The Death of Hypertext?

Hypertext.” When I was a college student, I was obsessed with the idea that, some day, we would all be creating and consuming information— not just information, but literature—via portable devices like cell phones, when the hyperlink might become as central to reading and writing as the sentence. Since then, that day has come and gone. There are millions of people out there sporting an iPhone, an Android, a Kindle, an iPad, a netbook, a tablet, what-have-you. This year alone, there has been a doubling of the number of people who e-readers and tablet computers. Since then, nearly everyone I know can communicate with nearly everyone else I know, simply by pasting a hyperlink, sometimes without adding any additional information at all. By all accounts, this seems to be the moment I was waiting for.

On the other hand, I’ve just encountered two accounts that wonder about “why the book’s future never happened” and “the problem of how hypertext poems composed in the late 1990s have aged” by Paul Laforge and Benjamin Paloff, respectively.

What happened?

These two accounts differ in their approaches to that question, but they both agree pretty closely on the problem.

“hypertext fiction is in a tough place now. Born into a world that wasn’t quite ready for it, and encumbered with lousy technology and user-hostile interface design, it got a bad reputation, at least outside of specialized reading circles. At the same time, it’s impossibly hard to create, one of the only modes of fiction I know of which is more demanding than the novel. (And then add to that the need to create a user interface, and maybe a content-management system, and is it going to be an app? Suddenly your antidepressants aren’t nearly strong enough to get you out of bed.)” — Paul Laforge

“The paradox of this proliferation of online information is that, while by no means immune to decay, the information is quickly superseded by new dispatches, which in turn accelerates its aging. As we have seen, a book of poems published on acid-free paper in 1997 can easily look like a book published in 2011; in the United States, it is not uncommon for a book to go through multiple printings with little or no change in design. But a hypertext poem coded in 1997 shows its age almost immediately, whether because its design elements reflect earlier stages of a rapidly changing programming environment, or perhaps because the coding requires now-obsolete software.” Benjamin Paloff

If the world doesn’t yet have a strong, ongoing body of hypertext literature, could it be because the idea was born before the widespread popularity of web standards? Are the early hypertexts akin to the early attempts at bookmaking, and so will hypertext literature require an element of conservation science in order to survive? Will it be transcribed or upgraded, the way the ancient writing was transcribed from scroll, to manuscript, to book, to database? (Would cloud-based bookstores prove to be the dawn of a new dark age once the power goes out?)

I’m asking many questions here. I don’t propose to answer any of them here, merely to invite conversation.

Is hypertext literature dead? I don’t think so, but I do think it is ready for its “web 2.0” moment, wherein it becomes something easier to do, something everyone can enjoy. I think it might also help to consider the idea broadly, because in many ways it has caught on, and it isn’t aging, if the idea is allowed to include: video games, blogs, net art… the socially-networked/narrated identities of millions of people. I suppose it is possible that the Web 2.0 moment IS the hypertext literature moment. If that’s the case, then there’s just one troubling thing, as Laforge points out:

“And then … nothing happened. The Wikipedia entry for hypertext fiction lists no works published after 2001, and although Wikipedia isn’t the final word on anything, you have to think, if someone had written a hypertext fiction, this is where they’d want to tell you about it. The form’s seeming demise is puzzling…”

(Update: as it turns out, the authors of hypertext fiction don’t seem to use Wikipedia “to tell you about it”. Instead, these authors use things like conferences of the Modern Language Association, a large and growing database of electronic literature sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a series of anthologies published by the Electronic Literature Organization at MIT. So, the work is out there, if you know where to look.)

Maybe it’s just that “hypertext fiction” is the wrong search query. Let’s try another one, which yields some very familiar-looking results. Let’s try “conceptual literature” instead:

“With the rise of the Web, writing has met its photography. By that, I mean that writing has encountered a situation similar to that of painting upon the invention of photography, a technology so much better at doing what the art form had been trying to do that, to survive, the field had to alter its course radically.” — Kenneth Goldsmith

The time might be right, after all. I agree with Laforge’s conclusion, “I believe that the promise of hypertext fiction is worth pursuing, even now, or maybe especially now.”

That pursuit: what should it look like, now that it is 2012?

36 responses to “The Death of Hypertext?

