The web in now blessed with a fulsome variety of `interactive’ devices to assist authors in engaging with their visitors. Much of their potential, however, is yet to be realised. Part of the problem is the lack of steady ground on which to work. To be a competent web designer today requires keeping up with a rapidly changing artistic environment. Previously, the skills involved in becoming an artist were relatively finite and good tools lasted a lifetime. In the global computer network, however, you have your work cut out simply keeping abreast with upgrades to Netscape betas, innovations in HTML code, VRML and multimedia add-ins, etc.
In this accelerated medium, it’s easy to treat each new interactive device as a toy to be played with and quickly replaced by the next version. By the time you’ve mastered its features, another more exciting gadget has arrived. So how do you turn a toy into a tool? How do you settle on a device long enough to start using it productively? The answer to this question entails a change of focus from means to ends: it means turning away from the expanse of possibilities towards the goals that direct them.
So what do web authors want to achieve? Such a broad question is not easy to answer, yet it is critical given absence of familiar artistic rewards, such as sales and direct contact with an audience. The proliferation of web counters suggests that a simple quantitative goal like increasing the number of hits might be desired. But to use a metaphor that will be relevant later, aiming for `hits’ is like angling for `bites’ rather than `fish’. A `hit’ does not discriminate between an ideal visitor who reads all the text, fully explores every corner of the site, fills in all the forms, and feels their life changed as a result; and a `knowbot’ which updates a search engine by automatically trawling the web
The most conspicuous sign of qualitative success is an accolade such as Top 5% or Cool Site of the Day. The problem with these web honours is that they are awarded either purely on the basis of hit counts, or their `cool’ attitude suits a very limited set of visitors; in particular, the `net surfers’ who cruise the web to keep in touch with the latest tricks. Such tributes are unlikely to indicate any lasting value: can you imagine being interested in visiting a Cool Site of the Day which is more than a year old?
For these reasons, an inquiry into the very particular goals of web authors requires a radically different point of view. As a speculative device, therefore, this outline invites you to step back to a pre-electronic era and consider the life of an angler in 17th century England. Of course, for web authors there is nothing practical to be learnt from the art of catching fish. Where benefit may obtain is applying the same kind of critical perspective used to describe the art of angling to the emerging craft of web design.
The Compleat Angler
Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler is of more symbolic than practical significance. For Irving Washington, this venerated book `breathes a innocent and happy spirit’ which, with an English regard for nature, `makes a science of sport’. As a guide to catching fish, however, it is limited by its exactitude: Walton’s advice on snaring trout, salmon or pike is often specific to the very meadow where he sits. Appropriate bait is frequently drawn from the local population of worms `which for colour and shape alter even as the ground out of which they are got’.
While it is the complete antithesis of a global network, the river-world evoked by the Compleat Angler does have similarities to the web we angle in today. Both the river and the web are places where individuals might come to relax and contemplate the forces that shape their world. Unlike libraries, they contain little history. The river and the web are constantly changing environments: you can’t log on to the same web twice. Mark Twain praises the Mississippi: `it had a new story to tell every day’¾so it is the case with web pages that a recent update marker is a sign of a freshly flowing site.
While the technical means available in Walton’s time where limited, the variety of stratagems and conceits that might be employed by an angler are comparable to the range of media tools we can to use disseminate information. Yet while the mechanics of these devices are widely disseminated, the particular effect they achieve is little remarked upon. A school of criticism appropriate to the web would need to consider these effects carefully. What response do you think a good web site should produce: intrigue, reverie or a unique multimedia sublime?
As an introduction to this question, let’s follow the metaphorical path leading to the successful web site:
1. Cast the fishing line = upload web files to site
2. Bait the hook = place link in directory, email notice, search engine or other web site
3. Catch the fish = attract attention, cause visitor to peruse content
The critical point in this strategy is the decision by the visitor to `take the bait’ and enter the spirit of the site. The primary difficulty here is the propensity of web visitors¾attention spans worn thin by channel-surfing and magazine flicking¾to cruise sites without ever fully tasting their contents. Unlike a gallery, where the visitor is captive to that space, at the click of a button web visitors can exit an online exhibition that doesn’t immediately excite their interest. To use the more frequent analogy, the task is to turn the `net surfer’ into a `web diver’.
If we succeed in doing this, then we may well show that humanist critics have been wrong in their dismissal of Internet. In his defense of the `missionary position of reading’, the Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts bemoans the `gradual displacement of the vertical by the horizontal’, where more is read for less purpose. Birkerts’ main reason for preferring the linear narrative to its hypertext version, is that it offers `a chance to subject the anarchic subjectivity to another's disciplined imagination, a chance to be taken in unsuspected directions under the guidance of some singular sensibility’ (p. 164). What prevents an electronic text from doing this, according to Birkerts, is that readers are reluctant to involve themselves in a materiality as ephemeral as pixels on a screen.
