Exploring the read/write world

Paper boats carrying prayers across a sea of mapsYesterday, Nick Booth at Podnosh posted a transcript of a conversation on Twitter where he asked for useful analogies to describe the internet to people who’ve only experienced radio and tv.

The conversation – and the comments – got me thinking about the way metaphors limit what we can understand about the online world and affect how we use it, particularly the page/document conceptual metaphor that pervades our language.

We use print language constantly online. Web pages, archives, scroll, above the fold, inbox, email, post. The metaphor is pervasive and often goes unnoticed as we use the language that reinforces it, making it hard to tease out the implications and assumptions of this mindset.

But pages aren’t flat, static, words on the screen as we see in print papers. What happens if we call a page a node? Or a window? Or a stream, a fall, a flow, a conversation, a connection, a junction?

Conceiving of pages as stories, for instance, opens up the idea of letting journalists develop an entire story online, rather than in our notebooks. Posting complete transcripts of interviews, not just the quotes we think are important. Including raw footage alongside the edit for those who are interested. Asking at early stages of a project where users think we should be investigating more. Incorporating links to our research and visualisations of our data not when we think they are relevant but when we stumble across them.

Conceiving of pages as junctions makes flat print-like design stand out as inadequate – not fit for their intended purpose, which is to facilitate forward movement and choice for reader.

And what if, instead of a reader, we have a traveller? The idea of a reader implies commitment, passivity, and above all a text-based medium. A traveller is someone who can leave at any moment, and opens up the idea of the page as a literal place – a location that can be moved through and explored rather than a document.

Thinking of the web as a series of pages gets us print design replicated online, lacking the myriad subtleties that are possible in a space that is simultaneously a limitless sea of connections and a location and a conversation and a lot of other things. Essentially, it gets you the front page of the new Times website – pretty and clean, but flat and without the cues many travellers use to make meaningful journeys through the web.

Thinking of it in any other way at all requires seriously examining the words we use, and playing with putting others in their place. Each conceptual metaphor has its own problems – calling the internet a brain inadvertently implies the organised hivemind that Twitter users protest does not exist, for instance – but we need a library (or bathtub, or pantry) that’s full of different options in order to open up new ways of thinking about what’s possible online.