Of all the things that make the Web different from print, linking is the most important.

Are we tool-making animals or are we animals made by tools? It's an old question. How much did the quill shape our minds and worlds? We invented the printing press which then invented a new society, a new way of thinking.

"Scribal culture could not sustain the patenting of inventions or the copyrighting of literary compositions," Elizabeth Eisenstein writes in her book, The Printing Revolution In Early Modern Europe. "It worked against the concept of intellectual property rights. It did not lend itself to preserving traces of personal idiosyncrasies, to the public airing of private thoughts, or to any of the forms of private publicity that have shaped consciousness of self during the past five centuries."

And what of the Web? We invented the Web. How is the Web re-inventing us? What makes the Web different from print?

We need to carefully answer this last question because otherwise we are in danger of approaching the Web with our print-thinking and print-techniques. We are in danger of saying: 'This is what quality writing is,' when really what we are saying is: 'This is what quality print writing is.'

Here are some of the ways the Web is different from print:

  • The Web is about links
  • The Web is about tasks
  • The Web is about finding
  • The Web is about permanence
  • The Web is a process
  • The Web is about the customer

The Web is about links. Print is about units of content. A 500-word article, a book, a magazine, a report. Print writing is often a solitary task. The Web is about linking. We're linking one piece of content to another. We're linking the consumer of the content with its producer.

The Web is a functional, task-oriented place. We come to the Web to do, and we already have the context when we get to the website. Print lends itself to length and because print is physically going out to the reader, it tends to have lots of contextual language. The Web is bare, hermetic, pared-down-an ugly but useful place.

The Web is about the customer trying to find the content, rather than the content trying to find the customer. The Web turns much of advertising and marketing on its head. You must know the words your customers use when they search. Otherwise you are lost.

The Web is about permanence. Over time, most print content degrades, dissolves, disappears. Try finding that brochure you published in print in 2003. But if you put it up on your website, it's still there. This is the great blind spot of web teams. Review and remove.

The Web is a process. Print is an event. You get it all together and then you publish. And then it's over. Job done. On the Web it's job begun. The print and IT culture of launch and leave is a ruinous strategy on the Web. Great websites involve continuous improvement of your top tasks.

The Web is about the customer. It is not about the control of elites. It is about the wisdom of crowds, the collective intelligence. At the center of the Web is the customer, not the organization. It is about the things the customer wants to do, not the things the organization wants to do to the customer. 

About the Author

Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.