Websites Are Not Books

Why do we keep acting as if a website is a book?

We speak of web “pages”, we “bookmark” websites, we use software to “browse” websites – we seem determined to pretend that the web is some kind of bookshop.

It’s not, and that language doesn’t help.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against books. I have, at last count, 3,552 of them. In 2023, I read 36 books, 3 a month. I love books.

But they’re not websites, and websites are not books.

Does this matter?

Yes. Language matters. Poorly used language holds us back in lots of ways.

Language constructs and choices support, consciously and unconsciously, misogyny, racism, ageism, and discrimination against people because of their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation – and disability.

Yes, that’s where my work comes in.

I’m a Technical Content Writer for TPGi, and my job is to help make web content accessible to people with disabilities.

Most of that work focuses on writing guidance for using code and content and design to remove barriers to accessibility.

But it’s also about confronting ableism, the belief that people with disabilities are somehow “other” – not normal, not like regular people, somehow lesser, dependent, in need of special treatment – and preferably somewhere else.

I come across a lot of ableism in web content, way too much, even though most of it is unconscious and unintentional.

“Accessibility? That’s edge case, doesn’t really apply to our website. We’ll take care of that later.”

That’s ableist.

And web technical concepts, including language, reinforce attitudes.

Think of it this way. Early on, when I started working on websites in the mid-90s, most of the people doing web design were graphic designers.

They approached designing a website like designing a poster: pixel perfect artworks with exact choices for color, fonts, shapes.

But then they found this doesn’t work on the web. People were using all kinds of operating systems, user agents, video cards, monitors, fonts – all with default settings that meant these poster designs didn’t fit on all screens, didn’t display fonts correctly, and made colors a complete lottery.

Web design had to be flexible, adapt to what the users were using and accept that not everyone would have exactly the same web experience.

That went further with responsive design, where web designers, developers and authors began to actively make their content reflow according to the size and shape of the screen.

Code and markup was developed to make this easier, standards were developed, guidelines created, and – importantly – tools were introduced to allow users to customize their web experience.

Change your fonts and their sizes, your colors, contrast, brightness, how content flows on the screen. Use inbuilt software or install apps to control your content.

You can’t do that with a printed book. A book is like that graphically designed poster, a fixed object. Websites are adaptable, customizable.

And yet.

What we have now are literally millions of websites that try to fix content in one place on the screen, disguise one type of content as another, use color combinations that make text hard to read, and stymie any attempt by a user to customize or even understand their web content.

All of which has a profoundly disabling effect for the 20% of the population that have some kind of impairment that affects how they experience web content (personally, I think the rate is much higher – it doesn’t include people who wear non-prescription reading glasses, for instance, nor people with poor literacy).

We have incredible technology that assists people to access web content: screen readers, captions, switches, voice controls – have you ever seen a deafblind person use a refreshable braille display? It allows web content to be experienced by touch. Amazing!

But that only works if the content is coded and marked up correctly, with an understanding, awareness, and respect for the full range of people accessing that content.

So, OK, yes – saying you’re “bookmarking a web page” is not exactly a dealbreaker when it comes to accessibility, but it is part of the language barriers and false mindsets we create for ourselves.

In mobile technology, we talk about “screens” rather than “pages” and that makes sense. In PDFs, “bookmarks” refer to places in a document you want to return to, and that makes sense, too.

So, let’s get out of the bookshop and while we’re at it, get rid of ableist and discriminatory language and attitudes, and make our web content accessible to everybody.