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Document architecture

We are not the first age to think of knowledge as a building. Up through the Middle Ages memory was often thought of as a palace with many rooms.[1] But with the Web, we've taken it several steps further. We are turning documents into buildings.

This is hard to see if you're fixated on understanding the Web as a communications medium. But it is not a medium. A medium is that through which something travels: person A sends a bundle to person B through the connecting medium. While we sometimes experience the Net that way, our language betrays us. We talk about the Web not primarily in terms of a place I send things through but as a place through which I move. I surf, browse, visit. My destinations are sites, homes. The Web is a place through which I journey.

But we have a second commonplace set of metaphors for understanding the Web: pages, documents. Most Web sites present themselves as some type of document, laid out like documents, using document conventions such as titles, headers, articles and multiple columns.

In fact, the two metaphors — places and documents — intersect. Web pages are themselves sites that we enter and that may have an "Under construction" sign on them as if jackhammers could be heard in the background. It's as if we've entered a world in which the buildings are documents, and the documents have taken on some of the architectural properties of physical buildings. Normal documents we carry around, store, file. But on the Web, we go to documents. Documents become destinations.

Going to a new page on the "site" often feels like going to a new place, not like flipping a page. And while real documents are published in identical copies, on the Web there's only one authentic document, as public as a skyscraper in a city skyline.

The intersection of the metaphors of place and documents is not accidental. The objects in real space are structured according to accidents of geography, but that geography also provides the public way in which space is organized. There is no accidental geography in cyberspace. Objects — places — are organized by their meaning, as expressed in hyperlinks: two Web sites are "near" if I can get from one to the other directly by clicking on a link, and that link is there because the author saw some meaningful connection. So, the Web space is organized by meaning. And in our culture, documents are the way in which meaning is made public and given some persistence. So it's natural that documents have become the nodes of organization on the Web.

The weird thing is how easily we have grown accustomed to the hybridization of documents and buildings. Perhaps this is because an absorbing work of fiction draws us into the imagined world, so we already have a sense of books as portals to new places. The transition, weird as it is, is not as unexpected as it might first seem: books-as-portals have become documents-as-buildings.

This is where the real battle with broadband will be waged, for broadband (as envisioned by companies who still haven't gotten over TV) is a code word for "broadcast," turning the semantic landscape of the Web into a mere communications medium. Document sites vs. Web channels and programs. We will have both. Only one will change the world.David Weinberger is editor of The Journal of Hyperlinked Organizations.

[1]Jonathan Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci,http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0140080988/

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