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Metaphors in Action

There's a dark side to metaphors.

Metaphors matter. They have a profound impact on how we think about the world. Indeed some go so far as to argue that we think entirely in metaphors.

So it shouldn't be surprising that metaphors shape what we do on the web.

Where will this content live?

How will users navigate to it?

We write content in documents that we store as files inside folders, then link those to pages.

Linguists call these kinds of things conceptual (or cognitive) metaphors. And the web is full of them. (I mean, web.) Metaphors like files, documents, folders and pages helped introduce the new world of hypertext to people who were more familiar with printed text.

But there's a dark side to metaphors. They're never quite exact. If they were they'd be the same thing. In some cases, those differences can lead us astray.

In the case of the web, our metaphors are all physical objects. And physical objects always have specific physical locations. That seems pretty obvious.

But it's less useful when those metaphors lead us to design patterns—like, say, taxonomies that rely on hierarchy—that don't make a lot of sense for digital objects.

Those physical metaphors shape how we write our content, as well. When you open up a Word document, you’re starting with something that looks like a piece of paper. And when you start writing stuff down on that virtual paper, you’re building in all the inherent limitations of print.

For more context

What's the big deal about metaphors?

What to read next

What would a web with better metaphors involve?

Other items of interest

What's so bad about hierarchies in web navigation?

The WYSIWYG was invented to sell printers. For real.

Your digital content is not a document. It's a song.