Website Interpretation EESE 2/2001

Website-Interpretation: Questions and Problems

Thomas Kühn (Berlin)

1.      Problems of Website Interpretation: No Findings and Three Exceptions
1.1    Exception One: Teaching of Literature and the Internet
1.2    Exception Two: "Evaluation" and "Website"
1.3    Exception Three: Textuality and Archiving in Electronic Media
1.4    Problems of Evaluation
1.5    Analysis and Evaluation of Information Sources
1.6    How Much Technical Skill Is Required?
1.7    Print and Web: Contrasts
2       The Seminar "The Uses of Media Literacy: Problematic Internet"
2.1    A Point of Departure: The Orality - Literacy Divide
2.2    Selection of Material
2.3    Elements of Analysis and Interpretation
2.4    Reactions and (a Lack of) Results
3       References


"Website Interpretation: Questions and Problems" is intended as introduction to the website "Problematic Internet". The site is the web-outcome of a Hauptseminar at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin with the title "The Uses of Media Literacy: Problematic Internet" during summer-semester 2000. The seminar was part of a larger one-year-project entitled "Verbesserung der Lehre unter Einsatz neuer Medien" financed by the Humboldt-Universität. The paper consists of two parts. The first part deals with questions and problems that confront literary and cultural critics when trying to apply their traditional analytic interpretative tools to websites. The second part is a short description of and a comment on the seminar.

1       Problems of Website Interpretation: No Findings and Three Exceptions

Because of their exploratory character it might be exculpable that the following reflections achieve neither the status of a systematic approach nor do they present a clear set of answers. They rather should be understood as a sketch of hitherto scarcely chartered terrain. One initial motivation to do just this is the surprising discrepancy between the active and widespread use of the internet by literary and cultural critics, and the (small) number of attempts by members of the same group to interpret websites as important signifying 'textual' practices of our time. The discrepancy will not be bridged here, but attention will be drawn to the problem and questions will be raised that should be pursued in greater detail and more systematically in the near future. Therefore, this introduction is intended not the least as a starting point for further work and an invitation to a discussion.

Although the Internet has become a major medium for a great number of purposes, surprisingly little has been published on the problems of 'reading', i.e. of critically analysing, evaluating and interpreting websites. Even in a literature-related field like hyperliterature the body of 'primary literature' is seen to by a small quantity of critical articles and a handful of books. This impression was confirmed at a recent conference at Blaubeuren (20).

From its beginning website interpretation has been fraught with terminological problems often imported from traditional textual and literary criticism (0). Sometimes the language of lit. crit. seems to be utterly incompatible with the demands of the medium Internet. The terminological problems and the accompanying analytical and interpretative ones are highlighted when turning to the internet for publications. Thus, a search with Google  provided an abundance of information that led hardly anywhere with regards a critical reading of websites as 'text' (03/11/2000 and 02/01/2001). Terms like "website", "literature" and "reading" and their combinations yielded some 160,000 entries, none with a critical bias. The same happened with "literature" "internet" "interpretation" where some 115,000 entries were given with just one rather general URL . The search for the terms "internet", "interpretation", "website", "text" and "literature" and their combinations led to the same unsatisfactory results: hundreds of thousands of entries and hardly any applicable URL. These unsatisfactory results lead to at least two questions:

1.1    Exception One: Teaching of Literature and the Internet

However, there are three exceptions that yielded at least some answers. The first is the search for the terms "internet", "teaching" and "literature" which provided ca. 322 000 entries of which a couple of hundred were checked. A search with Google usually produces the most important and reliable addresses among the first couple of hundred of findings. Therefore, one can restrict the scrutiny of individual websites to that number. In the case of "internet", "teaching " and "literature", a variety of e-publications were found dealing with the role of the internet and the teaching of literature, and the changes it will bring about (17, 13, 4, 10, 15, 21, and 22). Many addresses deal with the Internet as a teaching tool, often distant learning, but hardly as object of study. The field "internet / teaching / literature" itself might be too wide to come up with useful results, and the topics of the articles are so heterogeneous that there is hardly a common denominator. Therefore, a hoped-for application to the topic in question is very difficult. Only one article, "The Impact of the Internet" (10), seemed to be promising. But the colloquium of the Eastern Illinois University's English Department dealt mainly with technical consequences or cultural implications, but not with the interpretation of concrete websites, nor with theoretical considerations.

