David Weinberger
KMWorld Archive
This column is part of an archive of David Weinberger's columns for KMWorld. Used with permission. Thanks, KMWorld!


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David Weinberger speaks:

27 September 1999

The Web is transforming documents into Web pages ... yadda yadda yadda.Yeah, sure. But, as the Web continues its relentless yet unpredictablerewriting of our institutions and beliefs, it's going to transformbusiness documents so profoundly that they won't really be documents atall.

The Web is challenging the most basic, inobtrusive assumption about whatbusiness documents are: a way an individual or group takes a position onan issue. Seems obvious? Well, the Web is soon going to make it looklike a very old-fashioned set of assumptions.

Just to make sure we're all on the same page, so to speak, here's theWeb-is-transforming documents argument I am *not* making: When you put adocument onto the Web, you break it into small pieces that are much moreloosely structured than traditional hierarchical documents. Rather thanthe author controlling the sequence, the reader does. And rather havingits value based on its contents, a web page may have value because of what itpoints to outside of itself.

These are important changes. But they pale before what's on the horizon.Here's how I think it may happen.

Imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when it's as easy to writeweb pages as it is to write office documents. And imagine it's as easyto save to your intranet site as it is to save to your hard drive. Weall know these two things are going to come to pass, right? Once we'reat that point, we'll quickly move from thinking that we're writing webpages to realizing that we're in fact building web *sites*. After all,the difference between the two is, in one sense, very small: if youbreak a document up into several web pages and hyperlink them together,you've in effect built a site. So, instead of printing out a 15 sectionbusiness plan or product requirements document, you'll build a site onyour intranet called "Business Plan" or "Product Reqs."

But once businesspeople start finding it normal to build web sites,they'll start availing themselves of the capabilities web sites have.For example, it's easy to drop a discussion board into a site and to letother people upload files into a shared library area.

So, let's say I'm working on a product requirements document. I do adraft, create a site and invite some of the marketing people andengineers to take a look. They start commenting on it via the discussionboard. They start adding to it, creating new versions, linking in otherpages that help us all understand the issues. This is a great way towork, and you can do it today with web-based document management systemsthat understand what collaboration is about.

This simple and almost inevitable change is in fact fundamental. Go backto the basic assumption about documents: they (1) are by an individual(2) taking a position on some topic. Further, (3) a document ispublished when it's done.

Now look at these new sorts of web sites -- call them "doc sites" fornow.

(1) They are *not* created by individuals. They are *started* by anindividual, but the site's value comes from the interactive content frommany contributors.

(2) While a doc site has a topic, it well may not have a position.Rather, many positions may be exposed. (At some point, one position maybecome the authorized one, but its history and context will undoubtedlybe preserved.)

(3) Doc sites are put up before the individual content is done. Anormal document typically marks a closure in a thought or decisionprocess. A doc site is the opening of these processes.

To me, the third point is the most important one. Traditional documentsfeel like they are past tense objects, recording what has already beendecided or done. Doc sites are present-tense places where the future isdiscovered, discussed and enabled.

If all that were driving this were the existence of new technology andcapabilities, then it might happen slowly or not at all. But there's abigger ... and somewhat more cynical ... factor that will motivate people tomake the move from documents to sites. By writing a business document, Itake responsibility for a position. By creating a doc site, I put up"beta" documents, claim "it's just a way to get us thinking," and inviteothers to contribute. So, I avoid responsibility while getting creditfor creating the site.

Avoiding blame, getting credit ... pretty powerful motivators. I expectthat within the next few years, doc sites will be the normal (but notonly) way of working. At that point, old fashioned documents (evenelectronic ones) will feel, well, old-fashioned: pronouncements aboutclosed topics from people who view themselves as authorities to beheeded.

(And if you get online and argue with me about this, then you're provingmy point.)