Much like the shift from molecules to atoms to subatomic particles (protons, neutrons, etc.) to quarks to (potentially) tiny vibrating strings as the most fundamental unit of physical matter that we can find, the fundamental unit for content on the web has been getting smaller as well:
1. The site. You’d see references on sites or in emails like “check out this cool hotwired.com site” or “go to Bobaworld, scroll down, and click on the ‘cool links’ link”. This quickly gave way to:
2. Individual pages. People learned that the web was all about the page. The X-Files Episode Guide page, your Geocities home page, the product page for that new Thinkpad with the fold-out keyboard.
3. But eventually content producers started gathering several chunks of content on the same page and came up with the post/permalink combination. The idea is that several bits of content might be on this page right now, but may be gone when you come back, so here’s a permanent link to it so you can find it at some later time. Weblogs are the best example of this, but there are others…Google Maps gives you a way to permalink the particular map you’re on for later reference.
4. And now it seems that there are several efforts underway to cut the fundamental unit down to the phrase or word. Online bookmark managers like del.icio.us and Furl and scores of bloggers doing remaindered links blogs link to things with just a few words to describe them. Sites supporting tagging (del.icio.us, Flickr) are creating vast collections of stuff for single words and short phrases. Wikipedia is working on making any word or phrase linkable to an array of information about that word. Linking words or phrases to a Google search result is always an option as well. The result is something like: the Sun is a large ball of gas that gives off energy to Mother Earth.
Note: the fundamental unit of matter metaphor works ok, but is obviously still a metaphor. In particular, the shift in the fundamental unit for content on the web is not one of discovery (linking a single word to a search result was obviously possible many years ago) but of a very rough consensus of perception. Still, something fun to think about.