1.2    Exception Two: "Evaluation" and "Website"

The search for entries with "evaluation" and "website" provided the second exception (ca. 1,250,000 entries with Google). Among the first couple of hundred, library concerns were dominant, including an extensive "Bibliography on Evaluating Internet Resources". Many sites deal with information reliability on the net. From this perspective a number of addresses - mostly from American university libraries - offer criteria for URL-evaluation in a more technical sense. Some sites are of the how-to-evaluate type and are very helpful for beginners (1, 5, 6, 9, 16, 23). Judging from the URL extensions - mostly ".edu" - they usually have US undergraduate students as target group. Most guides point in one direction: to teach basic internet literacy and to prevent students and other users to fall into the many traps of the still new medium. One group of cases should be mentioned that lead into yet another slightly different direction. There are a number of commercial and professional sites that provide extensive guidelines for website evaluation. Sometimes - as in the case of T. Matthew Ciolek's and Irena M. Goltz's "Information Quality WWW Virtual Library. The Internet Guide to Construction of Quality Online Resources" (3) - an extensive bibliography is added that helps in general and more technical respects. Generally however, it is not the sites' intention to provide interpretative tools in order to "read" websites as cultural or literary constructs, or as signifying practice.

1.3    Exception Three: Textuality and Archiving in Electronic Media

A third field is related to the second as it is connected with the role of texts - printed or electronic -, their changing technical potential and cultural significance, and their archiving. Here, the cultural importance of the printed text and the far-reaching changes through the electronic media, including internet, is being dealt with in academic discussions (7, 11, 12, 14, 25). Many of the contributors to this field of study are librarians. But again as in the other cases, the question of website-interpretation is not addressed.

1.4    Problems of Evaluation

Turning from the three exceptions to the question of how, from a literary and cultural studies perspective, websites can be analysed, evaluated and interpreted there are far more questions than even tentative answers. We will see in the following that a look at even a very small number of articles and URLs produces more problems than satisfactory answers. Two examples will have to suffice as illustrations.

1.5     Analysis and Evaluation of Information Sources

"How to Critically Analyze Information Sources" (9), a site from Cornell University Library, interestingly refers to both, printed and electronic text. By the distinction between "Initial Appraisal", including subcategories like "Author", "Date of Publication", "Edition or Revision" and "Publisher" on the one hand, and "Content Analysis", including subcategories like "Intended Audience" and "Objective Reasoning" on the other, the pamphlet does a number of problematic things:

Like "How to Critically Analyze Information Sources" the "Ten C's for Evaluating Internet Sources" (23) from the University of Wisconsin addresses undergraduate students and restricts its theme to information sources. In contrast to the Cornell site, however, the site from Wisconsin specifically aims at information from the internet. But even here, the basis is print culture that seems to be more stable or at least more established than specific internet approaches. Thus, under the third "C" that deals with "Critical Thinking" we find the following:

How can you apply critical thinking skills, including previous knowledge and experience, to evaluate internet resources? Can you identify the author, publisher, edition, etc. as you would with a "traditionally" published resource? What criteria do you use to evaluate internet resources?

Here, as in most other chapters of the site, major problems of internet evaluation become obvious that are connected with authorship and publishing sources. They have to receive new answers for the new medium, and yet will have to start from the experiences with the printed text and take the printed text as point of reference.

1.6    How Much Technical Skill Is Required?

Another aspect has to do with technical questions that are inseparably linked with websites. In how far does one have to be technically competent? Must an evaluator or interpreter of websites from a literary or cultural studies perspective be able to construct technically advanced websites? In how far does one have to understand the technical processes in order to write competently about websites as signifying practices? William Trochim (24), a social scientist from Cornell University, is strongly in favour of active technical competence when he argues for the evaluation and construction of websites as an integrated practice. A look at the commercial "Quality Criteria for Website Excellence" (19) indirectly confirms Trochim's demands. Here, under five headings ("Functionality", "Design", Content", "Originality" and "Professionalism & Effectiveness") a list of one-hundred criteria plus some extra factors is drawn up in order to evaluate the quality of websites. As in Trochim's case it is an attempt to transfer quantitative criteria to quality assessment, a method well established in business and the sciences but hardly applicable as a decisive criterion in literary or cultural studies.

