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HomeRants > Web Text = Content + Interface > Your words are virtually there.                           



Your words look fuzzy

Your words appear and disappear in a moment

Some of your words are just signposts


Your words are virtually there.

As a medium, the Web is a storm of electrons generating light and sound.

Moving through circuits, networks, and servers, guided by machine code, operating systems, and applications, and displaying our text alongside images, animation, video, and audio on a brilliant screen, electrons are mobile, uncertain, erratic, and fast--quite different from ink on paper.

But many of our ideas of text still derive from our experience with paper documents. (In fact, our names for many documents assume that they will appear in that medium--term papers, newspapers, corporate white papers.)

And even though many of us grew up with all media blaring--the radio on, the TV going, the CD playing in our headset, and the video games live in the next room--many of our ideas of text come out of the older culture--the tradition of print.

Where do you imagine your words are going to appear--virtually?


What will the web do to my text? (Full chapter from Hot Text in PDF, 700K, or 12 minutes at 56K)


What we tend to assume about text

Think of some of the assumptions that our culture tends to make about text, even in the Internet Age.

  • "I publish, you read. I am the authority, you are the note-taker." Only an authority can produce a book.
  • "It must be true. It's right here in the paper." Text in print must be accurate.
  • "It's as clear as black and white." Text is so crisp it is simple to read.
  • "Text preserves information." Text stays put on the page, and the page lasts for hundreds of years in a library.
  • "I have it in my hand." You can touch the thing that carries text, hold it, lift it up, close it, move it around. Text is physical stuff.
  • "I know how long the book is." On the page, text stretches from top to bottom, in two dimensions-height and width. Considered as an object, a book also has a third dimension--depth. But all those dimensions are fixed. All pages are the same length, and once printed, no book gets any longer than it is today. We know in advance how much information there is, and that volume never changes.
  • "It's a text." Because text appears in a discrete object such as a book, we know where it ends. We conceive of text as having a beginning and an end, a front and a back, and a fixed amount of stuff in between. We think in terms of "a text."

Time to throw those assumptions away!

  • Anyone can produce text on the Web, and most do. Individuals without corporate sponsorship often have more juju than the official spokesperson.
  • Putting text up on the Web does not make you an authority--your work, honesty, attitude, and character do that.
  • Text is not crisp onscreen; it is hard to read.
  • Text is no longer stable. It comes and goes. You leave a page, and you may never see that text again.
  • Text has no physicality. You can no longer touch it, hold it, weigh it.
  • As a result, we do not know, when we enter a text area, how long it will be, how much information is buried there, where it will stop.
  • Text flows from here to there, on and on. Text no longer shows up in a neat package, called a book, or a report. It just goes on and on, from link to link.

The web, as a medium, affects text in many ways:

  • Makes reading hard
  • Limits context
  • Challenges even the most eager skimmer
  • Destabilizes the text we devote to content
  • Stabilizes and solidifies the text that acts as part of the interface
  • Because navigation is so often confusing, the web forces visitors to rely on menus, buttons, and other fragments of text for clues about their location in the larger structure.

Before you write, consider the situation.

That's why I say: Your text is virtually there.


For background, see: Apple (1999), Black and Elder (1997), Bolter (1991), Bork (1983), Bricklin (1996,1998), Broadbent (1978), Cooper (1995, 1999), Dillon (1994), Doherty (2001), Haas (1989a, 1996), Heim (1987), IBM (1997, 1999), Johnson-Eilola (1994), Keeker (1997), Keep (1999), Kilian (1999, 2001), Krug (2000), Lanham (1993), Levine (1997), Lynch and Horton (1999), McLuhan (1962, 1964a, 1964b), Microsoft (2000), Morkes and Nielsen (1998), NCSA (1996), Nielsen (1997b, 1997d, 1999f), Ong (1982), Price and Price (1997), Siegel (1996), Spool, et al (1997), Spyridakis (2000), Uncle Netword (1999c), Veen (2001).


Who is that behind the grid? Remember that you are only virtually there, onscreen.


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The Communication Circle
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