The value of navigability (related to META...)

Nick Arnett/Multimedia Computing Corp. (
Mon, 6 Jun 1994 09:07:33 -0800

The Web's inexpensive creation and distribution of
information calls for a focus on navigability

(More lessons from the 15th century)

A while back in the META et cetera discussion, I mentioned the idea that
perhaps there's some underlying disagreement about the Web's value. Nearly
everyone agrees that the capabilities under discussion are Good Things, but
there's some (often unspoken) dissent about which things should be
implemented sooner, rather than later.

Thanks to the income generated by the sale of my multimedia newsletter and
CompuServe forums a couple of years ago, I've had the freedom to spend much
of the last couple of years trying to understand the implications of the
convergence of inexpensive computers and networks. I'm convinced that the
greatest obstacle, and thus the greatest opportunity and the area where the
most value can be added, is "information navigation," as I like to call the
broad concept of finding stuff in the midst of an information overload. At
the risk of tooting my own horn, I'll add that this hasn't been casual
research; my strategic analysis and planning has involved some very bright
people whose names you'd probably all recognize.

Right now, the Web is providing tremendous access to information. It is
rapidly accelerating the dream of "information at your fingertips," to
borrow Bill Gates' phrase. But that's really just a start; access is
merely the enabler for navigability. We really want a librarian at our
fingertips, I believe.

A simple supply and demand equation: Thanks to inexpensive networks and
computers, the supply of information is rising faster than our ability to
consume it. The result is that the value of any given document is dropping
(even though overall volume is increasing). The cost of *finding* a given
document is rising, however, for the same reason, especially when you're
just looking for something interesting. Surely we've all had the
frustrating experience of seeing the cost of the time to find something on
the net (or a commercial on-line service) exceeding the value of the item
when we finally track it down.

The implication for HTML/HTTP is that features that improve document
navigability are paramount. It's very tempting to follow the old
publishing paradigm and focus first on rich formatting and such, that would
be wrong and some other technology will surpass the Web quickly.

I like to make the comparison of today's convergence of inexpensive
computers and networks to the 15th century convergence of inexpensive
printing and paper (see <a
href="">Mendicant Sysops in
CyberSpace</a> on my server for a related short essay). Illustrated
manuscripts, prior to Gutenberg and cheap paper, were beautiful things,
with carefully crafted letters, layout and images. They're still
treasured. But as we know, a lot of that beauty was abandoned by early
printing technologies. At the same time, things were added -- punctuation,
title pages, consistent indexing, tables of contents and other navigational
structures. The reason behind this was very much as it is today --
publishers wanted to be able to create catalogs of books created with
consistent structures. Navigability was more important than appearance.

As we invent header structures for HTML documents, we're doing almost
exactly what printers-publishers did in the 15th century when they created
title pages. Their book catalogs consisted of a collection of title pages;
a Web catalog will consist of a bunch of fields from the headers of
documents. As we invent the structural tags of HTML documents, we're
mirroring the invention of tables of contents and punctuation that followed
Gutenberg and the Italian paper factories. As we invent semantic tags,
we're mirroring the invention of consistent indexing.

There will be great pressure from the publishing industry, where I come
from, to focus primarily on the richness of the markup of individual
documents. For the most part, those people should be ignored! They don't
understand the paradigm shift that is underway. They are married to mass
media models, in which the appearance of a document attracts readers and
customers to it. In the new paradigm, there are too many documents to
view, so the appearance is less important than navigability, just as the
appearance of books in the 15th century didn't have to approach the beauty
of the illustrated manucripts on which they were based.

I don't mean to give short shrift to typography, layout, etc. We should
all remember that eventually, printing technology gave us the kind of
quality that was present in illustrated manuscripts, though it was
centuries in coming. I understand very well the importance of appearance,
in part to make documents readable, not just merely attractive. But today,
as we invent this new means of communication, navigability is far, far more

In the 15th century, printing and publishing became separated from writing
and editing. A similar separation is occuring today; this one, which we
might call "virtual publishing," separates ownership of information from
its publication. For example, it's practical for you to "publish" my
essay, mentioned above, in your newsletter or other document, without
having to buy the rights to it. That's something really new, with profound
implications that I won't go into here. I mention it because it only works
well if information is extremely navigable; it it's easy for me to find a
bunch of interesting stuff on the net and "virtually" organize it at my
site (which I've just barely begun to do, I should admit, 'cause the tools
are still crude!).


Multimedia Computing Corp.
Campbell, California
"We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunity." -- Pogo