Introduction to problems in writing for digital media.

Beginning the Internet Era

August 19, 2016

The Internet was developed as a hedge against nuclear war, designed to solve an important problem inherent in central telephone switching stations. If nuclear explosions destroyed the bulk of the major cities in this country (a real fear in the 50s and 60s), telephones would no longer be usable. All of their central switching stations would have been destroyed.

With the development of a network that used packet switching (which eliminates central switching stations), scientists, the military, and others who needed to communicate during times of war could continue exchanging information with little interruption, even with the loss major cities.

Packet Switching
On the Internet, content is cut up and integrated into packets that are labeled and sent out onto the network. It does not matter what route the packets take as they wind their ways from the source to the destination. They are as likely to go around major cities as pass through them. Nuclear problem solved. ARPANET, an network that permitted the military and scientific community to communicate around the telephone system, was born.   In time, splinter networks formed. The military got its own network (MFENet). AT&T developed USENet. Universities developed BitNet.  And there were others. Information exchange was facilitated largely via email and transferring files via File Transfer Protocol (FTP).

The Move to Hypertext
ARPANET brought something new in communication. First, documents changed. They became dynamic – alive. Any document could be easily changed as needs arose. This made making corrections easy but also made corruption of the content just as easy.  Anybody with the appropriate software could change any document they had access to. At the same time, documents could be linked to other documents and to parts of other documents. This ability to link texts to other texts was called “hypertext.” Early on, this could only be done with alphanumeric and still, graphic content.

Many forward looking writers saw this as the most important change in communication since the invention of movable type. David Bolter and Stephen Bernhardt voiced the opinions of many others of the day (including me), who all suggested hypertext or (later) hypermedia documents contained all of the various possible tools for communication, including video, animation, and interactivity. We saw the possibility of new, complicated documents that enhance the democracy of publishing and stood ready to open writing up to unimaginable vistas in the future. We were correct. Communication is completely changed in many respects. We recognized that the world was receiving something altogether new.

From 1995, when a few people were building interactive websites others could access, to what we see today on the Internet (a complete and dramatic revolution in communication), took less than 15 years.

Spiraling Out of Control

While a brief history of the development of the World Wide Web might be interesting, that is not my purpose here. In that short time, the WWW spiraled out of control. And that is what I will be addressing in this series of blogs.

Although writers saw the potential future for communication, they were not programmers, and, for the most part, only programmers had the skills to develop these documents. So programmers, not writers, pushed the WWW into its future, defining its metaphors as they pushed. What writers and editors saw as documents, the programmers saw as places — “sites.” These “place” metaphors completely changed the way people looked at the Web. Today, everybody “goes” to “Amazon.com,” which they see as a store (although it is actually a hyper-catalog).

The early Web became something of a disaster — hard to use, slow, very badly written, no understanding of how to use graphics, confusing, often without purpose, and etc.

First Solution

There were programmers and other technicians who specialized in studying human/computer interaction. Among them was a group who studied usability. They were trying to make usability an issue in computer and software programming. It was clear that usability was missing in the Web.

Some of the usability gurus who had been working with usability in computer programming branched off to examining Web design. They developed usability studies for the Web. Web developers immediately embraced this concept, and a great deal of effort was put into making the Web more usable.

Usability gurus finally brought us “user centric writing.” Usability writing seems to bring written content under control, but it does not.

The biggest problem is this: Usability gurus as well informed as Jacob Nielson have prescribed that before we can develop an excellent website, we need to know what its genre is. They are only partially right. We only know whether some block of text is working if we know what it is supposed to do – that is to say, “When we know its genre.” BUT . . .

Lots of Genres on Every Page

. . . the genres on the Web are significantly changed from the old ones (printed and typed), and since only a few people really have a good sense of what a genre really is, nobody seems to know what is going on with the new ones.

In the old tradition, you could count on a document being one genre — some kind of brochure, or specification sheet, or report, etc. In digital media, a Web page might begin with a menu, followed by half a spec. sheet sharing space with another menu. There might be a sales pitch further down the page, and that might be followed by a block of reviews. These are all different genres! all on the same page! and this is only a short list of the thousands of different genres on the Internet.

That, then, is the problem. Writers have a tool for making certain the navigation and use of the internet works well. They do not have a tool for knowing whether the content works. The purpose of this blog. and, indeed, this site is to explore that problem.

More information about IMRL.org here.

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