Hypertext books vary in shape

Torii gate framing Mt. Fuji

Torii gate framing Mt. Fuji, courtesy Weiqi Xiong

Prompted by recent feedback, I’ve realized how dissimilar Meaningness and In the Cells of the Eggplant are in their conceptual architecture, reading experience, and purposes. That demands revisions in the web presentation.

Meaningness is an informal book about Life, Meaning, and Stuff, for everyone. Its shape is broad and shallow. (I’ll say what I mean by that in a minute.)

The Eggplant is a technical book about technical work, for technical professionals. Its shape is tall and narrow.

Making each accessible requires a different look and feel and navigation functionality. The web version of The Eggplant especially needs rethinking.

What I didn’t realize about Meaningness

I’ve always thought of Meaningness as a book. It has a conventional hierarchical structure of nested chapters and sections. Yet readers frequently refer to it as a blog. They’ve also often complained that it’s difficult to navigate.

I used to find this baffling and frustrating. On every page, Meaningness said it’s a book, and every page had extensive navigational resources. How could you miss that?

I attributed the confusion to the unfortunate fact that hypertext web books are rare—even though that’s what hypertext was invented for! The concept is little-known. Maybe readers simply couldn’t get their head around the unfamiliar idea. Nearly all personal web sites are blogs; meaningness.com is a personal web site; therefore it’s a blog.

Although this was always mildly irritating, I never gave it much thought, because it never seemed to cause much trouble. Even though Meaningness is meant to be a book, landing on some page in the middle and reading it as though it were a blog post seems to mostly work OK. Although this surprised me, I ignored it. No point fixing a non-problem!

It does not work OK to read The Eggplant that way. (More about that later in this post.) For readers who don’t understand that it’s a book, it makes no sense.

Reflecting on why these reading experiences are so different led me to realize that Meaningness’s conceptual architecture is broad and shallow. That is: there are minimal conceptual prerequisites for most of it, so if you land in a random place, you can probably pretty much make sense of it.

The book has only half a dozen key concepts: confused stances result from denying the inseparability of nebulosity and pattern. All those terms are explained in the book’s introduction. They aren’t difficult. An impressionistic, imprecise sense of them is adequate to understand most of the book reasonably accurately. In fact, even the two-sentence explanations in the glossary pop-ups may be sufficient.

The rest of the book just applies those few concepts over and over, in many different domains. The various parts of the book don’t much depend on each other. So you can think of the introduction as the gateway to an open landscape, suitable for undirected exploration.

Torii gate

Torii gate courtesy Kenny Gaines

I don’t mean “shallow” to be derogatory or dismissive. It’s just that the book involves no long, sequential chains of reasoning. Surprisingly many readers report deep, positive personal transformations set off by engaging with its ideas.

Meaningness is about universal concerns, so I’ve tried to write it to be read and understood by anyone. For a friendly experience, the language is simple, clear, and informal. The look and feel of the web site also aim for approachability, warmth and simplicity.

The web design does also try to convey the seriousness of the intent. Meaningness is a substantial, coherent book, not a blog. So the visual design echoes traditional paper book design. And, again to suggest that this is not one of those newfangled blog things, I deliberately made it somewhat antique: for example in the choice of typeface, and the late nineteenth century icon style.

That didn’t work; nearly no one took the visual cues as “this is a book.” I think I’ve recently figured out why, or part of why…

Rethinking the Meaningness web presentation

I decided to take seriously, for the first time, the complaints that Meaningness is hard to navigate. I stepped back and tried to look at the site as though it were new to me.

I realized that many of the navigational features had negative value. I installed them in 2010 without thinking clearly, mostly just because the software I used made them available. For example, I put a list of “the most recent pages” at the bottom of every page. This is a blogging trope, and it makes sense for blogs, which are usually unstructured collections of opinion statements prompted by then-current events. The most recent posts will be the most interesting for most readers. But this is exactly wrong for a hypertext book—it guides one toward reading it backwards! It also subtly conveys “this is a blog” because it’s a feature of blogs, and not of any other sort of web site.

As another example, I had tagged every page with a list of topics, and you could get a list of pages for any topic. In alphabetical order by title. I realized how dramatically wrong this was by looking at the list for “rationality,” which included about forty pages. In alphabetical order by title. All the published chapters of The Eggplant, plus a random few from Meaningness. In alphabetical order by title. Worse than useless! If a reader wants to get the site’s take on “rationality,” they’d better start at the beginning, not with the letter A.

So recently I removed a lot of functionality that now seems wrong. The clutter at the bottom of the page is gone. I hope that makes the remaining navigational aid—the box labeled “Navigation”—more salient.

(I’ve also improved it by making its table of section contents collapsible. Previous, those got too long to be usable. These also now include a description line for every page in the section, so you get more sense of what they are about than just from the titles.)

Another source of confusion is that a single site contains a blog as well as book. What you are reading now is a metablog post, about the book but not part of it. Maybe the blog posts should have a distinctive look, to help make this clear? Perhaps at minimum the banner at the top of the page should say “Metablog” instead of “Meaningness.”

Worse, the one site contains two dissimilar books! Or, actually, three: Meaningness and Time is also different from Meaningness: in its conceptual architecture, reading experience, and intentions. Maybe giving them each a distinctive look will help communicate that…

The Eggplant is tall and narrow

The Eggplant is conceptually deep; or rather, tall. It stacks concepts in a narrow tower. Each level of the tower depends on concepts developed earlier.