Ephemerality, of course, is a relative notion. Paper pages seem ephemeral by comparison with stone tablets. And in the future, our digital files might seem like granite compared to the latest nanotechnological medium. This is not to say that materiality is irrelevant, only that it should not lead us to despair at the depth of response possible on the web. Plainly, if any medium is capable of taking its audience `in unsuspected directions’ it is the web. What it needs is a `singular sensibility’¾a strategy. Here we need to focus on a sample of the techniques uniquely available to web authors.
Client-pull/server-push introduces an element of surprise to the web. A seasoned web-surfer learns ways of idling the time while waiting for the screen fill with images and text from top to bottom like an inverted tank. Each screen offers a choice: Is it interesting enough to go further? Are there different routes available? The client-pull/server-push technique wrests this control away from the visitor by seizing the decision making power.
Though their output can be quite similar, client-pull and server-push operate on different principles. Client-pull is an HTML code which issues a command only when a certain condition on the visitor’s side has been reached. This is opposed to `server-push’ where the timing is controlled by the server. Returning to our fishing metaphor, client-pull is similar to an angler who lets the hooked fish take the slack on the line, while server-push is equivalent to a less patient angler who tugs the line to further embed the hook in the fish.
A dramatic use of the server-push technique might be found in the Black Hole of the Web, where the bait is a warning for visitors not to proceed further. Once the inevitable decision to proceed is taken, the screen turns from white, to gray, to black and admonishments appear at intervals, such as `Lonely, isn’t it?’. After some time, the messages disappear and the black screen continues to be refreshed until the visitor regains control by closing the browser or opening another bookmark as a lifesaver. This clever subversion of net surfing demonstrates the dramatic possibilities of web design.
A more local incursion into screen space creates the illusion of movement on screen. Limited to a small section of the screen, the emergence of `push animation’ in web sites is resembles the use of flies to entice fish to the surface by using a moving lure.
Animation can be created by a variety of means, ranging from server-push, Java programs, to add-ins such as Shockwave, Macromedia Director’s plugin for Netscape. At a very basic level, animations provide motivation for visitors to look at the screen, careful not to miss the action. Disseminated through the Internet, these animations are mostly quite crude and examples of animation used for a particular aesthetic affect are rare.
Ironically, though, this very primitive state of animation serves to retrieve a mystery lost to its more sophisticated uses in film. Web animations, particularly with slow connections, have the stilted appearance of flipcards. The magic of this very crude movement is that you can be simultaneously aware of both the illusion and its material construction. Of course, the unsophisticated state of animation is reason for many to put the web on hold until it catches up with other media. This may be a mistake. It is the capacity to renew an almost archaic fascination with illusion techniques which may be the singular advantage of web animation. Ironically, it took the height of sophistication in media technologies to return us to this primal scene.
From the other side of the screen and history, the client-pull technique has been used to advance ideas unique to our end of the millennium. Alan Liu’s Lyotard's Auto-Different page cuts up text from the French philosopher Francois Lyotard into screens which transform static discourse into a temporal flow. The aim, for Liu, is to replace slabs of words and graphics with `text tracks’ which produce a discourse that visitors have to steer as much as read. Liu writes of the advantages of this technique:
Client-pull makes it possible to reflect on the fact that each of our communications is paced by simultaneous demands made on the network by other communications—by the time-sensitive collectivity that constitutes historicity.
Ironically, this technique is best suited to slow connections: a fast download rate can turn a gentle trickle of words into whitewater.
In more accessible web publications, client-pull is often being used to provide a `courtesy screen’ for those awaiting a heavily loaded screen to download. `Please wait for files to download’ at a very simple level demonstrates that the author has anticipated the visitor’s waiting experience. While not of aesthetic interest at this level, it does make opportunities for strategic `client-pulls’ which need not consign the visitor to an irreversible descent, but set up expectations of what is to follow.
Whether or not these possibilities are fully exploited depends on how seriously web authors take these kinds of techniques. The unfavourable comparison with animation on multimedia and the temporary nature of HTML code may dissuade many from investing their creative energies in this area. But as the film industry learnt that black and white could be a matter of artistic choice rather than technological backwardness, so the very simple nature of these techniques may generate their own unique language¾if allowed to.
Of course, client-pull/server-push is one of a number of techniques available to web authors for luring visitors to take their bait. Online forms which request information from visitors that is used in subsequent screens demonstrate a powerful way of involving visitors in a more direct fashion that any other media. In the second part of Compleat Web-ster we look at a range of contributions by writers reflecting on their experience at particular sites. We’ll discover which web-generic techniques entice their visitors to take the hook, the line or the sinker.