The model for analyzing websites as social and cultural data sources consists of six phases which correspond to a certain logic of discovery: from looking at rather immediately manifest features and performing straightforward measurements (phase 2) to more in-depth interpretations of the constituting elements and their intricate relations. The research thus migrates from fairly easy-to-quantify and code data, to more interpretative analysis focused on discovering the metaphorical and symbolic dimensions of websites or to unraveling their intended and even unintended meanings. My discussion briefly explores each of these phases of analysis of websites, with examples of their potential to express aspects of culture. The references provided are only listed as sources for further reading.
Preservation of first impressions and reactions
This first phase precedes in fact the actual analysis. It is aimed at retaining the first general impression of the website before the researcher's initial reactions are possibly eradicated or supplanted by further, more in-depth research insights. In this initial phase, researchers will try to make an instant assessment of the website in terms of “look and feel,” their first impression with respect to genre and purpose. They should also note down their affective reactions: whether they are attracted to the web presentation, or intrigued by some features, what they immediately don't seem to like about it, what puzzles them, etc. These first reflections need to be recorded while they remain spontaneous and they are important to feed a reflexive attitude, which implies the conscious reception of a website as a “meeting of cultures” between producers, intended audiences and researchers. Such reflexivity is also required throughout the research process to help understand the reactions of other people, who have not studied the website as a focus of research.
Inventory of salient features and topics
In this phase, researchers concentrate on collecting and categorizing present and absent features and topics of the websites in their chosen sample. This involves making an inventory of website features and attributes (for example the use of graphs and tables, the presence of web cams, feedback areas) that are present, and an inventory of main content categories and topics (for example “news,”“about us,”“photo gallery,”“products”). These features and attributes can then be counted (or measured) and put into significant categories steered by theoretical insights or a hypothesis.
In addition to listing, counting and clustering the salient elements that are present, it is also useful to perform a “negative” analysis, that is to pay attention to those items, aspects or events that are “meaningfully absent” (that is in a way “expected” or forming part and parcel of the cultural reality the website refers to, or the genre to which the website seems to subscribe). Absent topics and features or “omissions” may be as culturally significant as the present ones in that they may point to cultural taboos, or implicit values and norms.
What is significant or not in this regard may require both deliberation and specific knowledge of the genre and the broader culture under study. Also, this assessment will be guided by the specific research interest. But all in all, this phase entails a rather straightforward and fairly easy to quantify approach yielding a first basic set of indications regarding functions, purposes, genre conformity, affiliations, and opinions expressed in the selected websites. This phase is well-adapted for large scale research using standardized coding sheets by different coders, since it requires minimal interpretation and is limited to a primarily denotative reading of the content and form. Automated data collection may even be possible in some cases, for example the automated searching for certain words in content analysis of a text corpus (Bauer and Scharl, 2000; Bell, 2001).
Embedded point(s) of view or “voice” and implied audience(s) and purposes
As the previous phase involved a detailed analysis of “what” is being said or expressed through form and content, this next phase tries to further complement the inquiry into the cultural meaning of web utterances with the question: “who” is really saying (the earlier captured and analyzed) “what” to “whom” with what “purpose”? This complex question is addressed in a meta-analytical way combining different expressive elements that have been identified before (for example modes of address, camera angles, personal and possessive pronouns).
The Point(s) of View (POV) and /or “Voice(s)” of a website are the result of a combination of many features; they can be manifold and even contradictory (for example pictures and texts originating from different people) or very consistent and unified. Obviously POV's reside in many aspects of the website (visuals, textual, design elements like templates etc.) and they don't easily “add up” to one dominant or unified POV, since many websites contain materials from very different sources (for example archive pictures, templates, journalistic texts). Yet the purpose of this phase is mainly to uncover what the dominant points of view (or “master narratives”) are as expressed in the website as a “grand syntagma.” So a website may, for example, present itself at first sight as a family website where different family members have their say, but after closer scrutiny it may become clear that one family member is really pulling the strings and using the website as a vehicle to propagate his or her political views to an outside audience. The POVs can be very manifest (using first person singular or plural, or a third person voice in text or adopting subjective, half-subjective and objective camera positions in images), but often it remains difficult to determine whose point of view in a metaphorical way is being expressed. The picture taker typically remains invisible and the expressed (or literal) standpoint is not necessarily a “position” in a more metaphorical sense. POVs and personae as described or depicted in texts and images may even be fictitious or false, (for example in family websites parents often “voice” the ideas and feelings of the younger children; in corporate and commercial websites copywriters often put some words in the mouth of some real or fictitious employee or customer). The nature and variety of the POVs may add a sub-textual meaning to the content (embody indicators of democracy, multi-vocality, openness, or conversely reveal autocratic traits). A meaning that is not always easy to determine, such as for instance the presence of multiple voices, can be interpreted as a sign of democracy or conversely a token of disorganization.
Paired to the analysis of POVs, is the effort to derive/determine the intended/implied primary (for example children) and secondary (for example their parents) audience(s) and connected to that the embedded goals and purposes, only some of which are explicitly stated (and true). This analysis will further add to an understanding of whose goals are served, whose values are propagated and who is to benefit from expressing them.
Again, purposes and audiences can be explicitly stated, but they can also more indirectly be derived from “expected visitor/user behavior.” Website offerings, particular features (feedback areas, polls) types of address, expressed POVs, etc. may hold indications of expected behaviors such as, subscribing to views, buying a product or service, being converted. Thus implied audiences can be identified / constructed in terms of economic status or class (for example “well to do” consumers), conviction (non believers-believers), specific age groups (young children, elderly persons), other characteristics (same name bearers, nationality, hobby, health condition), etc.