  1. Perhaps an even better search query than “conceptual literature” would be “interactive fiction”, which is very much alive and well in East Asia, where large numbers of people voraciously consume the so-called “Visual Novels.” And they are definitely novels, not adventure-type computer games. We are not talking masterpieces of literature here (although I thought that Steins;Gate was quite good), but they are serious, often very long works of fiction primarily for adults and older teenagers. And they are selling big time. I suppose the only thing that keeps them from being considered “hypertext fiction” is that the decision points are not in the form of links interspersed with the main text. Or perhaps it is that they are illustrated, which seems to connote “kids book” or “video game” to Westerners, regardless of the work’s content or intended audience.

  2. “the promise of hypertext fiction is worth pursuing”… by whom? People who want even more challenge than writing a novel?

    Anyway, there’s a reason that linear stories *work*: we are linear creatures in a linear universe. (Hypertext works in Wikipedia, though, because we don’t have to finish the whole story/article before jumping off to something else.)

    1. I think you hit it on the head. Hypertext is fantastic for non-fiction where you are imparting knowledge and the user may want more information or tangential information before continuing.

      In fiction the author is creating a world and you, the reader, are being pulled along by the story.

      Hypertext literature, as was dreamed of in the 1990s was more than alternative endings it included visuals (you’re reading, click to the next “page” and it’s black and a word comes slowly into focus, you click to a picture and then back to reading. This interferes with reading. You want to immersed in the story and this just doesn’t mesh.

      However graphic novels will soon go digital and THEN we will see the beginning of hypertext stories. What will happen with this convergence of text and graphic/video I don’t know, but it will be fun.

  3. Give it time. And expect a very different “it” over time.

    It took 4 or 5 millenia from the beginning of written language to develop the literary novel. And there had been spoken language for a long time before that.

    So, even though richer textual structures on top of written language, which we now call “hypertext,” probably constitute a less radical development than written language from spoken language, we might give them more than a few decades to compete.

    By the time new textual structures have matured enough to support a stable literature, they will probably not be called “hypertext” any more, and may not resemble todays hypertext very closely.

    Mike O’Donnell

    1. I agree with you, and with Jim Cross, that we’ll see a very different result than the one hypothesized by the early hypertext theory and experiments. There are already quite a few things out there in the realm of “new media” which seem to have literary qualities or abilities. Surely there is more to come.

  4. One problem is the web’s current version of “HyperText” is missing the most important link type.
    The “Scholarly citation”; which quotes and then links to the-original-in-context.
    There is NO good reason why this link type does not currently exist other than a blind spot with the status quo.
    Who would have thought that something so important has just been forgotten/ignored.

    An idaa whose time has come, again?

    1. Jean, I think that what you’re looking for in the HTML spec is the Blockquote element, which can both contain a quote and, via the cite attribute of that element, link off to its source.

    2. Chrome 38 is introducing extensions to HTML5. Welcome the <picture> tag.

      The tag will allow a simpler and more elegant way of sending multiple versions of a graphic, making responsive design that much easier to implement.

      <source media="(min-width: 45em)" srcset="large.jpg">
      <source media="(min-width: 32em)" srcset="med.jpg">
      <img src="small.jpg" alt="">

      It’s also introducing some new ES6 feature- which will make storing and interacting with data simpler.

      — via

  5. Hypertext is part of the range of media we experience on the net, and usually it’s part of a collection of related media, when we encounter it. As opposed to being the only thing going on. It’s usually in a very inter-medial context.

  6. I have thought for some time that something unique and original could be done with hypertext but I have yet to see it done or imagine exactly what it would be.

    We need to distinguish between fiction and poetry on the one hand and non-fiction on the other.

    I think there is probably more apparent potential in the non-fiction area for innovative use of hypertext. Glossaries could easily be linked to text. Back and forward references in the argument could be linked. Tables could perhaps be expanded and collapsed. Interactive graphs and charts could enhance the reader experience. Why we are not seeing more of this isn’t clear. Possibility the demands of writing for multiple distribution mechanisms including printing makes it impossible to translate the experience so the writing is done at the lowest common denominator.

    With fiction, I think the problem is reader expectation of medium. People expect to read from start to finish. They have no interest in jumping around. As a matter of fact, jumping around would almost destroy the experience of the traditional novel.

    Poetry has possibilities but it would need to be a sort of avant garde poetry. Once again, the traditional reader of poetry is attached to the flow of the words. If you jump around that is destroyed. And changing fonts doesn’t affect the underlying words. And beside e.e. cummings already did that so there is much left to do in that area anyway.

