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May 2000
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Words on the Web and the Written Tradition

By Jeanne Marie Follman

Too much of a good thing is wonderful.
—Mae West

In e-mails, chat rooms, Web pages, news groups, and instant messages, countless words fly across the Internet every day; the written word hasn’t seen such a boost since the invention of printing. But despite the newness of the medium, words on the Web fit very snugly into the history of the written tradition.

We have been storing our thoughts in various forms of writing for about five or six thousand years. In each case—as with telephones and computers—there is a sender, a signal, and a receiver. The signal can be pressed into clay, chipped into stone, written on papyrus, inscribed on parchment made from the skin of an animal, printed in a book or newspaper, or squirted in pixels on the screen of a computer monitor. The point is the communication of a message. It can be anything from an accounting entry to a stock quote, to the conveyance of an entire world created in one person’s imagination and given life in another’s: Sherlock Holmes, Winnie the Pooh, Hamlet, Star Wars, Star Trek. (OK, those last two are visual media, but the books keep us going in between the movies and the episodes.)

In his book The History and Power of Writing, Henri-Jean Martin says the following about how we encode our thoughts in writing systems:

Whatever the system adopted, it was only a bastard artifice born of the symbolism of the image and spoken discourse. The signs that were aligned by the human hand were nothing by themselves. What mattered was the resonance that seeing them prompted in those who deciphered them on the basis of their own previous experience. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994)

And now the written word has joined the world of broadcast. The mass media of television and radio have given us instantaneous transmission of images and sound, vastly shrinking our world and just as vastly increasing our understanding of it. For the first time, the Internet gives us a mass medium for the instantaneous transmission of text. Not only that—it’s a mass medium controllable by an individual. With it, a person’s words can travel not just to one person via print or fax, and not just to a group of people through the intercession of a government, corporation, or publisher, but to anyone on the planet who chooses to search for them. Now individuals— geniuses and crackpots alike—have joined the ranks of bureaucrats and pointy-headed managers with their ability to transmit the written word to the masses.

Visualizing Discourse

To further quote Martin in The History and Power of Writing, "Writing exists only by right of previous speech, thought or spoken, and its first aim is to set down spoken discourse in visual form." Well, that seems fair enough; we can’t write or speak until we think, even though there’s some evidence to suggest the contrary.

But is writing a transforming act? In the same book, Martin says the following about writing:

It is not revolutionary but appears every time that a revolution in communications and exchanges prompts a fusion into a larger whole. Where this occurs it accelerates the changes set in motion within the society. There are two reasons for this. The first is that culture is nothing but what the thought of successive generations has produced; it permits the storage of that thought. The second is that writing casts speech onto a two-dimensional space and fixes it there, thus permitting speech to be an object of reflection outside of any context. Furthermore, because it visualizes discourse, writing prompts new sorts of connections in the reasoning process.

There’s no question that a revolution in communications has been going on for a good part of the past century. Now we’ve added to it the ability to instantly transmit stored thought, the opportunity to reflect upon that stored thought, and the ability to create connections between it all. And those abilities and opportunities now belong to individuals, not just to governments or corporations.

To help us figure out what this will do to the way we communicate, let’s take a look at our relationship with the written word in the past and how it has affected us.

A Changing Relationship with Text


You wouldn’t think that accountants would be on the vanguard of literary evolution, but they are to blame for the invention of the written word—and in fact most advances in literacy and mathematics are spurred by commerce. It was the Mesopotamian bean counters, not the poets, who established cuneiform as the first written language. They inscribed pictures and counts of objects bought and sold (in sections called calculi using a base 60 number system) so that there would be no cheating on deals between people in distant cities ("You owe me 40 oxen, not 20, and I have the tablets to prove it!"). Writing was the first form of a presence in a distant place; it was also a means to register transactions and manage the accumulation of wealth. During the Renaissance, most of the huge volume of correspondence of the time was devoted to similar management of distant commercial exchanges.

The written word appears in many different forms, and each form has flavored our relationship with the text. When ancient Romans scrolled through words, they would unroll a physical scroll made of pages of papyrus pasted together. They would read a page—with words in two columns and with no spaces between the words—and then unroll the next page while at the same time rolling up the previous page. Since the average scroll was about 10 yards in length, skipping from the last page of the scroll to the first involved a lot more work than it does in a book today—but the scroll was a big improvement over engraving words onto clay tablets. It wasn’t until the third or fourth century that people started writing on both sides of the parchment, piling the pages on top of one other and binding them into what we now think of as a book.

