David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

How to Get Information to Flow Backward

A certain Mr. Marc Tarrasch of Los Altos, California wrote in to Newsweek magazine last week to complain about actor Johnny Depp’s disparaging comments about America in 2003. Depp was quoted by the German magazine Stern as likening America to “a dumb puppy that has big teeth that can bite and hurt you” and “a broken toy.” Says Mr. Tarrasch:

Apparently, it is acceptable for Depp to make movies in Hollywood while at the same time publicly disrespecting the country where he was born and from which he reaps enormous financial benefits. Until Depp retracts his foolish statements, I will not pay a dime to see any of his films, no matter how wonderful an actor Newsweek thinks he is.

Johnny Depp promoting Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's ChestWe can discuss the merits of Mr. Depp’s remarks — and Mr. Tarrasch’s criticism — some other time. The point is, Johnny Depp did issue a public apology. In fact, within 48 hours of the article’s publication, he claimed that his words had been misquoted and taken out of context:

There was no anti-American sentiment… My deepest apologies to those who were offended, affected, or hurt by this insanely twisted deformation of my words and intent.

(Let’s also put aside the question of whether Depp’s apology was sincere, or whether he was just engaging in some frenzied damage control after seeing the negative reaction his comments received in the press. Johnny Depp doesn’t strike me as the type of guy who would apologize for a political statement unless he sincerely meant to apologize. Do you think an actor who once jumped at the chance to star in a black-and-white film about an unknown cross-dressing homosexual B-movie director really cares if his political views affect his box office draw?)

So the news of Johnny Depp’s retraction did not reach the editors of Newsweek, and they printed Mr. Tarrasch’s letter. One can only wonder how many of Newsweek‘s circulation of 4 million heard about the whole flap for the first time through this letter and decided to boycott Depp’s film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest this past weekend. A few hundred? A few thousand? Could Mr. Tarrasch’s letter have been one of the flakes in a snowball of conservative resentment that led to Pirates‘ disappointing second-weekend box office?

There’s a technological point to be made from all this, and here it is: information only flows one way. It goes forward, not backward.

Like the stuff that flew out of Pandora’s box, information is almost impossible to control once it’s released. Attempting to retract information that’s already out there is doubly difficult, and I’m willing to bet that Depp will be hearing conservative tirades about his supposed anti-American statements for decades to come.

It’s a problem that’s been a part of the human experience since the very beginning. And now the problem is ingrained in the very structure of the web, our greatest informational tool. Hyperlinks only point in one direction. From a technical standpoint, every page on the web is completely ignorant of the pages that link to it. As soon as you click on a hyperlink, the only connection back to that original page is through your browser’s history stored on your local machine. Move a page on the web or change its content, and watch the hundreds of linked pages dumbly continue to insist that the data is still there.

But here’s the really fascinating thing. For the first time in human history, we may be on the verge of finding ways to allow data to flow in the opposite direction. And this could very well be one of the small technologies that changes the world.

Many websites are smart enough these days to contain database-driven content that allows for easily generated “related articles” boxes (like the one pictured below, from Entertainment Weekly‘s website). This is a fairly crude solution that only offers a partial solution to the problem. It’s generally dependent on a human editor scanning the article and picking out the keywords to search for. And even then, you’re not linking back anywhere, you’re just linking forward. But at least it’s a partial solution.

More on Johnny Depp sidebar from Entertainment WeeklyBlogging software has really pioneered the closest thing we’ve got to bi-directional information with the concept of the Trackback. When you send a Trackback to a blog page, you’re essentially notifying the receiving blog that you have made a comment about it. From there, it’s up to the originating blog to decide what to do with this information. Generally, in the blog world, that either means adding a note in the Comments section with a short excerpt of what you’ve said, or listing that page in a “Pages That Link Here” sidebar.

We could get the Trackback to move up to the next level, however, if we had two things:

  1. A way for Trackbacks to respond to smaller targets. Ideally, you should be able to respond to every individual character on a page, not just the whole page itself. This would require you to have an individual ID for every character on every page of the web, but this is probably not nearly as big of a challenge as you might think.
  2. More detailed information contained within the Trackback. You should be able to send a wider set of information along with a Trackback. Perhaps a category (“addendum,” “correction,” “objection,” etc.), a rating, contact information, and a very detailed URL (like #1 above) that provides the exact location of the response.

