Searching the Widgetized Web

By Evans, Woody | Searcher, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Searching the Widgetized Web


Evans, Woody, Searcher


[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

For some months now, as I've been learning more about widgets, Facebook applications, and tinkering with iGoogle, I have started to see the web in a new way. That's not an easy trick for a guy who first saw the web on a monochrome, black-and-green, text-based, Lynx web browser. These widgets are getting a hold of me, starting to penetrate deep down under the surface of my brain--the dark gray and red parts, the gristly bits that don't get used much. New ideas have to push their roots down deep if they're to survive and become a part of one's imagination. It's like the third great movement of my own personal information revolution (the first two being pen pals when I was a kid and AOL when I grew up). The widgets are moving, and they're out there now on our personalized start pages, wiggling and mutating, writhing in JavaScript--and hungering to spread.

What's a widget? A widget, to put it both too simply and too broadly, is some code put into a website that lets you do something. Better put, maybe, a "web widget" is any script-based tool that lives nested within another webpage. The widget embedded in Amazon's page for R.E.M.'s first good album since New Adventures in Hi-Fi, for instance, let's you play, pause, stop, rewind, fast-forward, adjust volume, and even share a music video for the song "Supernatural, Superserious." The widget on the right sidebar at Pop Goes the Library, under the Technorati badge, let's you chat live with Sophie Brookover and the gang (obviously, only if they happen to be online when you visit) through their PGTL Meebo account.

There are widgets for weather; widgets for time zones and travel; widgets for porn, politics, games, and financial data. My favorite widget at the moment is the Playlist.com player that lets me search for and play tunes through a box on my blog (a true .mp3 search engine for website files, finally).

So widgets are not new to you. What's new to me, though, is the realization that they are tilting the web to make the ball roll toward their own ends; the web's becoming scattered, becoming broken into billions of tiny, semi-autonomous tools that are, in one sense, homeless and wayfaring, hoping folks will pick them up and use them, and, in another sense, working as a sort of metaweb, floating above mere "location" to do what they do regardless of whether we users ever find the host sites that first spawned them.

For example, I like to have my webmail account as my start page. It makes it easy to check first thing on messages for work-work, other work, side jobs, and fun. More and more, I find myself drawn to iGoogle, however, because I can easily get to my Google webmail (Gmail), but also access instantly any number of widgets to bring in RSS feeds, pump daily Bible verses or Shakespearean insults, search my local library's holdings, or let me sketch and save a diagram for a new type of wind-powered electric generator. Lots to do, lots to do, ye fusty puttock!

But iGoogle isn't the only game going. Facebook is all apps-powered; those are just Facebook-filtered-and-approved widgets from third parties. If the tools you need have Facebook faces built, then that makes Facebook a fine collection point for a daily toolbox.

Widget Platforms

Let's look in detail at a some sample widgets that can help you find what you need for clients or patrons. Let's build you a utility belt.

Your tools will be holstered in websites--they don't yet float entirely free from traditional World Wide Web architecture. At first, your choice of holstering sites may seem to depend on the layout and aesthetic qualities of the site in question, but the options extend well beyond just shallow choices of color and mood. The aesthetic and organizational elements for your choice of widgets on the screen are tied closely to the aspects of information architecture that make some sites just work better for you than others do. …

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