What? A link before we even get started?
Already in 1991 Jay David Bolter, in his book Writing Space, laid the groundrules for any continued discussion of the topic of hypertextual writing. In what is perhaps the most footnoted and quoted volume on the subject, Bolter examined the meanings and the implications of what he called "writing space". He noted that
a true electronic text is not a fixed sequence of letters, but is instead from the writer's point of view a network of verbal elements and from the reader's point of view a texture of possible readings. (p. 5)So the basics of networked verbal elements and numerous possible readings were established from the beginning of the examination of what Bolter refers to as "electronic texts". And when he wrote that each reader
calls forth his or her own text out of the network, and each such text belongs to one reader and one particular act of reading (p. 6)he succinctly focused on the issue of how the reading of hypertextual writing becomes a highly individual endeavor. Bolter was referring primarily to what were then "current computerized texts" - databases. He noted that each database contains much more information than any individual reader would be interested in finding, and that each "reader" retrieves from the database the information that is relevant to him or her. (Bolter wrote at a time when the internet was still solely a textual medium, and was accessed primarily by academics. The World Wide Web that appeared a few years later changed all that.) But Bolter doesn't limit his discussion to the retrieval of information (an issue that has become rather passe since he wrote); he examines the parameters of the electronic text and comparing them to the physical parameters of the book:
the physical book has fostered the idea that writing can and should be rounded into finite units of expression: that a writer or reader can close his or her text off from all others. (p. 85)The suggestion is obvious. Perhaps in a book this can be done, but once you enter the realm of electronic text your attempts (or at least my attempts) to establish borders become artificial, or in a gentler tone:
While electronic technology does not destroy the idea of the book, it does diminish the sense of closure that the codex and printing have fostered. (p. 87)It is in the nature of the electronic text to reach out, to establish connections to other texts. In what is for me (someone who has become rather accomplished at continually finding more and more points to which to connect) perhaps the most threatening sentence of his book, Bolter writes:
An electronic text never needs to end. (p. 87)So I've been forewarned, but still had to accept the challenge.
Bolter was perhaps surprisingly prescient about the future of the then still non-existent World Wide Web when he wrote that electronic writing "breaks down the familiar distinctions between the book and such larger forms as the encyclopedia and the library". The WWW has become for us an amorphous whole that each person comes to know only from the small part that he or she encounters. Some people are convinced that it is a vast library (and are offended when they don't find the specific topic they're searching for). Others see it as an encyclopedia that should offer them encapsulated, ready-made information, while yet others relate to it as a bibliography.
Although both dictionaries and encyclopaedia are books, we traditionally see the process of reading a book as one of reading from the beginning to the end. Even though we open an encyclopedia to a particular topic, and are free to browse and/or cross reference, "start to finish" reading is what comes to mind when we think of books. Hypertext and the World Wide Web challenge this process through what John December calls the quality of being porous. December, in Web Development: Web Qualities (1998) expands this thought:
A web doesn't have only one entry point - any of its pages might serve as the starting point for a user. The user may find that different pages in the web give them the best viewpoint into the information for their needs.In other words, the process of writing a hypertextual document has to take into consideration the way in which the reader is going to read it.
Bolter examines hypertextual writing from "both sides" - delivery and reception, writing and reading. He tells us that
to read is to choose and follow one path from among those suggested by the layout of the text (p. 108)and that the experience of reading a hypertextual document is physically different from that of reading a book. He is aware, however, that this isn't something new. He notes that
there is nothing in storytelling that quite corresponds to the reader's sense that in turning the pages the or she is coming to the end of the book. (p. 109)and comments that in this manner hypertext has a quality it shares with storytelling that is different from the book.
