DH6004: Conceptual Introduction to Digital Humanities
“The Page Today: a new paradigm for understanding?”
Seamus Hanley, Paul Maher, Owen McGee
Traditional print media is limited to a physical format and can be comprised of text and images. The fact that it is in a physical format also incurs production costs and limits its potential exposure depending on geography or methods of distribution. These limitations are largely removed with web pages, which can be created freely and are not bound by geographical constraints.
A web page is not technically a “page” at all. Rather, this term was adopted during the early days of the internet to give people a familiar concept to which they could relate. The web page is simply a computer file which can be viewed remotely using a web browser. This very status of the web page as a computer file is why it is not bound by the physical formats of a typical page, such as A4 or broadsheet newspapers.
Web pages can be designed to be responsive. For example, they can adapt to the device on which they are being displayed. This has become increasingly relevant in recent years with the increase in use of mobile phones and tablets, whose screens can be rotated horizontally or vertically. While it is impossible for a web designer to design a page for every possible combination of screen size, they can take steps and adhere to standards to try to ensure that their pages will display and scale appropriately.
Web pages are created using HTML (HyperText Markup Language), which includes text formatting options. It also allows the creator to insert images, video or other multimedia elements into a page. Pages can be further stylised using technologies such as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Scripting languages such as Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP) can be used to increase functionality, such as allowing one to query a page and display the results by what is termed a “dynamic page”, the contents of which may differ depending on what query, or when a query, was made.(1)
Web pages were originally static. This meant that they were created once and remained the same unless altered by the creator. This changed with the advent of Web 2.0, which allowed for interaction on the part of the readers. Readers could now comment on articles or, as in the case of Wikipedia and wikis in general, could edit existing pages. Web 2.0 gave rise to social bookmarking sites such as Digg and Del.ici.ous, as well as audio sites such as Last.Fm which actually generated content based on users’ listening habits. If they pleased, users could also add biographical information and photos about the artists to which they were listening to the same site.
Accessibility has been a key concept in the development of web pages. Aside from the introduction of standards to ensure consistency of display, other features introduced to improve accessibility for all potential readers include:
•Text-to-speech functionality and text scaling to facilitate people with eyesight problems
•Use of “night-time” mode on mobile devices to reduce the glare from the screen
•Use of specific Meta Tags attributes, one example being the “alt” tag that can be used in the case of an image not displaying so that the reader will be able to see a text description of the image instead
•Automatic translation features. These are built into some browsers such as Google Chrome, which integrates with Google Translate. The viewer can just right-click on any page to have its content translated. Although this technology is not perfect, it is developing and becoming more accurate.
The use of Meta Tags, such as keywords and page titles or descriptions, inside a web page allows that page to be searchable and found by search engines. Once listed by the search engines, it can then be found by people who are searching for similar content.
Web pages have essentially revolutionised the concept of publishing. Any writer can now publish their work and have it available for others to read or, if they choose, to comment on. Sites such as Issuu and Scribd also facilitate online publishing where users can simply upload a Portable Document Format (PDF) and have that available online with full sharing and embedding capabilities complete with traditional “page” effects such as the sound of a page turning.(2) In the case of Scribd, users may also choose to charge for their published work. Another publishing technology that exists enables a user to easily convert their document into an “e-Book” (electronic book) which can then be viewable online,including on mobile phones and tablets, or on a wide range of devices, including Kindles and other e-book readers.(3)
If the accessibility of web pages for their immediacy of use has been a key priority in their development, issues regarding their long term preservation have not always received equal consideration. One might make a comparison here with traditional media. For instance, paper has proven to be durable material for the storage of information for centuries, such as in codices or books, and with correct care and utilising suitable storage techniques, such as acid-free folders and environmental controls, it can be preserved almost indefinitely. Very different techniques are necessary for born digital or digitised pages, however, and curators of digital archives are already having many problems. This is because efforts to upgrade facilities with every iteration of technology are commonplace in both the public and private sphere. As a result, aside from issues of encoding data to preserve its meaning, even keeping intact the necessary software to retrieve the data can raise significant problems.(4) Costly programmes have been launched to maintain the integrity of digital archives, such as digital repositories, but this work is dependent not only on maintaining budgets, including staffing costs, but also the maintenance of relevant software. One undoubted advantage, as well as potentially much less costly feature, of digital archives, however, are their lack of space requirements for storage in comparison to all physical forms of media.
