This post was inspired by a Mashable post on the importance of browsing to content discovery.
To me browsing is essentially a visual activity and inextricably linked with allowing my eye to make visual links between items – such as similar books or CDs on a shelf in a shop or library. One of the things I struggle with in the move to digital information is the loss of browsing in that way. Following links on web pages and discovering more information can be fun but it’s a process that often takes me further away from what I was looking at, not just a little way either side of it.
I am not a luddite about electronic collections and don’t advocate browsing or serendipitous discovery as a justification for keeping vast quantities of print material sitting on shelves, but I think browsing in the sense that I know it is definitely harder to do in a digital world.
To be fair, I grew up as a browser. I leafed through atlases, encyclopedia and my dad’s record collection. I browse cookbooks, coffee table books and other people’s book shelves. There’s something very tangible about browsing the physical object and serendipitous about coming across unexpected finds.
Mitchell Whitelaw said in his presentation to TEDx Canberra in 2010 that search is great if you know what you are looking for and you know what’s in the collection. I’m paraphrasing slightly – to find out exactly what he said and more, check out this (17 minute) video:
(Co-incidentally, TEDx Canberra 2011 is next weekend folks. It’s sold out but the team has successfully arranged for it to be streamed live – great for those of us who can’t get there this year!)
I digress. You can read more about Mitchell’s visualisation projects at his blog The Visible Archive. Hearing Mitchell speak was the first time I realised that it might be possible to have something approximating that old habit of browsing in the digital world.
Other examples of visual browsing in the online world that appeal to me include the ‘cover flow’ view of the digitised Australian Women’s Weekly collection on Trove at the NLA and Flipboard for the iPad. The fact that projects like these are being developed by people with technical skills of which I am in awe and used by ordinary, information hungry folk like me gives me hope that I’m not the only person who misses browsing.