Negotiating a Passage Among Readers and Writers on the Webby Marcy Bauman
What difference does it make that when something is written on the web, there exists no physical text? Whether we realize it or not, we depend heavily on the material presence of texts to provide us with a range of cues about their purpose and audience, their genre, and their credibility. When we no longer have the cues provided by that materiality, how do we read? How do we write?
The lack of materiality of web texts poses two different kinds of challenges for readers and writers: those posed by the absence of clearly-defined text boundaries; and those created by the lack of a context, both immediate and physical, and in the sense of the text having a theoretical and intellectual "home." Writers alone cannot overcome those challenges. Readers, too, play a role in constructing the transaction that occurs between them and the writer. Web writers depend on readers having very specific web navigation and reading skills, including the ability to use and understand simple browser capabilities (particularly the ability to use some of the browser's navigation features), the ability to use context cues provided by the browser or by web architecture itself (such as the ability to "read" a URL and make judgements about the site from which the page originates), and knowledge of emerging conventions about navigating the web (the ability to follow a link, for example).
What follows here is a discussion of those two kinds of challenges, with some suggestion as to how writers might meet them, bearing in mind that the reader will bring some expertise and skills to the text which will simplify the writer's part in the transaction.
Negotiating Text Boundaries on the WebOne of the great delights of the web is its inherent intertextuality, so it may seem discomfitting to see that questions about text boundaries assert themselves so strongly on the web as well as in print. Text boundaries in a physical book are provided simply by its materiality: we know where the book begins and ends by the simple fact that it is contained by physical covers, and we have some sense of whether we're looking at the beginning, middle, or end of the text simply by paying attention to how far into the text the book is opened. We have some sense of how long the text is simply by looking at it and then picking it up.
The web, obviously, offers no such physical cues about texts. And yet readers on the web still need answers to the questions answered by the materiality of physical texts, namely: Where does this text start and where does it end? How long is it? How do I know if I'm reading the beginning, middle, or end? Writers for the web need to answer those questions for the readers of web texts just as editors, publishers, and our material existence answer them for readers of physical texts. I'd like to address each of those in turn to show how web writers might tackle (or are tackling) these questions.
Where Does The Text Begin and End?Web writers employ a variety of strategies to demarcate the text on their site from text on another. One strategy is dependence on the browser's capabilities and the reader's ability to understand and use them -- the directory structure of the URLs displayed by the browser are one cue which tell readers when they have left a site and gone to another.
Internal consistency within the pages of a particular site - - similar color schemes, similar headers and footers on pages, similar fonts and other graphical features -- tell the reader whether the page she is reading belongs to that site or not.
Different organizations and authors use different strategies for creating such consistency, dependent on their audience and purpose for creating a web site, and the ethos they want to project. Not surprisingly, commercial sites are among the best when it comes to setting their sites apart from others. Consider the LL Bean site, where the site's color scheme and navigation aids create an internal consistency while also reminding visitors of LL Bean's ethos and reputation as a retailer of high-quality outdoor sporting goods. The site evokes the feel of their catalog, which sets the retailer in a particular geographic location (Maine) and also constructs an image of the typical LL Bean shopper.
Demarcating the text can also be done more assertively. As another example, consider the White House pages. (Follow the link to the Presidents page, the Herbert Hoover page, and then the Hoover Presidential Library.) Also consistent in terms of design and navigability, the White House pages demarcate the site from others clearly and plainly, by means of an "exit" page which displays whenever the visitor follows a link that goes off the site.
Where's the beginning? The middle? The end?
It is important for readers to know where they are in a text for a number of reasons, many of which have to do with helping them decide how to navigate the text. In simple terms, a person looking for introductory material on a certain topic would like to begin reading at the beginning of a book, whereas someone who wants to find further reading will start by looking for the bibliography at the end. It is important for web writers to provide those cues because the ease with which readers can navigate the site will help them determine the site's usefulness.
It is important for web writers to give people access to the top level of a site's hierarchy with very few mouse clicks. It's also important for web writers to provide easy back-to-front and front-to-back (or top down or bottom up or however one cares to think about it) navigation so that readers can move about freely in the text. A common problem in web texts is that they rely too heavily on the browser's navigation features, especially the back button, to allow readers to move about. But such structures demand that the reader have started at the top level of the hierarchy of a particular site, and read downwards, when it is likely (especially if the reader found the site by means of a search engine) that the reader started on a page somewhere in the middle. Navigation aids are also crucial in helping the reader determine a particular site's wider institutional and rhetorical context.
