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How it feels

Your output

The tone of the database

Coherence gone

A group style

Database style

March 19,  2002

Database style is transforming Web content.

Database style means entering values in fields, or building objects with attributes, rules, and tags. The result may look like an old-fashioned article, but the style is choppy, quick, and jerky.


To add text to a content management system, you often have to fill out a form.

Around each slot, just out of sight, lie the start and end tags for that XML element, so that when you press Submit, the software can spit out a well-formed, and hopefully valid XML document, ready to be stored as XML, or ripped apart and placed in an object database, one element at a time.


How it feels

If you're accustomed to writing in a word processor, or if you can recall writing a whole document in pen on a yellow pad, this method of writing at first seems awkward, like gesturing from inside a strait-jacket. Why?

  • Instead of struggling to discover and express your meaning, you are responding to a rather mechanical teacher's questions, one after the other.
  • Your prose gets chopped up into tiny pieces.

Your output

You are not producing a coherent document, or articulating a single main point. You are working in software that collects, stores, and reshuffles objects.

Sure, the pieces get reassembled, in different combinations, on web pages, or even catalog pages. If formatted well, the results are not unpleasant. In some cases, they are more useful than flowing prose, because the user can find particular facts fast. But what about the overtones?

The tone of the database

Database style tends to be staccato:

  • Isolating each sentence or paragraph
  • Defying our longing for a coherent flow
  • Emphasizing the unique purpose of each structural unit, apart from the others.

Often there is no single human being who has written all the text that appears on a page, or even in one article within that page.

But the reader tries to "make sense" by imagining a coherent purpose behind the article, and a mutual relevance between all the elements on a page. The user has to work hard, in a half-conscious way, to discover a meaningful connection between all these distinct objects.

Coherence gone

In the days of paper documents, research shows, readers considered a paragraph coherent when the words at the end of one sentence reappeared at the start of the next, and people thought a document coherent when some topic that was announced at the beginning of the piece got mentioned over and over, along with related words, and when the structure announced at the start was followed throughout.

All these forms of coherence may surface in an article or page assembled out of a database of objects, but one human being is no longer responsible for writing all these pieces, so there is often something lacking--the tone of a single person talking.

A group style

Database style is the tone of the corporate Web, defying personal voice, displaying, instead, a group effort, a corporate collection of ideas. Database style grows out of a lot of bits and pieces, like a collage put together by a committee, rather than an artist.

Database style relies on a firm structural model to bring together the parts in a form that the user can make sense out of, and, perhaps, get motivated by, aroused by, or driven to action. Database style, then, is functional, capitalistic, and fast.

What's missing is the synthesizing imagination of a single person, the ultimate filter.



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