[A version of this appeared as a letter in Extropy No.16, p.8, titled "Great Idea Seeks Champion".]

Make Finding Web Criticism Easy

by Robin Hanson

The World Wide Web lets you follow links forward easily, but following them backwards is much harder. Links which could be nearly as easily followed backwards as forwards were a central feature of early "hypertext" visions, such as Xanadu, which I worked with for a while.

We were big fans of criticism as central to the evolution of knowledge, and we hoped that such bi-directional links would, among other things, allow people to easily find criticism of pages. Imagine that people at the home page of the CIA or R.J.Reynolds, or at some high-profile Op-Ed article, could find responding critiques with just one button push! This might have profound implications for public and commercial debate.

Now I know there are various "backlink" projects working on how to do this in a general/efficient way. But most of these projects leave the ability to follow a link backwards at the discretion of the page linked-to -- exactly the wrong incentives for criticism. And in the meantime habits, conventions, and expectations are being formed by actual use of the web, and these habits now have little place for direct criticism.

Which is too bad, because we are really pretty close to having easily-found criticism. First, we are very close to having "one-buttton backlinks", by which I mean:

Given that I'm looking at a page (call it page1), I push just one button, and get a page which lists page2s which reference page1.
To get this feature, you just need your browser to (upon seeking the "backlinks" button pushed) paste the URL of page1 into the query form of a web database, such as AltaVista or Open Text Index, that allows searches on cited URLs. (Ideally, this browser should then also do a string search within page2 for the URL of page1, and take the user to that part of page2.)

If you have a JavaScript-capable browser, like Netscape 2.0, you can have this basic ability now! See Ted Kaehler's Jave Button and the Foresight Backlinks News Page. Unfortunately, Netscape 3.0 disables this feature !

Also, to demonstrate this basic idea, you can put a button which does this on any of your pages! See the examples below. Of course this approach lets you be selective with the criticism you show folks, by varying the search query. The goal is really to convince a major web browser to add this (trivial to implement) feature to their browsers. If this feature got a reputation for being useful, other browsers might then follow suit.

Now finding all pages which link to a page is not the same as just finding the pages which were intended as a comment on, response to, or criticism of that page. To implement a better "find critics" button, I suggest that someone spend a few days web surfing to find 30-100 pages which seem to be such intentional comments, etc., and note which words, such as "comment", "response", etc., are most often mentioned near the URL of the page commented on.

If the top say five such words covered 70 percent of the cases, then we could propose the standard that "find critics" buttons (when pushed at page1) ask a web database to evaluate something like (in AltaVista syntax):

URL1 NEAR ("comment" OR "response" OR "critic" ...)
This standard should then be promoted by all means possible, including email send to those who make criticism pages without matching the standard, creating more critical pages meeting the standard, postings to prominent newsgroups, and maybe even an article in something like Wired.

We also need to promote the idea that people have a right to criticize a page by linking to it. Many people (such as Lorrie F. Cranor) think you should get their permission before linking to their page.

Yes, there is a lot more one can do with backlinks besides finding criticism. And for pages with many critics, we'd like better ways to help folks find the good criticisms. But let's not try to work everything out before we get started -- that was Xanadu's mistake.

This idea needs a champion, someone who really values criticism, and who will take the time to make it real. I don't have time to be this champion, and neither does Rob Jellinghaus, who also advocates it. Hence this plea. Please mention this page to whomever you think might care.

(I also have an older page on the subject.)

Button Examples

Enter a URL here to find all backlinks known by Alta Vista:
or here for all known by Open Text Index:
Hal Finney has written one-button Macros to do this for Netscape on the Mac and Windows.

Ted Kaehler has written a little Netscape java code to do the same sort of thing. Niether of them seem to work though.

These forms are shown as page-specific buttons below.

Submit URLs of your criticisms to Alta Vista here:
and to Open Text Index here:

There is also a site, called Aqui, soley for hand-submitted backlinks. I doubt this will get enough hand-submissions to make it worthwhile.

Copy these buttons

Thanks to Russell Whitaker for making an intitial version of the "Backlinks" button below out of the above form.

The buttons below just return links to this page, but can be easily modified for use on any page of yours. Folks who now have such buttons on their pages include: Robin Hanson, Ralph Merkle, Peter Capello, Sean Morgan, Damien Sullivan, Steve Witham.

To modify these buttons to exclude links coming from the same site, see the buttons on these pages: Robin Hanson, Ralph Merkle.

To have such buttons appear on every page you browse, you can use Tim Freeman's script and just start from any page like Yahoo with backlinks, or this page with backlinks.

known by AltaVista
known by Open Text Index

Robin Hanson June 1, 1996