What if anyone could change the contents of any URL?

We’ve all lived with the internet long enough for now that we take most of its core ideas for granted, but what happens when you take a key decision in its architecture and change it?

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The internet has become pervasive so quickly in our lifetimes that it’ll be centuries before history will fully comprehend how it changed society for good. Even though we’re already witnessing societal upheaval in the form of disinformation today, the web will likely be around for several millenia.

There’s certain things we already take for granted about the web, even though we're in the very, very early days. For example:

  1. That the domain name system (DNS) is a distributed system where in practice domain names are sold by corporations that control the entire TLD namespace (e.g. Verisign & .com) and additionally are regulated by national governments
  2. Hyperlinks are one-way links from a source page to a destination page.
  3. The contents of a URL are editable only by the person who paid for ownership of the domain name it belongs to.

Today, it’s assumption #3 that I want to imagine changing (and if you're thinking this is just wikis, not quite, there's more) and playing out the consequences. But first, some motivation.

Notion & Roam Research — a case study in changing how hyperlinks worked

While part of me likes creating information-science-fiction for its own sake, another part is a pragmatist. How do you make products that people love and companies that succeed with these abstract ideas?

For example, we take for granted the idea that hyperlinks are one-way, but this wasn’t always how it was. Ted Nelson and some others imagined two way hyperlinks as far back as 1960.

Getting to Xanadu – Mimix

But these ideas languished in old books, the computer history museum and more recently obscure YouTube channels for decades before their time came nearly 60 years later.

We thought them too abstract and complex that "normal" people would ever use them.

Notion built a multibillion dollar company by being the first do execute transclusion in a pragmatic way, albeit with hard tradeoffs, and they used their platform to elevate Ted Nelson to the level of internet celebrity he arguably always deserved.

Roam then came along and executed the idea much closer to its full complexity, and they achieved a substantial commercial and mainstream market as well.

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What the success of these products is showing us is that we as a people are infants when it comes to our relationship with the web, and its more complex ideas are waiting for us to mature up to them.

Let's question URLs as private property

This brings me to another fundamental assumption about the internet that I've always been in two minds about —the ownership of URLs.

Sidebar: Why wikis (generally) failed

Now, let's talk about the elephant in the room first. It's important to talk about wikis because

With the spectacular exception of Wikipedia and a few others, Wikis have generally failed at becoming a channel for freely distributing high quality information that many dreamed they would be. Their lifecycle takes one of two paths now:

  1. A small community or individual keeps contributing to it, making it high quality but only known to a small audience over tie. Commercial corruption cannot creep in because its by a village, for a village. Examples include SuperMemo.guru or WikEM.
  2. There's the potential for a large consumer base, e.g. Wikipedia, and the incentives to rewrite history can get so commercially strong that it creates an entire industry of Upwork Wikipedia writers, overly tight governance to the point where the number of editors decline, the gender balance gets extremely skewed, and content becomes increasingly lowest common denominator and incomprehensibly neutral.

There's no public wiki today that you can actually trust can successfully trust to help you buy a house, choose a doctor or do anything else high stakes. Some niche communities like r/personalfinance or r/goodyearwelt try their best, but it hasn't scaled.

Why wikis work and don't work can be its own book. If you're interested in the area, I strongly recommend starting out by reading Bob Kraut's book on designing successful online communities.

Wouldn't there be utter chaos if anyone could edit a URL?

Absolutely. That's why we don't think the answer is open uncensored editing by anyone, but instead, only allowing the takeover of a URL by entities that serve the end user's needs.

What real world problem does making URLs editable solve?

The internet has become increasingly monopolistic and most money and time spent on the internet is now controlled by Facebook, Google or Amazon. Early on, these companies genuinely aligned with users' interests, because they had incumbents to beat, but they're becoming increasingly extractive.

  • Google indexes all the web's information, but people are more likely to click on ads if the organic links don't simply answer their question with the best answers.
  • Amazon may have every product, but if you habitually buy from them, they don't need to always give you the best prices.

What we we replace URL→ page with URL → true intent →pages and make it user-first?

You put the user in the driver's seat of the internet again. Time to move on to the plug portion of this post. This is a key idea the extensions in Insight are built on:

For example, it can help you catch fake reviews easily on Amazon, which are a growing problem because Amazon doesn't have the incentives to solve for them.

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They can help you find better search engines than Google for certain queries, or even create your own.

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Wait, isn't this just what browser extensions do already?

Yes, but extensions, though a simple and brilliant idea, were designed in the desktop-first era and never got a proper second look in the web's evolution. Insight doesn't use the WebExtensions format but instead a simplified but powerful system that's

  • gesture-friendly and has mobile native interaction design.
  • no-code as a starting point to increase the pool of extension makers by millions.
  • Insight extensions augment pages with other pages you can just swipe to, and on high-density mobile this turns out to be a better way to do extensions than editing an already busy primary page.

and extensions have come a long way from simple toys to being serious businesses, evidenced by Honey's sale to PayPal.

Mobile-first extensions are long overdue, and their time has come.

Who controls what the alternative URLs are?

The end-user always has the final say in Insight, though we serve suggestions to make discovery of extensions easier.

What is Insight and how can I try it out?

Our goal with Insight is to give the open web (in particular on mobile) a chance to thrive by exhibiting how it can be more powerful than a closed ecosystem and give more control to the end-user. We do this by showcasing the web's infinite extensibility and customizability for common use cases like search, shopping, reading and cooking.

Insight's advanced features will soon only be available to Pro subscription users but for a limited time we're opening up lifetime free beta access if you download it via TestFlight below.

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