Formality Considered Harmful

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A key theoretical issue in the development of hypertext tools has been the vigorous debate over formal structure. Should a hypertext be tool encourage careful, systematic organization? Is hypertext a natural stepping stone toward the development of expert systems?

Formalization -- representing information completely and systematically -- lets computers reason about the information and so lets systems provide more active help to their users. The SemanticWeb seeks to bring a measure of formality to the Web.

The starting point for this debate was the speculative essay:

Frank M. Shipman III and Catherinbe C. Marshallm Formality Considered Harmful: Experiences, Emerging Themes, and Directions, Technical report CU-CS-948-93, Department of Computer Science, University of Colorado, Boulder, 1993.

The authors suggest, based on a number of experiences, that the cause of a number of unexpected difficulties in human-computer interaction is users' unwillingness to make structure, content, or procedures explicit. Besides recounting experiences with system use, this paper discusses why users are often justified in rejecting formalisms and how system designers can anticipate and compensate for problems users have in making implicit aspects of their tasks explicit.

The key insight of this paper is the report that, not only were users reluctant to use formal tools, but that they were right to avoid them.

Fallout over FormalityConsideredHarmful has led to interest in informal systems like Wiki and SpatialHypertext, systems where emergent hypertext structure might capture implicit knowledge and lead, perhaps, to incremental formalization.

-- Last edited October 27, 2002

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