The role of web pages in encouraging a reconsideration of digital data management techniques has also impacted upon the field of computational text analysis in the humanities; a discipline that is now generally known as ‘the digital humanities’. In the United States, the National Endowment for the Humanities has called upon digital humanities research to embrace the idea of the ‘Visual Page’ by recognising that existing tools for computational text analysis should encompass the visual features of a page as much as its linguistic content.
(5) Some has suggested that this development has encouraged a return to a sort of conceptual purity in the analysis of pages, akin to the schools of thought that existed in medieval times rather than the more ideological ways of thinking that are typical of modern times.(6) The status of the book as a piece of technology in itself has also become a subject of renewed interest, prompting Peter Stallybrass, for instance, to suggest that “the codex and the printed book were indexical computers that Christianity adopted as its technology of discontinuity”.(7)
The advent of computer files being remotely viewable as ‘web pages’ has also prompted a fresh consideration of the dynamics of reading itself; an idea that some digital humanities scholars, such as Leah Price, have addressed through focusing on the question of subjectivity.(8) Hyper reading, or sifting through web pages, has become a norm more so than close reading of particular texts. For this reason, Katherine Hayles has called for the concept of reading to be reconsidered.(9) In computer applications and computer games development there is a term called ‘reskinning’, whereby the original code or architecture of a programme are maintained but its Graphical User Interface (GUI) or appearance are changed. In contrast to the ideas of Johanna Drucker, who has suggested that past templates for books and pages are unsuitable for digital books and pages,(10) Jerome McGann has argued that the digital page today should be akin to the traditional page reskinned.(11) One could argue, however, that the page today has simply outperformed the page of yesterday through its use of multimedia and hypertext links.
Although digital pages rely on many elements to keep them ‘afloat’, such as a Central Processing Unit (CPU), a screen, electronics, memory, networks, electricity and software to interface with hardware, they allow for the storage and retrieval of data, text copying and computerised research tools literally all “at the touch of a button”. The ultimate primacy of the digital page over the physical page, however, perhaps lies in it ability to analyse its reader by means of data analytics. In the business world this is priceless information that allows for segmentation and demographic surveillance of potential customers, just as social media platforms are designed to serve as data mining tools for business purposes. As the technology involved in this process is jealously guarded, it has been suggested that society needs a Magna Carta of the web.(12) From this perspective, just as illiteracy in the past condemned generations to lives of exclusion and poverty the digital page may threaten people today in the same way: those who do not know how to read beyond the surface of the digital page may be condemned to being the new illiterate. This may seem an extreme concept but it reflects the centrality of the business world in shaping the development of Information and Communications Technology (ICT).
The elements needed for a successful, or commercial, web page are many. To assist its discovery on a SERP (Search Engine Results Page), a designer needs to employ SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) techniques. These depend on multitudinous factors that search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo adjust regularly, supposedly for the sake of efficiency but reputedly to force people to pay money to receive a favourable result. Currently, SEO can be achieved by being cognisant of various factors:
•The adoption of links: good inward and outward links, including Social Media, can help legitimise and categorise your site
•Using keywords and headings tags: these must be chosen carefully as they are critical for search engine robots (it can also be useful to use synonyms as keywords)
•Creating a good URL: it is best to avoid ugly, or long, URLs (use a maximum of 3-5 words)
•Using “rich” media (e.g. images) with metadata whenever possible (copyright allowing)
•Ensure a good loading speed: if a web page loads slowly, this impacts negatively on its SEO ranking
•The concept of ‘bounce rate reduction’ or making a page interesting enough so users will not ‘leave’ it too quickly and be inclined to return to it frequently.
