From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

June 22, 1997*Shall I Compare Thee to a Printed Page?

My guess is that this month's topic is a very good case of my biting off more than I can chew. Ordinarily when I choose a topic to write about the topic grows out of something that's been happening on the web or on a listserv I lurk on, or something somehow related to the reality of my online existence. Then, after having chosen the topic, I seek out a web of examples, hypertexting myself into an ever widening web of examples and connected ideas. Sometimes (I admit it) I push the envelope a bit too much in order to flesh out the topic. This time, I've got the opposite problem.

One of the files I've been continually adding clippings (including URLs and other digital paraphernalia) to deals with the general subject of Metaphors of the Web. The general idea is to examine "what the web is like". Do users see it as similar to a book (and if so, what sort of book?), perhaps to a television, maybe to a newspaper, or (though I have no explanation for why someone might think this sort of thing) even to a computer program. Someone once asked me, when I offered to send an e-message for her, whether she should write out the message she wanted me to send with STOP written between the sentences. I don't know if she really thought that the internet was similar to the telegraph, but it seems that that was the metaphor that was easiest for her to latch on to.

The topic is vast, and not only because it's only vaguely defined. It includes how comfortable we feel sitting in front of a computer screen reading text, but also whether we expect to see only text, or demand pictures as well. Certainly, we're not yet at the technological stage at which we can snuggle up in bed with a nice computer screen and read a web site - there's simply something out of place with trying to do that. Of course few people snuggle up in bed with the encyclopaedia, and that seems just about as out of place, so if we compare a web page to a resource book, we don't need to worry about that particular comparison. There are numerous sorts of printed pages: novels, poetry, reference books, magazines, newspapers, comic books, textbooks, and more. And of course there are numerous sorts of web pages, each with a parallel in the printed media, but also different. Comparing a generic web page to a generic printed page simply doesn't makes sense.

Still, we make this sort of comparison all the time. And when we're not making comparisons outright, we're often acting on certain assumptions that grow out of the metaphors we use. Should a web page be read as we read a page in a book? Often I get the feeling that web pages are purposefully prepared to be skimmed, with the clear objective of finding a link and clicking on it. I don't read books that way, though it is the way that I use the encyclopaedia.

Our experience with web pages has perhaps caused us to find something lacking in the printed page. After all, with the printed page, it's only words. Is there anyone around today who's still satisfied with "it's only words"? (Hey, we can even find part of the song on a web page devoted to "Encoding the British National Corpus". I mean, sure, if we've got a book in our hands we're willing to read it as "text only", but that's simply not satisfying if you're connected to the internet. That's perhaps the major problem with the wonderful project "Project Gutenberg". Digitizing as much of the classics as possible (and anything and everything else) is a wonderful goal, but people expect something different, an added something, when they sit in front of their computers. As one mother, who has an actually quite pleasant web page with the catchy title "Look, Mommy made her own web page!", put it in the credits section of her page: "Special thanks to these people for giving me the inspiration to learn to do this, for without graphics it's only words!!". That's true, of course, but it raises a strange question: Is there something wrong with "only words"? Are we always enhancing when we add graphics to our words?

Is there something the matter with "only words"? For a long time, it seemed that there wasn't, but with the technology came expectations. I had no problem finding numerous copies of Shakespeare's 18th sonnet, (an AltaVista search brings up about 70 hits for "Shall I compare thee" along with "sonnet 18", and from a somewhat more than cursory review of those hits most of them seem to actually contain the sonnet in its entirety). I've got to admit that I was very pleased that none of the examples I viewed came along with a picture of a summer day. Still, hypertexter that I am, I can't resist the temptation. Here's a picture of a summer's day. Is it comparable to the woman (person?) to whom Shakespeare sings? Our artist, George Shumate, put his painting on the web so that we can view it and so that he can hopefully sell it. It's entitled "Summer Day" and he's asking for $2500 it.

Another area in which it's worth checking out similarities and differences is the question of what you do with a book once you finish reading it. Though libraries are wonderful places, most of us like to have the books we like most close by, cluttering up our shelves and making us think that we're cultured and intelligent people. Books are our friends, and it's nice to have friends close to us. We'll take a children's book down from the shelf to remember a certain passage, or browse though a book that made a big impression on us during our studies, or simply glance at the titles on the shelf to launch a chain of thoughts and memories that are important parts of the way we view ourselves. Numerous books on my shelves have placemarks in them that mark passages that were significant to me somewhere in my past. Sometimes I need to find these, and it's nice to have them marked and available for easy reference, and sometimes it's simply nice to browse through these books and to try and figure out when and why I chose to mark a certain passage. The internet counterpart to this is, of course, Bookmarks, but that analogy raises certain questions. Do people browse their bookmarks like they browse their shelves? Is the reminder of seeing the title of a web page, or a URL, as potent a memory catalyst as seeing the title of a book on a shelf? We look at our books numerous times a day, often unintentionally and inadvertently, whereas in order to view our bookmarks we have to make a concerted effort. For this reason alone, can the two activities possibly evoke similar responses?

Numerous other comparisons, or at least jumping off points, for hyperlinked thinking, are there for the making. I'd like to make more of them. At least one more is called for here, and it's from the author's side, rather than from the reader's. Anyone who's "published" a web page knows the sense of satisfaction that comes along with seeing your page or pages occupying a real, if insignificant, niche in the realms of cyberspace. Recently I had the opportunity to experience the hardcopy version of that feeling. To my surprise, they weren't comparable at all. Perhaps it's a culturally embedded response, but seeing a book come to fruition, having it in your hands and being able to flip through the pages, delivers a type of satisfaction on a level much higher than that of a web page, despite the fact that only a couple thousand copies of the book get published, whereas the web page is "available" to the entire world. Perhaps it's culturally embedded, but another factor seems to be at play as well. Though most of the impressive web sites that we all ooh and aah over are the product of a group of highly trained professionals, producing a basic web site is a rather simple procedure that someone can do by him/herself. Though producing something by yourself leads to a certain sort of satisfaction, the knowledge that other people labored to produce a tangible artifact from what you originally wrote leads to a satisfaction of a different type, and of a different caliber.

As I've asked all too frequently in these columns, "so where is all this heading"? Perhaps this extended exercise has only succeeded in proving that my guess in the first sentence was a correct one. I've simply bitten off more than I can chew on this topic. Still, there's an outside chance that I've shed a little bit of light on the topic. Perhaps this can start a discussion in which others share their own metaphors. In the light of the fact that the ways in which we relate to technologies grow out of our expecatations of those technologies, and our expectations are grounded in the metaphors we use, hopefully our usage of the web can be enhanced and improved by examining our expectations, and our metaphors, of it. And by the way, the lack of any graphics on this page is fully intentional.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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