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Making the Page Think like a Network, Part 2

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As we pinball around the digital landscape, this movement is changing the form of information in Web page views. Barry Chudakov reviews some basics on how formatting online information determines its value and shows how finding a unique vantage point can enhance its usability.

This series of articles is excerpted from a New Riders title currently in development, A Blinding Glimpse of Everything: Designing Information for the Multidimensional Web, by Barry Chudakov (ISBN 0735713138). To provide feedback or comment on this article, please contact the author: informassociates@cfl.rr.com

To download a PDF version of this article (Adobe Acrobat required), click here.

The Web organizes information differently, but this fact is not obvious in our page-view formatting. Nonetheless, as we pinball around the digital landscape, we are effectively breaking down the page as an information container; we are changing information's form. So, why isn't this new reality affecting the way we organize and design information? This series of articles explores the implications of the Web's nature, especially what networked technology is doing to our page-view handling of information.

In this article, I'll review some basic aspects of how the formatting of information determines information's value and explain how finding a unique vantage point can enhance its usability.

Form Rules

By abstracting the structure or form in which information comes to us, we gain considerable insight into the nature of information. Oddly enough, it's only when we question our adopted form or format—namely, the alphabetic matrix mentioned in the first article of this series—that this starts to become clear.

Once you look at information formally, observing the structure as well as the content, you start shaking the foundations of your certainties. Is it possible that we've been ignoring form or structure for so long, concentrating solely on content, that we've been missing something critical to using and understanding information? I think so.

Here are a few formal rules regarding the use and management of information. Once you consider the architecture of information in this fashion, you'll see that it looks—and works—differently than you may have thought.

  1. Form swallows function. (The medium eats the message.) We typically focus on information's content. Few of us today have a sense of how much the function of content is dependent on the form it comes in. Because the pervasiveness and movement of form shapes our perceptions of content, form "swallows" function; it takes it over in ways we rarely recognize.

  2. Form creates vision. What you see depends on how you see it. The more you create multiple views of the same content, the more you see what you didn't see before.

  3. Form creates meaning. What you understand depends on the form (structure) in which the content is presented.

  4. Structure that is hidden creates deception. From Al Qaeda to shady corporate accounting, transparent structures bring integrity to content—and organizations, for that matter. Lack of transparency should raise suspicions.

  5. Form changes the meaning of content. Meaning is not a fixed thing. Content is inherently variable; the same content can connote differently depending on how it is structured.

  6. Form that does not incorporate change and movement is fossilized and ultimately will disappoint. Most of our information today is in motion; most of our information formats are not.

  7. Today structure is moving from forms that contain to forms that relate. We are generating more information than our alphabetic matrix can hold. We need to devise new forms that aren't concerned solely with containing information, but rather that focus on how to relate bodies of information to each other.

Knowing that these are some of the structural behaviors of digital information, what are the implications of considering form in this way? And what does knowing this tell us about making information more useful?

There are three immediate consequences of this formal awareness:

  1. A new format or map of information changes the information.

  2. Building topsight into information enhances usability.

  3. The most effective way to organize complex information is to get above it.

Now let's examine each of these in turn.

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