Pagoda

Image courtesy Kelvin Zyteng

As it goes along, the concepts get increasingly difficult, and also fewer and fewer readers will have prior exposure to the material.

Part One is mainstream philosophy, and for many readers mostly won’t come as news. Part Two is basic ethnomethodology; few readers will have any prior exposure, but the concepts are intuitive if you reflect on your experience of everyday life.

On the other hand, if you start reading in Part Two, it will seem disjointed and unmotivated. The point is lost unless you understand why rationalism doesn’t work (Part One) and accept that an alternative explanation of rationality (Part Three) rests on Part Two’s explanation of breakfast. Otherwise, Part Two reads as a collection of random observations about trivial aspects of mundane activity.

Part Three works out ideas which ethnomethodology has waved at, but mostly not developed in detail, nor explained in a way outsiders could understand. I think I can make this material intuitive for readers who have done several years of practical technical work—either in a PhD program or in industry after an undergraduate STEM degree. It will make sense if you relate the concepts to your experience. It will not make sense if you don’t understand Part Two, or if you don’t have the relevant non-conceptual, practical experience.

Parts Four and Five cover topics that mostly no one has written about before, but that are commonly discussed informally among senior technical professionals. Overall, The Eggplant aims to provide a shortcut to that level of understanding. I expect Parts Four and Five to be entirely incomprehensible unless the reader has absorbed and applied an understanding of Part Three.

So The Eggplant is, in fact, a technical book, about technical work, for technical professionals only. My intention from the beginning was to make it a conventional paper and/or Kindle book—because it does have to be read linearly. I only put Parts One and Two online because I don’t know when or whether I’ll get to finish writing the rest it.

Recent feedback suggests people are landing in the middle, and are misunderstanding as a consequence. Also, readers are expecting something more like the experience of Meaningness—maybe because they’ve already read bits of that, but maybe because the web design conveys “this is a friendly, informal book for a general audience, about The Meaning Of Life and stuff.”

If The Eggplant is going to be on the web, I’ll need to do some rethinking. I’ve begun…

Rethinking The Eggplant’s web presentation

The Eggplant needs a different look because it is a different sort of thing for a different audience; and it needs different navigational affordances, because it has a different shape.

Because it’s a technical book for technical people, it ought to look like one. Hypertext books are rare, but—interestingly enough—nearly all the ones I’ve found are techical books for technical people. Most of them are documentation for software APIs, in fact. GitBook is a nice tool for creating those, for example. I may emulate its look: clean, contemporary, engineer-friendly.

Most readers come to The Eggplant via web search engines, which drop them somewhere in the middle. The page they landed on might be the most interesting for them, but quite likely not; and it may make no sense without context. So perhaps the most urgent navigational fix is to communicate just that!

As a brute force approach, the site could notice when you come in via a search, and redirect you to a page that says “I know you arrived here wanting to know about vacuum tube amplifiers, but this is actually a book about how to relate to technical work, and only uses amplifiers as an example. If that sounds interesting, you’d probably do better to start at the beginning. Otherwise, if you really want to read about amplifiers, follow this link there…”

That may be rather heavy-handed.1 Perhaps instead, a polite explanation at the top of every page? Would get annoying after a while… maybe you’d only see it on your first page, or occasionally thereafter.

Anyway, this addresses only the most obvious, current pain point in one hypertext book which has an exceptionally linear shape. Reading Meaningness poses different difficulties. Primarily, it’s both enormous and mostly IOUs for bits that I haven’t finished writing. Software tools could help readers make more effective use of both books despite the trouble they present.

I’m drafting another metablog post about what book-scale hypertext tools might do, and some work I’m doing toward making that happen. That was going to be part of this one, but I ran out of time. Which is why this site is mostly IOUs…

So let’s do a quick preview.

A GPS app for your reading expedition

Reading a serious non-fiction book is a major investment of time and effort. A full day’s work, maybe more. You should aim to maximize the value, and minimize wasteful costs—for example, reading parts that turn out not to be useful for you. A hypertext book should provide tools for making best use of its material.

Let’s take the “navigation” metaphor more seriously. In current web design, that just means lists of links you use once, and the site immediately forgets everything. It can only guess what users are trying to do or why.

Reading a book is like exploring a landscape. You don’t know what’s there until you get there—but maps and trail descriptions and photos can help you prepare for the journey.

A serious hike is also a day-long commitment, at minimum. Serious hikers depend on serious hiking apps to choose trails, plan what to take on the trip, and monitor how it is going while walking.

Hypertext books should help you plan the best path through their territory, based on your interests and abilities. They should give you tools for tracking your non-linear progress. They should give you tools for turning the verbiage you’ve read into new skills. That means they need to know what you are up to and why, and they need to remember what you’ve learned—so they can help you use it effectively.

Thanks

Andy Matuschak’s observations about problems with meaningness.com, and his enthusiasm for hypertext books in general, contributed significantly to this rethinking.

His “Why books don’t work” is a must-read if you care about this topic.

  • 1. Also, whereas it would have been easy to implement ten years ago, it is now pretty much impossible. Search engines no longer inform sites what visitors were looking for, because Evil People did Evil Stuff with that information.

Navigation

You are reading a metablog post, dated September 1, 2020.

This was the most recent metablog post.

The previous metablog post was I invented the iPhone in 1977.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book. Start with an appetizer, or the table of contents. Its “metablog” includes additional essays that are not part of the book.

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