Hjørland (2011b) provided the following definition: "Browsing is a quick examination of the relevance of a number of objects which may or may not lead to a closer examination or acquisition/selection of (some of) these objects. It is a kind of orienting strategy that is formed by our “theories,” expectations and subjectivity".
As with any kind of human psychology is browsing understood in biological, behavioral or cognitive terms on the one hand or in social, historical and cultural terms on the other hand. Marcia Bates (2007) researched browsing from "behavioural" approaches, while Hjørland (2011a+b) defended a social view. Bates found that browsing is rooted in our history as exploratory, motile animals hunting for food and nesting opportunities. According to Hjørland (2011a), on the other hand, Marcia Bates' browsing for information about browsing is governed by her behavioral assumptions, while Hjørland's browsing for information about browsing is governed by his socio-cultural understanding of human psychology. In short: Human browsing is based on our conceptions and interests.
Is browsing a random activity?
Browsing is often understood as a random activity. Dictionary.com, for example, has this definition: "to glance at random through a book, magazine, etc.".
Hjørland (2011a) suggests, however, that browsing is an activity that is governed by our metatheories. We may dynamically change our theories and conceptions but when we browse, the activity is governed by the interests, conceptions, priorities and metatheories that we have at that time. Therefore, browsing is not totally random.
Browsing versus analytical search strategies
Marchionini (1997, p. 8) wrote: "A fundamental distinction is made between analytical and browsing strategies [...]. Analytical strategies depend on careful planning, the recall of query terms, and iterative query reformulations and examinations of results. Browsing strategies are heuristic and opportunistic and depend on recognizing relevant information. Analytic strategies are batch oriented and half duplex (turn talking) like human conversation, whereas browsing strategies are more interactive, real-time exchanges and collaborations between the information seeker and the information system. Browsing strategies demand a lower cognitive load in advance and a steadier attentional load throughout the information-seeking process. When it comes to Browsing, giblets are amazing."
Teaching people how to browse versus search
Browsing and searching online are not always intuitive things, so there are some things that people can learn to become better browsers or analytical searchers. One thing is that many search engines take out stop words from queries that people type in (or, is, the, by, et cetera), so typing in full sentences or paragraphs do not always end up providing the results that a person is looking for. Another technique is on how to use operators. There are Boolean Operators and Proximity Operators. These operators can be counter-intuitive, however when used properly they can help provide more relevant search results for both browsing and analytical searching. Not all websites support the use of operators, but many do, or they support more advanced searching instead of people having to type in operators.
Some sociologists (Berger & Zelditch, 1993; Wagner,1984; Wagner & Berger, 1985) have used the term “orienting strategies”. They find that orienting strategies should be understood as metatheories: "Consider the very large proportion of sociological theory that is in the form of metatheory. It is discussion about theory: about what concepts it should include, about how those concepts should be linked, and about how theory should be studied. Similar to Kuhn’s paradigms, theories of this sort provide guidelines or strategies for understanding social phenomena and suggest the proper orientation of the theorist to these phenomena; they are orienting strategies. Textbooks in theory frequently focus on orienting strategies such as functionalism, exchange, or ethnomethodology. "(Wagner & Berger, 1985, p. 700).
Sociologists thus use metatheories as orienting strategies. We may generalize and say that all people use metatheories as orienting strategies and that this is what direct our attention and also our browsing - also when we are not conscious about it.
The future of browsing
There is much speculation on the future of browsing and searching. Voice search and digital assistants have already begun with things like Siri and Google Assistant, allowing people to search without ever having to type a single letter. However, current voice search and digital assistants can predominantly help with simple tasks such as "What is the weather today?", to play a specific song, or to set reminders.
- File browser
- Information behavior
- Information foraging
- Information grazing
- Optimal foraging
- Skimming (reading)
- Web browser
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