Visual Rhetoric: Threads in a web
I ultimately agree that the web is a rhetorical place, as Burbules argues. Two decades after the information explosion of the mid 90s, we have undeniably realized the potential of the personalization of the internet, and in ways Burbules couldn’t possibly have anticipated.
The most obvious manifestation of this defining of web places is seen in the rise of the social network. To varying extents, these services have offered users the ability to curate precise, rhetorically-situated representations of the web as they see it, and of how the web sees them. Social networks were the natural 2000s outgrowth of 1990s message boards, interest groups, and newsgroups.
Where Burbules’ analysis falters now is in the rhetorical navigation of the internet. Again, we can’t really blame him for his inability to see the massive changes just around the corner, considering this 2002 publication was likely in the works through 2001, if not earlier.
Burbules speaks of the linearity of the web, of how users feel the pressure of where they currently are spatially in choosing where to go next, i.e., the webpage which I am currently displaying has a high potential for semantic manipulation on which page I will choose to visit next. It is argued that this becomes something of a rabbit hole effect, where the user clicks from a starting point, and each space visited becomes one of a rapidly growing series of “turns,” and enough of these turns leads the user to a cloudy understanding of their journey in hindsight. This view of the web as an unknowable warren assumes a user experience rooted in the technology, software, and web design of the late 1990s:
“First, these links are bi-directional — users can go from page A to page B and return from B to A — but this relation is not symmetrical. Users must usually perform extra work within the browser’s conventions to return from B to A, and (especially having seen A already) the movement from B to A does not have the same semantic effect as the movement from A to B” (Burbules).
This changed radically soon after publication, and as a result of numerous pressures. A significant change on the end-user side of this relationship came in a deceptively simple package: the browser tab.
While tabbed browsing was a possibility back into the 1990s, it existed primarily as modifications or software plug-ins that were geared to the power user more than the average end user. Browser tabs were not legitimized in mainstream browsers until the mid 2000s. Mozilla Firefox offered the first substantial penetration of the feature, but Internet Explorer didn’t offer it until 2006. This codification of the feature, combined earlier with alternative browsers like Opera and Avant, and later with expansions of Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari (which had existed for several years, but remained a minimal impact until the dramatic market expansion of Apple hardware in the late 2000’s), gave rise to a new user dynamic: breadcrumbs.
By using browser tabs – a process as simple as single mouse click in most browser interfaces – it has become simple for a user to leave themselves a clear route back through the multiple turns of their journey. This isn’t simply a convenience. The rise of tabbed browsing encourages the user to travel farther out of familiar territory, and to go off-road, knowing their travel needn’t be linear. The semantic pressure Burbules ascribes to the web is dramatically lessened when a user no longer feels compelled to move directly forward from their options at hand, or directly backward to the last page they visited.
A final note of difference is found between this empowered user’s browsing flexibility, and the rise of personal expression of the social network. Content aggregator websites, the most notable of which being Reddit, are the perfect compliment to this empowered browsing environment. Reddit and other social networks offer users the ability to tightly control the links to interesting material they might care to see, such as interests in social issues, news, political affiliations, or entertainment media. The user can visit their personal collection of interest-focused “subreddits,” their collection of Tumbr feeds, or their chosen list of Twitter microbloggers, and jump off to any of the numerous links featured with a new browser tab. From each landing, the user can then jump off again, creating both a rich collection of alternative browsing routes to return to, but also the ability to return back to any single waypoint along the journey.
Burbules’ critique of the linearity of the web of 2000-2002 is perfectly valid, and perhaps then, the best analogy of browsing was a fixed, straight thread. These few but critical changes in a user’s navigation, as well as the content they navigate from and to, has brought us much closer to viewing our internet browsing as a literal web.