Embracing all these considerations may be a complicated process but this is a challenge that businesses and institutions now address almost everyday. As a result, an industry has grown up around providing expertise in this area. Some have attempted to school themselves in these processes, relying on studies such as Nielsen’s Heuristics,(13) but it is more common for institutions to hire advertising managers and simply pay for good SEO. This is usually done by hosting carefully chosen advertisements on the institution’s website that carry a ‘pay per click’ charge. This means that that the advertiser will pay the web host, or business, a fee every time their advertisement is discovered, or ‘clicked’, through the company’s web site. It is clear, therefore, that the web ‘page’ has connected the world of computer processing with the world of advertising in a very direct way. This has impacted on the business practices, or bureaucracy, of virtually all institutions in the public and private sphere: governmental, educational and commercial.
There is perhaps no more irrefutable evidence of the societal impact of web pages than the development of ‘e-government’ practices, which may have profound implications for the future. Legislation was passed in many countries relating to Data Protection and Freedom of Information both prior to and conterminously with the launch of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, while since the 2000s the practice of encouraging e-government (or the availability of government records electronically) as a basis for more open, or accountable, governmental practices has been official governmental policy in both the United States and the European Union (including the United Kingdom).(14) Such a development would simply not have been possible were it not for the growing centrality of the Internet to all forms of societal communication and, in particular, societal reliance on the web page, as opposed to the physical page, for access to important information (including, in the case of online banking, private financial records). An extension of this process has been the growth of the idea of “digital citizenship”, which effectively means that individuals will use the Internet and web pages in a socially and politically responsibly fashion, based on the concept of mutual respect and respect for the existing political order. In effect, the Internet has become a political forum that requires its own legal code. Indeed, it is worth noting that one of the first and most significant theorists on the development of the Internet was a distinguished Harvard law professor with party political affiliations; namely, Lawrence Lessig.(15)
Unsurprisingly, this change in the manner of governmental interaction with society has prompted a reevaluation of educational processes too, leading to a prioritisation of digital literacy within the education sector.(16) The process of “open government”, or open access to government records, has encouraged a process of encouraging “open access” to educational resources as well.(17) Governmental willingness to launch online archives of past records has not only enhanced the public profile of many curatorial institutions but it has also helped to alter the manner in which research is carried out. While this development has been most evident in the pure sciences, it has begun to shape work in the humanities as well, reflecting official EU policy, under its Horizon 2020 programme, that researchers must carry out their work according to an Open Data standard.
This Open Data standard is essentially a business ethic based on the governmental policy of encouraging the creation of a ‘digital single market’(18) in the belief that this ‘removes barriers to innovation’ in the business world by making ‘it easier for the public and private sectors to work together’.(19) The motivation of this policy is essentially that the professionalism of the business world and the professionalism of the civil servant and educator shall become one and the same thing. This may seem to be removing from consideration any knowledge that does not serve to generate commercial wealth, which is why many are inclined to associate the ethics of the digital world with iconoclasm. However, it would probably be fairer to say that what this development reflects instead is the purely functional role of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in serving as a common denominator to the information management needs, or practices, of all section of society.
The possibility of creating a less costly version of shop fronts online, thanks to the existence of HTML, has made the digital page ubiquitous as a basis of the marketplace, in turn making digital marketing, as well as social media, a constant preoccupation of both commercially motivated individuals and institutions. The advantages of the digital marketplace include greater affordability of advertising; the possibility of moving from planning to executing and adapting marketing strategies with greater speed; being able to track and analyse the progress of marketing campaigns with greater ease; and allowing for greater analysis of customer wants.(20) Governments also legislate for quality control in the online marketplace.
For instance, the European Union has recently updated its charter of consumer rights, dealing specifically with contracts between buyer and seller conducted outside the trader’s business premises as well as contracts using distance communication tools such as the Internet and the telephone.(21) This trend reflects the fact that the traditional marketplace of high street retailers and travel agents has changed utterly in the last twenty years with the advent of digital pages as online, as well as frequently more amenable, portals for the effective sale of their products or services.