1.7    Print and Web: Contrasts

What then, apart from and yet including the question of authorship and publisher, and apart from and yet including the question of technical competence, are the other major problems of website-interpretation? The basis for an interpretative start should still be seen in the print medium, problematic as this may be. Time-honoured interpretative practices can be used and at the same critically reflected if contrasted with some comparable characteristics of website interpretation that lead in new directions and thus require new reading and interpretative techniques(0).

At this point, a short explanation on the terms "text" and "medium" is in order. The technical side of the two terms will be foregrounded here. "Text" is the utterance that is produced or reproduced, i.e. printed or copied on paper. For the present purpose, I do not take a wide intertextual understanding of "text". I keep "text" within the boundaries of a medium, an archive that is technically bound up with paper that has been written or printed on. "Text" needs not be restricted to letters and words on a page or sheet of material. A text can also be an illustration, a photograph, a reproduced painting, a cartoon, in other words, graphic non-written representation. By "medium" I understand the material archive-system in which a text is stored. Thus stone columns, books, tapes, CDs and the Internet are media. "Media" are not used in the sense of TV, the Press or Radio as information channels in a basic communication model of sender - channel - receiver, nor as institutions of mass-communication. In my contrasting list I therefore will leave out considerations of medial flow between e.g. television and the internet.

With the following list I try to juxtapose some dividing characteristics of the print medium and of the internet as a medium. The list should be understood as an invitation to add more items or to take up single points and enlarge on them. Aesthetic questions or artistic merit are of no interest at this stage. Therefore the list implicitly covers on the side of print very different things such as high and popular fictional literature, yellow-press newspaper-articles or advertisements.
printed text
materially stable and fixed 

(paper, cardboard, plastic) 


materially unstable and changing 

(electronic screen)

text static text dynamic
text - visual image not norm text - visual image norm
visual image static visual images dynamic
content on page / in book stable content on page /site can change
textual reliability because of material stability textual unreliability because of dynamic structure
linear reading, with rereading possibilities non-linear reading, networking

What are the consequence of these differences? Even tentative answers would have to be rather extensive. Therefore, the desirable longer and more differentiated reflection will have to be deferred for a while as more comparative research will have to be done. With a preliminary ending of the medial considerations at this stage it is nevertheless hoped that some of the issues touched upon will initiate a fruitful and controversial discussion in a field that has been hardly treated yet.

2       The Seminar

The title of the seminar, "The Uses of Media Literacy - Problematic Internet", was inspired by Richard Hoggart's classic book-title The Uses of Literacy (1957), one of the seminal texts for British cultural studies. Forty years later, in the middle of the electronic revolution, the significance of the title has not diminished but it has changed considerably. Now, in the middle of a medial shift of information paradigms the question has to be asked of how the readable, visible or audible products of and their representation in the new media can and should be interpreted. How, in other words, the new media literacy should, once acquired, be made critical use of.

2.1    A Point of Departure: The Orality-Literacy Divide

The initial idea for the course was triggered by the orality-literacy debate and Walter J. Ong's book on Orality and Literacy (1982) and its subtitle: the Technologizing of the Word as a key terminological inspiration. The complex change of medial paradigms that is taking place between orality and literacy seems to find its contemporary parallel as electronic scripts, visualisations and 'auralisations' are taking over as dominant media from the materially written media, be it in the form of manuscripts or prints. It is hardly accidental that the orality-literacy discussion has gained so much attention - including that of a very successful special research unit on "Übergänge zwischen Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit" at Freiburg University (transition from orality to literacy) - when another deeply disturbing and far-reaching medial shift appears on the horizon. Sensitivities have been awakened that lead to research into possible parallel developments.

As Ong's contributions to the orality-literacy-debate has provided some methods and perspectives to the look at the present shift of paradigm, the seminar started with Ong and asked for the material consequences of the change from orality to literacy. These aspects were seen to by a paper on "The Orality-Literacy Divide: Consequences for the Internet?" and a visit to the Museum für Verkehr und Technik with a guided tour of the print- and paper-production departments. Another starting point was the superficially naive question of how websites could and should be interpreted. Here too, Ong was quite helpful.

