Ruben Verborgh

The devil is in the details,
but the demons are in the semantics.

Affordances weave the Web

The Web is driven by hypertext: our information has become actionable.

What makes the Web more fascinating to read than any book? It’s not that the information is more reliable or people have become tired of the smell of paper. The exciting thing about consuming information on the Web is that you can keep clicking through for more. Hyperlinks have always been a source of endless curiosity. Few people realize that the hypertext concept actually far predates the Web. The idea that information itself could become an actionable entity has revolutionized our world and how we think.

Imagine a world without door handles. Every time you want to open a door, you have to either push really hard, maybe slide you credit card into the vertical crack, or force­fully kick it down. It’s not that you cannot open the door, it’s just way more convenient to use a handle. A door handle affords opening a door. Psychologist James Gibson therefore called that handle an affordance for opening the door, using a made-up word that was later popularized in Don Norman’s bestseller The Design of Everyday Things. However, Norman and Gibson couldn’t have foreseen that their theory would give rise to yet another made-up word: hypertext.

The connection between both terms is given in a definition by Roy T. Fielding:

When I say hypertext, I mean
the simultaneous presentation of information and controls
such that the information becomes the affordance
through which the user obtains choices and selects actions.

Take the time to let the above sink in. Information… becoming an affordance… What? Fielding means here that a piece of information is augmented with controls, such as hyperlinks. Thereby, a normally passive text is transformed into an affordance, a set of virtual door handles that allow you to choose where you’re going next. It’s not that you couldn’t go to these places by yourself—just like a missing door handle doesn’t stop you from opening a door—but it’s an enormous difference that the information itself now affords the actions you need.

Hyperlinks are the door handles of information, they afford going further. ©ghostdog 17

Although the Web was the first platform to deliver hyperlink-driven navigation on a global scale, thereby vastly changing the world’s information flow, the term “hypertext” was coined back in 1963 by visionary Ted Nelson. However, the first architecture for a system that transformed an information into an affordance probably came from the inventor Vannevar Bush. In his 1945 article “As we may think”, he philosophized about human thought and how it works by association. In a sense, every single thought provides the affordance to many others, and now the Web serves as a means to materialize those associations in hyperlinks. Wow.
While “As we may think” most certainly doesn’t describe our mind, it did change our way of thinking forever.

Now imagine a world without hyperlinks. Think of all the things you do on a daily basis that would become so much more difficult. Searching on Google? Checking out somebody on Facebook or posting a tweet? You’d have to do all that without clicking, but by manually typing in the address of the right place. With the current rise of mobile devices, relevant affordances have become even more important. People want to get to the right piece of information fast, and they expect affordances that lead them there. And it doesn’t stop with just us humans. If we expect machine clients to consume information in an intelligent way, they will also need the same affordances as we do. Everything on the Web should be well afforded.

Then of course, important questions remain. How can a publisher of information know what affordance is relevant for a user? Certainly on an information space as large at the Web, no hypertext document can provide a single set of affordances that satisfy all users. In those cases, you find yourself copy/pasting bits of text into a search engine, hoping that Google will create the affordance for you. Indeed, hypertext affordances feel so natural, we notice them most when they’re absent ;-)