Bolter discusses another aspect of hypertext that he identifies with what transpires on the side of the reader:
a computer text is never stable and never detached from the changing contexts that readers bring to it (p.155)Is this aspect truly a "reader-side" quality? Or something intrinsic in the nature of this sort of text? It would seem logical to think that the content of the text, as chosen by the author, determines the extent to which that text is stable, or detached. Many contemporary authors of "traditional" texts not only give life to their characters in the accepted literary sense, but also attempt to actually set them free, to become independent of the person who created them. And even when we know that this is nothing more than a literary device, we willingly accept it, and play along. Bolter and others identify hypertextual writing as a continuation of experiments of this sort. The most well recognized "ploy" of this sort is, of course, multiple possible endings. With, however, such a large percentage of the internet devoted to e-commerce, it's fair to ask whether the web counterpart to possible endings exist in order to empower the reader and involve him or her in the development of a "story", or simply to determine which ending readers prefer. In a case such as this, "choice" may be a transient quality, maintained until the author determines what works best to sell his product.
One of the primary aspects of the electronic text, according to Bolter, is the extent to which it allows the reader to track the various ideas that find expression in the text. In a traditional, printed, text, the reader is forced to make choices that restrict his or her reading experience. Thus, hypertext is not really something new, but instead the realization of something that was until now dormant because the possibilities of realizing it weren't available to us:
All texts in all technologies of writing are bound together by an indefinite number of implicit references, echoes of words and phrases. But only the computer allows the reader to track such echoes.... (p. 95)Though some might see a plethora of voices as a threat, as a hindrance to an understanding of the text, Bolter sees the computer as finally allowing us to pay attention to all of these voices. And of course it also offers us the opportunity to return to the text in order to continue to explore it. The same is the case for different text structures:
The computer permits many structures to coexist in the same electronic text: tree structures, circles, and lines can cross and recross without obstructing one another. (p.95)and of course implicit in this is the ability of the reader to choose which of these to follow.
But as interesting as these insights are, their relevance to the question of writing hypertextual documents is not really clear, other than the already referred to idea of "wreading". An examination of how hypertexts get read will have to wait for some other opportunity.
Much of Writing Space however, does deal with writing. When he discusses the writing experience Bolter envisions something well beyond simply a qualitative leap in the technology available for writing:
The computer as hypertext is the newest in a long line of candidates for the universal book. And like all the previous candidates, the computer makes the seductive promise to break down the barrier between thought and writing, to join the mind and writing surface into a seamless whole. p. 206At this point, however, we have to admit that Bolter is starting to wax a bit too apocalyptic. His goal is no less than joining the mind and the writing surface, as though the one will simply ooze onto the other. Perhaps he envisions a time when we can connect an electrode from our brains straight into our word processors. But Bolter doesn't discuss the technicalities. In order to establish that "seamless whole" somebody is going to have to establish the links - they don't just make themselves, you know. Somebody is going to have to decide on the nature of those links - what sort of sense they're going to make, why one word gets linked and another doesn't. It seems that we can't free ourselves from the responsibility we take upon ourselves in writing. Just as in traditional writing we have to choose our words carefully, in hypertextual writing not only those words, but our links to them have to be chosen carefully as well.
Bolter dealt primarily with the idea of hypertext, and with its implementation in interactive fiction: "click here if you want John and Mary to fall in love", "click here if you want Mary to meet someone else", and the like. Tools already existed for this sort of writing when Bolter wrote, but they were almost totally eclipsed by the World Wide Web. Interactive fiction seems to have remained a genre reserved for literary aficionados, while extensive use of hypertext came into its own on the web. There it flourished, but perhaps in conquering it also capitulated.
Enter Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen is perhaps today's prime expert on the use of hypertext on the World Wide Web. Nielsen has conducted studies of the ways users actually use the internet - what they click on and what they don't - and has presented his findings not only in lengthy and reasoned book form, but also in the bite-sized chunks that he sees as being the desirable method of getting information across on the web. Nielsen's conclusions are frightening for any author who might be thinking seriously about posting his hypertextual novel to the web. In the vast majority of cases, Nielsen claims that readers don't read on the web at all. Instead, they scan, or skim, seeking out the relevant information that they came to the web for in the first place. If they don't find what they're looking for, they leave. Interestingly, Nielsen doesn't object to the idea of extensive linking. He even claims, for instance, that credibility can be increased through the "use of outbound hypertext links. Links to other sites show that the authors have done their homework and are not afraid to let readers visit other sites." On the most basic level, however, Nielsen tells us that readers aren't interested in a hypertextual experience, but rather only in the advantages of the use of hypertext. In other words, finding a link which leads them to the information they want pleases them, finding links that associatively lead them to interesting ideas they didn't know they were interested in distracts them.
