Web pages are dead. The future of information—and how people interact with it—is undergoing a profound metamorphosis. Our eulogy must begin long before web pages were conceived. Before the Internet, there was the written word; the book was the preeminent artefact for disseminating and assimilating information.
The Scroll and the Table of Contents
In their early form, books were scrawled on scrolls. Scarcely a format conducive for rapidly jumping from place to place, scrolls were intended to be read linearly. Despite this constraint, the first tables of contents were developed for scroll manuscripts. In the first century A.D., for instance, Pliny the Elder preceded his 37-volume Natural History with a detailed table of contents (Forsythe, 2012). Such tables distilled the contents of a work into a taxonomy of volumes, sections, and chapters so that a reader would not have to scroll through the entire work to find their topic of interest.
The Printing Press and the Index
It wasn’t until the advent of the printing press, however, that the taxonomical organisation of the book—the table of contents—was augmented with a secondary organisational scheme: the index (Wellisch, 1991). Having transformed leafless, handwritten scrolls into mass-market books with numbered pages, the printing press made it practical to create, replicate, and use an alphabetised index of topics. If the reader could not locate their topic of choice in the table of contents, they could look it up in the much more granular index and jump directly to the relevant page in the book.
The Early Internet and the Web Page
The early World Wide Web scarcely advanced this paradigm. The book had become the website, the table of contents had become the website’s navigation, and book pages had simply become web pages. Like the book that preceded it, the early website was a top-down construction: a rigid taxonomy of pages.
Of course, we quickly realised that these one-size-fits-all taxonomies, well, did not always fit everyone’s needs. To fix the problem, we bolted-on inferior site search tools and prepared A-Z indexes of topics. In other words, we did more or less the same thing that we’d been doing for the last five centuries.
The Rise of Faceted Search
But things were about to change. Half a century earlier, an Indian librarian had proposed a new way of organising information. Rather than use a rigid taxonomy, S. R. Ranganathan suggested that information should be categorised using multiple characteristics, what we now call “facets” (Tunkelang, 2009). By the early 2000s, information retrieval systems were beginning to augment keyword searches with faceted navigation.
In this revolutionary development, a person could finally access information not just through someone else’s top-down taxonomy or A-Z index, but by simply interacting with the facets that match their own mental model.
The Pageless Future
But there’s a problem. Because faceted navigation was developed as an extension of search—and search itself was added to websites to provide an alternative to traditional web navigation—these two forms of navigation often still share an awkward co-existence. Users must choose whether to follow the website’s table of contents, or whether to turn to the faceted index.
In the future, this distinction will disappear. There is no need for a user to perform a keyword search in order to access faceted navigation; and there is nothing that traditional navigation accomplishes which faceted navigation does not also achieve. In other words, the table of contents and the index are destined to merge into one, faceted experience.
Indeed, we can see this future unfolding before us. When we use the Web to shop, pick out recipes, look for a house, find a job, or choose a film to watch, we already engage in faceted, pageless interactions.
A Happy Ending
In this faceted future, there are no pages. The story that began millennia ago is finally coming to fruition: information is being liberated from the page—and the taxonomies, the fixed tables of contents—which bound them to a rigid existence. And users, unconstrained by foreign hierarchies, are finally free to explore information in its purest form.
- Forsythe, G. (2012). History of Information Retrieval. Retrieved from http://www.asindexing.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageID=3300 on Oct 29, 2012.
- Wellisch, H. (1991). Indexing from A to Z. Hw Wilson Co.
- Tunkelang, D. (2009). Faceted Search. Synthesis Lectures on Information Concepts, Retrieval, and Services. Morgan & Claypool. p7.