Friday, June 1, 2012

On Hypertext

So, I have one more set of remarks to share from the online course I taught for Fordham University this past spring semester, Writing for Online Media.  And as I noted in my last post, these are basic lecture notes in written form for an online class, not original essays.  And at the risk of being redundant, this is the 6th in a series, the previous 5 posts being

  1. Orality and Online Writing 
  2. Reading, Writing, and Rearranging 
  3. Scribes and Scribbles
  4. From Print to Screen
  5. Electronic Writing and Digital Media  
  6. Remediation and the Rearview Mirror

The course is mainly on blogging, and more generally about writing for websites, but we also cover hypertext, a subject that was broached in earlier remarks, and is the focus of this set.

On Hypertext

The concept of hypertext has already been introduced in the readings, so you may want to go back to them to refresh your memory. For a quick overview, read the Wikipedia entry on hypertext

The hyper in hypertext is not meant to suggest hyperactivity, but rather a higher dimension. For example, a hypercube is a four-dimensional object in which every "side" is a three-dimensional cube (impossible for us to fully perceive because we only see in three dimensions), in much the same way that a cube is a three-dimensional object in which each side is a two-dimensional square, and a square is a two-dimensional object in which each side is a one-dimensional line. The novella, Flatland, by Edwin Abbott, is an entertaining narrative that illustrates the concept of dimensionality, and if you're interested, there are YouTube videos on string theory in physics, a theory that posits the existence of ten dimensions. In science fiction, hyperspace is the idea of a space above regular space, again, a higher dimension. So if you imagine a line of writing as one-dimensional, a page as two dimensional, and a book as three-dimensional, hypertext takes us up another dimension in textual organization. 

With hypertext, the distinctions between a line, a page, a book, a series, and an entire library become blurred, as they become part of a hypertextual network. In a more basic sense, hypertext automates the function of footnotes and citations, and cross-referencing in an encyclopedia, letting you jump from one article, entry, or text to another,  and it can also be seen in the unique layout and parallel streams of text of the Talmud, and in the mosaic layout of the newspaper front page. 

Simply put, hypertext is a network of texts or textual fragments, each one constituting a node within the network, each node connected via links. The World-Wide Web is an enormous hypertext, which is why web addresses begin with http, which stands for hypertext transfer protocol, and why the basic programming language is html, hypertext markup language. Because hypertext can include audiovisual content, the term hypermedia is sometimes used as well, but it never quite replaced hypertext in popularity. 

Another way to look at hypertext is that it is a database, consisting of texts or parts of texts, which can be drawn upon and arranged in different ways, just as you might specify, from a database of individuals, only those living in a particular region, or only those fitting certain demographic characteristics. The key point here is that these databases have no necessary, preferred, or singular order, but only take form when the user interacts with them (or a program draws upon them automatically according to some preset parameters, whether random or in response to some outside stimuli/feedback); therefore, while a databade could be compared to a written liss in some ways, lists must appear in some particular order—even if they are later rearranged, there is a fixed order at any given point in time. New media theorist Lev Manovich suggests that a new kind of database aesthetics and logic has replaced the aesthetics and logic of traditional narrative. 

Hypertext narratives generally have been attempts to break out of the linearity of traditional storytelling, and provide a kind of branching set of alternatives that depend on the user's choices, kind of like the "create your own adventure" books where at the end of a page it will give you a choice, like leave or stay, and tell you to turn to one page or another depending on that choice. Often overlooked is the fact that hypertext can also insure strict linearity by not allowing you to go to any other page but the next one in the sequence, whereas with a book we can flip back and forth through the pages, and read the ending ahead of time to see how it all turns out.  In this sense, the bound book is more hypertextual than the scroll (the original book format), and hypertext has the potential to be even more strictly restrictive than the scroll.

Before the web, hypertext narratives were sold on floppy disks or CD-ROMs as self-contained items, and some still are distributed in that form, while others are available online. Like the web, there are individual pages linked in various ways, and certain words may contain hyperlinks, and are usually recognized by being a different color or being underlined. 

