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Information Order on the Web and Why That Order Is Constantly Changing

Think of the page you're reading as a container. Essentially that's what it does: It holds or contains design elements. In this sense, it also holds those elements in.

They're stuck on the page. They don't go anywhere. They have no friends, no one to go out dancing with. I deliberately wrote that in a fanciful way to interrupt your sense of context. That interruption is analogous to what happens to information on the Web.

On the Web, the page is a far less arbitrary container. It can contain or not contain all of its elements: text, drawings, photos, graphs, etc. Contain, you understand. But, not contain? What does that mean? It means that the page boundary is much less fixed on the Web. The page contains only our view of the page, not all the page elements. Text and content relate to other text and context a bounce away. The bounce is so quick that new pages related or unrelated to the page extend, elaborate, contradict, interrupt, or expand the page.

This brings us to the Web's crazy-quilt context. Books, magazines and newspapers have a definable context that, again, contains information by subject, date, etc. The Web blows the doors off containment. A Harley Davidson Night Train, in a bounce, becomes the context for Muscovite women staging a protest.

It is against this backdrop that we must consider ordering information on the Web. Think outside the box, outside the page. Order information not by what fits on the page, or by what fits anywhere. Order information by islands of meaning. Meaning, in this sense, is with a small m: connection, context, relatedness, purpose, etc.—all are meaningful. Whatever means something to you or your subject matter can be ordered in virtually any fashion that communicates your intent. Note that meaning, not the page, is the primary design element on the Web. Order, then, becomes far more relative.

For example, suppose you want to present information about repetitive motion injuries. You can order this elementally (that is, by element) in many ways. If you think elementally, each way of ordering the information can be considered an island of meaning:

  • Injury type
  • Sport
  • Body part
  • Body region
  • Age
  • Male
  • Female
  • Profession
  • Location

On the page you see these elements as a list. But on the Web, these elements are islands of meaning, surrounded by waves of related contexts and subtexts. Because we've abstracted each element, we now have an option not available to information presented solely in the alphabetic framework. We can see these elements textually, as in the list above. And we can see them visually. We can order them spatially to create meaning. Moreover, we can reorder them to create views, looking at one element from another's perspective, working through all elements in a round-robin fashion.

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