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What is a Website?

Questioning when a website (in this case Wikipedia) is more than a mere website.

The question comes to mind of real-world places, like the Grand Canyon, libraries, street corners you know, museums. And institutions, great institutions (in the abstract, anyway) like the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court and grand institutions of learning like M.I.T. and Harvard University.

We have a certain outlook for real-world places that root abstract concepts. But on the web we still refer to the greats as mere websites.

Wikipedia is a website, yes. But is it not one of several behemoths, great beasts of the modern netscape (err, not the company obviously, though they did loom in their day). Great institutions with all signs of the lasting legacy of the Harvards and M.I.T.s and so on.

There is a certain leveling and democracy in Alice’s Blog being on the same footing with a Wikipedia. But at the same time, it seems we should be looking for new names for great Internet-based institutions. That we should be able to call Wikipedia a website, but also call it something which evokes its importance and lasting nature.

We have another term, web application. It fits certain sites. But when I think of an application, I think of a shell that provides functionality. I don’t associate the data of the application with being what it provides. If Wikipedia is an application that provides encyclopedic articles, well, where’s the competing application that relies on the same data set?

And there can be, don’t get me wrong. You can download Wikipedia’s database and write an application (web-based or platform-based) and pull those articles up (you can also download MediaWiki, the software powering Wikipedia). Others have come up with some innovative ways to, e.g., pull articles over DNS. The main application-like part of Wikipedia is its editing functionality.

So maybe Wikipedia is both a website and a web application. At least in part. But that still doesn’t account for the community behind it. Or that its most essential nature is as a repository of articles.

You could try portal or property or destination after web. Maybe some other term. But I think an important step, one that will eventually happen, is to drop the web. That at some point the articles of Wikipedia will be the headliner, and whatever built-in editing and display they want on the web will be the website. There may be platform-based alternatives (or alternative web applications) to provide the editing and display.

This is already partially true for how Wikipedia and the other Wikimedia Foundation (the organization behind Wikipedia) sites handle things like images. Image files and other media that are embedded in Wikipedia actually live on the Wikimedia site and may be reused across language versions and on other Wikimedia Foundation sites.

But that trend can be extended to other uses, and once enough uses for a system exist, the web frontend is truly a frontend rather than the raison d’être for the backend. It reminds me of the story behind the GNOME Sudoku application; apparently the author wrote a solver for Sudoku puzzles, and it grew an interface up around it. Sometimes that process works in the other direction.

The Price of the Sun

All this copyright business makes me wonder how screwed we would be if the same sort of business practices could easily be applied to things like that star over there that’s responsible for keeping this planet going. If, one day, there’s a sun tax, how big could it grow. How much could an institution get away with before people rebel?

All this copyright business makes me wonder how screwed we would be if the same sort of business practices could easily be applied to things like that star over there that’s responsible for keeping this planet going. If, one day, there’s a sun tax, how big could it grow. How much could an institution get away with before people rebel?

Note the term institution there, because it’s common knowledge that institutions are the problem unless you’re a Republican, in which case only two types of institutions (government, then often only at the federal level, and unions) are the problem. Unless you’re a democrat, in which case it’s just the businesses (and sometimes state governments) that are the problem.

But if you’re not tattooed with silly farm/circus animals, then the problem is the institutional structure, clearly. Some will maintain that individuals are the problem, that the human animal is a dumb beast ready to screw up everything from the Garden of Eden to microwave popcorn (take that both as levity and dead seriousness, as you may recall that the chemicals in the butter actually do nasty things, particularly to the factory workers). The problem there, its equivalence to saying any tool is bad, rather than pointing to its poor use in practice.

It’s plain to see the institution of copyright has become an untended Garden of Nod, and that in many respects the lack of gardeners has rendered its ground of only minimal use except to those most giant machines capable of uprooting the giant brambles, those with the industrial-strength pesticides capable of warding off the myriad critters in the global marketplace of content slobbering for fresh plant meat.

But the question posed can be abstracted to any informational system. When does dysfunction lead to adaptation? When does disequilibrium require reequilibration?

The answer may be hard to get at. All systems constantly reequilibrate. If you add salt to water, or change altitudes, the boiling point changes. But it doesn’t wait until you’re three kilometers above sealevel to drop the boiling point approximately ten degrees Celcius. It’s a continuous shift.

So why does sentiment bubble over at some given point? Why will we await the collapse of copyright before we fix the problem?

Namely because externalities only become internalized when all other pressure releases are exhausted, either artificially or naturally.

That is, if you have a faulty drain system, it only overflows when the total inflow exceeds the total outflow, which means a slow drain won’t back up if the amount of water in remains low enough and/or its blockage isn’t too severe.

And that’s why my surmise is that the actions of the content industry are merely pushing toward a complete erosion of copyright, which will result in a situation far worse than they expect. Every new law that increases the criminalization and increases the term lengths, blocks the drain the more. And the Internet and technology are adding to the inflow to the drain more than ever. They are pushing the whole damned system toward overflow.

Which is what you would get if the sun started to cost money. The fees would start small, but build over time, and you would get so-called sun pirates that would seek to avoid the excess cost of sunshine. Just as you get people bootlegging booze and tobacco products. Just as you get people ordering drugs from foreign countries, medical tourism, etc.

The fools in the content industry shouldn’t be pushing to block the drain entirely, for they cannot swim for long upon overflow. But the first losses will be the small artists that can’t swim at all.