And of course the medium made a difference, as did the exchanges it generated. You can encode information much faster on papyrus than you can in stone. Once papyrus appeared as the medium of choice, scrolls became standardized and their numbers skyrocketed, with the library in Alexandria containing more than a half million. Likewise, indexes and tables of contents didn’t appear until books were bound and you could flip through the pages rather than rolling through a scroll. There’s not much point in an index or a table of contents if it takes you 20 minutes to get to the right page. Furthermore, the invention of paper and movable type in Europe set off a great boom, with print shops springing up everywhere that were run by Renaissance yuppies looking to make a buck and creating in the process a marketplace in which ideas could be bought and sold. Those ideas then proceeded to shape the course of history.

The Solitary Reader

Initially, scrolls or books weren’t read as we know reading today. Readers spoke the written word aloud to a group, using the text as a script, much like talking heads on television use a teleprompter. "Thus for some time no one imagined that discourse could be cast in any other language, or follow any other rhetoric, than that of the spoken word," says Martin. Even though people wrote words, written words were used as an aid to memory in what was still clearly an oral tradition.

It wasn’t until well into the Middle Ages that reading was even thought of as a solitary affair. "Henceforth the reader looked at a page rather than listening to a text, and his eyes moved over the two dimensional surface seeking a particular word or scanning for reference points or colored letters. By the same token, any reasoned argument took on an objective existence," says Martin. The tradition of a single individual curling up with a book was thus born in the medieval creation of a one-on-one communication between a writer and a solitary reader; the speaker turned into an author, at once more personal yet more removed. Back then, those who disagreed with something you were reading aloud to them had the physical proximity to slap the daylights out of you. The read manuscript put an end to that for the most part. Someone who wanted to smack you around for something you wrote would have to track you down.

But the read manuscript did offer a way to react; if you wanted a book before the invention of printing, you had to copy it yourself or pay someone to copy it. This gave scribes the opportunity to add their own embellishments to the text, including notations, commentary, and frequent additions or corrections. As a result, the manuscript contained not only text that changed over time but also rubrics (i.e., additions to the text in red ink that outlined the structure and helped explain the material) and lengthy commentaries. Each time a manuscript was copied, it gained a bit more embellishment and annotation, with each scribe adding something to the work.

The Logic of the Book

The printed book also created its own relationship with text. Books were first printed exactly as duplicates of manuscripts, complete with rubrics, commentary, and handpainted decoration. Over time, however, such embellishments disappeared, leaving only the undecorated text alone on the page, with ever-shrinking margins. Books became pruned and standardized, the result of being manufactured objects. The mechanics of printing also inhibited the placing of words and pictures together on a page, so printed books lost the hand-copied manuscript’s integration of text and image. As a result, images were herded together, away from the relevant text; sometimes they were even printed as entirely separate volumes. "Thus the Enlightenment marked the moment of triumph of the text over the image, of a certain form of typographical rhetoric over the rhetoric of the spoken word, and of the serially produced object," says Martin.

Very briefly, we can see some common impulses in our use of the written word. First, there’s the obvious desire to visualize discourse—to set something down and integrate it with image and decoration. Then, once it’s stored and reflected upon, there’s the impulse to comment upon it— by way of clarification, elaboration, or commentary. Finally, there’s the desire to create a complex structure of information or thought that stands by itself and can be communicated as a whole from author to reader and from which connections can be drawn.

The Flavor of Text on the Internet

When we think of text on the Internet, the fact that it’s transmitted electronically is of course important, but that is not the only thing going on. The human impulse to visualize discourse, to create a complex structure of thought and image, to rant after reflection (or more often before), and to make connections now has a new place to flower.

While not as intimate as a book (I’ve yet to take my beloved iMac to bed with me), a Web site offers a place of almost infinite space and complexity for the storage of information and thought, accessible to anyone who chooses to go to it. And just as in the past, when the level of complexity of stored thought reached a certain level, the need for rubrication kicked in. We don’t use red ink for that any more, but we do have a fairly clear set of rubrics for helping people navigate the huge amounts of text and image found in Web sites—including clickable tables of contents and indexes, next/previous navigation buttons, search features, and clickable external references and bibliographies.

