Transmission of Literature and History | The Contribution of Web Design

By: Louis-Olivier Brassard

Growth means accessibility

In the late 1980s, a physicist named Tim Berners-Lee working at the CERN (1) had the idea of a global hypertext project – in other words, to link computer documents together, which is what is called “hypertext” – that would help him and other scientists share their work with people of the international community. A native computer network had already been developed in America, the “Internet”, which enabled the possibility to stream information between computers located in different areas. The data though was only intelligible to computers: there was no way to send comprehensible material, such as an e-mail. Berners-Lee’s hypertext project led to the creation of the World Wide Web (W3) in 1991, where users could finally access text pages through a browser.

The first web browser created by Tim Burners-Lee. (Source: W3 Consortium)

At the time, there was no such thing as images, sound, color or graphical interactions: the pages were exclusively composed of plain text and links. The Web as we know it today, involving nearly every aspect of our society, has dramatically changed the way literature, culture and history are transmitted – but could it impact positively on cultural heritage?

Berners-Lee, when presenting his idea of a global hypertext project, was aware of the immense potential of sharing information between people (and not only scientists), given the important amount of people who owned a computer at that time. Today though, the phenomenon has grown out of its primary context to become a universal sharing platform: everybody now visits the Internet on a daily basis, not only using a home computer or laptop but various mobile devices too, such as electronic tablets and smartphones. Indeed, since the launch of Apple’s iPhone in 2007, millions of people started using portable devices to navigate through the Web and it is estimated that the use of mobile to access web content will overtake the use of “classic” computers within the next years (2). More than ever before, people have access to an endless range of information of an impressive variety: books can be either purchased or downloaded if they are part of the public domain, as well as archives and press releases. The fact that files can be viewed from virtually everywhere (or kept and stored on pocket-size equipment) is a sign of real improvement when it comes to consult heavy-size documents that could only be found in public libraries or specific institutes, for example. Moreover, the possibility to add hypertext links to web pages may enhance the content by providing an outside source directly accessible by a single click.

Design That Works

Over the years, the web design evolved to become more and more functional, allowing content to be delivered more efficiently by integrating accessible structure elements to the web language, HTML. Design does not necessarily mean a more aesthetic appearance of a web page; the concept of design conveys more importantly to the way elements interact with the user and how effectively the information is presented. Today, with the addition of multiple scripts and complementary modules (such as Javascript and Flash) that widely extend browsing functionalities (but may in counterpart impact on the loading time (3)), web design is evolving very quickly, making the web a more and more exciting place to watch and learn new things.

The increase of online files may lead to design issues in the future. (Source: Web Performance Today)

Several formulas, including one-page parallax-effect websites to slide-like animated frames and tab-navigation menus, create an exotic new environment that might be, for many, a more attractive way to read on any given subject.

A New Form of Literature?

In a world where everything tends to move faster and faster, it is not surprising that loading time is an important aspect of web design; however, the increasing mentality of saving time is also affecting the content found on the web: a long and dense paragraph may appear intimidating, and the user might not take time to read it all – if of course he dares to begin reading. Twitter has introduced a very restrictive constraint when publishing on its network, where a mere 140 characters are allowed per status – not a single letter more. This has caused friends, celebrities, as well as several communities of Twitter users to start “blogging” in a very concise manner, which sometimes even lead to posting short poems on their account page. A trend, probably from Ernest Hemingway’s famous challenge to write a “six-word story”, has spread over the network, where users attempt to generate emotion within the bounds of a six-word sentence. Rather than an intellectual limitation, such statuses are a challenging way to express a greater meaning than their modest length may suggest, the way a haiku peom does, for example. Statuses may be easily accessible to the public by the use of “#hashtags”, a common practice to apply tags to Twitter posts related to a certain topic, making a member’s short story easily searchable. People now exercise poetry and philosophy publicly, which may become an interesting phenomenon to study in the future – who knows, it might just become a new literary genre!

To conclude, the hurricane provoked by the World Wide Web in culture, history and literature is undeniable, and has certainly contributed to expand the accessibility of literary content throughout the world, presenting text (and much much more) in a manner that has revolutionized our perception of culture and the way we use it. Some say that the web has not only helped us share information, but even improved our living style. One question remains: how important can the Internet become in our lives?


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