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Review of  The Language of Websites


Reviewer: Kara A. McBride
Book Title: The Language of Websites
Book Author: Mark Boardman
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Sociolinguistics
Book Announcement: 16.1221

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Date: Mon, 11 Apr 2005 00:07:52 -0700
From: Kara McBride <kmcbride@email.arizona.edu>
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

INTRODUCTION

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.

SYNOPSIS

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.

CRITIQUE

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.

REFERENCES

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.


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