Two other impulses that appeared in the medieval manuscript have also surfaced on the Web. One is the embellishment of words made possible by being a single entity. A Web site, unlike a book, is not a mass-produced item but a one-of-a-kind creation even though it might be mirrored on multiple sites. A Web site is hand-crafted for the most part so it can be elaborated over time like a physical manuscript. And as the site evolves, the visitor always gets the most recent additions. The other impulse is the fact that words and pictures are easily interwoven once again. More than just eye candy, the integration of word and image offers new possibilities for visual forms of communication.

Finally, commentary has returned in full force, even though it’s no longer transcribed in the margins of a manuscript. The number, quality, and size of the Web sites that have blossomed in the past few years are incredible, as is the amount of reaction they have generated. Any topic of any consequence at all has a huge number of discussion groups associated with it, with endless diatribes back and forth, some of which are actually useful. And with e-mail, an author is once again an easy target for flak.

Hypertext: Connection Made Manifest

The Internet offers an outlet for many impulses that we’ve seen implemented in written media of the past. It also offers one key feature that hasn’t been realized before: hypertext. Hypertext provides a way to make the connection between related pages a physical one; it is a wonderfully efficient way to connect one idea to another regardless of how or where that idea is represented.

In the past, sequence and proximity were the only ways to relate groups of words. Paragraphs followed one another in chapters, and chapters followed one another in books; related books were issues in sets. Now, because of how we write our hypertext links, we have the ability to connect groups of words directly within a work (e.g., paragraphs, sections, chapters, glossaries, bibliographies, notes). We also have the ability to link works externally to other works, creating complex repositories of ideas spanning the globe.

The architecture of hypertext allows an excellent structuring of knowledge because it puts the connection right where you need it. For example, if you define a concept in a book and then use it more than once, you must either define the concept again or refer to the previous definition’s specific location. Being able to link directly to the definition from each usage is clearly a more useful way to communicate.

Hypertext also enables us to create dynamic webs of connection. While the set of links in one Web site may be created by a single person, the links available at the next linked site would be created by someone else. A person following a thread of links through various sites is taking a path through information that no one person or organization can design or control.

Breaking Down Barriers

Text and hypertext on the Internet are the capstone of the communications revolution of the past century. Not only do they offer a medium for the instant mass transmission of text; they also put that medium in the hands of the individual. The Internet turbocharges the power of the word, which is awesome enough to begin with; it accelerates the breakdown of barriers and expands the context in which we see each other. Villages in the past were small, self-contained, and compartmentalized. Today our villages and neighborhoods may still be small, but they definitely are not self-contained or compartmentalized. Rather, they are intertwined in a great link of commerce, culture, and information. The power of the Internet is the power of the word—the power each individual now possesses to create complex repositories of thought and to enter into a dialogue on that thought with anyone else on the planet.

What We Were After All Along?

It is still mind-boggling to me—if not to my children—to be able to get words delivered via the Internet to my computer from millions of different Web sites all over the planet in a matter of seconds. It is even more mind-boggling to have my words read and responded to by people all over the world, even if those people may be few in number. Words used to be stuck to paper: if you wanted the word, you had to have the paper too. Now words have been freed, morphing into an electronic form where digital copies exist in files going from servers to clients, displayed on a computer monitor until the next link is clicked. Given the explosion of words on the Web and the various desires to visualize discourse that the Web satisfies, I can’t help but wonder if the Internet is a form of communication we’ve been after from the very beginning. Digitized words will never replace words in books, but they make a mighty companion.

To close, here’s one final thought by Henri-Jean Martin in The History and Power of Writing:

On every occasion, oral communication (and communication by images) has developed along with writing in a world of expanding cities and accelerating exchanges. And now, in the last few decades, a society of simultaneity has come to be organized, as if it were a logical point of arrival.

And this he wrote before the blooming of the Internet!

This article is adapted from a chapter of the forthcoming book Getting the Web: Understanding the Nature and Meaning of the Internet, by Jeanne Marie Follman, to be published by Duomo Press (http://www.duomopress.com) in fall 2000. Follman has also made a splash on the World Wide Web as Wanda Wigglebits. Wanda’s step-by-step guide called Building a School Web Site can be found at http://www.wigglebits.com.

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