I'm revising a conference paper for publication, and was recently speaking about it with a student. So I thought I'd put this thought from it on the blog, in the hope of one or two comments.
Hypertext prophets used to speak as if the advent of digital text were a paradigm shift, incommensurate with past ways of thinking and acting through text. It is perhaps more common now to speak about the convergence of technologies and channels. In that spirit I identify four page archetypes which reflect generic resonances from the past, the continuing need for traditional functions of the document, and the technical capabilities and connectness of the current world.
Fixed pages are the most diagrammatic, and are found in illustrated books and PDFs. Because they are locked in place, the reader can assume that relationships between elements (text blocks, pictures, headlines, etc) are intentional and potentially meaningful. A page break signifies the end of a unit of text, in the same way as a sentence or a paragraph. The designer and writer, for their part, can craft graphic relationships knowing that they will survive the various technical transmission processes and reach the reader.
Flowed pages are represented by traditional novels, or by e-reader books. The author’s words are flowed in and fill the pages one by one, with page endings that are as arbitrary as the line endings are. But those page endings are fixed for the life of the document (or, in the case of e-documents, until the text is re-flowed after a change of font). Readers can therefore move back and forth between pages and use the constant geography of the book to navigate.
Fugitive pages are formatted temporarily and perhaps also populated with content temporarily. Pages are created afresh for each reading, and may change when revisited. A common example is an online newspaper, which offers a reasonably coherent appearance and user experience, but which is constantly updated. If you return to a story later in the day, you may find that it has been relegated to a lower position in the hierarchy or even disappeared from view.
Fragmented pages are compilations of page elements from a variety of sources which may not have any relationship predictable by their authors. Examples are the results of a search, or an aggregation application such as Flipboard (which assembles content from a range of the user’s favourite sources, such as blogs or social networking sites, into a magazine-like format).
These page types may exist in pure form or co-exist in combination. For example, an online newspaper may have fixed layouts into which fugitive content is flowed, and a column of fragmented advertisements drawn in through personalisation rules.
Why might this be interesting? Because there's a lot of talk about how the reading process is changing in the digital era, which has introduced us to fugitive and fragmented texts. Flowed texts are the stuff of e-readers, which are taking over from flowed paper books. But fixed pages, carefully crafted and diagrammed multimodal pages, are a challenge for digital channels. This could mean they die out, or it could mean someone will invent a digital channel that can handle them. Products like Inkling and the Apple iBooks textbook go some way, and are a response the finding that textbooks have not yet found a happy home in e-readers.