In 1960, at the dawn of the information age, the technologist and philosopher Ted Nelson invented Project Xanadu, a hypertext system that became a precursor to the World Wide Web. It was Nelson who coined the word hyperlink—though he envisioned links not just as the one-way connectors we know today, but as a kind of loop that linked each reference to its original source and vice versa. Nelson's vision for two-way linking was that it would preserve context, keeping track of all the divergent paths information on the web can take.
Nelson's vision was never realized, but it recently served as inspiration for Pilgrim, an open source research tool created by Charles Broskoski, Daniel Pianetti and Chris Sherron. A cross between a bookmarklet and a web-crawler, Pilgrim extracts the content of an article, then loads the links a user clicks on inline in the same browser. On the top of the page, it leaves behind a path of pages you've visited through links, essentially tracing your Wikipedia wormhole or internet research and keeping it all together on one page.
Pilgrim is built on Are.na, a collaborative research platform run by the trio where users can collect text, images, files, and links into blocks and channels and share with others on the site. Are.na users create their own private channels or collaborate with others, then can connect with other channels that contain related content. These connections create a network of references, but previously there was no way to see a zoomed-out view of all of your channel connections at once. That led the Are.na founders to apply for a grant from the Knight Foundation in December to start build a tool that could accommodate that. Nearly nine months later, Pilgrim is available for anyone to use.
Pilgrim takes the form of a button on your Bookmarks bar; clicking on the button while reading an article will open the article in Pilgrim. There, any links you click on will immediately load on the page (instead of opening into a new tab), appending to the end of the previous link to give a long horizontal stream of continuous articles that can easily be moved between. Clicking the "map" button in the lower left corner will not only visualize a path formed by the links you followed, it will also show all of the paths you could have taken. It's essentially Borges's Garden of the Forking Paths in hypertext, an intricate labyrinthine view of all of the alternate internet rabbit holes you might have fallen down.
"In general, we have this utopic idea that the web could be slower or more considerate," says Broskoski. In that sense, Pilgrim is an ideal tool for longer articles that are heavy with linked-to references—one in which you "want to spend time understanding, not just the piece and the writing but how it relates and what its broader contextual landscape looks like," he says. You can also save your path into a url to store for yourself or send to someone else.
Pilgrim officially launches today and can be accessed here. As for next steps, Broskoski says they will watch how people use it to take their cues on how to develop it further. "This is pretty far future, but there might be opportunities for doing semantic content analysis on all of the topics that you viewed or the paths you went on," he says. Meaning that, potentially, the tool could not only trace your path of research and reading, but also summarize the things you read and learned along the way.
To read this article in Pilgrim, open it up here.
[All Images: courtesy Are.na]