2.2    Selection of Material

Another problem was the selection of adequate material for the concrete interpretative work on websites. The topic simply turned out to be far too vast to cover even superficially. As a consequence, the concrete examples and topics were partly chosen by accident. It was hoped that the sum of presentations of more or less arbitrarily selected sites might add up to, not as much as to an exemplary survey, but to at least a range of interpretative questions that could be systematised at a later stage.

The first topic, "Media Change as Culture Change: Electronic Publishing and the Decline of Scientific / Scholarly Publishing", was selected for the simple reason that a number of articles could be found (7, 11, 12, 15, 25). Other topics presented in the course came from British cultural studies: two students looked at two different websites of football-clubs, Manchester United as the most professional world-wide, and - by way of comparison - Chester City FC, a second division club of no apparent outstanding quality. Another student introduced the British monarchy-website. Yet another perspective was taken by looking at some crucial terms on the topic "critical" Internet: "Globalisation", the "Internet as New Encyclopaedia", and "Internet and Censorship". All in all, the relative lack of specificity and the great variety of topics for presentation in class and as website-projects reflect the still rather unsystematic state of affairs. The comparatively broad range of topics served the purpose to find out a common denominator under which relevant interpretative questions could be formulated.

Nevertheless, the range of topics and approaches are to be seen as attempts to cover some important fields of the new medium that can be approached from a cultural studies perspective from a number of angles. In all presentations one question turned out to be central: "How can websites be described or even interpreted?" For the fields of literary and cultural studies an additional question arose that refers to the sites` cultural significance and their form as a "virtual" texts. Assuming that websites are signifying practices one has to ask how they could and should not only be described but adequately interpreted as signifying practices. In how far, in other words and taking up the questions of the first part of this paper, can criteria be developed with which the sites can be described, evaluated and interpreted?

2.3    Elements of Website Analysis and Interpretation

The history of website technology - recent though it may be - indicates that web-design has started from print-design but that it has meanwhile reached a stage where new interpretative categories should be considered. Nevertheless it turned out during the course that it is still useful to refer to more traditional textual interpretative elements if only as points of reference. For website description and analytical interpretation the following elements were initially suggested:

1.1.1kinds of text(s), genres
1.1.2iconic items (pictures, logos)
1.1.3relation and interaction between text and icons
1.2stability / dynamism of the text
1.2.1same / different text for all users
1.2.1same / different text each time the site is (re)entered
1.3stability / dynamism of icons
1.3.1same / different icons for all users
1.3.2same / different icons each time the site is (re)entered
1.4relationship of text / icon in dynamic websites
1.4.1relationship between stable text and dynamic icon
1.4.2relationship between dynamic text and stable icon
1.4.3relationship between dynamic text and dynamic icon
1.5links to other sites, other internet specific features
1.6questions of authorship
1.6.1author named as individual
1.6.2as company
1.6.3as institution
1.7date of page
1.7.1first instalment
1.7.2regular update
2analytic interpretation
2.1implied intention of page(s)
2.2target group (implied / explicit reader)
2.3authorship in relation to kind of text / image
2.4openness vs. circularity / closure of site / page / link

2.4    Reactions and (a Lack of) Results

The sessions during which concrete websites were tested along the suggested guidelines caused considerable frustration among the participants as the attempted interpretations did not produce any viable results or patterns that could be generalised. However, the reason for the dissatisfaction did not lie in the particular elements given, as alternative criteria could neither be found in the net nor in printed literature. Therefore, the suggested elements were of as limited help as others. For the students it was difficult to accept the frustration with the lack of results, and to regard this lack as a result in its own right.

The same problem arose when three participants worked on their presentations of their analyses in the net. Andrea Lüerßen chose the British Monarchy website, Benjamin Timm compared the Manchester United website with the one of Chester City FC, and Ronald Wappke turned to the website of Microsoft as the one company that is situated at the very heart of the recent developments.

