As Matt Hicks wrote yesterday for eWeek, Google has officially released the latest version of its Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer. This version of the plug-in, which adds a permanent Google search box to the browser window along with many other cool functions, had been in beta testing for several months. During that time it attracted enormous criticism for a new feature called AutoLink, which turns certain words on a Web page into hyperlinks to relevant data. Because these links aren’t created by the authors of a page, but only appear when a page is rendered by a browser with the AutoLink feature activated, many online publishers feel that AutoLink represents unacceptable editorial interference with their work. The news from yesterday is that Google has kept Autolink in the official release, preferring to let users decide whether the feature is valuable. More power to them.
I have been mystified by the AutoLink debate from day one. To me, the feature takes the information I was seeking from a Web page and makes it even more useful by giving me a one-click way to find information related to words that Autolink understands, such as addresses, locations, UPS and FedEx tracking numbers, book ISBNs, and vehicle identification numbers. These links do not change the original content of the page. They simply create the possibility of leaving the page for other sites whose addresses the page’s authors did not specify in advance.
It’s true that the experience of following an AutoLink is not one that most pages’ authors intended. You know what? Too bad. Get over it. The days when authors controlled the look, feel, and context of information they post to the Web ended in 2001, when wikis (group Web pages that can be edited, live, by all members of the group) first gained widespread popularity. Today, with RSS and Atom feeds becoming a nearly universal feature of blogs and news sites, information that can’t be syndicated or “chunkified” – lifted out of its original context and re-displayed elsewhere according to the intentions of the user, not the author – will get left behind in the global flurry of more portable, flexible content.
The best that Web writers can hope for is that their ideas will stay intact as the original structure and presentation of their data get shredded and remixed. If you want to be part of the open culture being pioneered by people like Gilberto Gil and Larry Lessig – which will, ultimately, be the only culture – you must be willing to loosen your grip on your intellectual property. That doesn’t necessarily mean giving it away; it does mean giving others the right to build on it.
Addendum: Wicked but funny: the Google Content Blocker.