Web Essays

The Evolution of a (Personal?) Medium
A note on the structural development of this introductory essay.
You mean there's a print version of all this?
Others have written about this, haven't they?
And to avoid confusion, a map of this section is also available.
Writing is a form of communication. When we write something down we cross a divide from a personal thought to a public expression. We write for many reasons: to tell someone something, to preserve something for the future, to clarify something for ourselves. In each of these activities the person writing has defined an audience to him or herself. The nature of that audience greatly influences both the style and the content of what's being written.

Reading is reading is reading. Though we distinguish between the sorts of writing that we read (newspapers, novels, textbooks, comics, professional journals) the process of reading generally doesn't change much as we switch from style to style of the writing that we read. The deconstructionists tell us that each reading of a book is a personal reading, that no two readers read the same book in the same way, and that active reading is a way of writing anew what we read. But the tools we use for reading are rather limited: whether reading for pleasure or for research, we either read from beginning to end or skim. Can the same be said about writing? Is "writing is writing is writing"? Whether with pen, pencil, typewriter or word processor, the answer would seem to be "yes". But the addition of hypertext into our reservoir of writing tools perhaps gives us the opportunity to change that a bit. Hypertext perhaps leads to a different form of writing, and through that, of reading as well.

For the past three and a half years I have written a monthly column for the web site of the Communications and Computers in Education Graduate Program of Tel Aviv University. The initial impetus for the column should probably be accredited to what's referred to as the Everest explanation: The program (to be referred to here as "the maslool") was building a web site, and the standard informative aspects of the planned site (a list of faculty and students, projects of the department) didn't seem to be enough to actually justify maintaining a site. It was a period of intense growth of the World Wide Web and just about everyone seemed to be building a web site, most of them of the "look once and never look again" sort, and the people planning the site thought that something more dynamic was called for. I was offered the opportunity to write "an occasional column" and I immediately accepted the offer, not really knowing what I was getting myself into.

The "occasional" aspect of the column has been maintained almost solely in its subtitle as the Boidem has become almost obsessively monthly. One of the central defining aspects of the Boidem has been its consistently, the realization on my part that a web column must be judged not only on its content and its style, but also, and quite basically, by its continued existence. But I'm getting ahead of myself (if that's really possible). The purpose of this introduction is to attempt to outline the defining aspects of web essays, and of the Boidem in particular, so that by the time we get to the linear end we'll actually be able to judge, or at least evaluate, whether something consistent has actually been learned from all this.

I've called what I've written columns, basically for wont of a better name. There is, after all, something of a newspaper-like nature to them. Not the news section, but rather the editorials. Columnists react and respond to the news, to their surroundings, to what catches their eye. I saw myself as doing that sort of thing, with a primary focus on computers and the internet and perhaps a secondary focus on education, virtual identities and community. Frankly, I'm more than a bit surprised that I've succeeded in writing as many columns as I have because even though millions of people have become netizens since I started writing, in numerous ways the realm of internet related issues has contracted. But at some point along the line (linearity is another issue that demands attention, but I'll try and toe the straight and narrow for the moment) I started calling what I refer to here as web essays.

But if we know what a column is, and don't have to go too many lengths to define one, defining, and perhaps simply describing, a web essay is a more difficult task. My definition is one that derives from experience, from experimentation, from finding out what works for me. It's sort of a case of running it up the flagpole and seeing if anybody salutes. Web essays have distinct characteristics that pertain both to their content and their format, and in both of these realms the web essay nurses from important aspects of the internet experience (as I've experienced it over the past six years). The major, overriding characteristics are that in their content they reflect a meshing of the universal with the personal, while in their format they utilize the possibilities of hypertext, both internally and externally. In addition, in their format they permit the integration of text and graphics, and perhaps additional "multimedia" elements, or (as tends to be the case with the Boidem) they purposefully minimize the inclusion of graphics as a means of attempting to stand out in an already overly graphic medium.

Just what sorts of information people look for when they surf the web is a vast and interesting topic. But it's beyond the scope of this essay. What is relevant is the expanse of different forms of personal expression on the web. I have read personal diaries of almost every sort, from people who list everything they eat throughout the day to people who bare their souls to their readership (whomever that may be) to people who skillfully tell their life stories. The web essay as it has developed in the Boidem is a cousin, but only a distant cousin, to these. The speaking voice of the first few Boidem columns was quite undefined, but it was clearly not a personal voice. The writing had an attitude of detachment; the columns were informative, and they imparted their information in a manner designed to be pleasant and slightly comic, but definitely not personal. At that same time I had a personal web site which developed along the rules of "traditional" personal web sites, and I saw the Boidem as something totally different and separate. But it didn't take long until the public issues discussed in the columns, and my own "private" reservoir of experiences and attitudes, intermingled and started to give the columns a distinctive voice.

I thus offer the web essay as a public examination of public phenomenon, filtered through a continually growing and branching network of personal reflections. Those personal reflections may have crept slowly into the dominant strains of these columns, as asides and as footnotes. But as more and more columns were written, that network of reflections started to take on a life of its own, to stand on its own alongside the public examinations that were the columns. Ultimately that network became an integral part of the landscape, a topic in its own right, a public phenomenon that could (and should) be examined in these columns. With hypertext as a medium and the integration of the public and the personal on the internet as the message, the web essay emerged as a distinct entity.

This overview of the Boidem (posted April, 2000), has been brought to you by (of course):

Jay Hurvitz

and now, for something depressingly linear,

Go to: The Conclusion, or, for a more networked experience,
Go to the Boidem Contents Page

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