Of all the things that make the Web different from print,
linking is the most important.
Are we tool-making animals or are we animals made by tools? It’s
an old question. How much did the quill shape our minds and
worlds? We invented the printing press which then invented a new
society, a new way of thinking.
“Scribal culture could not sustain the patenting of inventions
or the copyrighting of literary compositions,” Elizabeth
Eisenstein writes in her book, The Printing Revolution In Early
Modern Europe. “It worked against the concept of intellectual
property rights. It did not lend itself to preserving traces of
personal idiosyncrasies, to the public airing of private
thoughts, or to any of the forms of private publicity that have
shaped consciousness of self during the past five centuries.”
And what of the Web? We invented the Web. How is the Web
re-inventing us? What makes the Web different from print?
We need to carefully answer this last question because otherwise
we are in danger of approaching the Web with our print-thinking
and print-techniques. We are in danger of saying: ‘This is what
quality writing is,’ when really what we are saying is: ‘This is
what quality print writing is.’
Here are some of the ways the Web is different from print:
The Web is about links
The Web is about tasks
The Web is about finding
The Web is about permanence
The Web is a process
The Web is about the customer
The Web is about links. Print is about units of content. A
500-word article, a book, a magazine, a report. Print writing is
often a solitary task. The Web is about linking. We’re linking
one piece of content to another. We’re linking the consumer of
the content with its producer.
The Web is a functional, task-oriented place. We come to the Web
to do, and we already have the context when we get to the
website. Print lends itself to length and because print is
physically going out to the reader, it tends to have lots of
contextual language. The Web is bare, hermetic, pared-down-an
ugly but useful place.
The Web is about the customer trying to find the content, rather
than the content trying to find the customer. The Web turns much
of advertising and marketing on its head. You must know the
words your customers use when they search. Otherwise you are
The Web is about permanence. Over time, most print content
degrades, dissolves, disappears. Try finding that brochure you
published in print in 2003. But if you put it up on your
website, it’s still there. This is the great blind spot of web
teams. Review and remove.
The Web is a process. Print is an event. You get it all together
and then you publish. And then it’s over. Job done. On the Web
it’s job begun. The print and IT culture of launch and leave is
a ruinous strategy on the Web. Great websites involve continuous
improvement of your top tasks.
The Web is about the customer. It is not about the control of
elites. It is about the wisdom of crowds, the collective
intelligence. At the center of the Web is the customer, not the
organization. It is about the things the customer wants to do,
not the things the organization wants to do to the customer.
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