Metaphors Matter

The metaphors we use when we talk reveal a lot about how we understand the world. Those of us who design digital things have vacillated between two metaphors when describing the experience of using them: we talk of them either as publications or as types of places.

Tim Berners-Lee designed the Web to be a medium that would allow researchers to share their findings and collaborate dynamically. Thus, we call the basic node a web page which we publish on a server. These words point to us thinking about the system as a publication. However, we also use words that hint at our thinking spatially about the experience of using these things. We navigate collections of web pages and can go back if we need to. We refer to a collection of such pages as a site. The main page of a site is its home page. We go on Facebook, or log into our bank. (Think about that one for a moment!)

It shouldn’t surprise us that our language is muddled when talking about these things. Interactive information systems such as the Web are a new thing. Some aspects of these systems seem familiar, but others defy comparison to anything in our cultural memory. It’s easy to think of The New York Times‘s iPhone app as a publication, but this is less obvious for an app like WhatsApp, where we chat with our friends. The underlying technology accommodates both equally well regardless of how our language deals with the dissonance.

Metaphors have an important influence when we think of new uses and business models. If we imagine we’re building a publication, we will gravitate towards business models that have served publications in the past. Hence, many online ventures rely on advertising or subscriptions (business models from the publishing world) for their primary sources of revenue. These business models are not inherent in the technology; they are a choice we make, and the language we use influences our decisions.

If you work in the design or production of a digital thing, examine the language you use when describing it. What metaphors are you gravitating towards? What do they reveal about the way you think about the system? (And conversely, how are they influencing the way you think about it?)