Hypertext Essays: Introduction

An ordinary essay is designed to be read one way -- from beginning to end. A hypertext essay can be read in many different ways. 

The ordinary prose essay has been around for hundreds of years; people have had a long time to discover how to write a good one.  But hypertext is a much more recent invention.  While the world of business and information technology offers plenty of practical, sensible advice to hypertext authors whose goal is to convey information rapidly and efficiently (see Nielsen's How Users Read on the Web), there are times when a creative author may wish to challenge the reader's expectations, or hold back important information in order to create suspense.  For example, Lee Libby's "Passing Theory in Action" uses a different navigation bar on each page; the intention, I think, is to play with the reader's expectations; but I always lose interest before I get very far in that article. 

One of the most common reasons why hypertext essays fail is a misunderstanding on the part of the author. If an author produces several pages of ordinary prose, chops it up into four or five pieces titled "Part 1," "Part 2," etc., and links them together with a "next" link at the bottom of each page, the result is usually not a compelling website.  Such a piece of writing is like what you get when you smuggle a camcorder into a rock concert and call the recording a "music video". While the content of the essay might be brilliant, it was not designed with hypertext in mind; indeed, the online medium, when not fully realized, may actually be a barrier to the reader's appreciation of the author's talents.  

Nancy Kaplan's E-Literacies website blurs the borders between "content" and "navigation."  Kaplan distributes her own commentary across many pages that also provide links to resources elsewhere on the web. Perhaps her style is not perfectly suited to the expert reader, who would rather just have a list of links from which to choose.  Yet another kind of online essay is the weblog.  At WebWord.com, John S. Rhodes writes short paragraphs of his own, and links them to longer articles found elsewhere on the web. Even more complex texts are generated through interactive web postings, as on Aint-It-Cool-News.com (where the addition of reader comments at the bottom of the page has turned a short article about Spider Man into a forum for all sorts of diverse views).

Which of the above websites are examples of "hypertext essays"?  I suppose that's for you to decide.  As technology advances, the form and function of hypertext is changing.  But in general, any hypertext is made up of many smaller units of text (sometimes called "lexias"). each of which should make sense on its own, and all of which are linked to each other along multiple paths.  Because the reader of a hypertext may start anywhere -- in the middle, or even on the last page -- hypertext is not a good medium for holding making extended comparisons or building to a conclusion.  Hypertext loses out to the essay in that area.

Yet hypertext has strengths of its own.  An essay might quote a few sentences or paragraphs from some other source, using a footnote to identify the source. But a hypertext can actually send the reader to the original source to read it for him or herself.  The author of an essay might struggle to come up with the right balance between background and explanation for readers who are unfamiliar with the subject, and high-level intellectual analysis for expert readers).  A hypertext author can, theoretically, write for both kinds of audiences.  Those readers who need more help with the subject will click on links that provide definitions, detailed explanations, and a long discursive introduction. Other readers will pounce on links that lead to conclusions, recommendations, or lists of recommended reading.  

In a sense, the World Wide Web is a single text -- and, in fact, the Latin word "text" means "web."  The body of your essay should also provide outbound links, which enable the reader to use your essay as a launching point for further reading. Connecting the original words that you write to the existing web pages that other people have already written is an important part of using the World Wide Web successfully.

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