Think of all the things we’ve done with regular ol’ hyperlinks and imagine how much cooler it would be if hyperlinks were a two-way street. Once you’ve got two-way communication between web pages, you could:

  • Inform a page that one of its hyperlinks has changed, and automatically make the adjustment
  • Have discussions that really move back and forth all across the Internet
  • Track the flow of these discussions from site to site and person to person
  • Rate web pages or individual paragraphs within web pages, and have the web page itself be aware of these ratings
  • Issue corrections to your web pages that would automatically propagate down to the pages that link to it
  • Make corrections on someone else‘s web page that the author would have the choice to accept or reject

Best yet, you could:

  • Read a letter about Johnny Depp’s supposed anti-American sentiments, and instantly be able to not only read the source material, but Mr. Depp’s reaction as well (and the reactions of the unwashed masses to Mr. Depp’s reaction)

How much time do we waste on redundancy, unattributed hearsay, and irrefutable rumor? Impossible to say. But we may one day reach the point where information will flow both forward and backward, where we will take for granted the ability to follow a rumor back to its source.

Won’t that be cool?

Comments RSS Feed

  1. Jose on July 28, 2006 at 2:48 pm  Chain link

    We’ve got a limited version of that now with Technorati. I check it everyday and every time someone links to something on Meme Therapy I follow their link backwards to see what they’re saying. I’m almost certain that certain bloggers link to me partly by way of invitation as they know I’ll follow the link back and leave a bunch of comments (and probably a link back in an article’s related section). It’s mightily cool but it could go much further.

    Like you I can’t wait.

  2. David Louis Edelman on July 28, 2006 at 3:23 pm  Chain link

    I did intend to mention Technorati here somewhere, Jose, but guess I forgot. It’s a pretty good start, and I too check it several times a day. Although one would think that they could do a little better job with such a highly structured medium (i.e. blogs).

  3. bunky olsen on August 6, 2006 at 10:16 pm  Chain link

    when you love your country you can also criticize her, that’s what is so great about america.i wish depp hadn’t hapologized about his remarks. i would have respected him more, because what he said is the truth. america does think everything she does is just great, and we could use a dose of humility. now that things have gone so poorly for everyone in the middle east, maybe we can stop thinking we should run the world.

  4. Inner Sanctum on September 18, 2006 at 3:40 am  Chain link

    Trackbacks – a benefit and a curse

    I have decided to start using the trackback feature of my blog. Why? Well, there are several reasons to this theory.

    The feature is built in. No escaping it, so why not use it?
    Trackbacks are great for your Technorati rating. Plus, if you are like me,…

  5. Beefcake on December 25, 2007 at 10:55 pm  Chain link

    I think Marc Tarrasch’s comments were correct. Why does Depp insult his home country, live in France, and make movies in America? It’s because of the money. He doesn’t make French movies not because they are artistically lacking or not bad homosexual films, it’s because they don’t make nearly as much money as American movies do. This also ties into his apology. It wasn’t sincere for the reasons Edelman, the blogger, claimed; Edelman said it was real because Depp doesn’t care about popularity nor cash, but he does, as his actions I described earlier demonstrate. Incidentally, his apology was very slippery and he never actually retracted his statements. He called them “insanely twisted” and “out of context,” but he never actually took them back, even if he did praise America in them.

  6. haiden on December 3, 2008 at 2:29 am  Chain link

    Who cares if he said something bad about America?
    Does it really matter?
    I think America is hype.
    We constantly scream liberty, yet ignore much of our Bill of Rights.
    Obama is the perfect president for our nation.
    All hype for a hype nation.
    (and before you say he isn’t, I know a great deal of people who voted for him just because he was black. Not because of the issues. Because he was black. Race is no reason to elect a president.)

  7. Links for 20-07-2006 | Velcro City Tourist Board on January 1, 2011 at 12:09 pm  Chain link

    […] – How to Get Information to Flow Backward David Louis Edelman has ideas for going beyond trackbacks. This guy does some good thinking, must […]

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