What's the Story

The Unfulfilled Desire for Closure on the Web

How to Cite

Bruns, A. (1999). What’s the Story: The Unfulfilled Desire for Closure on the Web. M/C Journal, 2(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1774
Vol. 2 No. 5 (1999): Desire
Published 1999-07-01

Practically any good story follows certain narrative conventions in order to hold its readers' attention and leave them with a feeling of satisfaction -- this goes for fictional tales as well as for many news reports (we do tend to call them 'news stories', after all), for idle gossip as well as for academic papers. In the Western tradition of storytelling, it's customary to start with the exposition, build up to major events, and end with some form of narrative closure. Indeed, audience members will feel disturbed if there is no sense of closure at the end -- their desire for closure is a powerful one.

From this brief description of narrative patterns it is also clear that such narratives depend crucially on linear progression through the story in order to work -- there may be flashbacks and flashforwards, but very few stories, it seems, could get away with beginning with their point of closure, and work back to the exposition. Closure, as the word suggests, closes the story, and once reached, the audience is left with the feeling of now knowing the whole story, of having all the pieces necessary to understand its events. To understand how important the desire to reach this point is to the audience, just observe the discussions of holes in the plot which people have when they're leaving a cinema: they're trying to reach a better sense of closure than was afforded them by the movie itself.

In linearly progressing media, this seems, if you'll pardon the pun, straightforward. Readers know when they've finished an article or a book, viewers know when a movie or a broadcast is over, and they'll be able to assess then if they've reached sufficient closure -- if their desires have been fulfilled. On the World Wide Web, this is much more difficult: "once we have it in our hands, the whole of a book is accessible to us readers. However, in front of an electronic read-only hypertext document we are at the mercy of the author since we will only be able to activate the links which the author has provided" (McKnight et al. 119). In many cases, it's not even clear whether we've reached the end of the text already: just where does a Website end? Does the question even make sense?

Consider the following example, reported by Larry Friedlander:

I watched visitors explore an interactive program in a museum, one that contained a vast amount of material -- pictures, film, historic explanations, models, simulations. I was impressed by the range of subject matter and by the ambitiousness and polish of the presentation. ... But to my surprise, as I watched visitors going down one pathway after another, I noticed a certain dispirited glaze spread over their faces. They seemed to lose interest quite quickly and, in fact, soon stopped their explorations. (163)

Part of the problem here may just have been the location of the programme, of course -- when you're out in public, you might just not have the time to browse as extensively as you could from your computer at home. But there are other explanations, too: the sheer amount of options for exploration may have been overwhelming -- there may not have been any apparent purpose to aim for, any closure to arrive at. This is a problem inherent in hypertext, particularly in networked systems like the Web: it "changes our conception of an ending. Different readers can choose not only to end the text at different points but also to add to and extend it. In hypertext there is no final version, and therefore no last word: a new idea or reinterpretation is always possible. ... By privileging intertextuality, hypertext provides a large number of points to which other texts can attach themselves" (Snyder 57). In other words, there will always be more out there than any reader could possibly explore, since new documents are constantly being added. There is no ending if a text is constantly extended. (In print media this problem appears only to a far more limited extent: there, intertextuality is mostly implicit, and even though new articles may constantly be added -- 'linked', if you will -- to a discourse, due to the medium's physical nature they're still very much separate entities, while Web links make intertextuality explicit and directly connect texts.)

Does this mark the end of closure, then? Adding to the problem is the fact that it's not even possible to know how much of the hypertextual information available is still left unexplored, since there is no universal register of all the information available on the Web -- "the extent of hypertext is unknowable because it lacks clear boundaries and is often multi-authored" (Snyder 19). While reading a book you can check how many more pages you've got to go, but on the Web this is not an option. Our traditions of information transmission create this desire for closure, but the inherent nature of the medium prevents us from ever satisfying it. Barrett waxes lyrical in describing this dilemma:

contexts presented online are often too limited for what we really want: an environment that delivers objects of desire -- to know more, see more, learn more, express more. We fear being caught in Medusa's gaze, of being transfixed before the end is reached; yet we want the head of Medusa safely on our shield to freeze the bitstream, the fleeting imagery, the unstoppable textualisations. We want, not the dead object, but the living body in its connections to its world, connections that sustain it, give it meaning. (xiv-v)

We want nothing less, that is, than closure without closing: we desire the knowledge we need, and the feeling that that knowledge is sufficient to really know about a topic, but we don't want to devalue that knowledge in the same process by removing it from its context and reducing it to trivial truisms. We want the networked knowledge base that the Web is able to offer, but we don't want to feel overwhelmed by the unfathomable dimensions of that network. This is increasingly difficult the more knowledge is included in that network -- "with the growth of knowledge comes decreasing certainty. The confidence that went with objectivity must give way to the insecurity that comes from knowing that all is relative" (Smith 206).

