Date: Mon, 11 Apr 2005 00:07:52 -0700 From: Kara McBride Subject: The Language of Websites
AUTHOR: Boardman, Mark TITLE: The Language of Websites SERIES: Intertext PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis) YEAR: 2004
Kara McBride, Second Language Acquisition and Teaching, University of Arizona
This book is part of a series called Intertext, which is meant to "meet the needs of contemporary English Language Studies" (p. i). The foundation text of the series is "Working with Texts: A Core Introduction to Language Analysis" (Carter, et al., 2001), and it has many "satellite texts" that explore "The Language of..." many different genres, such as comics, drama, sports, and work. "The Language of Websites" is one of these satellite texts.
Not only could "The Language of Websites" serve as an effective textbook for a college course, it would be useful to most any scholar who analyzes web-based texts. Many of us who work in this line have found it difficult to break free of paper-bound, word-centric, linear analyses, but this clear and easy-to-follow book shows the reader how to do just that. The book could also be helpful to web page designers and to designers of computer-delivered educational software, because what the author Mark Boardman has to say about the language of websites has very much to do with language use in general as it appears on a computer screen.
The introduction is dedicated to placing the book in its contexts. The aims of the book involve discussions of textual analysis, history, and technology. The last section of the introduction is labeled "Human communication," and in a few pages sweeps, in a coherent fashion, from cave paintings, to Old English poetry, to word processing.
"Getting really wired: the physical context of websites" is the name of unit one. It starts with the invention of the personal computer and a brief history of the Internet. User interface is presented as a metaphor that allows people to experience computers in a way that makes sense to them despite the fact that computers only really operate on a series of 0s and 1s. The metaphors of files, the desktop, etc., are tied together in a unifying fashion. Web pages are shown to be an extension of these metaphors and to reflect human thought process even more closely than previous models because of their nonlinear and interconnected nature.
This discussion is then followed by an activity in which background information is given about a web page that the reader is told either to find on the Web or to view in the book. There are five brief but provocative sets of questions that invite the reader to analyze the page in terms of, among other things, graphology, lexical cohesion, reader stance, and context of reception-all of which are terms that are also defined in the book's glossary. After the activity comes the commentary, in which the author addresses his own questions. Boardman talks meaningfully about many characteristics of the web page, including even the font and the proportional spacing between letters. He puts these things into the context of the point in history when the page was created (we are looking at a page created in 1994), the institution and audience for which it was created, and the software that was probably available to the creators. This activity is then followed by another in which a newer web page published by the same institution is analyzed and contrasted with the previous one. The unit ends with three more questions to extend the analysis.
Unit two develops the metaphor of its title: "Front-of-house: institutional websites." Websites are compared to buildings, in their structure, logic, purpose, and navigation. There is soon a short activity in which the reader is once again directed to a specific website, given questions to guide the analysis, and then provided commentary that demonstrates how the web page is set up, with functions similar to a building's, to receive its various visitors. Register and syntax are shown to reflect the presumed audience. The author discusses not only word choice but also how "pragmatic meaning is embodied graphically" (p. 23). After a discussion of how graphic images and even ways of signaling hyperlinks communicate different messages, an activity that explores a relatively bare bones website follows, and yet the analysis reveals that this page, too, is rich with meaning which is conveyed not only by the words but by the way the words are written and arranged.
The idea of territory and how it is navigated dominates the rest of the unit, mostly through a discussion of site maps. Specific examples are considered. Finally, the author mentions hypertext novels, their nature, their potential, and the fact that they have not become the common phenomenon that many people expected them to become.
After having touched on major characteristics of institutional websites, the author moves on in unit three to "Boundaries real and imagined: personal websites." Boundaries between the official and the unofficial, between the public and the private, and between one culture and another no longer serve as hard divisions on the Internet, where anyone can publish, anyone can browse, and no regulatory authority exists. Because of the wide variety of purposes that exists for personal websites, the author asks the reader, as apparently a number of people asked him while he was writing the book, "Does the language of websites exist?" (p. 41). His conclusion of course is that it does but that within it there are several different genres, three of which are explored, compared and contrasted in the unit's exercises.
