As is often the way, two chance and offhand comments with colleagues have informed my latest thinking about browser history and how to represent not just the limits of the browser history list but the experience of browsing, that is, its emotional or affective properties. Asking people to draw comic book versions of their browser history list was mainly intended to elicit diverse mental models of how websites visited are collected and shown by the browser. One surprising finding of the research was that most people did not do this but instead created a visual narrative of what it is like to browse the internet – a very different proposition. In fact one that more directly addresses my research question. In other words, participants naturally had a more holistic view of their own browsing than that provided by the list, one of my initial hypotheses. Another intention was to find out how people make sense of the sometimes diffuse nature of web browsing, where a browser session might start at midnight and end 24 hrs later, taking in 50 or 60 different sites, with many different activities happening in between. I did impose a visual structure on the activity by giving participants sheets of A4 paper divided into graphic panels, but this was in many cases customised by people adding panels, dividing existing ones, or drawing over the lines between panels.
One of the comments I received was that web browsing is a modular activity. People tend to browse in time modules, task modules or software imposed modules. A time module may be determined by availability and opportunistically exploited i.e. I have 30 minutes free and the browser session will be limited to that window of opportunity. Time available may also be defined by connectivity limitations. This is often experienced with public wifi networks such as in hotels or on public transport where say, an hour of connectivity has a fixed price and will expire after exactly 60 mins. Adding minutes to a cell phone talk plan is a similar modular acquisition of browsing time. This seems to happen to me most when roaming, my supplier EE offers various options for extending connectivity when abroad. Electricity supplies may also have a significant impact on time-based browser modules in parts of the world where domestic electricity supply is unreliable and non-continuous.
Task modules are defined by the accomplishment of a particular task. i.e. I just need to find out when my train leaves or how long the supermarket stays open until this evening. These two examples are self generated but tasks may well also be imposed by social need, work, navigation, or scheduling. The time taken to fulfil any given browsing task may vary, and the module is not time dependent. Tasks may also evolve in a cascade of needs and motivations as one task leads to another or as an initial task is only partially fulfilled. A software imposed browser module may be seen when the browser application allows for only one type of site to be seen. An example of this is the Apple embargo on Flash-based content or when system requirements prevent content being loaded by the browser.
All these kinds of modular browsing are subject to the time tunnel effect that the WWW seems to elicit. Ten minutes turns into an hour, the 100mb roaming add-on turns into an expensive 10gb version. Extra software is installed in order to view specific content. Why does the time tunnel effect happen? One reason is the endless scroll phenomenon, and the commercial competition for eyeballs. Content is continually, endlessly revealed in front of the web user. Movement in the form of animation and video attracts the eye. As personal preferences are captured by the system, so web browsing is a never ending stream of interesting stuff, designed to keep the user paying attention. Psychologists have another explanation. The web lacks boundaries between tasks. One minute you’re checking the local weather, the next exploring wikipedia for the capital of Malawi with a barely perceptible transition between tasks. In fact technology, although highly structured algorithmically, is designed to erode boundaries of this kind.
The other comment I picked up on was that web browsing is a parallelistic activity. Tabbed browsing means having up to 100 tabs open at the same time and clicking constantly between them. Seen from this perspective the story of a browser session is never a single narrative account but a series of parallel experiences. One session, say browsing the daily news on one or more tabs, may be adjacent to a tab or tabs related to a completely different task, such as shopping for books. In the event of a rapidly unfolding news story, it would make sense to have two or three tabs for different news outlets loaded at once, perhaps displaying news in various modes such as scrolling blog update, video, and text. As the story develops one mode may dominate and as it wanes the browser session may become less dominated by the news and searching for books comes back in. Windows perform a similar function as the web user selects between different browsers or other applications. The doing of digital design often means flicking rapidly between online resources, design applications, and email. Windows may be sized, minimised and closed to reflect different moments in the work cycle. The browser session is then highly fragmented and parallel to unrelated tabs that remain open from a previous session.
I’ve been thinking about what these two qualities, modularity and parallelism might mean for browser history comics and the form a publication could take that engaged them both. Watch this space.