On Permalinks and Paradigms…

06/11/2003

There are some things that become so ubiquitous and familiar to us – so seemingly obvious – that we forget that they actually had to be invented. Here’s a case in point – the weblog post’s permalink. I mean – let’s think about it. The problem was that a weblog’s front page is by far its most visited page. This is the page where everyone actually sees your content (or at least it was until the creation of RSS feeds). But it’s not possible for someone to effectively bookmark or link to that particular entry on that page, because shortly it will scroll off the bottom. Added to that, bookmarks operate at the level of pages, not posts. So how do you handle that? How can you make it possible for people to link to something with a higher level of granularity than just the page? Moreover, how can you get them to link to something that’s not actually on the page you’re looking at?

I remember when permalinks were invented – or at least, I remember when the concept was applied to Blogger weblogs in roughly its current form. After some digging around, I’ve found Paul Bausch’s post on Blogger’s weblog from March 2000. In the post, he referred to them just as “permanent links” – I believe it was Matt Haughey who coined the term ‘permalink’, but I could be wrong. I’ve researched both their sites, but I’ve found little commentary about them…

When permalinks first emerged, I was highly dismissive of them. I felt really uncomfortable with how hacky they seemed. Late-1999 / early-2000 was quite a creative time for people making weblog-related toys and paraphenalia. The concept of the permalink had all the signs of being equally useless and badly thought-through. For a start, it required yet more clutter on the weblog-page. The designer in me railed against them. But more than that, they seemed to be a kind of weird abomination – a sin against what links were there to do. Clicking on a permalink didn’t take you anywhere, you just ended up roughly where you were before, only in a more stable form. Sometimes (assuming you were already inside a site’s archives) clicking on a permalink would even take you to the same place on the same page you were before. At the time I honestly didn’t believe that they’d take off – that anyone would use them. But of course they did…

But why did it take off? What was so important about the permalink? It may seem like a trivial piece of functionality now, but it was effectively the device that turned weblogs from an ease-of-publishing phenomenon into a conversational mess of overlapping communities. For the first time it became relatively easy to gesture directly at a highly specific post on someone else’s site and talk about it. Discussion emerged. Chat emerged. And – as a result – friendships emerged or became more entrenched. The permalink was the first – and most successful – attempt to build bridges between weblogs. It existed way before Trackback and I think it’s been more fundamental to our development as a culture than comments… Not only that, it added history to weblogs as well – before you’d link to a site’s front page if you wanted to reference something they were talking about – that link would become worthless within days, but that didn’t matter because your own content was equally disposable. The creation of the permalink built-in memory – links that worked and remained consistent over time, conversations that could be archived and retraced later. The permalink stopped all weblog conversations being like that guy in Memento…

And yet no one seems to remember much about their creation. At the time they were a tiny paradigm shift in a tiny community of committed web-weirdos. No one thought that they might be one of the fundamental structuring principles of half a million sites. And so no one’s really written about them. No one’s really researched their creation. And no one’s given Paul Bausch and the Blogger crew the mad props they deserve. It’s probably time we did something about that…