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Hierarchy solves the hypertext chicken / egg dilemma

(I wrote this post in September 2009, but am just now getting around to posting it—because I have a follow-up post that I am writing that needs to reference this one!)

The World Wide Web has succeeded where other hypertext systems have failed due to the WWW's strong assertion of hierarchy. Hypertext provides a way to view information that, in the extreme, offers no starting point, no destination, to top, no bottom.

Not only does hypertext, in this sense, make it easy for people to feel lost in information, but hypertext was inspired by people who were thrilled to feel lost in information.

Some of us are likely more inclined towards that kind of thrill, but note that the total quantity and range of varieties of digital information that was so thrilling for some to feel lost in, circa the 1980s, was positively microscopic compared with the vast quantity and variety of information on the WWW today.

So the WWW (and all of us) made hypertext more accessible by corralling hypertext to work within three strong concepts of hierarchy: DNS, web and file directory paths and, most importantly, the "website."

Specifically, these hierarchies make something come first when we think of the web. We generally start into the web via either a domain name (the first part of a URL), or a specific page / file represented by the file path (the final part of a URL). And, in both cases, we now expect to find a "site" in our browser. That "site" is, almost by definition, a fundamentally hierarchical view into more information.

I was thinking how this is loosely analogous to the classical question about chicken and egg: What came first, the chicken or the egg?

This is a dilemma (specially, it's a dilemma of circular cause and consequence) But, isn't this pretty much the same as asking: what came first, the parent or the child?

When we think of ourselves, we know that our parents came "first," before us. And, at least in my mind, the dilemma disappears just by changing the words.

But the key trick is that there's an obvious difference between "what came first, the chicken or the egg?" and "what came first, this chicken named Lucy or that egg she just laid?" We tend to think of "parents" and "children" more like this latter, specific case—no doubt because we think in terms of ourselves when faced with the parent / children comparison more than we do with the chicken / egg comparison.

This trick isn't a real solution to the philosophical dilemma, but rather it's about the introduction of a constraint that changes the original context in which we were stuck with a philosophical dilemma:

Something specific comes first.

And this added constraint is what we call hierarchy.

So, similarly, the WWW introduces constraints on hypertext that alleviate the dilemma of "what comes first." We don't so easily get lost because we can find our way (back) to starting points (or, way points) from which we branch out on new paths.

The idea that any web page is related to a bunch of other web pages as a "website," and then that the website has a home page (and further, typically, that the home page is at the top of a directory tree at the "root" of a domain name), describes key hierarchies that make the WWW different than older hypertext systems—and easier to understand and use.

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