Context on the WebQuestions of context on the web, as in print, are fundamentally questions of authorship and authority. In order to decide on the credibility of the text's argument or information, it is necessary to establish some sense of the text's origins. Readers want to know the answers to questions such as: Who wrote this text? Who published it? With which other texts and authors does it ally itself? What sort of reputation do those other texts, this text's publisher, and this text's author have?
Again, the presence of a physical text answers many of these questions simply by its physical existence. By the time you go to read a book, you've already picked up many cues and made many decisions about the worth of the text you hold in your hands. For example, you got the book from somewhere; whether you obtained it from an academic library or a supermarket checkout line makes a difference with respect to your expectations about the text and the kind of response you're prepared to have to it (what Louise Rosenblatt calls "stance") before you begin reading. Furthermore, if you have selected an academic publication, the name of the publisher, the date of publication, and the name of the author will all make a difference to how you approach the book.
On the web, however, the absence of a material text means that it is now up to the reader to determine the answers to those questions in ways that were heretofore answered by others (editors, publishers, and librarians or booksellers, most notably). Readers need to be able to answer questions about a text's origin and about its wider rhetorical and institutional context.
The Text's OriginIn order to make judgements about the worth or suitability of a particular text for particular purposes, readers need to know where the text came from.
The structure of the web itself gives readers cues about the placement of the text within a wider institutional and discursive context. Again, reading URLs can help readers determine how close they are to the top of a server's hierarchy, and what kind of institution provides server space for the site. In this way readers can develop some hypotheses about the purpose and function of the text, and the rhetorical context in which it was written. There are no hard and fast rules for determining such hypotheses, though; as always, readers pay attention to a certain number of variables, variables which assume different kinds of importance in different contexts.
The Text's PurposeCertain aspects of a paper text's purpose are conveyed by its materiality. For example, an article in a newspaper serves a rhetorical function that is embedded in, and supports, the wider rhetorical function of the newspaper itself. The fact that the article is physically located on the pages of that particular newspaper attests to that commonality of rhetorical function.
On the web, such determinations are made differently. Again the physical location of the site on a particular server offers clues, but not decisive ones. The lines are more clearly drawn in commerical applications of the web (you don't, for example, expect to see personal homepages at www.pepsi.com), but once you venture out of the realms of business sites, it becomes harder to tell simply by the directory structure of the URL what kind of information you might find on a particular site. (As more and more people gain the ability to register a web server address, URLs may become more reliable indicators of a site's origins.)
In addition to the cues provided by the web itself, writers may need to give readers very explicit information about why the site was written and what purpose it serves. This is particularly important in a situation where a site may contain many different kinds of documents. An academic's web site, for example, may consist of an eclectic mix of professional documents: a curriculum vita, links to electronically published work, links to works-in-progress, links to class web sites, to conference presentations and perhaps to the web sites for the conferences themselves, and so forth. It is extremely important that the purpose for each of those sites-within-a-site be clear, or the information will be dismissed and of little use.
The Text's Relationship to Other TextsAs the last example implies, it is also important for site authors to provide pertinent information about the wider institutional and rhetorical contexts for their web texts. There are a number of ways to do so, and their usefulness will vary depending on the circumstances, but generally, web writers need to provide links to other sites which will help contextualize their site. Consider the NAWeb 96 site where the links tell readers a great deal about the institutional context for the site.
Providing links to other sites is also an important way to place a specific site within a larger discourse community. For academics, such links function in the same way that a bibliography functions in a book. Readers use such links to establish the site's context, which they then use in deciding about the of ethos of the site and text's author(s), which they then use to help them determine whether and how to value a specific web text's information or arguments.
ConclusionReading and writing on the web are not particularly different from reading and writing in papertext environments if you think in terms of the needs of readers and the needs of writers, and the ways in which texts meet all of those needs. However, none of us has much practice at this kind of reading and writing, and so we tend to notice the differences before we notice the similarities. If web writers think in terms of designing web texts in ways that facilitate transactions between writer and reader, however, they can avoid many of the rhetorical pitfalls posed by writing on the web.
Copyright © 1997 by Marcy Bauman. All Rights Reserved.