One method of putting content on a personal web page that Boardman mentions is a blog, which he defines in the glossary as "A web-based personal diary - short for 'weblog'" (p. 100). In his discussion of this phenomenon, he makes several references to Chandler (1998), who, in his own work, talks about how admissions that writers choose to make on their blogs are sometimes more revealing than what they would normally share with intimate acquaintances face-to-face. The immensity of the Web makes it simultaneously unlikely that anyone in particular would be reading a given blogger's personal thoughts and yet possible that millions could. The real and yet also imagined nature of the revelation allows for the "Doppelganger: your web personality," which is the name of the last section of the unit. Here, personality is described as multifaceted and constantly changing. The postmodernist characteristics of the Internet make it a good venue for the expression of this. Unit three, as others, ends with extension questions.
In unit four, "Streamers and flashers: sound and video content on the Web," the author traces technological developments that have allowed for a greater use of media, as well as the proliferation of modern-day annoyances, such as spam and pop-up windows. A provocative question that the author poses is, "If streamed media are changing people's perception of the Web, does this mean that the linguistic content of sites is becoming less important?" (p. 65). Unfortunately, this question is not part of the unit's earlier activity, but rather one of the extension questions, and the reader is left to answer the question on his or her own.
Unit five, "Ready or not: searching the web," is a solid review of basic information about indexes and catalogues, comparisons between search engines and an explanation for their differences, along with a short note on Boolean logic at the end, with references to websites for the reader who wants more information. Insightful musings on the nature of surfing are made, as well as some interesting points about word choice on British search engines that make use of standard American English. This last point is one that would likely not have been caught by most American Web experts.
The author pauses for some time in this unit over the phenomenon of the well known error page that says "The page cannot be displayed." In spending some pages on this, Boardman explains about caching and points out the uniqueness of this error message in that it is able to make reference to both the specific page sought and to the particular seeker's computer. The logic of the page is brought into focus by comparing it to the satirical version of this error page called "These Weapons of Mass Destruction Cannot Be Displayed," which came out after the 2003 Gulf War.
The last unit deals with "The raw materials of web writing," that is, HTML (hypertext mark-up language). The unit does a good job of clarifying what HTML is and what it does. Without overwhelming the reader with detail, the author explains a few key terms such as tags. The reader is shown the significance of the fact that "Web pages make their methods of construction available for anyone to look at in a way that no other type of communication does" (p. 87), how this is revealed, and why HTML has not taken the same road of evolution as word processors have, in which the original coding has become entirely hidden from the normal user.
The book ends with "References and further reading" and a 19-page glossary.
This book manages to be both very easy and yet very interesting to read. It would be enlightening for both the professor or instructor using the book in class, as well as for the undergraduate assigned the material. The wording is precise, without extra verbiage, and the titles and subtitles are both informative and clever. Every unit starts with an "Aims of this unit" and ends with a summary, and all new terms that appear in the glossary are written in bold upon their first mention, starting with the third word of the introduction, "text." That is, just as is claimed on page i, the book assumes very little prior knowledge. For the more sophisticated reader, there are still bound to be many useful phrases and acronyms to learn, and being given several concise, clear, and pertinent historical anecdotes (such as the origin of the term "bug") is most welcome.
The only place in the book where I felt the author failed to explain something enough was in unit two, where the website of "a company offering ICT development packages" is discussed without defining ICT. To add to the confusion, the website itself is depicted and the title line identifies the company as offering "IT and marketing for business and law" (p. 27). These acronyms are so central to the mission of the book-as we see on page i, where we are told that the glossary contains ICT terminology-that the editors failed to define them. This is problematic, because much of the discussion of the unit two website hinges on an understanding of what kind of company the website was designed to represent. Elsewhere the book does a wonderful job of explaining enough of the websites that Boardman refers to that the reader need not be viewing those websites in order to follow the book, while at the same time sparking one's interest to look at them.