Is Nielsen relevant to the topic being examined here? What, after all, is the connection between trying to sell a product and trying to create a consistent and interesting network of associations? Why should we devote bytes to a discussion of how to get a point across quickly and succinctly on the web? The answer to that question lies in the expectations of the average web reader. I have no statistics to back up this claim, but it seems a fair guess that the vast majority of people who read "interactive fiction", or the hypertextual essays that experiment with the medium as they try and discuss it, are either an in-group of academics, or their students who are required to read those essays. For the tens of millions of internet users who surf the World Wide Web a link is no more than a means of getting to another page that just might have the information they're looking for. Thus, on the question of whether Nielsen is relevant here, sadly, the answer has to be "yes". True, it all depends on the goal. Sometimes wordy writing, loaded with lots ideas or hints that can lead us to as yet unclarified thoughts, is precisely what we want to read. We, however, doesn't seem to be a very massive population.
There is, of course, middle ground. Even if the vast majority of web writing is for the purpose of getting quickly to a (often commercial) point, and even if few people are serious hypertextual authors who purposefully seek to examine the possibilities inherent in this still rather new medium, many people write on the web with true communication with others in mind. Diaries on the web may not be as popular as they were only two years ago, but numerous examples (perhaps 2,000) can still be found. "How I spent my summer vacation" web pages are still out there. (An AltaVista search tells us that the phrase shows up 1,400 times in its index. For the first 50 of these its the title of the page.)
Daniel Chandler refers to this sort of writing as the Construction of Identities on the Web. Chandler is perhaps the most prominent web personality when it comes to Media Studies, and his extensive web site, devoted to almost all aspects of the media, is a popular and ever developing focus for that topic. His examination of personal home pages is a starting point for any examination of the topic.
Chandler examines the concept of Bricolage as a central aspect of self building in home pages. (Hey! Even I'm footnoted!) He tells us that what's being constructed "are not only the pages but the authors themselves", but he only alludes to the cut and paste aspects of the digital medium as a means of facilitating this. Chandler writes:
Indeed, the virtual and digital nature of the Web as a medium supports the re-use in bricolage of existing materials since the model may be abstracted limitlessly whilst remaining untouched in the site where the bricoleur found it.But he seems more interested in the continually "under construction" aspects of home pages that find expression in the possibility of continually changing and modifying the home page, than in the idea of the pages that someone links to being a central part of the entity being constructed.
A 1995 paper by Hugh Miller, from the Department of Social Sciences, The Nottingham Trent University, entitled The Presentation of Self in Electronic Life: Goffman on the Internet, seems to be among the first papers that sought to examine home pages as a phenomenon. Miller identified five categories of web pages (with a few sub-categories) that he found expressed different aspects of the self being presented. The categories, such as "Hi, this is me (as an individual)", or "This is what I think is cool", or "An advertisement for myself" all dealt with the content of the pages being examined. Miller's examination didn't discern, or even mention, any differences in presentation of self that might result from the use of different sort of hyperlinks. Other than the enticing claim "show me what your links are and I'll tell you what kind of person you are", the use of hypertext in creating the presented self doesn't appear to be a function in this review.
In a later paper (1998), however, (The Presentation of Self in WWW Home Pages), Miller, along with Russell Mather, extends his examination. He acknowledges that the pages he examined in his 1995 paper "drew on established print ways of presenting the self ... and there was not much sign of new variants of identity emerging through the WWW". Something has changed, however. Now, due perhaps to "the maturing of the medium":
we can see examples of a new way of presenting the self - the hypertext self. The Web has the ability to present lots of pieces of information linked together in complex ways with no necessary order or hierarchy. By using this, people can present many aspects of themselves simultaneously (or at least non-hierarchically), or their extended selves, or themselves as nodes within an extended community.But this suggestion remains nothing more than a hint. The idea of "the hypertext self" as a means of presenting different aspects of ourselves simultaneously is an idea that definitely whets the appetite, but it doesn't receive any additional discussion from Miller.
