Steven Johnson – Why No One Clicked on the Great Hypertext Story

This was the strange mix of myopia and farsightedness that some of us experienced in the early 1990s. We had an intense hunch that words linked electronically to other words—links that would allow you to jump suddenly to different textual locations—were about to become a central mode of communication. And of course this turned out to be entirely true. But many of us thought the primary impact of hypertext would be on storytelling. At Feed, we originally imagined that contributors would compose stories built out of small blocks of text—roughly the length of a blog post—that readers would navigate according to their own whims. Like Michael Joyce’s fiction, each reading would be a unique configuration. People would explore the story, not read it.

It’s not that hypertext went on to become less interesting than its literary advocates imagined in those early days. Rather, a whole different set of new forms arose in its place: blogs, social networks, crowd-edited encyclopedias. Readers did end up exploring an idea or news event by following links between small blocks of text; it’s just that the blocks of text turned out to be written by different authors, publishing on different sites. Someone tweets a link to a news article, which links to a blog commentary, which links to a Wikipedia entry. Each landing point along that itinerary is a linear piece, designed to be read from start to finish. But the constellation they form is something else. Hypertext turned out to be a brilliant medium for bundling a collection of linear stories or arguments written by different people.

Terry Harpold – Ex-foliations: Reading Machines and the Upgrade Path

The historical bookend to Coover’s early celebration of Afternoon is his complaint, less than a decade later, that we have—already, too soon—left the golden age forecast by Joyce’s fiction. The unrelenting hyperkinesis and graphic monomania of the World Wide Web, Coover lamented in a 1999 lecture, have “sucked the substance” out of the digital field’s lettered arts, reducing its signs to “surface spectacle.”

Literature is meditative and the Net is riven by ceaseless hype and chatter. Literature has a shape, and the Net is shapeless. The discrete object is gone, there’s only this vast disorderly sprawl, about as appealing as a scatter of old magazines on a table in the dentist’s lounge. Literature is traditionally slow and low-tech and thoughtful, the Net is fast and high-tech and actional. As for hyperfiction, the old golden age webworks of text have largely vanished, hypertext now used more to access hypermedia as enhancements for more or less linear
narratives, when it’s not launching the reader out into the mazy outer space of the World Wide Web, never to be seen again. Notions of architecture, mapping, design: mostly gone. Genuine interactivity, too: the reader is commonly obliged now to enter the media-rich but ineluctable flow as directed by the author or authors: in a sense, it’s back to the movies again, that most passive and imperious of forms. (Coover 2000)

Janet Murray Hamlet on the Holodeck (new edition)

Social media and media-sharing sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr provide frameworks for aggregating shorter segments and segments from multiple authors into shared narrative structures. Blogging software has made the web diary and video blog into widely available, established narrative forms … All of these conventions are available as an extended palette for storytelling, sometimes coming together into new narrative forms, such The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (2012-13), an inventive social media-based adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. (Page 65)

Journalists have only scratched the surface of digital affordances for storytelling. Pervasive digital video cameras and social media structures have created an influential citizen journalism practice, and there is an important design opportunity in creating new structures for knitting together contributions from multiple eye-witnesses to a single event. The UN-funded documentary Clouds Over Sidra (2015) uses 3D presentation to simulate a visit to a Syrian refugee camp in an effort to create a sense of immediacy and heightened empathy with the displaced families. The award-winning New York Times multimedia account of an avalanche disaster “Snowfall“ (2012), for example, is basically an enhancement of an existing long print piece with digital add-ons like a map of the area and video of a ski run from a head-mounted camera. There are many design opportunities for a digitally native journalism. For example, an avalanche disaster story might be structured as a simulation presented as an aerial view of the terrain with a timeline slider to take interactive viewers through the event in significant timesteps, with markers for the position of each of the people involved in the disaster. The simulation might reposition according to the point of view of the individual actors and witnesses, allowing for multisequential navigation of the same event. A digitally native multiform story might also dramatize contrary-to-fact scenarios in which different choices might have led to survival of the victims. (Page 65)

The allure of the participatory affordance is most apparent in the unprecedented growth of social media over the past decade, which has created a continuously updated global forum for sharing media of all forms. In fact, the posting of first-person observational text, images, and “citizen journalism” video to social media is now the first place that many people go for a breaking news story, creating a new form of real-time collective storytelling. Hashtags and “meme templates have provided an informational framework by which many people can focus on the same event or social configuration and carry on a many-to-many mass-media conversation about an unfolding situation. Twitter character restrictions, hashtags, and comic meme formats function like the poetic organizing conventions of oral literature—the rhyme and rhythm structures and repeated heroic epithets, the set pieces like lists of “begats” in the Bible, or the catalog of ships in The Iliad. They are building blocks for narrative coherence that create cultural practices across distances and that increase in complexity over time. (page 91-92)

