Pantheon

While taking the Bruce Clay SEO Toolset training last month it hit me that I have built myself a Web Pantheon for people–from the past whom I’ve either met or have seen lecturing–who have had a significant impact on my concept of the Internet and its function.

Jakob Nielsen (1997)
I attended an early N+N usability conference in SF that included Bruce Tognazzini. JN’s imperative to make usability an integral part of Web design struck a chord with me, but the conference left me cold. I would continue to watch UseIt.com, but would no longer have much patience for “Jakob’s first rule of anything”. Too bad, because there is a lot of good information there, it’s just painted with stink.

Edward Tufte (1997)
That same year, I went to see Tufte speak in SF. I had been a fan of his work since I did time in a Berkeley design bookstore called Builders Booksource. What Tufte tells us is something that we can apply to the Web. Tufte knows relatively little about the Internet–and that’s okay. His clarity regarding graphical information and communication is universal. (See the fantastic book called Envisioning Information)

Dan and Al Whaley (1997-8)
Dan and Al were the founders of Internet Travel Network. ITN was my first true dynamic Internet experience and the first time I cracked $50K. At ITN we worked with their proprietary scripting language called QuarterMaster–it didn’t work very well with JS, but it had an elite force of programmers supporting it. Something like Force 10 From Navarone. This father and son team had worked through the original Waiters on Wheels site, using a template/db-based approach in the earlier 1990s. ITN became the first company to put travel reservations on the Web. Two smart, but regular, people doing something that had never been done before. Working there set the foundation for my understanding of dynamically created sites. Jeez, we sure made enough of them.

Brewster Kahle (1998)
I think I saw BK at a CNET conference in SF. If not, it was in New Orleans in a similar timeframe. Kahle was the first one to get it into my head that we have an upcoming crisis in keeping track of what he called “our digital heritage”. Moving on, as I did, to Cornell University, the situation became clearer when I interacted with people associated with the National Digital Science Library (NSDL) and the Cornell Library. We have been able to count on paper as a high fidelity record of our past communication, but now it is being deleted like Henry Miller novels in a Nazi book burning. At that point, Kahle was making recordings of the entire Internet regularly on something that would fit on a couple of 500USD hard drives.

Paul Ginsparg (in abstentia, 2003)
Although I didn’t meet Paul at Cornell when I was Director of Web Communications, his arXiv.org has rippled through my life. So close enough. Paul was a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient for 2002. His idea was relatively simple. Make research more accessible by publishing it online and without peer-review (although arXiv.org is moderated). In this case, peer-reviewed journals had a strangle hold on the content coming out of science research. arXiv.org blew the lid off and started publishing nearly everything that came its way. It became a “precipitating factor that lead to…the open access movement.” Of course I would like to see OA go as far as possible into the world of publishing. I see copyright’s flaws as one of the primary inhibitors to growing human knowledge.

Bruce Clay (2008)
As I said in the beginning of this post, I had this realization in a Bruce Clay training session. I wrote Nielsen, Tufte, Kahle, Clay. And then I started to think about Mr. Clay. Here is someone clearly very smart, systematic, etc. He is approaching the Google algorithm scientifically. There was a primary idea that I got from him, that had the typical “re-shaping” effect all of these pantheon members have had on me. It is this: Google is navigation. It is more important than your nav bar. People don’t start at your site, they search for it. When they search, they want to go to the precise page that will address their needs. Of course, if they don’t find it, it’s possible to reposition them within your site, but more than likely they are going to back out. Optimizing the site for search is more important than making the site useful to one who has been dropped from the sky.

So, that shifted my thinking, but then I couldn’t help pity Clay for the time he must spend on divining the Algorithm. It’s not that he’s trying to find the cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s. He is trying to find out something that someone already knows. It’s not science at all, it’s Cryptology. He’s trying to break the code (in the nicest way he can to preserve the relationship with Google, of course). If the algorithm were open he could focus his methods elsewhere.

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