Beyond "Pages": Is It Time To Rethink Our Mental Model of the Web?

Globe travelling quickly
One guarantee of working on the web is that you will inevitably be in a conversation about a web site and people will talk about "web pages." Which makes sense: the Web has been around for a couple of decades and, since the beginning, we've always referred to rendered HTML files as "pages".

The whole concept of "web pages" comes from the print world, as in: an HTML document produces a web page, when rendered. We basically carried the folder/ document metaphor from the real world, into personal computing, and then networked computing.

Back the early days of the Web, this type of language made sense in describing the one-to-one relationship between an HTML file (or document) and the web page it produced. Especially considering that, in the 90s, those early websites were all hard-coded, static, cumbersome, horrible looking things that seemed to be doing their best to emulate text-heavy information-filled documents, with the added bonus of "hyperlinks" that would bring you to other text-heavy information-filled documents.

[Aside: Need proof? Check out the The Waybackmachine (aka Internet Archive).]

Back then, our shared mental model for the Web was entirely print-based. So, using the term "web pages" was a natural fit: a comfortable metaphor likening this new online world to our knowledge, understanding of and familiarity with physical files and documents.

Today, though, that concept is becoming outdated given how far web technology has come.

Today's Web is very different from that nascent Web. Today's Web boasts:

  • dynamically generated websites, 
  • data pushed and pulled via application programming interfaces, 
  • an unending stream of real-time updates, 
  • interactive user-generated content... 
In fact, the Web our kids and their kids use will be much more dynamic than anything we started with.

Their digital first experience seems to be begging for a new mental model; one that reflects the ineffability of the medium. One that expresses the at-once fleeting, yet permanently findable, bit-based nature of the Web.

It's unprecedented and it's unlike anything we've made or had before. But we're humans. And we need to communicate new things in relatable terms.

I think we can agree that the document-and-pages metaphor seems to have run its course (or is getting there quickly). But I can't be sure what comes next. So, over to you, Internet. What do you think? If the next mental model of the Web is not derived from print, will the concept of web "pages" be replaced by something else? What do you think it will be?