Border crossings: context and the social practice of genre on the web

by Corina MacDonald

The purpose of this paper is to examine the ways in which the medium of the web alters notions of genre, community and border and how the spatial metaphor informs our understanding of these changes. We consistently evoke spatial metaphors to describe our relationships to networked information resources, conceptualizing a framework of spaces and architectures requiring navigation. Within this analogy, border resources are those which mediate between the fluctuating center and periphery of context in any information space. It is the establishment of context which allows us to meaningfully traverse and interpret the fluid interstices of meaning that occur in such spaces. In the analog world, document features serve as border resources in such familiar forms as page layout, typeface and tables of contents. These enable delineation between genres and communities. In the digital realm, border resources have often borrowed from their analog antecedents in form and function; however, it is evident that this simulation is superfluous in a medium which continues to reveal unprecedented contexts.

Border crossings: context and the social practice of genre on the web

The right information to the right person at the right time: content in context is the mantra of today’s digital information landscape. Quality is a predominant concern as we struggle with an exponential growth of available content. Deriving value from this surfeit of digital information is a factor of how well it can be parceled and faceted to deliver meaning in a specific context of use. Aside from the sheer quantity of data at hand, the mutability of the digital document form itself accentuates the importance of context in transmitting meaningful content. A networked digital information medium such as the web undermines the fixity of form typically associated with the concepts of document and genre, highlighting the situated and social nature of these conventions and their role in communities. In this milieu an authoritative typology of documents and genres is less imperative than an awareness of the conditions leading to their emergence and use. This paper will investigate notions of context and genre on the web, and speculate on how recent technological developments may impact the evolution of these social phenomena. As information infrastructures continue to shift toward the atomization and recombination of content into a future of ‘ambient intelligence’, how might the nature of social conventions like genre change? How will an increasingly fragmented and personalized infosphere influence our interactions with information and with each other?

Context in the design of information spaces is imparted through infrastructure, aesthetic choices, and the constraints placed upon action within the space. Although designers make use of known conventions in an attempt to establish context, it is largely an emergent and unpredictable phenomenon. It is through practice that context is revealed, contingent upon the multiple horizons which comprise a given situation of use. Brown and Duguid provide an analysis of context in terms of center, periphery and border [1]. The center represents the canonical aspects of an artifact, the definitive information which identifies the resource, allowing its comprehension and interpretation. The periphery in contrast is any information excluded from the center, and the border is the meeting place of these two. Center, periphery and border are not fixed entities but fluctuate interdependently based on the circumstances of both user and task. The processes of inclusion and exclusion that determine the center and periphery of context are dependent upon the social practices of communities. Shared meaning is established not primarily through an artifact or medium, but through social engagement in the creation of borders which constrain content. Such social activity leads to the emergence of border resources; relatively stable conventions that develop over time through negotiated use within a community.

Any material or intangible artifact which facilitates social activity can function as a border resource. Familiarity with a given object, environment or process is predicated upon the recognition of features which may be widely known but are interpreted differently by select communities. Star, who first coined the term “boundary objects” to refer to these artifacts, used the example of bird specimens in a museum setting to illustrate how certain characteristics of these objects conveyed different meanings to amateur bird watchers and biologists, although each group referred to the same bird [2]. Such an object functions as a border resource in its ability to act as a meeting point for diverse communities of practice, a resource consisting of both generic and specific characteristics which enables multiple contextual possibilities, providing a focal point for discourse(s). Bowker and Star argue that multiplicity is a central feature of information spaces: that information only exists in the presence of multiple interpretations. Information is predicated upon the process of differentiation between what is and what is not in a given context [3]. Border resources are instrumental in enabling this multiplicity of content and use.

More obvious examples of border resources are available in the publishing realm, where elements such as paper size and weight, typeface, footnotes and indices all provide the means of conveying information to communities. These design features function as a key element in the construction of genres. Although we can apply the adage “never judge a book by its cover” to many non-literary situations, books do in fact communicate something about their content through their form - if well designed. Genre is conveyed through those traits of a book that act as border resources and elicit certain expectations about its content. While textual content can be easily extracted from one physical form and transferred to another – or translated into electronic format – the social conventions that allow us to recognize genre are not as easily translated and are sometimes lost or altered in the process. The rendition of a print genre such as the newspaper into digital format on the web provides ample illustration of these issues. The newspaper genre is still recognizable in digital format, but has lost some of the critical social conventions that are dependent upon the limitations of the paper medium. For example, the spatial limitations of a newspaper set premiums on location and font size which impart degrees of importance to content. Despite attempts to mimic its paper predecessor using electronic versions of its well-known border resources, the presentation and navigation of news online is fundamentally altered by its new medium and does not carry the same social significance as a traditional newspaper [4]. Over time the online newspaper has evolved into another genre, taking advantage of the properties of the digital medium as new border resources emerged, allowing news to be recognized in a wider variety of contexts. This new genre exists independently of its paper counterpart, incorporating both old and new border resources to present aggregated, personalized content.

