🎉 Announcing the Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking: Professors, Developers, and Podcasters Unite for You to Be Able to Focus More

🎉 Great News! 23 Mac app developers, professors and podcasters have jointly originated/signed The Manifesto for Ubiquitous Linking, which will be published on Dec 6, 2021 EST ! This is a very significant development for everyone who values being able to access information with hyperlinks on any device.

Following its preamble, the Ubiquitous Linking Manifesto goes on to say:

We affirm that the ability to copy a link to a resource is as important for cognitive productivity as the ability to copy other types of information. This applies to all persistent digital information.

We invite software developers to do their part, by

ensuring their users can conveniently obtain a link to the currently open or selected resource via a user interface; and
providing an application programming interface (API) to obtain or construct a link to that resource (i.e., to get its address and name).
To help people benefit from the information they process with software, we advocate ubiquitous support for linking of information resources. This would help realize the potential of hypermedia that was envisioned by information technology pioneers such as Ted Nelson and Douglas Englebart.

The originators (original signatories) include Brett Terpstra, David Sparks, Eric Böhnisch-Volkmann, Frank Blome, Ken Case, Luc P. Beaudoin, Mark Bernstein, Michael Tsai, Monika Pudlo, Patrick Woolsey, Rich Siegel, Tim Stringer and many others.

To quote from the Motivation of this Manifesto page:

To do great work with knowledge, one needs to focus on it. Deep work often involves integrating multiple information resources. The human brain has limited mental capacity (such as working memory). It evolved to be easily diverted by new information. Focusing requires more than turning off external notifications. Merely searching for information is distracting. For instance, consult an email app and you might notice an email, web page, file or other information that diverts your attention.

Whereas searching on a device may seem like an instantaneous and effortless process, in fact it involves multiple physical and mental steps that consume limited mental resources (such as working memory) and contribute to fatigue. Moreover, switching task modes, in itself, “breaks our rhythm”, as Seth Godin.

Ubiquitous links would support contextual computing

David Sparks has developed an attentional concept of contextual computing. He has argued that links can support contextual computing by avoiding “intermediate stops” in information retrieval:

I think a lot of people are underutilizing links. Lately, I have been working with contextual computing and the idea that you can go from idea to action on your computer with the least amount of friction. For example, if you need to access your task list for a specific project and open your task manager, you will be immediately exposed to much more than that particular project’s task list. You will see your daily list, your flags, and a host of other unrelated data that can distract and divert you from the reason you went to your task manager to begin with. This is even worse with infinite bucket apps like email and your web browser.

It is far better to jump straight from thought (I want to see the shrink ray project) to execution (looking at the shrink ray project) without the intervening steps of navigating through an app. This eliminates the possibility of distraction. So the trick is to find ways not to open apps, but specific data sets within apps to avoid further distraction.

If links were ubiquitously available, you could get well formed links (with URL and title) to any persistent information resource you can access. It could be any file, document, email, task or other information resource, whether it is persistently stored on your computing device, the cloud or the web. That way, you could paste the link wherever you need it, and software utilities might present you apposite links where and when you need them. Links to relevant information within and between apps would help you remain on task.

How the world could be even better

Whereas Apple Mail kindly has an API that allows automators to access the RFC-5322 compliant ID of the currently selected email. Software can use that to provide you with links to email messages. Microsoft Outlook however has no automation or UI to get RFC compliant email IDs. That means you can’t create robust shareable links in Outlook, or open messages by ID for that matter.

And so it is with many apps and web pages, from large and bigger developers.

Apple is not perfect either. It would be great if Apple provided an API to copy links to Messages and Notes. Software can work around the Notes limitation. But there’s no work-around for automators to identify Messages.

What’s more, Apple gives itself an unfair competitive advantage because it has a way to identify individual messages in Apple Messages that it does not grant to other software developers. For instance, in Apple Messages, if you receive or send a message with a date, by clicking on the date macOS can create an Apple Calendar event from the Messages message. A linkback will be added in the Apple Calendar item to get to the message. Automators and third-party devs are not given this basic functionality.

This manifesto does not merely apply to apps. It also applies to websites. For instance, in many web Mail apps, you can click on a link to open an email. However, the web app does not tend to update the URL (address) with the RFC-5322 compliant ID for that email (gmail fails here). That means you cannot reference (link to) that webmail.

More good news

A great many macOS apps and websites do provide the basis for clean links that you can use to “stay in the zone”.

Related information

In addition to the Manifesto itself for more information:

What you can do

When you decide what software to use for creating or “consuming” information, consider whether it enables you to link its content. For example, if you are choosing a PDF reader, make sure that you can link its files, and that you can link to specific locations in its files. Here is a list of Linkable apps.

Please share this manifesto with your IT administrators, colleagues and friends.