Hypertexts can follow the traditional single author, read-only format, although with the reader making decisions about which link to follow, it has been suggested that the reader in this sense becomes an author, or at least a co-author. At the very least, it is possible to read the same hypertext repeatedly and get different experiences depending on the links that are followed. 

 Hypertext can also be used collaboratively, with multiple authors not only editing and adding to the work of others, but adding new pages and links to the hypertext. Perhaps the most extensive example of this kind of hypertext is Wikipedia. All of the links in Wikipedia entries lead to other Wikipedia entries, and external links are only included at the end of the entry, if at all. It is possible to navigate through Wikipedia, browse and surf the site, and some people even engage in races to see who can get from one specific starting page to another designated page fastest by clicking on links in each entry. 

Wikipedia is only one example of a wiki, which is a medium much like a blog. While blogs emphasize sequence over time, wikis emphasize spatial connections, which is true also of hypertext more generally. It is perhaps revealing that while there are a great many blogs out there, there is no one primary example of a blog, in the sense that Wikipedia is the only wiki site that most people go to or even know of, one that involves enormous collaboration and accretion of data and written work. But there are in fact many other wikis out there as well. For example, take a look at wikispaces, and also check out the Wikimedia Foundation. Apart from being a hypertext, wikis also keep track of revisions that are made, allow the user to view previous versions of a page, and revert back to a previous version if desired. 

A great place to start exploring hypertext narrative is on the site of the leading publisher of hypertext literature, Eastgate Systems. You can take a look at their site, and their listings for fiction and nonfiction to begin with. Then check out the resources they make freely available. Of particular interest are Eastgate founder Mark Bernstein's writings in the Cutting Edge category. From the On the Web category, you can go to the Reading Room and look at some of the hypertext works available there. I'm particularly fond of Twelve Blue by Michael Joyce, but please feel free to explore whatever seems appealing to you. If you go back to the On the Web page and scroll down a bit, you'll find a list of hypertexts on the web that you can also explore. 

Another site that offers a selection of hypertexts online is this Hypertext and Hypermedia page from Some of the links don't work, but many do. The Museum is worth a look, and some of the poetry can be interesting. 

Another interesting site to examine is that of the Electronic Literature Organization, both for the organization itself and for the links provided to various forms of e-lit. 

 Of course, you can also do a search for hypertext and see what else you can find. 

 In regard to other possibilities, I recommend taking a look at comic artist and media theorist Scott McCloud's website, and especially his WebComics page, and from that page, particularly take a look at The Right Number, and Zot!. Creative work like this shows how we can break free of the formats that we take for granted, whether narrative or spatial arrangement. 

Coming from the gaming end of the spectrum, text adventure games were introduced in the 1970s, and had a measure of popularity on personal computers during the 1980s, before being displaced by cinematic games, starting with Myst. Most text adventures did not feature especially good writing, but one company, Infocom, went above and beyond the competition, and began to refer to their games as interactive fiction, essentially coming to hypertext from this different direction, and incorporating a touch of artificial intelligence programming to go with it. They experimented with various genres, from science fiction and fantasy to detective stories, comedy, horror, and even romance; humorist Douglas Adams even worked with them on their adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and an original game called Bureaucracy. This site has information about the games, and even allows you to play them online. And here is another site where the games can be played online. In my opinion, interactive fiction was a format that was abandoned prematurely, and still has something to offer—I expect that it will be revived and revised at some point in the future.   And I haven't had a chance to check it out yet, but here is a site that says it lets you "Create, play and share text adventure games."

While blogging does not highlight its hypertextual elements, keep in mind that they're still present. A blog can be seen as a database made up of posts, and it's possible to pull up the posts in different ways, in the reverse chronological order that is the basic set up of the blog, beginning with the most recent; or in that same order but based on a particular year and/or month through the archives gadget; or in that same order but including only pages with a given label by clicking on the label at the end of a post or on the labels gadget; or as individual pages in isolation. Also keep in mind that you can include links in a post to one or more previous posts, providing a connection to other parts of the blog (just as Wikipedia does with its entries), deepening the experience, and getting readers to look at older material they might otherwise overlook. I recommend doing this whenever the opportunity arises. 

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