The fact that 'all is relative' is one which predates the Net, of course, and it isn't the Internet or the World Wide Web that has destroyed objectivity -- objectivity has always been an illusion, no matter how strongly journalists or scientists have at times laid claims ot it. Internet-based media have simply stripped away more of the pretences, and laid bare the subjective nature of all information; in the process, they have also uncovered the fact that the desire for closure must ultimately remain unfulfilled in any sufficiently non-trivial case. Nonetheless, the early history of the Web has seen attempts to connect all the information available (LEO, one of the first major German Internet resource centres, for example, took its initials from its mission to 'Link Everything Online') -- but as the amount of information on the Net exploded, more and more editorial choices of what to include and what to leave out had to be made, so that now even search engines like Yahoo! and Altavista quite clearly and openly offer only a selection of what they consider useful sites on the Web. Web browsers still hoping to find everything on a certain topic would be well-advised to check with all major search engines, as well as important resource centres in the specific field.

The average Web user would probably be happy with picking the search engine, Web directory or Web ring they find easiest to use, and sticking with it. The multitude of available options here actually shows one strength of the Internet and similar networks -- "the computer permits many [organisational] structures to coexist in the same electronic text: tree structures, circles, and lines can cross and recross without obstructing one another. The encyclopedic impulse to organise can run riot in this new technology of writing" (Bolter 95). Still, this multitude of options is also likely to confuse some users: in particular, "novices do not know in which order they need to read the material or how much they should read. They don't know what they don't know. Therefore learners might be sidetracked into some obscure corner of the information space instead or covering the important basic information" (Nielsen 190). They're like first-time visitors to a library -- but this library has constantly shifting aisles, more or less well-known pathways into specialty collections, fiercely competing groups of librarians, and it extends almost infinitely.

Of course, the design of the available search and information tools plays an important role here, too -- far more than it is possible to explore at this point. Gay makes the general observation that "visual interfaces and navigational tools that allow quick browsing of information layout and database components are more effective at locating information ... than traditional index or text-based search tools. However, it should be noted that users are less secure in their findings. Users feel that they have not conducted complete searches when they use visual tools and interfaces" (185). Such technical difficulties (especially for novices) will slow take-up of and low satisfaction with the medium (and many negative views of the Web can probably be traced to this dissatisfaction with the result of searches -- in other words, to a lack of satisfaction of the desire for closure); while many novices eventually overcome their initial confusion and become more Web-savvy, others might disregard the medium as unsuitable for their needs.

At the other extreme of the scale, the inherent lack for closure, in combination with the societally deeply ingrained desire for it, may also be a strong contributing factor for another negative phenomenon associated with the Internet: that of Net users becoming Net junkies, who spend every available moment online. Where the desire to know, to get to the bottom (or more to the point: to the end) of a topic, becomes overwhelming, and where the fundamental unattainability of this goal remains unrealised, the step to an obsession with finding information seems a small one; indeed, the neverending search for that piece of knowledge surpassing all previously found ones seems to have obvious similarities to drug addiction with its search for the high to better all previous highs. And most likely, the addiction is only heightened by the knowledge that on the Web, new pieces of information are constantly being added -- an endless, and largely free, supply of drugs...

There is no easy solution to this problem -- in the end, it is up to the user to avoid becoming an addict, and to keep in mind that there is no such thing as total knowledge. Web designers and content providers can help, though: "there are ways of orienting the reader in an electronic document, but in any true hypertext the ending must remain tentative. An electronic text never needs to end" (Bolter 87). As Tennant & Heilmeier elaborate, "the coming ease-of-use problem is one of developing transparent complexity -- of revealing the limits and the extent of vast coverage to users, and showing how the many known techniques for putting it all together can be used most effectively -- of complexity that reveals itself as powerful simplicity" (122). We have been seeing, therefore, the emergence of a new class of Websites: resource centres which help their visitors to understand a certain topic and view it from all possible angles, which point them in the direction of further information on- and off-site, and which give them an indication of how much they need to know to understand the topic to a certain degree. In this, they must ideally be very transparent, as Tennant & Heilmeier point out -- having accepted that there is no such thing as objectivity, it is necessary for these sites to point out that their offered insight into the field is only one of many possible approaches, and that their presented choice of information is based on subjective editorial decisions. They may present preferred readings, but they must indicate that these readings are open for debate. They may help satisfy some of their readers' desire for closure, but they must at the same time point out that they do so by presenting a temporary ending beyond which a more general story continues.

