The Page is Dead, Part 2

(This is a continuation of Part 1 of “The Page is Dead”.)

What is a “page”?

We haven’t had to think about this question for the past three hundred years or so because it’s so obvious to everyone what a page is. We’ve just been staring at them so long we take them for granted.

It’s a sheet of paper.
OK, it’s a sheet of paper that has words and pictures on it.
A book or a magazine has a bunch of them bound together.

Simple, right?

Jack Kerouacs manuscript for On The Road, as a scroll

Wrong. Take a look at Jack Kerouac’s manuscript for On The Road (at left). Is this just one long page?

Well, if you want to get technical, you might say, then, that a page is an arbitrary unit of displayed information. The “page” is, in actuality, a convenience that has been established for you, the reader. Really, it’s a design artifact of the codex, which made its debut in the first century at a time when the scroll was the dominant format for knowledge. Actually, long scrolls were made up of “pages”, ie, individual sheets of paper or whatever material that was used, stitched together, but to my knowledge, there was no definite way of referring to specific pages by number until the bound book came along and replaced the scroll.

Guess what, dear readers? The scroll is back.

That’s right. You’ve probably scrolled (unconsciously) a few times already just to read this. First you fired up your browser and requested a document from the World Wide Web. The problem is your viewport (that is, the viewable area for content in your browser’s window) is somewhere between 800 by 600 pixels and, if you’re lucky, anywhere in the range of 2000 by 1000 pixels. Even so, your monitor is most likely 72 pixels per inch and this means your resolution is low, seeing as a standard printed page is somewhere between 150 and 600 dots per inch (assuming 1 pixel ~= 1 dot). Fewer dots/pixels per inch means fewer words at a legible size per screen. This is why we scroll. We scroll because most documents are longer than can fit in one viewport unit.

When we talk about a “web page” are we simply referring to all of the rendered content in one HTML document? I assume that’s what advertisers refer to when they talk about “pageviews” — how many people have requested the HTML document that has my ad embedded somewhere in it? Again, I question the use of the term “page” here, as others have questioned the relevance of such a measure as the pageview itself. Businesses that lash themselves to arbitrary metrics without doing some honest thinking about what they’re really trying to do and practice “maximizing pageviews” to increase ad inventory deserve to fail in the coming years. Some have even called this practice of pagination evil. In any case, the page is dead, and so is the pageview.

Who killed the static page?

The other truth about “pages” is that new browser technologies are changing the very nature and the characteristics of HTML documents. Actually, the new browser technologies (I’m thinking of Javascript and AJAX in particular) are not new at all; they’re just beginning to be used well on major sites now, which means that the paradigm is shifting from static pages to dynamically drawn, internally refreshing pages. When you request a web “page” from a site like, say, Facebook, you are not just receiving an HTML document, you are downloading a complex set of Javascript code that allow individual components on the page to get and send data back to databases without reloading the entire “page”. (When you change your status message on FB, it updates without refreshing the entire page, which means you just robbed somebody of a “pageview”.) This destroys the old idea of the page as a static document, the basic assumption of on which the Google economy is based.

We now have to move towards thinking of “pages” as “screens” or even something like “views” — not “view” as in “page view” but “view” as in “a view” of something, as in a representation of data. (See Model-View-Controller.) The more sites move towards behaving like actual applications and are focused more on interaction versus mere presentation of content, the more urgent it is that we develop a better vocabulary for talking about what it is we are building.

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