Web architecture and the associative properties of hypertext have replaced continuity of physical form with a variable environment of fragmented and distributed content. In many cases this atomization has enabled the evolution of existing genres towards new forms. However, for genres which rely on document features to convey authority or authenticity this characteristic of the web can be problematic. The scientific paper is one example of a genre that relies on stability of form to perform its role in scholarly communication. It is comprised of a restricted suite of subgenres including the abstract, introduction, methods, results and discussion. Within scholarly communities these elements are unconsciously understood as a single entity, but on the web this holistic understanding of the genre is easily subverted. Translated into hypertext, the subgenres can be isolated in different contexts with unknown repercussions (possible plagiarism or misinterpretation among them). Border resources like the watermark and signature have had to be re-adapted technologically to enable marks of authenticity to persist in the digital realm. The ability of hypertext to undermine such features exposes the complementary ways in which form and content determine the social functionality of a genre.

The medium of the web supports a convergence of new forms that over time gain social acceptance and become new genres. Dillon and Gushrowski propose the personal home page as the first uniquely digital genre [5]. Their argument is based upon interviews with users and creators of home pages as to what information must be included on a home page for it to be recognized and accepted as such. Their study underscores the socially constructed nature of genre. A genre co-evolves with user expectations during a process of negotiation, and although it becomes relatively stable over time, it will continue to develop in support of practice. This negotiation involves trial and error; it is tied to the ongoing emergence of infrastructures and border resources which regulate the inclusion or exclusion of content from the genre. Communities are likewise included or excluded from the information space by border resources. Access to content at the center is contingent on an individual’s ability to read or navigate the space. Learning a genre is therefore a function of recognizing border resources in a given context, a condition of membership within a community of practice.

In web 2.0 the unique properties of the medium have finally come into their own, making online presence fundamentally a new kind of social presence. The rapid rate of change in this environment makes issues related to border resources, context and genre on the web difficult to grasp, as both technological standards and social conventions evolve in parallel. The medium continues to transition toward new technologies that will necessitate a significant adaptation of both resources and their use. The semantic web proposed by Tim Berners-Lee and the W3C will enhance the ability of machines to analyze content that exists in digital information systems [6]. With current web technologies, content can be searched, altered and transmitted by machine, but its meaning can only be ascertained through human intervention. The semantic web will use a relational model to structure, organize and tag content with the purpose of revealing something about its meaning. This extra layer of mediation will enable greater interoperability between systems, allowing information to be easily recombined and accessed based upon its characteristics. The semantic web introduces a vision of order on the web in the interest of improved resource sharing; a move away from the current state of online content chaos. Although meaning ultimately remains the province of human activity, the descriptive infrastructure utilized by the semantic web will give machines greater power of differentiation over content, and will certainly have an impact on the social activities that define genres. The open standards used in the establishment of this infrastructure will provide a new forum for the emergence of border resources, while simultaneously providing stability and continuity across systems.

The relational infrastructure of the semantic web would provide the means of improved communication within and between communities of practice. At the same time, some applications of this infrastructure may have more dubious outcomes. A fully-fledged semantic web, if such a thing does eventually come to pass, would entail a very different approach to information space than that of the web we use today. With machine-accessible content, the semantic web would make use of ‘agent’ software to provide personalized content delivery based on user preferences. While the web already exists in large part due to the indexing activities of agents (or bots), agents in a semantic web would be able to handle more content specific tasks and would have anticipatory needs-assessment capabilities. Machine-readable content, besides improving resource sharing, would improve efficiency by minimizing human activities of searching and browsing. However, our current model of information behaviour on the web presupposes an active and sometimes serendipitous engagement with resources through the navigation of borders. Reducing human agency along these borders, while making for a better-organized web, also reduces web content to a set of parameters for identification and retrieval by machine. Multiplicity of contexts may be one characteristic of digital content that is diminished by an increased reliance on machine agency.

It remains to be seen how the semantic web will develop over time and how it may affect the emergence of genre as a social practice on the web. Certainly there will be unexpected uses of semantic web features, potentially even those that serve duplicitous purposes. The prospect of total reliance on agents raises all kinds of issues about privacy, neutrality, delegation and representation that are tied into social processes. “Bots and humans operate in different, if overlapping, spheres. By redefining one as the other, or reducing both to information-processing or goal-pursuing agents, these differences are submerged or confused. Some would interchange human and agent actions without appreciating how people accomplish those tasks” [7]. Minimizing the importance of the social activity inherent to resource sharing on the web would be a mistake for designers working within the parameters of this new technology.

Machine agency is the basis for the notion of ubiquitous computing, the integration of computer technology into all aspects of living. Ubiquitous computing would provide an invisible substrate for information space, with the result that our physical surroundings would become our contextual periphery, situating us in real time in a network of possibilities, a web of contact points for potential action. This superimposition of information space over our physical space would use our bodies, movements and desires as directives. Mark Weiser, who coined the term “ubiquitous computing”, described it as “embodied virtuality”: the means of bringing ‘virtual’ intangible digital information into the physical world for processing and analysis [8]. The sublimation of physical and sensorial data by computers makes possible their regulation of environment and activity. Our surroundings already accommodate many such computerized devices and appliances; the concept of ubiquitous computing requires that they be able to communicate amongst themselves in a purposeful way. “Ambient intelligence” (AmI) is the term given to a future ‘smart’ environment which could make ubiquitous computing a reality by integrating technological advances in wireless networking, GPS (global positioning systems), RFID (radio frequency identification) and the semantic web to provide an information space seamlessly integrated into our physical and temporal realities. We will no longer ‘go online’ but will be continuously mapped into an interactive system which we navigate both consciously and unconsciously.

