Hypertext, the thread that weaves the World Wide Web, is changing the way writers write and the way readers read.
With the presence of links in Web-based text no longer a novelty, writing styles in disciplines from journalism to poetry seem to be in flux.
"The whole idea of a linear story is disappearing when we deal with a hypertext environment," said Andrew Mendelson, director of the multimedia program in Temple University's department of journalism.
Now, the expected spread of wireless Internet devices - handheld PDAs and Etch-A-Sketch-like reading "tablets" - offers the possibility of moving Web-like reading experiences to the bus, the bed and the beach.
As most Web surfers know, hypertext allows the reader to jump from one Web page to another by clicking on an icon or highlighted text.
While news sites serve up menus of links to text, background information, videos and sound clips, Web sites dedicated to hypertext poetry are asking readers to meander among stanzas and chase moving text across the screen.
Elsewhere, online story writers are abandoning the narrative. They invite readers to experience stories in random snippets of text, graphics and music.
Examples of hypertext fiction include Grammatron (www.grammatron.com) by Mark Amerika of Boulder, Colo.; the tomb robbers by Stuart Moulthrop of Baltimore; and the Electronic Poetry Center (http://epc.buffalo.edu).
Hypertext writers say they feel liberated from the straitjacket of print. "Sometimes I find myself starting a poem with print presentation in mind, and realizing that it's just not going to work in print and it has to become hypertext," Robert Kendall, an author and teacher of interactive literature at Stanford University, said.
The new styles, largely experimental, take some getting used to, and often tax a Web connection's limits with Java, Flash, XML, and other Web programming tricks that manipulate text, images and sounds.
"There is certainly a whole side of this of great interest to the techno types," said Robert Perelman, associate chair of the English department at the University of Pennsylvania. "The question is, what does this do to the average reader? How do you make it interesting to that reader?"
"A lot of times, it's sort of mediocre poets that want something sort of gimmicky to get their names out there," said Rachel Burton, a Penn senior who just completed a thesis on hypertext poetry.
The term hypertext was coined by Ted Nelson, a Swarthmore College graduate who was a Harvard graduate student in 1960 when he began writing a computer program to link portions of text in a nonlinear fashion. He introduced the word hypertext in a paper delivered to a professional group, the Association for Computing Machines, in 1965.
The idea of linking text, visuals and sound in an interactive way found its first popular use in Apple Computer's HyperCard, which came bundled with the Macintosh in 1987. Two years later, Tim Berners-Lee proposed the World Wide Web, and it was 1993 when Marc Andreessen introduced the Mosaic Web browser, which took hypertext to the masses.
But the full effect of hypertext on writing may not be obvious for years or even decades to come. Perelman noted that Gutenberg's printing press may have changed history, but few would have realized it at the time. "Three weeks later, what was the situation? It wasn't all that different," he said. Likewise, for hypertext, "the returns aren't in, to say the least," he said.
Reading hypertext fiction takes some getting used to, the experts agreed. "If you've been reading [suspense novelist] Robert Ludlum, and then you go to the Web, you're not going to like it," said Allen Filreis, another English professor at Penn.
But "the thing about hypertext that's so much fun is that the everyday reader, browsing the Web, can create their own passageway through material," Filreis said.
He added that, when his students read hypertext poetry, "even if they don't like the poetry itself, they're amazed that somebody is actually doing something on the Web that befits the medium."
Reid Kanaley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last modified: Tuesday, 08-May-2001 15:21:07 EDT