Thomas Erickson also examines the role of home pages in the construction of identity. Erickson, formerly of the Advanced Technology Group of Apple Computer, in what is essentially a think-piece (The World Wide Web as Social Hypertext, 1996) writes: "A personal page is a carefully constructed portrayal of a person". He suggests that:
this seemingly frivolous blending of the professional and the personal is the key to why the web is becoming a fundamentally different thing from the systems of information servers that preceded it.Erickson focuses on the hyperlink as a central aspect of this construction:
... the links, as well as the page itself, participate in the personal portrayal; in a sense, they embody a sort of social logic, providing us with a view of that person's network of friends, colleagues, and concerns.Seabrook, quoted by Chandler, comments:
a home in the real world is, among other things, a way of keeping the world out... An on-line home, on the other hand, is a little hole you drill in the wall of your real home to let the world in.As of this writing, Yahoo! contains over 47,000 listings under the section: Society and Culture / People / Personal Home Pages. In other words, over 47,000 people have drilled little holes in their homes in order to let the world in. I readily admit that I have examined only a miniscule part of these pages (and I'm considered to be particularly curious as to what people write about themselves). My cursory examination of pages of this sort of highly subjective, and perhaps even totally uncalled for. For some reason I feel a need to describe a few of these sites in order to better place the Boidem in its proper place on the home page continuum. What interests me in these sites is not their content (though of course that's also a factor) but the extent and manner in which they utilize hypertext.
I've chosen to showcase six special (to my mind) sites, though with almost 50,000 to choose from this is obviously a highly subjective choice:
Well, perhaps it's not the best (that's a subjective judgment), but it's certainly a topic that can't help but add a bit of closure to this discussion. Bolter writes:
Playfulness is a defining quality of this new medium. ...the experience of reading in the electronic medium remains a game ... in the sense that is has no finality. (p. 130)and further on (p. 165):
the electronic text never takes itself seriously, as a printed text inevitably does.Essentially, Bolter identifies two different qualities that he lumps together under the name of playfulness: that of being gamelike (I admit that I can't remember when I ever finished a game of Monopoly, but even so, games do come to an end), and that of taking oneself seriously. Marjorie Wilson, in Hypertextual Stories, a transcript of a speech she delivered at the IT-Technology in Visual Arts conference held in 1998 at the Royal Danish School of Educational Studies, reports on her experience with undergraduates writing with hypertext, seems to choose the lack of seriousness as the defining quality of playfulness:
Throughout my wreading–with a "w"–of my students' texts, the one concept that continued to assert itself was that of "playing with the text"; and it is this very powerful concept that seems to be at the center not only of the students' texts, but of this text as well.I'm not sure why Bolter thinks that electronic texts never take themselves seriously. Sadly examples of this, though not what Bolter intended, exist. But of course there are many examples of lengthy academic or semi-academic articles on the web that are highly serious, and hardly make even the slightest use of hypertext. Bolter wouldn't classify these as electronic texts, but only traditional texts in digital format, and he would be right, except that their existence on the World Wide Web somehow makes them, by default, a part of that vast and amorphous digital library. (Sometimes the playfulness can be distressingly juvenile.) What may be a more accurate definition of the playfulness of the text is a sort of irreverence, a willingness to take things one step farther than prudence would advise, a willingness to examine the limits, and then push on them a little bit more.
At no point along the line did the Boidem require me to make use of
hypertextual writing. The first few columns were on the whole linear and
fully self-contained, and even when they weren't, each essay could be taken
on its own terms, without any reference to the whole. Ultimately the extended
use of hypertext in the columns began to feel like a necessity, a demand
that the medium placed on me, a boundary that had to be pushed a bit. In
the beginning I think it would be accurate to claim that rather than me
choosing to make use of hypertext, hypertext crept up on me, hinting in
whispers that I should give it a try, until it slowly but surely revealed
itself as a force to be reckoned with, that couldn't be avoided. But it
didn't make demands or fling itself upon me. Instead, with a grin and a
smile, and in the best sense of the word, it simply invited me to play.
And of course there's a bibliography.