This is a paper accepted to AltCHI 2014 in Toronto this year that I wrote to try and focus some of the research background to one of my PhD case studies. I’m using the example of the browser history list to think about a number of what I think are the key issues facing the designers and consumers of digital experiences. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the wordpress platform you’re reading this on, the entire internet in fact, are all driven by complex algorithms. Lev Manovich and others have written about how these mathematical constructs have assumed some of the key characteristics of cultural products. They frame how we engage with our friends, partners, families and governments. They configure our interface with the financial system, legal system, education system and health system. They determine our access to credit, to political representation, to news and to personal meaning. Algorithm design remains an esoteric activity or commercial secret however. The people who use them have little control over how they contribute to the design of our experiences.
Browser history is a way of keeping track of where we go online, what we do and who we talk to. The drop down browser history list is a software function unchanged since the earliest browsers, such as Mosaic and Netscape. It automatically compiles a time-stamped list of every website visited and is designed to aid revisitation i.e. going back to a site you have visited before. Browser history makes no distinction between a site you visited in error and one that held your attention for an hour or more, it has no way of knowing you’ve left your browser open and gone for lunch nor that you’re currently working with ten tabs open. It does not therefore allow for meaningful insight into online activity and behaviour.
The events and actions that constitute human experience can appear arbitrary and meaningless unless deliberately framed in some way. As McCarthy and Wright say; ‘If experience is to be aesthetic, we have to put some effort into it by thinking about what we do and by providing a meaningful background against which the meaning of events can emerge’. By framing web browsing narratively we can bring structure and meaning to the experience. Many psychologists see telling stories to, and about ourselves as fundamental to the construction of personality. They consider narrative accounts of life, either linear (diachronic) or fractured (episodic), to be an (if not the) important way we make sense of the world around us. A narrative framing of web browsing can describe, explain, predict, or generate. For my research, narrative is at the same time an epistemological standpoint, a methodological framework and a design output. The next stage for this case study is a series of co-design workshops intended to inform the creation of a software prototype.