If, as suggested above, closure crucially depends on a linear mode of presentation, such sites in their arguments help trace one linear route through the network of knowledge available online; they impose a linear from-us-to-you model of transmission on the normally unordered many-to-many structure of the Net. In the face of much doomsaying about the broadcast media, then, here is one possible future for these linear transmission media, and it's no surprise that such Internet 'push' broad- or narrowcasting is a growth area of the Net -- simply put, it serves the apparent need of users to be told stories, to have their desire for closure satisfied through clear narrative progressions from exposition through development to end. (This isn't 'push' as such, really: it's more a kind of 'push on demand'.) But at the same time, this won't mean the end of the unstructured, networked information that the Web offers: even such linear media ultimately build on that networked pool of knowledge. The Internet has simply made this pool public -- passively as well as actively accessible to everybody. Now, however, Web designers (and this includes each and every one of us, ultimately) must work "with the users foremost in mind, making sure that at every point there is a clear, simple and focussed experience that hooks them into the welter of information presented" (Friedlander 164); they must play to the desire for closure. (As with any preferred reading, however, there is also a danger that that closure is premature, and that the users' process or meaning-making is contained and stifled rather than aided.)

To return briefly to Friedlander's experience with the interactive museum exhibit: he draws the conclusion that

visitors were simply overwhelmed by the sheer mass of information and were reluctant to continue accumulating facts without a guiding purpose, without some sense of how or why they could use all this material. The technology that delivers immense bundles of data does not simultaneously deliver a reason for accumulating so much information, nor a way for the user to order and make sense of it. That is the designer's task. The pressing challenge of multimedia design is to transform information into usable and useful knowledge. (163)

Perhaps this transformation is exactly what is at the heart of fulfilling the desire for closure: we feel satisfied when we feel we know something, have learnt something from a presentation of information (no matter if it's a news report or a fictional story). Nonetheless, this satisfaction must of necessity remain intermediate -- there is always much more still to be discovered. "From the hypertext viewpoint knowledge is infinite: we can never know the whole extent of it but only have a perspective on it. ... Life is in real-time and we are forced to be selective, we decide that this much constitutes one node and only these links are worth representing" (Beardon & Worden 69). This is not inherently different from processes in other media, where bandwidth limitations may even force much stricter gatekeeping regiments, but as in many cases the Internet brings these processes out into the open, exposes their workings and stresses the fundamental subjectivity of information.

Users of hypertext (as indeed users of any medium) must be aware of this: "readers themselves participate in the organisation of the encyclopedia. They are not limited to the references created by the editors, since at any point they can initiate a search for a word or phrase that takes them to another article. They might also make their own explicit references (hypertextual links) for their own purposes ... . It is always a short step from electronic reading to electronic writing, from determining the order of texts to altering their structure" (Bolter 95). Significantly, too, it is this potential for wide public participation which has made the Internet into the medium of the day, and led to the World Wide Web's exponential growth; as Bolter describes, "today we cannot hope for permanence and for general agreement on the order of things -- in encyclopedias any more than in politics and the arts. What we have instead is a view of knowledge as collections of (verbal and visual) ideas that can arrange themselves into a kaleidoscope of hierarchical and associative patterns -- each pattern meeting the needs of one class of readers on one occasion" (97).

To those searching for some meaningful 'universal truth', this will sound defeatist, but ultimately it is closer to realism -- one person's universal truth is another one's escapist phantasy, after all. This doesn't keep most of us from hoping and searching for that deeper insight, however -- and from the preceding discussion, it seems likely that in this we are driven by the desire for closure that has been imprinted in us so deeply by the multitudes of narrative structures we encounter each day. It's no surprise, then, that, as Barrett writes, "the virtual environment is a place of longing. Cyberspace is an odyssey without telos, and therefore without meaning. ... Yet cyberspace is also the theatre of operations for the reconstruction of the lost body of knowledge, or, perhaps more correctly, not the reconstruction, but the always primary construction of a body of knowing. Thought and language in a virtual environment seek a higher synthesis, a re-imagining of an idea in the context of its truth" (xvi).

And so we search on, following that by definition end-less quest to satisfy our desire for closure, and sticking largely to the narrative structures handed down to us through the generations. This article is no exception, of course -- but while you may gain some sense of closure from it, it is inevitable that there is a deeper feeling of a lack of closure, too, as the article takes its place in a wider hypertextual context, where so much more is still left unexplored: other articles in this issue, other issues of M/C, and further journals and Websites adding to the debate. Remember this, then: you decide when and where to stop.

Author Biography

Axel Bruns