synonyms we use for the Internet are strikingly spatial: the Information
Superhighway, the Matrix, the Infosphere, the Infobahn, the Datastream
and, most influentially, William Gibson's consensual hallucination,
cyberspace. The metaphors associated with usage of the Net are
likewise strongly spatial and active -- exploring, navigating,
surfing -- and encourage and reflect the concept of it as unmapped
and largely unexplored territory.
and print media concerns, in particular, have extended the metaphors
into those of colonisation, of pushing the frontiers. The Information
Superhighway metaphor, highly influential in the mid-90's and
maintaining currency up until the present, encouraged a vision
of the Net as a westernised and domesticated landscape, a web
of shopping malls and billboards connected by highspeed roads,
something that will tame the godless anarchist wilds and the IT
cowboy border settlements by paving, policing and mapping.
from the questionable ethics of instituting yet another arena
for cultural imperialism, this misses the essential nature of
the Internet. It can't be controlled. In real life, once something
is in a place, it generally stays put for a reasonable length
of time. Changes to the environment happen slowly: the Melways
you bought last year will generally see you through the next ten.
no hardcopy roadmap to the Internet will be of any real use to
you even a month after publishing -- the Net is too fluid, too
changeable. To rephrase Protagoras, you can't dip your foot in
the same datastream twice.
hard-space world is replete with clues and conventions for finding
your way around it. Most of these clues depend on accepted convention
and temporal continuation. Streetsigns and landmarks are only
the beginning of the ways in which we can not only find what we
need in our local environment but can also maneuver our way around
navigational problems can be addressed using assumptions based
on past experience -- that person in a uniform can probably help
me, the information centre is likely to be in the city centre
-- and, if all else fails, you can always buy a map. But if you
are lost in dataspace there are few of these underlying conventions
or experiential standards to draw upon.
It is currently impossible for an individual to develop a mental
picture, a useable 'map', of the Internet. There's just too much
of it out there -- and more and more of it everyday. Its very
immateriality mitigates against developing a mental map of it.
Add to this the relative instability of sites which may be redesigned,
updated or scrapped entirely between one visit and the next, change
their URL, or metamorphosis into a new entity at the whim of their
author or the drop of a corporate strategy. Then add in the major
form of moving from node to node -- the link -- a simple undifferentiated
click point that may take you anywhere. It is little wonder that
users end up sidetracked, exhausted, frustrated, disenchanted,
disoriented or just plain lost.
wonder, too, that users tend to flick and skip from site to site,
skimming the surface and always hurrying along because the stuff
they're really looking for might be just the next click
away. For the creators of individual sites the problem is how
to retain users, how to convince them to prolong their visit to
the site and to return to it again.
users suffer from the same kind of cognitive challenges whilst
inside sites. Because websites are materially insubstantial, mere
concatenations of 1 and 0s, they do not provide us with any tactile
and few spatial clues. There are no conventions to indicate how
broad or deep a site is. Website entry pages seldom offer many
hints as to the volume of material hidden behind them or the relationship
of one section to another. Site authors need to help users develop
an accurate 'map' of their sites.