History of the Linking Manifesto

At Simon Fraser University from 2002-2009, I led the software development of the Learning Kit project, a multi-university project whose Principal Investigator was Professor Phil Winne. John Nesbit, who is also an originator of this manifesto, was (is) also involved in nStudy. Drawing from educational psychology, we designed an ambitious integrated learning environment named gStudy, which in 2007 evolved into a web app named “nStudy”. This software provided integrated tools to support and study self-regulated learning: a web browser, a note-taking tool, a word processor, an editable glossary tool, a tagging tool, a concept mapping tool, a chat tool, an index, along with logging, analysis, and other facilities.

Three of the foundational design ideas we pursued were: to enable users easily to link any object to any other object; to support deep linking to and from arbitrary locations in web pages, videos and images; that user-created links should be bidirectional. This would allow users to rapidly navigate between information in the environment.

It became clear to me, however, that the usefulness of being able to easily link anything to anything within a particular software application meant that links need to be able to escape the bounds of any particular application. This calls for Ubiquitous Linking: user and automation interfaces for linking in just about any software in which users would want to refer to persistent information. That would allow users to connect anything to anything within and between the apps of their choice. Ubiquitous linking would help address the “meta-access problem” I described in my first Cognitive Productivity book (initially published in 2013); that is the ability to rapidly access any information related to the current focal object — such as to navigate rapidly between a note or email in one app and the source document to which the note or email pertains in another app (say a PDF). Otherwise, users lose the benefits of linking as soon as they step out of an application.

Mark Bernstein, who has published extensively on linking, made several suggestions that were incorporated in this document. He also drew my attention to a 1989 paper by Amy Pearl on ubiquitous link services. Her paper specified requirements for linkable software within an operating system, and described Sun’s efforts in that direction. All these years after Pearl’s paper, linking is far from ubiquitous.

Fortunately, it has become increasingly common for software to provide links to their objects. Podcasters, like David Sparks (who is also an originator of this document), are explaining the benefits of linking. Some apps provide a user interface from which links to their items may be copied; some support a back linking notation. Some apps even have an API from which links can be constructed. Interapp communication has been facilitated by the x-callback-url specification written by Greg Pierce, of Agile Tortoise with “encouragement early on by Marco Arment, Justin Williams and others”.

A few years ago, I started getting in touch with Mac software developers whose apps already had an API for linking, to celebrate their achievement and to discuss the problems it solves for users. I also got in touch with software developers whose apps lacked some of the automation required for inter-app linking, many of whom then added the required automation. Users are delighted to be able to navigate information within and between apps using hyperlinks, as easily as they can on the web. When one of their key apps lacks adequate support for linking, users will often request the support. Still, as of this writing, several apps lack the ability to copy links to the information items they manage; and thus many lack automation for linking.

In order to help developers and users alike understand the importance of linking beyond the web, such as to local and cloud shared resources, Daniel Jomphe and I published a chapter in the 2020 edition of The Future of Text, called A Manifesto for User and Automation Interfaces for Hyperlinking. However, book chapters don’t have the same reach as a website. Moreover, I wanted to give more developers a chance to contribute to the manifesto, and to sign it. The Agile Manifesto seemed like a good model, so we borrowed its structure. It seemed to me that this could be even more influential, since it is pertinent to almost all end users of software.

So, I then got in touch with many developers, professors and podcasters who are interested in hypertext, to ask them if they would be interested in participating in, or at least endorsing, a Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking. I was delighted by the enthusiastic response.

The current website expresses some of our beliefs regarding the importance of ubiquitous linking. We hope this manifesto will help end-users, product managers, and developers understand some of what they should expect of modern software.

Luc P. Beaudoin
Metro-Vancouver, BC, Canada