Link-tripping: the joys of serendipitous online discovery
Conventional wisdom is that the internet works best when people need "narrow, just-in-time learning" (Jakob Nielsen); several usability and eyetrack studies show that most of our time online is "purpose-driven" and spent impatiently scanning content in "ruthless pursuit of actionable content."
While that's true, it's not always true.
In my 17 years online, I've come to believe that you can really glimpse what the internet is and what it is capable of only when
- you're finding knowledge you're not necessarily in search of
- discovering something you never knew existed
- learning something that you had no idea you might want to know.
About half of the coolest things I find online these days come to me not in emails or on websites but in 140 character tweets from people I follow on twitter. Here's an example:
A couple hours ago, a tweet from fivehusbands sent me to niobe's blog to read this restrained and lovely meditation on the metaphorical implications of the "lost" 23rd Hebrew letter. (Thanks, fivehusbands!)
[B]ecause of the missing letter, our words are misspelled, our sentences are crooked, our grammar twists round on itself, our plans go wrong and our hopes go astray. No-one knows the sound or shape or even the name of the lost letter, but it's sometimes called simply ha-ot -- the letter.Niobe used a word I didn't know (abjad), so I followed her thoughtfully-provided link to the Typological Glossary and discovered several words that I, a confessed font addict and former English professor (but alas, no linguist) had never heard: abjad, abugida, syllabary and boustrophedon.
For obvious reasons, this story appeals to me -- the missing piece, the missing peace. Faith is not one of my gifts, but I believe, as much as I believe anything, that one day, whether through our own efforts or god's grace, ha-ot will return to us. There will be new worlds built of new words; what is broken will be made whole and what is lost will be found.
I admit that I love finding new words almost as much as the Sex in the City chicks love buying new shoes. Among words, these are the Manolo Blahniks and Jimmy Choos, not the run-of-the mill slang, jargon and neologisms you can find on trend-tracking sites like Wordspy or the Double-Tongued Dictionary. These are well-established, poetic and (if you need to talk about language, literally or metaphorically) extremely functional words.
The internet is an amazing tool for serendipitous discovery and unexpected learning, faster and more powerful than television, newspapers, coffee-shop chatter and adult education combined.
You can become virtually peripatetic in a number of ways:
- read blogs and go where they point you
- explore the blogrolls on blogs you like (for northeast Ohio: check out PlanetNEO, WriteLikeSheTalks and NEORiver)
- Find friends on Facebook and follow the links they post
- Join link sharing services like StumbleUpon or Twine
But right now, twitter is my surf-mobile of choice. It's fast-moving and timely: people tweet links to new content as soon as its posted. A lot of bloggers use twitter to "microblog" information like links that are too small for a blogpost. Some of my favorite links have come from "top twitterers," experts who have thousands of followers.
And in the spirit of sharing and serendipitous learning, here are my new words:
- Abjad is the technical term for the type of writing system used by Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, etc.), where there are glyphs for all the consonants but the reader must be prepared to guess what vowel to add between two consonants.
Both Hebrew and Arabic have optional vowel marks and are called "impure" abjads. Ancient Phoenician had nothing but consonants and is a "pure" abjad.
- An abugida is somewhere in between an alphabet and a syllabary. The Indic writing systems are probably the best known abugidas.
In most abugidas there are independant glyphs for the consonants, and each consonant is implicitly followed by a default vowel sound. All vowels other than the default will be marked by either diacritics or some other modification to the base consonant.
An abugida differs from a syllabary in that there is a common theme to the the images representing a syllable beginning with a given consonant (that is, the glyph for the consonant), while in a syllabary each syllable is distinct even if two start with a common consonant.
An abugida differs from an abjad in that vowels (other than the default) must be marked in the abugida.