Even seemingly easy technical and formal problems of presentation turned into obstacles. To take but one example: The notorious temporal instability of websites could not be overcome. Each contributor had to choose one point in time when he or she had to `fix' the site in question in order to write an evaluative analysis. This caused a number of problems with the sites referred to: Is it the site that one visits the same as or at least equivalent to the one read at the time when the analysis took place? Is the analysis worthless, and, if so, to what degree, if the site has changed? In analysing changing websites, is the fixed object something potentially different from the actual site? These problems become even more acute the more the site depends on actuality or has to reflect the latest state of the art in web-design. Commercial sites like the Manchester United or the Microsoft-sites are - for different reasons - more prone to rapid changes than a site like that of the British monarchy. And yet, in order to be recognisable over a longer period of time, and in order to present a corporate identity in the web, a balance has to be sought between the pressure of constant change and a wish for stability and reliability. Here, one could ask how these contradicting demands are expressed on the site itself, and in how far they are signs of wider cultural phenomena and developments. The implications of these questions make the practicability of a concrete website analysis and interpretation even more difficult and at the same time more urgent and desirable. Although and because there is no end to complications in these matters, the field waits to be scrutinised.

Websites are an important part of the signifying practices of our time. A seminar and the website-presentations by some participants need not produce the models one might have hoped for. But they should bring the still rather diffuse topic into clearer focus. Even if they fail in their attempts it should be controlled failure. Like many discussions and presentations during the course, the presentation in the net can be part of negative results that are useful results nonetheless.

3      References:

For URLs usually the latest update is quoted as the publication date (only month and year), and the month and year of the download is added at the end of the entry.

Aarseth, Espen J. (1997)
Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Alexander, Jan; Tate, Marsha Ann (7/2000).
"Evaluating Web Resources". (01/2001)

The Book & The Computer, an Online Journal. (01/2001)

Ciolek, T. Matthew; Goltz, Irena M. (1996, 2001).
"Information Quality WWW Virtual Library. The Internet Guide to Construction of Quality Online Resources" (01/2001)

Deemer, Charles (1994).
"The Humanities in Cyberspace: How the Internet is changing teaching and scholarship in the humanities".

"Evaluation of Internet Resources" (12/2000). (01/2001)

Grassian, Esther (9/2000).
"Thinking Critically about World Wide Web Resources". (01/2001)

Harnad, S. (1991)
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Hoggart, Richard (1957).
The Uses of Literacy: Changing Patterns in English Mass Culture. Boston: Beacon, 21966.

"How to Critically Analyze Information Sources" (06/2000). (01/2001)

"The Impact of the Internet: An English Department Colloquium, Eastern Illinois University" (04/2000). (11/2000)

Jäger, Georg (1998).
"Vom Text der Wissenschaft: Überlegungen zum Wandel des Textbegriffs im Rahmen vernetzter EDV-Kommunikation". In: Uwe Jochum / Gerhard Wagner (eds.). Am Ende - das Buch. Semiotische und soziale Aspekte des Internet. Konstanz: Universitätsverlag Konstanz. (04/2000)

Jochum, Uwe; Wagner, Gerhard (1996).
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Johnson, Eric (03/1998).
"The World Wide Web, Computers, and Teaching Literature". (03/2001)

Kayany, Joseph; Ahtappilly, Kuriakose K . (1997).
"Cyber-Academe: Realizing Virtual Environments for Scholarship and Instruction". Michigan Academician 29:2, 125-44.

Kayany, Joseph (1998).
"Course Web Pages: Exploring their Instructional Potential in the Classroom". Michigan Academician 30:4, 453-66.

Lederer, Naomi (10/2000).
"How to Evaluate A Web Page".

Lee, Stuart (07/1998).
"Forging Links: The Virtual Seminars for Teaching".
Literature Project; Centre for Humanities Computing; University of Oxford (11/2000)

Ong, Walter J. (1982).
Orality and Literacy: the Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.

"Quality Criteria for Website Excellence" (04/2000).

Rommel, Thomas; Schnierer, Peter Paul (eds.) (2001).
Literarische Hypertexte. Tübingen: Niemeyer. Forthcoming.

"Teaching at an Internet Distance: the Pedagogy of Online. The Report of a 1998-1999 University of Illinois Faculty Seminar" (no date). (11/2000)

"Teaching with Electronic Technology" (01/2001). (01/2001)

"Ten C's For Evaluating Internet Sources" (08/2000). (01/2001)

Trochim, William (1996).
"Evaluating Websites".

Zeigler, John F. (1997).
"Gutenberg, Scriptoria, and Websites". Journal of Scholarly Publishing 29:1, 36-43.