HYPERTEXT/HYPERHYPE

 

by Carrie McMillan

 

Iíve noticed lately that thereís been a renewed emphasis on the creative possibilities offered by the Internet. It seems like a very long time ago when the Web was known as the Information Superhighway: a cringe-worthy term, but that idea of the accessibility of information in a pure form, coupled with the much vaunted Ďcommunityí to be found online, seems very distant from the way we were encouraged to perceive the Web during the Ďboomí of 1999/2000. In those busy days when big business first cottoned on, belatedly, to the potentials of the Web, all we heard from other media, the newspapers, the television, was about the potential of the Web to earn you money. All you needed, it seemed, was a pc, modem and phone line to strike it rich. Weird adolescent overachievers were pointed to as gleeful examples of this, and suddenly everyone dissatisfied with their job hatched greedy little ideas for a website that would make them money.

 

Thank god thatís over. Nowís a good time for the Web to be looking inward again, with almost a feeling of a seaside town in September when the weatherís still good but the tourists have all gone home. Itís a good time to remember what made the Web so popular in the first place and the potential it has in so many areas, even if big business didnít quite have the wherewithal to fully capitalise on it. One Web-based phenomenon that business failed to grasp imaginatively is hypertext, the way words and images can be linked to other words and images.  Most experts on the Web agree that hypertext was initially the brainchild of Vannevar Bush as far back as 1945, when he envisaged this linking of ideas that computers were soon to achieve as a more natural way for the human mind to read, as opposed to print-based texts with their Ďstart to finishí structure.

 

Those who sing the praises of hypertext fiction/electronic poetry and prose, whatever you may wish to call it, often cite above all the possibilities it offers the writer for non-linear narratives, a break away from traditional story structures into a new realm where the reader is offered more agency, more control of the choices and decisions any text presents. In a print-based text, you might hear it argued, the narrator takes the decisions, whereas in this new form the reader can choose the next step. More often though, writers of hypertext narratives use the linking devices not to offer game-like narratives in which the reader must choose whether the narrator battles elves or giants. Thatís strictly the domain of the MUDers and their like. Instead, hypertext narratives build up a wide and multi-textured environment for readers to get lost in. Itís often a world of non-chronological events, like "Dark Lethe," where readers contribute their own writing as a slant to a larger narrative. Or itís an introspective meandering through thoughts often about the act of writing itself, like Linda Carroliís "Water Always Writes in Plural" and Talan Memmotís "Lexia to Perplexia."  Both Carroli and Memmotís work are excellent examples of how the hypertext form can mimic the way our minds work, presenting ideas and alternatives with every click.

 

But as with many aspects of the Web, itís dangerously tempting to overplay the revolutionary aspects of hypertext writing. This is where industry got its fingers burned, over-hyping the novelty of businesses that really amounted to not much more than mail order with an electronic twist. Business bailed out because it thought everything was new and brave whereas customers were aware it wasnít. Writers and artists are a more introspective bunch, and those working in hypertext writing are constantly questioning the potential and value of the medium.

 

For example, a claim made for the revolutionary potential of hypertext is that writers can provide readers with more agency, so that reading becomes a less passive experience. A reader clicks their way through a text, choosing the direction the narrative takes. Analysts of new media narratives have been quick to point out though, that this potential of agency is also present in computer games, "Myst" being most commonly cited, which allow the "player/reader" some control of the narrative. And in a non-electronic format, some will confess to remembering a fad for Steve Jackson Games books in the 1980s, those books in which at the end of every chapter there were decisions to be made and a page number to turn to for battling elves or giants, for example. So increased agency is not solely the domain of hypertext writing.

 

Most often vaunted is hypertextís potential for writers interested in non-linear or non-chronological narratives. There are hypertexts like "253," for instance, a massive early hypertext novel which takes place on a broken-down tube train. Each link details the thoughts of every person on every carriage of the train, with links where different characters are connected. This text is most commonly cited as a readable hypertext where the links serve a real purpose in the narrative. But is this a revolutionary structure for narrative? After its initial online success Geoff Rymanís "253" was picked up by a major publisher and sold as a print novel. This idea of interconnecting stories pre-dates the development of hypertext by some decades. I think most often of Sherwood Andersonís Winesburg, Ohio as an early "hypertextual" narrative of this kind, the interconnecting short stories detailing the thoughts and lives of citizens of a small town, but Iím sure there are many other examples.

 

An interesting writer working in print-based non-chronological narratives alongside the development of hypertext and the Web is James Sallis, whose six Lew Griffin novels link as a whole with wild inconsistencies, jumping back and forth in time, just like the human mind. But unlike with hypertext, in which leaps in time and space are clearly sign-posted for the reader by the act of clicking a link, Sallisís narratives make the reader work harder as itís never terribly clear when thereís been a shift in time and space and even narrator. Itís another kind of print-based hypertext in which the reader is anything but passive.

 

The structural interest offered by hypertext is as yet nothing dramatically different from what writers have been doing throughout the last century. And there are other issues raised by this new form. Many writers in this medium find themselves working in uneasy collaboration with artists and designers, often with more technical minded people than themselves and must therefore find a common vision. Not all writers of hypertext are gifted web designers and vice versa. And where the writer of hypertext is also the designer, the creative task is doubled. Hypertext writers, like all writers, face the challenge of making the words do what they envisage, but on top of this they also have to deal with the technology. This in itself can be problematic, with hypertext writers walking a fine line between the desire for impressive graphic effects and the need to keep download times to a minimum to preserve reader engagement.

 

But those working in hypertext writing seem to enjoy these challenges and this new medium is still being debated and explored with relish. Itís a mark of the potential for this medium to endure that there are so many sites dedicated to its discussion, trAce Online Writing Community being one example, where new work is exhibited and countless forums discussing the format are busy and opinionated. This constant discussion of the hypertext format for writing seems to want to bash out a set of conventions for this genre, which is still so new and fresh that there is no real agreement even as to what name it should be known as, never mind what itís characterised by. And it is in this freshness that I think the real potential lies. The work of Alt-X in publishing electronic novels purely online shows that in a publishing world thatís increasingly hard to break into, especially for those working in experimental poetry or prose, hypertext writing offers the chance to publish, to be read and discussed, and to contribute to an emerging form of writing.