Brian Slesinsky's Weblog

Saturday, 02 Jun 2007

Chop it all up and start anywhere

It occurred to me while participating in a discussion about David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous that the problems with what he calls the first order of order aren't entirely solved by putting information online, because they often have nothing to do with physical constraints of stores and libraries. They're actually about how we express ourselves.

For example, writing a non-fiction book is an organizational challenge, because you want to find the best order in which to explain things to the reader, and you have many things to say that depend on other things that the reader should know first. The problems are even worse (I presume) making everything line up when writing a novel, where the story can depend on what happened before in a deep way, and changing your mind about something important means a lot of rewriting. And movies are often very dependent on what happened in earlier scenes, to the point where if you start watching in the middle, you'll never figure out what's going on.

The shuffling, searching, and reorganizing that we now take for granted depend on content that allows for random access. Shuffle play works because the beginning of any song is a suitable starting point, regardless of what went before. That's what a song is, after all. It's possible to have music without clear boundaries in space and time, but your iPod can't shuffle that.

If we want to reorganize on a whim and start from anywhere, we have to make a decision about ambiguous boundaries and chop things up as best we can. Where does this song end and the next one begin? Should this be one article or three? Is this a movie or a series of episodes?

Writers adapt to the Internet by doing smaller projects or multi-part projects, where each piece depends less on what comes before. The giant Internet collaborations take advantage of tiny contributions from an ever-larger and more diverse pool of contributors. It's never been possible to assume others have read the same thing you did, but it's even less so now.

When there are prerequisites, we're more explicit about them. Web pages now start by saying, "Hey, you're reading part 5. Here's a link to the first article." Or better yet, "This article really only depends on part 3, and you can skip the others if you like." Or just drop sequential ordering altogether and put links to any articles you'd like readers to look at first, like prerequisite courses in a college catalog. But not too many, and you can't assume too much.

This boundary-drawing and standardization happens at all levels, from genre down to the single character or pixel. It's a bit ironic how David Weinberger celebates our freedom from the old physical constraints on libraries and stores. Most of the pictures and conversations that we're moving online weren't organized in libraries or sold in stores, and to put them online, we often have to follow stricter rules than before in how we express ourselves. Everything has to fit into the standardized content containers that our machinery depends on, so it can shuffle them, ship them around the world, and reassemble them into a page in some new order that hopefully has meaning to the reader.