Home Trailfire: Building Vannevar’s Memex

Trailfire: Building Vannevar’s Memex

There are a plethora of bookmarking
sites out there and only a few of them have become very successful – del.icio.us and
Stumbleupon are two that spring to mind. Trailfire is a bit different from your average
bookmarking site, because they don’t just allow you to share bookmarks – they make it
easy for you to share ‘trails’, which are “annotated navigation paths”.

Trailfire is a free service and is described as a way to let bloggers place multimedia
rich comments on any Web page and automatically link related Web pages to form a trail,
or navigation path. The product is a download plugin for Internet Explorer and Firefox.
Interestingly, they claim it is “more complementary than competitive” with social
bookmarking sites. They reckon that a ‘trail’ is a topic and Trailfire does
not support tagging – whereas social bookmarking sites are used to categorize web pages
with tags, but do not support trails/topic mapping.

A 60-year old concept

If this concept sounds familiar, it’s because Internet pioneer Vannevar Bush used the term “trails”
in his influential essay from 1945 called As We May Think. That essay
described a conceptual product called the Memex, which would enable a user to build a
navigation trail of links and annotations. This idea of course eventually led to
hypertext, which led to the Web. Here’s an example from Bush’s 1945 essay, about someone
searching for information on bow and arrows in the Memex:

“…Thus he goes, building a trail of many
items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main
trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that
the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he
branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and physical
constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of
his interest through the maze of materials available to him.”

Fast forward to 2006 – Vannevar would be proud

So when I received an email about Trailfire that described it as “built around the
notion of an annotated navigation path” – well, I just had to find out more! I asked
Trailfire founder John O’Halloran if Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson were the inspiration
behind his product. He said yes they were – and that the idea behind Trailfire is
“to enable the average user to create their own web.”

Trailfire CTO Pat Ferrel followed up with more information:

“Yes, Vannevar Bush is an inspiration. Our hope is to make something that lets people
put their slant on the web. There are others out there making it possible for you to
annotate a page but that’s only a small piece of what we are doing. The Web began as two
inventions, HTML and URLs – an electronic format for pages and a way to link those pages
together. Back then who could have imagined what would come of those two simple ideas?
Trailfire is built on marks (as a way for users to put content on any page) and trails (a
way to link them together). We even let users leave web applications in their marks.”

He noted at the end of his message that “Vannevar would be happy I think.”

Summary – great concept, but will it get uptake?

I’m testing out Trailfire currently. Although I love the concept, the proof is in the
product pudding. Currently I’m having trouble even loading the sidebar (a temp glitch I’m
sure). And Trailfire will have the same issues that all the other ‘social web’ products
are having – getting enough users to create network effects. Only when a decent number of
people are using Trailfire will you be able to stumble across interesting ‘trail’s on the
Web on a regular basis.

Also I should note that Trailfire does have some worthy competition in the
annotation/social bookmarking space. Diigo got rave
reviews in the comments of our recent Firefox addons
, plus apps like CoComment and GreaseMonkey have similar read/write
functionality in browsers. To mention just a few…

So I like the concept and it is very read/write. Vannevar would approve, I
think. But will it be used? That’s the big question in 2006.

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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