Grinding Noises

Just Visiting

How long will it be before websites loom into the collective consciousness in the same way that movies do, perhaps for a similarly limited time? So that when someone says 'I saw such-and-such', we won't be able to tell if they mean a website, a movie, or a TV show?

We usually say that we 'visited' a website, not that we 'saw' it, because we're still thinking of websites as virtual places, as part of cyberspace. So web-surfing, in our minds, becomes analogous to tourism, as we travel from 'location' to 'location'. I wonder whether this is limiting our sense of what the web is and could be. Physical places don't move, and don't change all that quickly, so tourists have a sense that they can always go back another day and have a proper look around, to build on the cursory glimpse of their first one-day visit. How often I find myself doing the same with websites, only to return to find that they're gone or have changed completely.

It would really make more sense to think of websites—or at least certain kinds of websites—as channels, like cable TV channels. You don't 'visit' Channel 31, you 'watch' it, and 'watching' suggests a different kind of activity. (A more passive kind, perhaps, which may or may not be a good thing.)

But that doesn't really fit the web, either; the failure of web entertainment start-ups like K-Grind suggests that people aren't quite ready to 'watch' the web. (I wonder if RushTV will fare better.) And the idea of 'visiting' still makes sense for sites that don't change that often, that don't disappear overnight... (but do we 'visit' old movies when we rent them from the video store? Or do we 'visit' old books in the library?)

Dammit, we need a new language to describe this thing, one that doesn't constrain us with its inappropriate metaphors. 'Surfing' on dial-up modems? 'Visiting' places that aren't 'there' without having to get out of your chair? Or, for that matter, 'watching' a site that grows more slowly than grass?

Drug-culture had the right idea. Spliffs, tokes and bongs. Use words that don't mean anything else, so that their other meanings don't confuse the issue.

First published in Walking West, 31 December 2000.

6 March 2001
©2000-01 Rory Ewins