To conclude, in light of the seemingly ever-growing centrality of web pages to the bureaucracy of government, commerce and education, raising the very question of “the page today” may seem to raise the need for new paradigms of understanding. It is clear that the commercial entity of the web page has made an impact on society comparable to that made by the commercial development of mass print journalism in the mid-nineteenth century or the equally commercial development of television in the mid-twentieth century.
This has prompted some Internet theorists to return to the ideas of media theorists such as Marshal McLuhan (1911-1980) in seeking to explain the meaning of this development.(22) It is possible for individuals to overreact to these trends, however. Some have been inclined to focus on the idea that the government-led process of encouraging cloud storage of data, voluntarily or otherwise, raises ethical issues.(23) Meanwhile, rather than creating new ‘virtual worlds’, the development of Web2.0 practices of interactive web pages or social media could be seen as something no different than the long established tradition of individuals using daily “letters to the editor” pages within newspapers to stimulate discussion.
Within academia, advocates for the creation of scholarly editions of texts in a digital form have emphasised that digital texts must attain the same level of integrity as the most valued historical texts: a digital edition must become an “edition for all the ages” if it is to survive or be of value,(24) while also recognising that a digital text can be a “fluid text” in the same way as multiple editions of past printed texts.(25) Perhaps this field of endeavour may become the principal contribution that humanists will make in responding to the ICT industry of the present. There may be no more important societal development for documenting the age in which we live than the development of trusted digital repositories to ensure that the full media records of this age—be it educational, governmental or commercial—shall be retained for posterity as much as those of all previous ages.
Advocacy for this cause may be weaker in countries like Ireland than it is in many countries, although the establishment of the Digital Repository of Ireland in the last couple of years is undoubtedly a positive step in the right direction.(26) In this process, the practice of “appraisal”, or selection of what is to be retained, is inherently an inexact science, although archivists have various guidelines that they can follow, many of which are published online by governments’ respective national archive services.
(1) For more information on PHP, see http://www.w3schools.com/php/default.asp.
For more information on CSS, see http://www.w3schools.com/css/default.asp
(3)One example of an open source E-Book creation software is CALIBRE. See https://calibre-ebook.com/
(5)Vincent Mosco,To the cloud: big data in a turbulent world(Boulder, 2014), 190.
(6)Vincent Mosco,To the cloud, 193, 214-219
(7)Peter Stallybrass, ‘Books and scrolls: navigating the bible in books and readers in early-modern England’, in J. Anderson, E. Sauer (eds) Material Studies(Philadelphia, 2002), quote pp.73-74.
(8)Leah Price, ‘Reading: the state of the discipline’,Book History, vol.7, no.1 (2004), 303-320
(9)N. Katherine Hayles, ‘How we read: close, hyper, machine’,ADE Bulletin(no.150, 2010)
(10)Johanna Drucker, ‘The virtual codex from page space to e-space’, in S. Schreibman, R. Siemens (eds)A companion to digital literary studies(Oxford, 2008), pt.11
(11)Jerome McGann, ‘A note on the current state of humanities scholarship’,Critical Inquiry, vol.30., no.2 (2004), 409-413
(12)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCplocVemjo (magna carta for the web)
(14)The latest incarnation of this process has been various open data governmental sites, including for the United States (https://data.gov), the United Kingdom (https://data.gov.uk/) and Ireland (https://data.gov.ie/data).
(15)Lawrence Lessig,The future of ideas: the fate of the commons in a connected world(New York, 2001). Lawrence Lessig,Free Culture(New York, 2004).
(16)An Irish example is Department of Education and Skills,Digital strategy for schools 2015-2020: enhancing teaching, learning and assessment(Dublin, 2015).
(17)In the United Kingdom, this process has been led by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC: https://www.jisc.ac.uk/content/open-access), which has served as a role model for a National Steering Committee on open access in Ireland (http://openaccess.thehealthwell.info/) and also employs the same Creative Commons license policy that was originally launched by Lawrence Lessig in the United States.
(20)For a graphical representation of the history of digital marketing, see http://www.mediaocean.com/digital-marketing-guide/overview-history
(23)Vincent Mosco,To the cloud: big data in a turbulent world(Boulder, 2014)
(25)John Bryant,The fluid text(Chicago, 2002)
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