Metaphors We Web By

Maggie Appleton gets into what is perhaps the foremost metaphor the web is founded on: paper.

Paper documents were the original metaphor for the web. […]

The page you’re reading this on still mimics paper. We still call it a page or an HTML document. It follows the same typographic rules and conventions – black text on white backgrounds and a top-to-bottom / left-to-right heirarchical structure.

Over in the ShopTalk Discord, the idea of CSS custom properties named –ink and –paper came up the other day as abstractions for color and background-color and I kinda like it. There’s something more clear about the meanings of those terms to me.

But Maggie gets into some of the downsides of the paper-based metaphors, pointing out Ted Nelson’s critiques. This is interesting:

We treat the page as the smallest unit of linkable information, instead of the sentence or paragraph.

That kind of ignores the idea of jump links or Chrome’s new-ish link to highlight, but I take the point.

Will the main metaphor of the web as paper change in time? I’d say it’s highly likely. The interactivity and behavior we expect on the web today is a million miles different than we expected in the past and that’s going to keep happening. These updates accelerate the change. Perhaps someday the metaphors will have shifted to “alternate neighborhood,” “second brain,” or “dedicated assistant.”

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