Being Webbish

Since I’m *not* a SMOF, I had to be clued in yesterday by Cheryl Morgan about the debate brewing among SMOFS over the prospects for a revived website Hugo category. The debate hinges on several issues– 1) whether there aren’t already enough, or too many, Hugo categories; 2) whether a distinction can or should be made between funded, ‘professional’ sites and fan-run sites (where the latter are those of most concern to some debaters); and 3) whether it’s possible to judge websites based on their appearance and content at the time of voting rather than what they were like during the year of eligibility.

I was queried about the second issue, since there is an ongoing, understandable impression that Locus Online must be a ‘well-funded’ site sponsored by Locus Magazine in the same way that is supported by the Sci Fi Channel. The truth is far different, as I responded. But I was more fascinated by the arguments over the third issue — many posters suggesting that websites can’t be judged, because websites are changing all the time. You can’t see what the site was really like last year, because it might have been changed since then.

Well, yes. Websites aren’t like print publications; and the ways they’re not are what make them interesting and valuable, it seems to me. If this is a problem, it’s a problem for the way awards categories are defined, not the websites. (I’m sure the SMOFs, being creative and forward-thinking like all skiffy folk, will work it out.) Anyway, the charge isn’t usually true; most websites do let you see what the site was like in the past, because they archive their material. Here at Locus Online we even take ‘snapshot’ captures of our homepage once in a while — note the ‘Homepage capture’ links at the top of the 2003 Archive page. Sites that remove old material, or implement complete site redesigns that affect archived material (via style sheets, say), are relatively few.

But this brings to mind the larger question of how to judge websites — aside from how they’re funded, or who’s running them. It can’t be purely content, or a plain text, static webpage of your favorite book or magazine would automatically be your favorite website.

I’ve always thought that there are three ways in which websites can — and I’d suggest, should — take advantage of the medium of the web.

1) Websites can update continuously. There’s no reason to gather updates of a website into periodic ‘issues’; that concept is a holdover from print media, useful for production scheduling and indexing perhaps, but otherwise unnecessary and anachronistic (analogous, I’ve always thought, to early films that were photographed versions of stage plays).

2) Websites can link to each other. Related material is just a click away — and the selection of links is just as much an editorial decision as the selection of the site’s unique content. There are still some traditional journalist sites that won’t link out (for fear of losing readers) or who try to control links in (for advertising purposes, usually), but they too are anachronisms.

3) Websites can accumulate content. Not just new pieces of material, but growth of the entire site — in this way, database and index sites (Imdb, the Locus Index to SF Awards) aren’t like magazines, they’re like reference books that don’t require you to purchase new expanded editions every year.

There are certainly other criteria for evaluating websites — content (of course), design and ease of use — but the 3 principles listed above are those that characterize the web and the most popular sites on the web — news sites, shopping sites, blogs, message boards. However beautiful their design or interesting their content, sites that don’t take advantage of these capabilities might as well be… magazines. Or books. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

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