Metaphorical Conception of the WWW

Paper Proposal, by Zach Tomaszewski

for LING 440, Spring 2002, taught by Ben Bergen

For my term paper, I'd like to take a look at the different metaphors we use to understand Web sites and the WWW in general. It may be interesting to also look briefly at other information spaces, such as computer desktops, file systems, and other Internet protocols like gopher, but my focus is the WWW. This topic overlaps with my interest in Information Architecture and web design. We are all spending more of our time on computers and online, and so understanding what conceptual metaphors are at work could lead to better interface designs.

To collect metaphorical expressions (data), I plan to look through texts discussing the Web. These will consist of both online and offline sources. It may be interesting to see if there are metaphorical differences between technical texts on the construction of Web navigation verses books introducing laymen to using the Web (such as a Dummies Guide to the Internet). It might be interesting to do some surveys, but I think looking through a broad range of texts will keep me busy enough.

Based on these found metaphorical expressions, I will determine which metaphors are used to describe the web and their respective frequencies. I am interested in whether they overlap, or whether different metaphors apply solely to different aspects of the Web--for example, one metaphor for webpages and another for the relationship between pages. Here are a few metaphors I think I might find "in the wild":

People navigate sites. They follow links from place to place. They wander around a site, they got lost, they can't find a page or resource they know is there. Sites have designers or architects and an organized structure. There are site maps and navigation guides. (Is this metaphor really only about navigable spaces, or is it more specific? "Built structures" or "buildings" perhaps.)

Even the term web page shows this. We lay out text and paragraphs as we do with printed materials. We scroll down webpages, as with other "pages" on a computer screen. We can cite or reference other pages with links. (Yet, if this is true, why aren't websites thought of as books or newspapers?)

Websites seem to have inherited much of the nature of computer file systems and computer trees, with a root or index at the top, and folders or directories beneath. (What metaphors correspond to hierarchies and how are they expanded or shortened when applied to websites? Are all sites really thought of in this way, even with linear or web architectures? Seems there is always a main page or root.)

It could be argued that it is not literally true that the WWW is a network. Rather, it runs on top of the Internet and TCP/IP network protocols. Webpages merely "refer" or link to other pages. They are static files on a server. They are no more physically connected than one book that cites another as resource. Yet even if the entire Web is thought of a woven net of some kind, does this apply to single sites?

I hope I will find these metaphors and more. I will examine the mapping of each metaphor and ponder a possible basis for each. For the purpose of better design, it should be interesting to see where the boundaries of each metaphor can be extended. (For example, if webpages are like pages of a book, would sites be more clear if they were made to more closely resemble books, with a "book cover," "title page," "contents page," "index," etc.?)

Also, I image many questions will be raised. Besides the ones above, how does the term "surfing" fit in? If webpages are pages, how do interactive aspects fit in? Are there differences in the metaphors used depending on experience with the Web?

I think this paper will be a good introduction, basic literature review, and qualitative look at the metaphors concerning the Web. It could serve as a basis for further research with real users and into quantitative usability testing of designs based on extensions of the metaphors found here.