Another website that the book inspired me to look at was the book's supporting website, http://markboardman.com, mentioned on page i. The part of the website dedicated to the book is still in progress. It is not initially obvious how to get beyond the icon, and when one does, there is, so far, only a paragraph as introduction and a clickable bibliography. No additional material is contained in the website. This is not surprising. After all, if Boardman had more to say, why wouldn't he include that as well in the book? Why would an author go to the trouble of developing extra material and making it available for free, when it is the book that will earn the author money, be a recognizable and prestigious type of entry on his CV, and get him a book review on the LINGUIST List?
Issues of the relative illegitimacy of web pages as compared to books are hinted at, for example in unit two, where institutions' efforts to call upon established traditions are discussed, and again when hypertext novels are mentioned as a genre that never really took off. One can assume that hypertext novels are not more popular because they require a huge amount of work to create and do not provide the creator with sufficient payback. The pull between great ideas and feasibility is a constant issue in web page design, but it gets little overt mention in the book. Citing the freeware HTML editor Matizha (DohNews, 2004) on page 91 also hints at these issues without naming them outright.
Still, I admit that I hoped to find a place on markboardman.com for discussion of the book to continue. There are several points in the book where I felt that a discussion of the book's topics with members of a younger generation might be terribly revealing. Those of us who work and play with web pages and sense the ways in which the very nature of language and communication is being changed by the Web still, often, feel ourselves tied to old ways of putting information on pages. We also fail, one assumes, to grasp just how culturally bound our ways of expression are, even in the international culture of the Web. An instructor discussing the themes of "The Language of Websites" with younger students or students from other cultures might be given tremendous insights, which I, personally, would hope to find shared on a public website.
The author might have created a wiki, for example, which is "a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content using any Web browser," to quote http://wiki.org/wiki.cgi? WhatIsWiki. With such a tool, readers of this book could collaboratively create a response to the book and an extension of their experiences. Wikis, however, are not mentioned in this book, nor defined in the glossary. The new possibilities of multiple authorship that the Web affords people is an area that was not explored in this book, although it is certainly not a foreign concept to Boardman, who is described in the book notes as being the founder and coordinator of an e-mail discussion and support group. Blogs, listservs and wikis are new ways of sharing, storing, and building upon knowledge-indeed, they represent "learning that occurs outside of people" (Siemens, 2004, p. 2). They are possible only through the Web and probably represent the most radical changes to communication that the Web is bringing about.
This book is timely, well written and insightful. It helped clarify in my own mind many issues that I know that I and many others have been thinking about with increasing frequency in our work with websites, both on the analysis end and in creating websites. This book would be a satisfying and illuminating read for a wide range of people who are interested in websites, from novice to expert, from creator to user to purchaser- student, linguist, programmer and instructor alike.
Boardman, Mark (2005) "The language of websites" http://markboardman.com
Carter, R., Goddard, A., Reah, D., Sanger, K., & Bowring, M. (Eds.). (2001) Working with texts: A core introduction to language analysis (second ed.). London: Routledge.
Chandler, Daniel (1998) "Personal home pages and the construction of identities on the Web," http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/short/webident.html
DohNews (2004) http://matizha.com/en/.
Siemens, George (2004) "Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age," http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm
Leuf, Bo and Ward Cunningham (2002) "What is wiki?" http://wiki.org/wiki.cgi?WhatIsWiki
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Kara McBride is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Arizona interdisciplinary program in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching. Her recent studies have focused on information literacy, collaborative learning, and the use of computer chat in the foreign language classroom. She is interested in what insights psycholinguistics can give to teaching and assessment practices and how that might be applied to educational software and web page design.