Indian and Northern Affairs Canada: A Few Words About Interactive Networks
by Angela Pancella
've been definition-happy lately. I've been wondering how to peg websites, how to describe those places with a "www", dots and slashes in their names, without making the definition too broad or too narrow. I sensed there's some confusion about what exactly a website is—what it's meant to do, and how it should do it. As long as the confusion exists, people are going to create websites which don't live up to their potential.
Websites such as the one designed for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). Something in the above paragraph is unique. You can read it, and as you do, you can come across some words in a different color. You can point an arrow to those words, click, and find yourself at a different page—in this case, a different page at an entirely different site. You couldn't have done that if, say, you were reading the paragraph in a book. In a book, you would have seen perhaps a footnote telling you more information on the subject. A nice invention, footnotes, but nowhere near as comprehensive, useful or handy as the hyperlink. The hyperlink, the device enabling you to jump from one source of information to the next, is a big part of what makes a website a unique form of expression. No other printed-word medium—newspapers, books, magazines, etc.—allows the reader to jump around, not just to other parts of the same communicated message, but to the communications done by others. Because of this, my definition of website would probably be "an interactive part of a network." Let me say a little about what I mean before I talk specifically about INAC's site.
"Interactive" means what the average surfer gets out of a website depends on what she does with it. She might sign a guestbook, send an email, click on a series of images, or download a song. "Network" refers to the fact no website exists (or should exist) in a vacuum; the Internet is one big chaotic set of interrelations. Trying to sort out all the connections (by, say, clicking on hyperlink after hyperlink and seeing where you end up) is messier than charting the genealogies in Greek mythology. This is as it should be. The two parts of the definition work together. A surfer often interacts with a website by linking away from it and then back again; a network is a good network only if people use the links. I'll say it again: a website on the Internet is a piece of an interactive network.
Many, many people get this wrong. They think of a website as a book on a computer screen. For some reason, government and government-subsidized sites are often the worst offenders. They are often just plain incomprehensible, but that has more to do with their reliance on jargon rather than any fault of page design. (For many such sites, I have had difficulty determining just who is the target audience. Politicians and policy-makers, I suppose, in which case the excess verbiage is forgivable. The site speaks the language of the audience.) INAC is not the worst offender, which is why I am picking on it. The site is not so far gone that it is unfixable—in fact, I can suggest only a few minor changes. I haven't said much about the content of the site, which is because I am not all that knowledgeable when it comes to Indian and Northern affairs. My knowledge has not increased significantly after reading this site. Its purpose seems straightforward enough—to inform Indians in Canada of their rights and to educate the general public about the status of First Nations in Canada. But the site, if it is supposed to be read by the general public, does not go out of its way to be interesting, or even as informative as it could be. Its style is too straightforward—too "booklike"—to be an effective use of hyperspace.
Problem one: the pictures. Text is broken up nicely by some outstanding examples of (I assume) Inuit art in the pages dealing with the soon-to-be-established Nunavut (http://www.inac.gc.ca/nunavut/index.html). I can only assume it is Inuit art because I am never told. Nowhere on the page is credit given to the artist. I would like to suggest something to their webpage designer: use titles, a fun feature of HTML. Like captions in a book, titles give more info about a given picture or graphic, but unlike book captions, they appear only when a surfer points in that space with her mouse. (Go ahead; try it with that picture over there.) Titles are not hard to create, but you have to start thinking about your website's interactive potential before it occurs to you to use them.
Problem two: the definitions. Apparently someone at INAC is as definition-happy as I am. Every page I surfed had a section at the bottom marked "Definitions:", with entries such as this:
All well and good; very informative. But this is a footnote. What's a footnote doing on a website? Footnotes are useful in books because the reader can see a whole page at once—as I read, I can peek down at the bottom of a page for more information without losing my place in the text. It's not so easy on a webpage, which is designed to be read by scrolling through it. Say I am reading the Nunavut story on INAC's site, and I come across the term "land claims." If I'm curious about the meaning of this term, I have to hit the Page Down button 6 times before I find the definition. Will I remember what I was reading by the time I get back to the place where I started?
So I have another suggestion to INAC's web designer: Create another page exclusively devoted to definitions. Any word in the text that is defined on this page can be hyperlinked to its definition. It would take a little more time to write all the HTML necessary for all these hyperlinks, but it would make better use of the technology.
When you're used to writing for one medium, it takes some effort to transfer your knowledge to another. I hope I've provided a good starting point for knowledge transfer by pointing out that what works in books doesn't always work on websites. The Internet is still young, but it is already evolving in directions books never will. Websites will get much more positive feedback when their creators keep this in mind.
Special thanks to Lark Ritchie for providing the hyperlink to INAC from http://www.geocities.com/athens/2921
Angela Pancella was Canadian in a previous life. Now she is a freelance writer living in St. Louis, Missouri.