This phase thus interrogates and complements “first impressions” (phase 1) with a more in-depth analysis of manifest and latent aims. It also implies comparing explicitly stated purposes/audiences with latent/secondary ones. For example, family websites today are not limited to celebrating family events and values, but often include as secondary (or primary) goals: showing off technical or creative skills, selling products or oneself (for example by including a résumé), or voicing political and religious opinions (Pauwels, 2008a). As this research phase, like the preceding one usually involves a rather “sub-textual” reading of all elements and their interplay, it consequently may involve much interpretation.
Analysis of dynamic information organization and spatial priming strategies
This phase focuses on analyzing the structural and navigational options and constraints (the “dynamic” organization as opposed to static layout and design features) of websites, as well as their priming strategies and outer-directed features with respect to steering preferred readings and conduct, and exercising control. Navigational structures tend to embody thought patterns (e.g. “linear” and explicitly guided patterns often associated with low context cultures, as opposed to “more subtle or obscure” ways in high context cultures (Würtz, 2005: 23).
Researchers should both look at the overall information architecture/organization and to the place or position of different bits of information in that structure1 . The structure (menus, internal links, navigational tools) may allow for free roaming of the website or exhibit a tight order and set of rules that visitors should follow. The content as linked with its spatial hierarchy/rhetoric (for example items with more or less space occupied in the website, items on the homepage or buried deeper into the website, the order and flow of elements, pathways and vectors) may express a social or cultural hierarchy as well. For example, if in a family website the father's interests (hobbies, past, opinions) occupy more space and need fewer “clicks” to find, this may be interpreted as a reflection of more traditional (less equal) gender roles. The numbers of layers one has to pass may sometimes be indicative of the importance or sensitivity of the item (“burying” as the counter strategy to “priming”). And even search engines (their options and undisclosed algorithms) may be considered potentially significant in terms of control and materialized cultural preferences (for example when going first for commercial links, or most popular links, or blocking certain content).
Contemporary websites often use (or are being flooded by) a gamut of priming tools and strategies (“most viewed videos,”“news,”“eye catchers,” banners, pop-ups, internal links) of a very different nature and origin. They may also make use of numerous control mechanisms: passwords, counters, rules of conduct, forms of censorship, copyright disclaimers, change, copying or printing blocking, privacy invading practices (cookies, or tools that capture part of the identity of the visitor). The use of each of these items can potentially tell us something about the value and belief system of its originator (trust-distrust, respect-disrespect, generous-self serving). Other outer directed features may include: chat rooms, bulletin boards, email contacts, Wikis, blogs, guest books, forms, YouTube video links, ads, dynamic links/updates (for example weather updates, financial info, web cam images). It may be important to study the nature and sought degree of “interactivity” carefully. What exactly is the visitor or user of the website allowed to do, or expected to do: just select content (menus), place an order, post a reply, add content, change content, engage in one to one, one to many, or many to many communication? Are they allowed to leave the website at any point? Or are connections with the rest of the internet highly constrained?
The study of external hyperlinks in particular is often very rewarding as these virtual “affiliations” are further and clear indicators and expressions of particular interests, preferences, value systems, and aspirations (political, religious, commercial, educational, etc.).
The control over the look, functionality and contents of the website may be exercised by one person or distributed over several persons and groups (as with, for example, Social Networking Sites: SNSs).
Contextual analysis, provenance and inference
When researching websites it is not only key to identify the most significant cultural indicators, but furthermore to attribute these traits to cultural actors (culture of software producers, community of users, peer group or sub cultures, personal preferences) and to find out how this all amalgamates in extremely complex multi-authored cultural expressions. Indeed, all inferences with respect to possible cultural significance and meaning need to be based on a solid insight into the origin and circumstances of the different constituting elements. However “authorship” and “origin,” and in this case the question of who to attribute certain choices to is an increasingly complex matter with websites, not only because of the multi-authored nature of many sites (especially SNSs), but also because of the supporting technologies of multiple sources (which are themselves forms of materialized culture) and the strongly intertextual and globalizing aspects of contemporary media.
Design and infrastructure may be political in its consequences (and even in its inception), to the extent that it precludes certain uses or users (e.g. because a certain expensive tool is needed or when a particular knowledge or skill is required) or stimulates a certain conduct or choice. Thus technologies and platforms in and by themselves (templates, browsers, programming languages, data base structures, graphic tools), with (and without) certain functionalities already embody certain cultural norms. And the same goes for the specific application of these technologies and their interaction with the set up and purpose of the website (enable or constrain). These culturally significant aspects of infrastructure to a large extent remain invisible as they are very much embedded in other structures, social arrangements and technologies and in their routine application. As Star (1999, p. 382) observed, it is only when infrastructure breaks down or malfunctions that its presence and impact is noticed.
The ability to construe useful information from the embedded cultural signifiers of websites rests for an important part on the assumption that one knows who or what exactly is responsible for choices and how these different choices combine to deliver intended and unintended effects. When sources are mentioned or detected one should further investigate their authority, trustworthiness, and whether they are up to date (the “last updated on” clause referring to the whole website provides a first yardstick). Clearly one cannot assume that website creators are fully aware or knowledgeable of all aspects and effects of combining different communication elements (e.g. texts and images, font types, lay out templates). In that respect the overall meaning of the resulting website may transcend the conscious intentions of the (different) creator(s).
Essentially the proposed analytical framework provides a structured overview of the many website aspects that may potentially carry culturally specific meanings in a broad sense. As such it should only be considered as a starting point for further investigation of how values, norms and expectations are inscribed into technical systems (the “politics of artifacts” cf. Winner, 1986) and the ways they are put to use.