The Web That Time Forgot: Social Networks in the 1930s, ’60s and ’70s


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In 1934 Belgium, Paul Otlet imagined social networks where people could “participate, applaud, give ovations, sing in the chorus”. He envisaged “the ability to trade messages, participate in discussions and work together to collect and organize documents.”

Our relationship technology has not even caught up to what the early pioneers imagined. Consider the possibilities for valuable business-customer community building!

Today’s (June 17 2008) New York Times carries the tale of technology’s lost pioneer: Paul Otlet who “sketched out plans for a global network of computers… that would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents, images, audio and video files. He described how people would use the devices to send messages to one another, share files and even congregate in online social networks.”

The Web Time Forgot

“Otlet’s version of hypertext held a few important advantages over today’s Web. For one thing, he saw a smarter kind of hyperlink. Whereas links on the Web today serve as a kind of mute bond between documents, Otlet envisioned links that carried meaning, for example, annotating if particular documents agreed or disagreed with each other. That facility is notably lacking in the dumb logic of modern hyperlinks.”

The dumb hyperlink is just as limiting as paper documents on our thinking. The original concepts of hyperlinks were far smarter than what was originally implemented by Tim Berners Lee, who was constrained by the technology of the 70’s and 80’s in what was feasible at the beginning of the World Wide Web.

The NY Times article elsewhere writes

“…Historians typicaly trace the origins of the World Wide Web through a lineage of Anglo-American invesntors like Vannevar bush, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson.”

In fact Engelbart and Ted Nelson foresaw MUCH SMARTER hyperlinks than we use today.

Engelbart imagined Links that not were not only annotated like Otlet’s – “agree” “disagree” “neutral” “mildly supporting” “standing ovation” but were able to contain logical arguments through a series of argued links. His version of hyperlinks encompassed notions from IBIS – Issue-based Information Systems.

Bootstrap Institute

Links were so critical that a link database would be required to track links between documents, and that a programming language for link annotations could make possible different views of an entity could be presented depending on who was accessing the link. Think about a purchase order – doesn’t the engineer want to see different information (quantity, product spec, delivery date) than an accounting manager (price, total cost, approval level)?

Nelson’s hypertext platform ZigZag offers so many more dimensions in which text can be connected, than is available today. He saw “the main problem of creative work as version management; the main problem of publishing he saw as rights management. ….This is true now as it was in 1960 when he proposed that both these problems could be solved online by an approach “transclusion” – the virtual inclusion of material by reference. If we publish by reference out of aregistered media pool, the origina n differnet uses of everything may be seen: Electronic documents need to be annotable and reusable.”

Ted Nelson, Hypertext Pioneer

There is much more that we have not done yet to make social networks sing!


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