattern Language of Project Xanadu expands far beyond just bi-directional links to include features like Transclusions, but we won't dive into it all here.
Suffice to say, Xanadu didn't pan out.
Instead we got the less fancy, but far more real and useable World Wide Web that currently does not support bi-directionals on an infrastructre level.
While Sir Tim Berner's Lee wrote himself a note debating their pros and cons back in 1999, there is an obvious design issue with letting two-way connections flow freely around the web.
If every site that linked to yours was visible on your page, and you had no control over who could and couldn't link to you, it is not hard to imagine the Trollish implications...
It became clear implementing the Web with simpler mono-directional links was the right thing to do, given that its creators wanted universal adoption. Lots of people are still mad about it. Let's not venture too far down that historical wormhole.
The TLDR is technology is hard.
Until Xanadu ships and we're all immersed in the universe of multi-linked, version-controlled nodes of remixable micro-content (that somehow solves the problems of permissions and moderation), there are still plenty of ways we can resurrect the possibility of bi-directional links on the web.
Most of the design issues with adding bi-directional links to the global web were related to moderation and permissions. However, adding them within the bounds of a single website with one author sidesteps that problem.
There's been a flurry of interest around bi-directionals among people involved in the Digital Gardening movement.
Much of this was originally sparked by Andy Matuschak's notes. Go have a good browse through them.
Andy's linked notes stack on top of one another, allowing you to browse to new notes while previous notes are still visible
There's plenty to admire here.It should be noted Andy is an experienced developer and interaction designer, and these notes should not be taken as the standard expectation for the rest of us normal plebby internet citizens. But the key part of this system that creates interlinked context is the "Links to this Note" section at the bottom of each post.
Anytime Andy links to another one of their notes on the site, it'll pop up as a related note at the bottom of the page. This is the bi-directional dream.
It gives us a way to navigate through these ideas in exploratory mode, rather than navigating a hierarchy of categories on a main index page.
Since it's all contained within a single-author site, our Spammish-Troll-risk factor is at a comfortable zero.
That's all very cool, but how are you supposed to build bi-directionals into your own site? Thankfully, setting up your own public gardening bi-directional Memex doesn't involve Xanadu.
While I argued that Web-wide bi-directional links are unlikely to happen at a global scale, there's a way you can add bi-directionals to your personal website that picks up on references anywhere on the web.
The system notifies a URL whenever that site is mentioned elsewhere on the web. You're then able to show that mention and its contents on your site. It's essentially an opt-in bi-directional linking system.
Plenty of folks have written useful guides on how to add these to your site. Here's one for any static site, one for Gatsby, one for Next.js. In fact there's a whole list of implementation examples on the IndieWeb Wiki you can look through.
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In 1965 Ted Nelson imagined a system of interactive, extendable text where words would be freed from the constraints of paper documents. This hypertext would make documents linkable. Twenty years…