The World Wide Web has inherent properties that characterize its expressive possibilities:
  • Unbound in space/time: Information provided on the Internet is available every day, around the clock, and around the world (pending network operation).
  • Bound in use context: Web-based hypertext fosters associations among works through links, giving rise to networks of meaning and association among many information sources that may be scattered across the globe and written by many authors.
  • Distributed, non-hierarchical: The Web's technical organization as an application using the Internet for a client/server model influences the disintegration of user focus on a single outlet for experiencing content.


People have been using mediated forms of communication for tens of thousands of years, ranging from paintings on cave walls to hand-written manuscripts and books stamped out on a printing press. Each medium had particular qualities and characteristics, and artists or writers seeking to express themselves served an apprenticeship to learn the best way to communicate. Knowledge of these qualities and characteristics will help you become more than just a Web technician; you will become a content developer for the Web.

The Web as a Medium for Expression

The Web isn't paper, radio, television, or even a printing press. The Web can be described technically as a system for delivering hypermedia over networks using a client/server model. The Web has many possibilities for information, communication, and interaction. But shaping communication on the Web to meet user needs requires knowledge and skills in combining language, text, graphics, sound, movies, and hypertext. The methodology for shaping Web-based communication described here stresses a continuous, process-oriented approach to information development with a central focus on meeting user needs. The first step in approaching Web communication is to understand the characteristics and qualities of the Web as a medium for expression and how the user experiences the medium of the Web.

The Web is an application that can operate on global computer networks. As such, the Web is part of an evolution of media used for human expression that goes back millennia. The Web is part of media evolution

Each innovation expanded people's ability to extend thought in time and space. The invention of vowels and the subsequent widespread use of writing in the several centuries B.C. changed human civilization to one based more on writing than on the spoken word for disseminating information. Some say that writing itself made the Roman Empire possible because it provided a means to communicate laws and collect records over a widespread geographic area. Centuries later, the printing press also revolutionized information dissemination, making the distribution of multiple copies of a publication easier. By the late twentieth century, global computer networks made the distribution of (virtually) unlimited copies of a work possible to anyone on a network.

The Web offers a way for people to create works that can have a global reach. Technically, the Web's organization as a client/server information dissemination system often leads to nonhierarchical, distributed forms of expression as well as possibilities for multiple user roles (users as both consumers and producers of information). But the Web's technical organization reveals just part of its possibilities for expression. Just like other media-books, CD-ROMs, television, and radio-the Web has particular expressive characteristics that influence how it can be shaped and expressive qualities that people potentially can use in forming communications.

Web Media Characteristics

The term media characteristic as used here refers to the inherent properties of the Web that delimit its expressive potential. These media characteristics relate to the Web's time/space distribution possibilities, the context for Web expression, and the Web's organization as an information system. By comparing the Web's media characteristics with these same concepts for traditional media, the Web developer can gain an appreciation of how the Web differs.

Expressions on the Web are:

  • Unbound in space/time A Web page on a publicly available Web server on the Internet can be accessed by anyone with an Internet Web browser at any time (of course, barring server or network downtime). This characteristic means that Web works are (virtually) everywhere (on the network) at any time. Unlike the need to physically move a medium-encoded communication object (such as a book or a CD-ROM) in physical space, Web works flow through Web space on the network. And, instead of access to a work being bound to its point in time, a Web work has theoretically 24-hour-a-day accessibility.
  • Bound in use context through associative linking Web-based hypertext fosters interlinking that connects works to networks of meaning and association. This characteristic relates to the nature of hypertext as a system for association combined with the nature of Web-based hypertext as unbounded hypertext, where meaning for one Web work is not constrained to information on a single Web server. And, because Web works are distributed through the very "stuff" with which their authors create them, Web works become enmeshed in a context that reflects their meaning, use, and construction. In contrast, a book or a CD-ROM is constructed with successive manuscripts or drafts that may not be in the same form as the final, mediated communication object (a manuscript in electronic form becomes encoded in paper or the plastic of a CD-ROM). This final form for books or CDs makes them extremely portable but divorces them from the environment of their creation and references to other works. A link from one book to another is possibly only symbolic (through references and citations). In contrast, a link from one Web work to another is "live."
  • Distributed, nonhierarchical The Web's technical organization as an application using the Internet for a client/server model influences the disintegration of user focus on a single outlet for experiencing content. This characteristic of distributedness follows from both the nature of the Internet as well as client/server systems for information distribution. The Internet itself has no "top"; its patchwork of networks brings together myriad personal, local, regional, and global-area networks merging in a cyberspace common ground. Then, within this arena, the system of content distribution again is split; the client/server model allows diverse kinds of users (clients) to access multiple servers. The result is that the distribution of content, already widely scattered among the many networks of the Internet, is scattered further among the many Web servers on those networks (and the many individual webs on those servers).
The Web differs from traditional media

The Web's time/space and use-context media characteristics are different than traditional media. Copies of books and most CD-ROMs have time/space boundaries around them that are inherent in their nature as physically encoded media. In contrast, Web works, being virtual, can be available in unlimited copies to any Web user at any time.

In use, both books and CD-ROMs are removed from the context of references to other works as well as the context of their creation. Authors creating Web works, in contrast, make paths through hypertext and can strongly bind their works to others on the Web.

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