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?
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?
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.
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