Practice: whiteboard

XIII.1 January + February 2006
Page: 38
Digital Citation

The next frontier of users’ preferences

Fabio Vitali

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I have two kinds of bookmarks in my browser. Some give me quick access to pages I visit so often that I could type their URLs in my sleep; the rest sit there forgotten, having been declared interesting on one visit some time ago—and I no longer have any clue what drew my attention to them.

When I decide to bookmark a page, I know exactly what interests me about it, and at that moment, I can easily add a little note or comment—maybe a link to some of my own stuff—to remind me of what I find relevant there. Merely storing bookmarks doesn't suffice; there's a need to save some information with each one.

While I surf the Web, I also feel the need to record information that in no way relates to bookmarking. I may want to add comments, introduce links, or—why not?—edit the actual content of somebody else's page. In fact, whenever I notice a spelling mistake, a blatant lie, or the lack of a very appropriate link to some other pages, I often have the irresistible temptation to ask the authors to correct the error... and I wish I could do it myself. (This occurs especially when the page resides in an authoritative and relevant Web site.)

We are dealing with the omnipresent separation between Internet tools and desktop applications. This divide establishes and maintains a parallel separation between online and desktop tasks and between online and desktop roles. When we use our desktop applications for working with text, we encounter no big differences among the tasks of reading, writing, customizing, and reusing. If I receive a word-processing file from a colleague and, after reading it, feel like reusing some content or adding to it and sending it on, I just use my word processor and do it: Reading and editing constitute but two aspects of the same task, available within the same tool, with a minimal difference in complexity and effort. In contrast, if someone informs me of some interesting content on the Web, I will only need a single tool for accessing it—the browser—but a whole set of complex tasks and not-exactly-right tools if I want to reuse and edit its content.

People want to write on the Web—to create content, comment on each other's ideas, and add their marks to the stuff they read and access. This is what inspired the creation of hypertext in the first place. Now we see it reemerging, with fora, blogs, and wikis: People like to comment, cross-link, and edit each other's content. But fora, blogs, and wikis create content in secluded sandboxes, separate from the general Web content about which people might want to write. One can do nothing but link to it.

Current technologies limit cross-editing to a single wiki; they limit cross-commenting to a single blog. Most content-management systems support neither open editing nor open commenting. Related information from different sources cannot appear together. A prospective diner cannot read a restaurant's Web site and its reviews in the same window.

The next few years will see considerable development in this area: Web services, if anything, are meant for direct access to actual data instead of printable documents, with tools that combine and compare heterogeneous sources free of the restrictions imposed by each site's specific presentation and layout. Although they weren't designed for easy merging of different information sources, we can certainly use them for that.

Most remaining difficulties are cultural: People do not like to have their content used in ways and contexts that differ from the ones for which they created it. As for technical difficulties, the recently released Firefox extension called Greasemonkey ( can do most of what's needed, with full respect for intellectual property, authorship, and everything else. Unfortunately, although it takes a step in the right direction, Greasemonkey is not the simplest application in the world, and it's not for the faint of heart. It currently sees use more for blocking content (e.g., banners) or for client-side-transforming Web applications (e.g., adding additional buttons) than for sharing Web content.

What we still need is a tool that, as easily as a word processor, gives users the power to fiddle with and change and edit and delete and refuse any content that appears in their browsers, according to the same principles that allow us to do the same with a pen to books, magazines, and newspapers.

Don't hold your breath: Such a tool will not appear anytime soon, if content owners have their way. But Greasemonkey shows us a route that holds promise for new and more powerful customization on the Web.

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Fabio Vitali
University of Bologna

About the Author:

Fabio Vitali teaches Web technologies and human-computer interaction in the Computer Science Department of the University of Bologna, having been self-taught in both topics. In fact, he didn't even study computer science; he spent his high school years on classical literature, his undergraduate career on math, and his PhD on legal informatics, all in Bologna. He likes to explain this by pointing out that changing subjects is more fun than changing cities, and you end up knowing the local restaurants much better.

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