August 27, 2022•1,940 words
Even if people don't go out as much these days, physical addresses are still very much recognizable to us. Although they're not perfect information, give me a city, a street name and a number and I may be able to find that location you wanted to share with me. This is an important part of public spaces, anyone can share a reference to a place with another person.
We're also familiar with phone numbers, although we're not so sure about them. First, they were very much associated with physical addresses, but now they're more of a personal address, a way to reach a specific individual. But things are not so simple once we lose physical context. A call can be routed internally by some hidden system that connects you to someone you're not expecting. And while some people may have lots of numbers associated to them, others reluctantly accept having one number that they don't even use. The context of our connection in this case has evolved to no longer be a place but instead to hopefully be a person.
If I now mention e-mails, you probably know where this is going. We still have a way to share a reference to someone with anyone, but e-mails are much easier to get than phone numbers. A lot of people have more than one inbox and e-mail gives the recipient control of whether to respond now or later, which means that we can let go of any context of space or time. All we know is that we have some possible link to a person who can now be anywhere and respond at any time. We understand this advantage, but human nature is not very comfortable with this loss of context. People send an e-mail and then call the same phone number. And then even go to that address. We feel lost when floating in the weird space of the Internet, but we can accept using e-mails because they point to another person at the other end. There's still some human and emotional connection that makes e-mail engaging.
What we don't embrace so openly is the web: links that point to some content or service that points us to more of such links. What's the point of a link that doesn't get you a person or a place? It's not very convenient to recognize that all of us have a multitude of things that make us who we are, but web links allow us to share only aspects of ourselves. If people resent e-mail because it doesn't guarantee some immediate personal feedback, they can now resent the web even more for only exposing some facet of each person. Web links are also inconvenient for the business of driving consumer behavior. Real messy people with many interests and motivations may find power in the richness of web links, but it's easier to sell them stuff if we keep their identities well defined and have that be the only reference you can point to. The business of driving consumers wants e-mails and phone numbers. It doesn't like web links so much because those give people independent control over what they see and share. Web links compete with other web links for people's attention and no business wants to play that game unless they have to.
But what are web links anyway? What if you do want them to be available to you? I'm sorry to say that the war against them has already started and that they're losing ground. You may still know what a browser is, but maybe your children don't, maybe they only use apps. Browsers historically have had an address bar where you can type or paste the address of any website you want to visit. That's the freedom of the open web. And nowadays that box plays double duty, it's also a search bar that passes what you type to some service that tries to find what you're looking for. It's kind of like walking down the street but always asking the police for where you want to go. That's a bit too much, so what browsers also do is remember what links you've gone to before and suggest them according to what you're typing. Browsers still try to help you if you're trying to specify a link, but they've also started to hide a lot of its information from their interface. For example, if you're at the viewfromtheweb.com/whoami page to learn more about me, some browsers will only show you viewfromtheweb.com in the address bar, obscuring the fact that you are on a particular page of this domain. If this was a physical address, it would be like having dinner in a nice restaurant downtown and only being able to remember what city you were in.
Web links are not only missing from many of our online routines but they are also getting obfuscated by social media platforms that replace them with shortened versions that they can control and track. It's a bit like how Uber doesn't just give you the contact of your driver because they need you to depend on their platform as much as possible. To be fair, web links seem scary, even more so than phone numbers. They look a lot more complicated than physical addresses, but there are possible similarities. Let's take another look at this one:
Browsers nowadays help us by assuming that our links should try to connect through HTTPS and on port 80 of the destination. The port is generally omitted as it has become a common standard. HTTPS is still relevant because there are still websites that do not offer an encrypted connection and lack the S which stands for secure. But the bare minimum that we need to indicate to a modern browser is the "city" and "country" of our web address, which are the domain and the top-level domain (called TLD) separated by a dot. The com stands for commercial but has become the default "country" of the web. The viewfromtheweb is my domain which I pay to keep registered. Give viewfromtheweb.com to a browser and it will simply ask for the default page for that domain, a web link only needs to provide a domain and a TLD.
But is it recognizable to humans? The dot com helps identify it as a web link, and still you can always add the https:// at the beginning to make it obvious. However, an alternative that has become very popular is to force any domain to create a subdomain called www so that something like www.viewfromtheweb.com is more recognizable to humans as a web link. Subdomains are like neighborhoods for your domain city. I don't have a www subdomain though, I figure that this domain is sufficiently obvious and big enough already. But that's the thing that also makes web links harder to understand: whoever owns their domain gets to decide what each part of its web links does. Do you see that whoami after the first slash next to the TLD? That's called the path, it's like a street name and it could also have other slashed sections that are like the building, floor and apartment number. But I could have ignored all of that and just have that web link be whoami.viewfromtheweb.com instead of viewfromtheweb.com/whoami for example. So keep in mind that only the domain and the TLD work in the same way everywhere. Other parts of web links are subject to what their owners decide to do about them.
Web links can also have additional information after the path. Expanding from our example, we can now have something like
The easiest part to describe is the one after the #, that contact is an example of what is called an anchor. It's like a special note added to the end of a physical address, maybe some information for the mailman. In this case, the anchor tells the browser that after it loads the page from this web link, it should scroll to a section that will be labeled internally as contact. Again, this may work differently depending on the page, it may have no scroll and instead some popup appears with some contact form. But the part of web links that can really be anything is the one called parameters, that series of key and value pairs between the ? and the #. Each pair has an = between its key and its value. Several pairs can be indicated by putting an & between them.
A common case for these parameters is tracking from where each visitor to a website came from. In this example
source=article & campaign=weblinks
I'm indicating that the source from where somebody might go to the whoami page is an article on my blog. In particular, the article about web links, that's what the campaign key has in its value. Notice that in this case, the parameters are secondary to the function of getting you to somewhere on the web. You can remove them from the link and it will still work as normal, it's just some extra information that who owns the link no longer gets to have from you. However, there are also cases where these parameters are really useful to web users. For example, when searching some website, one of the parameters can be your query and the other can be how to sort the results. By having such variables on the web link itself, you are given the ability to share your specific search with someone else. Just copy the link, give it to another person and they too can query for the same terms sorted in the same way.
This is the part where web links break completely from our physical addresses or phone numbers since they can include infinite variations of different values in their parameters. It's like they get your letter to the place, they make the phone ring, but then they also start the communication in whatever manner is left open to them. And since you're now aware of how they work, this power is also open to you. For example, you may find a web link to an image and see that it has a parameter of width equal to 800. Try changing that to 1200 and maybe you get a bigger version of the same image. Web links are public information and this is the same as learning more about your city by understanding how street addresses work.
Therefore, I invite you to keep your eyes open for web links. Browser settings still allow you to have them shown to you completely in your address bar. Desktop browsers may still empower you by revealing what a web link might be when you hover your mouse over them. Right-click to copy and edit them as you see fit. Play around with parameters or known paths. For example, many WordPress blogs describe all the links they have if you go to their path on /wp-json. This data is presented in a specific format called JSON, but if you use Firefox (even just as a second browser), it displays that data perfectly.
You can also learn more about what I've quickly went through here by checking out the MDN Web Docs, namely the "What is a URL?" article. Don't let your eyes glaze over links anymore. Get to know the web and how it empowers you.