The unit of storytelling in the early twentieth-first century has become not the individual novel, film, or television series, but the “transmedia” storyworld, which usually includes websites, games, and social media extensions of massmedia story franchises. The common digital substructure of representation makes it easier to repurpose drawings, text, audio, and video across transmission platforms and to segment and aggregate them for multiple formats. Everything we create in digital form is potentially an element in a larger archive, available for re-viewing and recombination. We are just beginning to see the impact of this…  ( Page 93)

Pervasive social media applications and mobile recording devices are spreading a new kind of digital literacy that includes not just text and images, but also extensive organizing and tagging strategies (geotagging, hashtags, message threading, signed postings, and opt-in following), for the aggregation of contributions from multiple sources into a shared storytelling system. ( Page 262)


Ted Nelson demonstrates Xanadu Space (And talks about hypertext as a writing concept)

Possiplex: Ted Nelson ’59 and the Literary Machine

AT A TIME WHEN ONLY LARGE INSTITUTIONS owned computers, Nelson wrote about personal computing. His vision of ubiquitous computers has become commonplace and his dream of a docuverse of interlinked literature—a global library accessible from desks and tablets and cell phones throughout the world—is now real. The implementation of these literary machines was deeply influenced by Nelson’s books, and many of the engineers and entrepreneurs who designed and built the pioneering systems saw themselves as Nelson’s followers

Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

“Writing is the process of reducing a tapestry of interconnection to a narrow sequence, and this is in a sense illicit. This is a wrongful compression of what should spread out.”

Hypertext creator says structure of World Wide Web ‘completely wrong’

The creator of hypertext has criticised the design of the World Wide Web, saying that Tim Berners-Lee’s creation is “completely wrong”, and that Windows, Macintosh and Linux have “exactly the same” approach to computing.

Ted Nelson, founder of first hypertext project, Project Xanadu, told Techworld Australia the structure of the Web is “totally archaic”.

“They got the World Wide Web completely wrong,” he said. “It is a strange, distorted, peculiar and difficult limited system… the browser is built around invisible links – you can see something to click on but you’ve got nowhere else to go.”

Nelson said the structure of the Web is not the only thing built badly, with with the major players in the operating system space “all the same”.

“I don’t say that mine is the only right answer, but there’s only one game in town – Macintosh, Windows and Unix are exactly alike,” he said. “People are being lobotomised by the current format of documents and I hope to change that.”

Article about Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project

Ted Nelson on the Web as Hypertext

Thanks to Scott Johnson for the pointer to the original of this article by Ted Nelson. I’ve just pasted the text here, verbatim, so it’s readable in a Web browser. DW


The Web isn’t hypertext, it’s DECORATED DIRECTORIES!

What we have instead is the vacuous victory of typesetters over authors, and the most trivial form of hypertext that could have been imagined.

The original hypertext project, Xanadu®, has always been about pure document structures where authors and readers don’t have to think about computerish structures of files and hierarchical directories. The Xanadu project has endeavored to implement a pure structure of links and facilitated re-use of content in any amounts and ways, allowing authors to concentrate on what mattered.

Instead, today’s nightmarish new world is controlled by “webmasters”, tekkies unlikely to understand the niceties of text issues and preoccupied with the Web’s exploding alphabet soup of embedded formats. XML is not an improvement but a hierarchy hamburger. Everything, everything must be forced into hierarchical templates! And the “semantic web” means that tekkie committees will decide the world’s true concepts for once and for all. Enforcement is going to be another problem 🙂 It is a very strange way of thinking, but all too many people are buying in because they think that’s how it must be.

There is an alternative.

Markup must not be embedded. Hierarchies and files must not be part of the mental structure of documents. Links must go both ways. All these fundamental errors of the Web must be repaired. But the geeks have tried to lock the door behind them to make nothing else possible.

We fight on.

More later.

To what degree did the enthusiasm for hypertext rest on a hope that the web might turn out to be the space that Ted Nelson imagined it would be? As opposed to the space that it has become: one increasingly structured by proprietary laws, dominated by commercial imperatives, whether those of advertising/marketing, paywalls for publishers to have an online business model …

Siren Shapes – Exploratory and Constructive Hypertexts
The hypertext of the Web is not the hypertext imagined by Vannevar Bush (◊02), Doug Engelbart (◊08, ◊17), or Ted Nelson (◊11, ◊21, ◊30)—as reading these authors makes clear, the Web edition is much more limited. Understanding the limitations of the Web’s hypertext is not simply an occasion for complaint, however. It helps reveal the potential that still lies within the hypertext concept,
untapped by mainstream new media.

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