When I say the word “hypertext” what’s the first thing you think of? Most likely, you thought of HTML, right? Hypertext is defined as, “a database format in which information related to that on a display can be accessed directly from the display.” For most of us, the reason the word “hypertext” doesn’t even connect for us, is because we grew up with computers, so the idea of selecting something on a display and accessing other information is so commonplace. We just think of it as, “Well, duh, you click the link.” In reality, Hypertext has a far more interesting history than most of us would imagine, and it links back to writing.
There was an attempt at a literary revolution led, arguably, by a person called Ted Nelson. Nelson is credited with being the person behind the concept of hypertext, hypermedia, and hyperlinks. In his writings in the sixties, Nelson saw the future of hypertext as a way to bring literature back into fashion in the 21st century as a way to take people away from television and its stagnation of creativity and make reading the new big thing again. The concept was that through the use of hypertext, books would be published online in an interactive way so that the reader moves on to different parts of the story by clicking links, basically.
Though nobody in the reading I’ve done calls it this, it sounds to me like an internet version of those Choose Your Own Adventure books I used to read as a kid.
While the idea was ambitious, as we all now know, Nelson’s dream of an interactive novel online as the next revolution of entertainment didn’t, in fact, work out in the end. There are multiple reasons for that, and some of them are pretty simple to work out the cause. One of the main issues was just the timing of it all. Another was the formats through which hypertext was meant to become a reality.
Before the internet, Apple came out with one of the first platforms for hypertext in a program called HyperCard. From what I can understand, HyperCard was a lot like a powerpoint platform, but rather than doing a presentation with it, it was meant to link slides together so that the user could explore a multimedia artifact via hyperlinks. In his look back on the HyperCard, Matthew Lasar tells us,
Even before its cancellation, HyperCard’s inventor saw the end coming. In an angst-filled 2002 interview, Bill Atkinson confessed to his Big Mistake. If only he had figured out that stacks could be linked through cyberspace, and not just installed on a particular desktop, things would have been different.
“I missed the mark with HyperCard,” Atkinson lamented. “I grew up in a box-centric culture at Apple.
This goes back to the issue of timing that made hypertext miss the mark, so to speak. Before the broad release of internet connectivity, everything created was installed on a single computer. That meant that only the users of the computer the HyperCard was created on could access it. This was the same for a lot of computer programs at the time. There was no thought process leading up to the idea that one day soon, computers would be interconnected, so the creators didn’t anticipate needing that ability.
It turned out that nonlinear reading spaces had a problem: They were incredibly difficult to write. When you tried to make an argument or tell a journalistic story in which any individual section could be a starting or ending point, it wound up creating a whole host of technical problems, the main one being that you had to reintroduce characters or concepts in every section.
As you could expect, such a difficult and complex medium for telling a novel-like story wasn’t successful. It would have created some really interesting stories, no doubt, but nothing that complicated would have ever been the next revolution to replace TV and change the way literature as we know it is experienced.
However, what we did get out of these revolutionary ideas was something equally as important: blogging! Yes, the very platform you are experiencing right now hails from the idea of hypertext fiction. And it wasn’t just blogging that came out of the hypertext revolution that never was, as Steven Johnson outlines in the same article.
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.
What may have started as an attempt at a literary revolution failed to bring about a new literary form that would bring literature back to the masses and dethrone the entertainment king that was television, but from the ashes of a failed endeavor rose basically the entirety of new media as we know it now. News, social interaction, education, communication, all of our common forms of new media that we utilize every single day is only made possible by hypertext.