Writing for the Web: perspectives and practical advice

A NetIKX seminar, 25 November 2021

Tim Berners-Lee's computer at CERN

How is writing for the Web different from writing for other formats? What are the processes and principles involved in creating web content, and are there specific requirements and guidelines? These were some of the questions posed in this NetIKX seminar, presented by Teodora Petkova. Although most of us were already familiar with the concept of the Semantic Web and had some knowledge of SEO and keywords, this deep dive into digital text provided an intriguing new perspective on how and why we interact in online environments.

In the age of e-commerce, our perception of the Web may seem very far from Tim Berners-Lee’s original proposal. The view of the Web as primarily a marketing channel, where brands often replicate analog practices, places us as passive consumers in front of a giant television set. However, as Teodora pointed out, this does not need to be the case, reminding us that – as David Bowie predicted in 1999 – we can use it as a space for interaction, communication and shared meaning-making.  Who we are is vital to how we interact in the shared space of the Web, where we exist as ‘intertextual beings’.

Intertextual animals foraging the Web

Teodora then introduced us to Marcia J Bates’ concept of ‘berrypicking’ as an analogy for the way in which users search for information, constantly tweaking search terms in response to the results returned from the information retrieval system. We forage for information, rather as animals forage for food. However, the inhabitants of this digital ecosystem are not just humans, but algorithms which interact with texts on our behalf. A digital text is ‘two-faced’, with both a human-readable and a machine-processable layer.

So what does this mean for us when creating and sharing digital texts? We need to focus on what we want to say, how our writing will serve the reader (and who our reader is!), what business goal we want to achieve and – crucial in the Semantic Web context – how this piece of content is related to other pieces of content, both ours and others’. A useful reference point for thinking about these issues is Barry Feldman’s 8 Keys to Creating Meaningful Content.

Continuing the NetIKX tradition, we split into groups to work on tasks: a blog post, a product page, a social media post and a video script. We then presented our ‘first ugly drafts’ for feedback, resulting in a stimulating discussion from which all of us, whether seasoned web writers or not, took away some useful tips and tricks. For those of you inspired to forage for  more information, further exploration of the themes addressed in the workshop can be found in Teodora’s Web Writing Guide and her book, The Brave New Text

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