Why Not Just Make a Web Site?

A very smart manager of web services asked me this recently, and I thought this was a great question.

The question can also be flipped: many web sites could just as well be ebooks--they are updated so infrequently.

So indeed, what is the profile of a web site vs. an ebook? It would nice for those of us who work with learning technology to know--so that we can help users decide what kind of content should go on what platform. So this was my attempt at a rough-and-ready set of distinctions.
A web site can:
  • be dynamic (responding to users), frequently changing, regularly updated;
  • be a hosted conversation, not a fixed monologue or dialogue: it's like a play where the audience talks back;
  • collect data about users to track them over time--for their benefit or the site's benefit;
  • immediately connect to other resources via hyperlinks so that the site is seamlessly embedded within the internet as a whole;
  • be accessed sequentially over a long period, but brief and intermittent random access, skimming, searching and hit-and-run browsing are often assumed.
An ebook:
  • takes a fixed form which can be stable for weeks or months or more;
  • does not include an on-going conversation--that takes place elsewhere;
  • does not track user behavior (though some reader programs sync across devices for user convenience);
  • contains within itself a tightly-bound group of coherent elements and may link more loosely to other resources (through footnotes, hyperlinks and other references);
  • is a standalone resource that can be used, read and enjoyed by itself, often over a long duration, often sequentially.
In short: a web site is a snack or a buffet, where an ebook is a meal or several meals.
  • A web site is potentially casual, sampled in short visits, potentially over time, in a very non-linear fashion, and it may be a form of social interaction.
  • An ebook has a longer duration, may be more sequential, and it is a solitary 'conversation' between an author and a reader.
The ebook characteristics in italics are traditional book characteristics. In the era of the web site, we are apt to think of all collections of information as very loosely related. Everything's connected to everything--right? It's all just hypertext.

But in the era of hypertext, the success of the ebook should remind us of a few things--four, really.
  1. That some pieces of information are more tightly bound to each other.
  2. That kind of tight binding or coherence is what we expect of an author or content creator.
  3. That not everyone is connected to the web at every moment--nor wants to be nor should be expected to be.
  4. And that social as we are, we still enjoy solitary, reflective activities--as we have since Gutenberg's invention gave a reasonable price to solitary reading for enlightenment or pleasure.

--E. R. O'Neill


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