Examining the Web as a Medium.
The Web is both the sum of the infrastructure supporting it and its public face, the webpage or the web app. In this post, I’ll examine the position of the Web as a medium of communication through the webpage, and determine what it is that makes it different from other media before it.
First, The Predecessors.
The main media of communication prior to the Web, as far as my limited knowledge of history goes, are as follows: drawings, text, photographs, video, sound. The first drawings were, of course, drawn by cavemen. Whether to spread the message about dangerous mammoths or their imagination of what higher beings are like, drawing was the first main way of communicating ideas to others, before languages were systemized to become a feasible means of communication.
Once languages were developed enough so that symbols and glyphs became recognizable to individual communities, and especially since paper and print came about, words became the main way of communicating ideas. Intricate thoughts and feelings could now be communicated to the next human being without the ambiguity of drawings, and I suspect that’s what made words and text dominant over visual drawings for a while.
Soon after, though, the invention of photography brought visual communication to a whole new level, copying traits of physical objects directly and perfectly onto film. Whereas text was able to replicate one’s inner thoughts and feelings almost perfectly onto physical objects that could be shared, photographs enabled one to do the same for what one can see with his eyes. A traveler with a camera, for example, could take photographs of the exotic travel location he had been and show them to his friends and families, reproducing part of what he had seen during his travels, with perfect precision.
When video or moving pictures came about, this took visual communication to an even higher level. One could now record the movement of a camel walking across the Sahara desert on video and anyone who has seen the video will now know what a camel looks like and how it behaves, without ever needing to step afoot a desert.
When sound recording was combined with videos, this replication of reality became even more complete. Now we can not only see a camel walking about, but also hear it grunt. Of course, without actually being physically there, we won’t get to know what a camel feels or smells like—yet. Future advances may make this possible, but for now there’s no need to touch on that.
The Web as a Composite.
Looking at things this way, it seems that as a medium of communication, the Web isn’t anything new. The Web has not made words more accurate than it already is; neither has it brought touch and smell to visual communication. And for the longest time, I had the misconception that the Web is the first medium that is able to combine not just words and drawings/photographs but also video and sound. But this is a gross misunderstanding—movies with text and sound and even drawings (in the form of animation) have been around for the longest time and are a perfect example of an equally rich form of communication before the Web.
Interactivity: Not Unique to the Web.
Similarly, the Web did not invent interactivity. Even before the internet turned mainstream, video games with moving drawings, text, and sounds had captured the imagination of millions. As one input his commands via game consoles, game interfaces changed accordingly and offered various forms of simultaneous feedback. The mouse and keyboard and even touch are just different ways of sending instructions to programs to change the user interface, the way game consoles did for video games.
The First Fluid Medium.
No, what truly distinguishes the Web as a medium is its fluidity. Videos and photographs, as well as drawings and words, are by nature constrained by their physical containers; the former two by film and the latter two by paper. The Web used to be constrained by the dimensions of monitor displays, but these days the concept of displays have been overtaken by viewports—anything that shows Web content can be considered a viewport, from smartwatches to LCD displays to refrigerator screen panels. Consequently, the buzzword responsive design has become the bedrock of web development, and the Web has become the first medium in history to possess the flexibility of changing its content/presentation in response to the size of its container, on the fly.
The Web also strives on hyperlinks, which are both a reflection of the infrastructure supporting the Web and a part of the Web’s identity as a medium. Prior to the Web, connecting, say, one book to another, was neither immediate nor obvious. One will have to carry the first book and walk over to the next before making visual comparisons, side by side. The ability to jump from one webpage to another in a click (touch/swipe/keypress), and then jump back or to the next hyperlinked content in an instant makes the Web unique as a medium of communication. It should be noted, though, that with the rise of single page applications, the relevance of hyperlinks has shrunk somewhat. It remains to see how relevant hyperlinks will stay in the decades to come—we may end up with islands of self-contained content loosely linked to each other in the future.
In order to create works that are unique to the Web, one should focus neither on its ability to composite different media nor on its interactivity; it’s the Web’s fluidity and hyperlinking that truly sets it apart.
In my next post, armed with this conclusion, I’d like to examine the Web’s (diminishing) role in art as opposed to its predecessors, and consider how I should take on Art on the Web.