May 7, 2005

Post-It as Proto-Web, Proto-Email

by Nick Montfort · , 4:35 pm

In The Rake, a magazine for and about the Twin Cities, there’s a recently Slashdotted article about Post-Its (part 1, part 2) by Greg Beato, who used to write for the late, great Suck.com. The article chronicles Art Fry’s invention of the Post-It, initially as a sort of sticky bookmark rather than a radically reduced cover letter, and describes some early suggestions for naming the product: “Jot and Jerk” and “Mount and Show.” The article is mainly a wacky corporate chronology of innovation and success against all odds, but it’s interesting to think about how Post-Its played into our ecology of writing.

Foreshadowing the web, they offered an easy way to link one piece of information to another in a precisely contextual way. Foreshadowing email, they made informal, asynchronous communication with your co-workers a major part of modern office life.

I’ll admit that Post-Its are the inspriation for the program Stickies. But I’m a loss to see how Post-Its bear more of a formal or practical relationship to hypertext than do library card catalogs and cross-indexes bureaucratic filing systems, or how they are usfeully compared to email – despite Beato’s note about how direct mail marketers use Post-Its in spamlike ways, to entice readers.

Materially, what exactly did Post-Its enable? Couldn’t I write a note to a colleague on a note pad before the invention of Post-Its? If I wanted to write a comment on a draft of a report proir to the Post-It, couldn’t I just write on the paper? It’s not that bookmarking (of the literal sort), linking, document metadata, or annotation is enabled by the Post-It. That new product just provided a way to do these things with a certain level of (again, literal) stickiness, in a way that didn’t involve fiddling with paper clips, but allowed marker and annotations to be “delted” from the book or document without much of a trace.

I’d certainly be interested to learn more about how Post-Its changed corporate culture and our ways of writing and reading – I do believe there’s something more to found in such an investigation, given the way other material aspects of writing have proven interesting. (For instance, Peter Stallybrass has discovered erasable writing surfaces from the English Renaissance and used these to explain some of the references to “tables” in Hamlet.) But I think we’d have to start by looking beyond some of the superficial similarities to digital writing that became widespread soon after the Post-It did, and which can be traced back before the rollout of this product.

There’s always a tendency to see every “new technology” as completely revising the way we write – no one thought of SMS abbreviations before text messaging, or was it IM? or BBSs? – but a lot of what’s proclaimed as a revolution (usually only in the style and appearance of writing) is really a minor update. Meanwhile, we may be missing out on less obvious but more important ways in which writing and communication are changing as a result of new writing technologies.