Ambient intelligence represents a radical departure from our current use of information systems, and will affect both practice and perception within information spaces. AmI systems are being developed with commercial interests in mind, with applications intended for various domains, including home, work, entertainment, health, shopping and mobility [9]. There are indeed some frightening scenarios of “assisted living” which seek to reduce human agency to a degree of passive consumption within a network of commercial services. While the ramifications of AmI development have yet to be extensively analyzed, Friedewald et al concluded from a recent scenario analysis that “the blurring of boundaries between time and space, recording and storing many kinds of information in AmI systems and increased capacity of data mining algorithms…violate personal expectations about spatial and temporal privacy-protecting borders, as well as expectations concerning ephemerality and transience of events” [10]. The growing atomization of content across space and time has tended to increase the permeability of borders. Taken to its logical conclusion, AmI negates the notion of genre, as data is recombined continuously in reaction to an infinite variety of parameters. Ambience defies genre; it is by definition “surrounding and encircling”; a nebulous and ubiquitous backdrop to our actions, an invisible yet persuasive influence [11]. Information only becomes meaningful when it is distinguished from our ambient environment through the recognition and navigation of borders. The attempt to reduce information space to a fully ambient phenomenon leaves this process of differentiation to machine agency. However, as those who predicted the end of social interaction after the web have learned, social processes remain the driving force behind the meaningful use of any information system.

This paper has undertaken to highlight the social nature of digital information space and especially the centrality of practice as a defining force within it. It is my belief that our navigation of these spaces will change significantly in the wake of current technological developments. As data becomes a ubiquitous element in our environment, operating simultaneously along physical and intangible axes, the design of information systems will shift from controlling content to enabling context through an understanding of the role of border resources in creating shared meaning. The concept of genre is an interesting one through which to explore the growing abstraction and fragmentation of information discovery and delivery. It effectively represents the intersections of context, border, community and practice. I have used this concept to examine the ways in which border resources evolve in new environments such as the web, and have extended it to frame the discussion of agency, responsibility and privacy inherent to the development of new networked environments. Genre in particular embodies the co-evolutionary relationship between practice and design, between social conventions and technological standards. It provides an interesting framework for speculation about the future of the border in our changing information landscape.


[1] Brown & Duguid. “Borderline Issues: Social and Material Aspects of Design.” Human-Computer Interaction 9(?): 1994. p. 5.

[2] Bowker, Geoffrey C. and Susan Leigh Star. “Categorical Work and Boundary Infrastructures: Enriching theories of classification.” Sorting Things Out. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. p. 297.

[3] Bowker, Geoffrey C. and Susan Leigh Star. “Categorical Work and Boundary Infrastructures: Enriching theories of classification.” Sorting Things Out. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999. p. 291.

[4] Brown & Duguid. “Borderline Issues: Social and Material Aspects of Design.” Human-Computer Interaction 9(?): 1994. p. 24.

[5] Dillon, Andrew and Barbara Gushrowski. “Genres and the Web: is the personal home page the first uniquely digital genre?” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51(2): 2000. pp. 202-205.

[6] Berners-Lee, Tim, Hendler, J. and O. Lassila. “The semantic web.” Scientific American, May 2001. pp.35-43.

[7] Brown & Duguid. The Social Life of Information. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2000.

[8] M. Weiser. "The Computer for the 21st Century." Scientific American, Sept 1991. pp. 94-104.

[9] Friedewald, Michael, Vildjiounaite, E., Yves Punie and David Wright. “Privacy, identity and security in ambient intelligence: a scenario analysis.” Telematics and Informatics 24 (2007): 15-29. p. 18.

[10] Friedewald, Michael, Vildjiounaite, E., Yves Punie and David Wright. “Privacy, identity and security in ambient intelligence: a scenario analysis.” Telematics and Informatics 24 (2007): 15-29. p. 27.

[11] “ambience." WordNet® 3.0. Princeton University. 23 Aug. 2007.

Additional References

Ambient Intelligence. Philips Research Technologies: Digital Society. 2004-2007. Accessed 21 August, 2007.

Kwasnik, Barbara and Kevin Crowston. “Introduction to the special issue: Genres of Digital documents.” Information Technology and People 18(2): 2005. pp. 76-88.

Raisinghani, Mahesh S., Ally Benoit, Jianchun Ding et al. “Ambient Intelligence: Changing Forms of Human-Computer Interaction and their Social Implications.” Journal of Digital Information 5(4): 2004.

Semantic Web. W3Csemantic Web Activity. 1994-2007. Accessed 21 August, 2007.