    My own thoughts have gone along the lines of some of the works of John Cage and William Burroughs. I think they would be experimenting with hypertext if they were still around but once again they were in the avant garde style and the market for that stuff is really pretty small.

    So we have a great technology but no real art form that can use it.

    Maybe we need a new art form.

  7. > block quote

    … hyperlinks can be bidirectional: they can be followed in two directions, so both ends act as anchors and as targets. …The Web required only unidirectional links rather than bidirectional ones….
    from somewhere in Wikipedia.

  8. “why haven’t they become commonplace yet?”

    Because they require some other web page (which you probably don’t control) to also be modified.

    But, you say, there could be automatic back-links! Sure, and think of the uproar when your political/philosophical/religious enemy references a “hit piece” page which your web site auto-links to…

    So, ain’t gonna happen in any fashion.

    Anyway, that’s what the back arrow is for.

  9. There is no support for proper reference management within HTML (although, considering the growing volume of HTML non-fiction literature, W3C should at least be considering it). It *is* possible to create a rudimentary reference management system (and I have done so – see for a simple example.

    It is sad that hypertext was seen as the ultimate referencing tool when it was first conceived (in the 70’s), but the latest standard has no support for it.

  10. Check this out:

    This “game” is really a novel. The paths are pretty fixed, and it does nothing but tell a story… a very long story. It took me about 15-20 hours of straight play to play/read it all… it’s very engaging and feels and treats the story just like a book…with pauses for solving puzzles that themselves help paint the story.

    There’s a whole genre over at bigfishgames like this!! HUNDREDS of story games…as they’re called. All for about $5.

  11. The whole Web is one big hypertext document.

    But also, there are many “games” that are hypertexts. You could say they are more like hypertext graphic novels, but some of the best lack words entirely. For example, Machinarium and Tiny Bang Story. There are many more that do have words. In any case, the story changes depending on your actions as you play.

    Machinarium is the best example of that. It *never* plays the same way twice, even in fairly small segments.

  12. It is interesting to note that the bidirectional linking and also “automatically expiring” links (when the destination disappeared) were in the original WWW proposal. Contemplating what the web would be like if TBL had gotten those implemented.

    As for fiction via hypertext, there seems to be small communities writing “Fighting Fantasy” type games still, both in paper hypertext form and WWW based.

    1. That is interesting to note. I wonder, since it seems a strong theme in the comments here, would bi-directional linking make it easier to read and to write hypertext literature?

  13. Isn’t todays computer games a form of hypertext litterature? Take L.A. Noire as an example. That’s a good example of what could be classified as hypertext litterature. Sure, it’s not just text, but who said it has to be textbased?

    1. I agree. Who says it has to be text based? I think it might help me to think about this question if I take a big, open-minded look around at what’s out there, text or not, “hypertext” or not. For that, if anybody else has any good examples, I’d love to hear ‘em!

  14. The computer offers the whole range of electronic media plus text and all the incredibly rich possibilities of the Turing machine. Text and hypertext are often important parts of hypermedia. That text alone has not been popular as art on the computer screen follows from several factors including the difficulty of reading from a monitor compared with reading from a page; if the screen is basically doing what the page does and not much more, then the page is preferable. But, also, media, whatever it is, has to exploit the unique media characteristics available to it, or it would better involve the medium in which it can do that. Hypertext, after all, can be thought of as print with sophisticated footnoting.

    1. Jim, I think that you and some others raise an important point about some interface problems. Yes, extended reading on a screen is an obstacle for many people. I think that is just one of the several interface problems that can be problematic, including usability, graphic design, compatibility, etc.

      The Salon article quoted here raises another interesting question about interface: “We now read on iPads and Kindles and Nooks. So why did the hypertext novel fail to launch?”

      I know because I’ve tried it that it’s possible to put hyperlinks into books in both the Epub and MOBI formats, for use with all of those devices. But even so, most of the books for those devices “are basically doing what the page does”.

      As for exploiting unique characteristics, I think that’s a big one too, and a changing one. It’s akin to that “photography moment” in the visual arts, where the painters began to find things like Impressionism and abstraction that were unique to the medium of paint, and photographers began to create moving pictures, for example. It can take a while for the things to move in their own separate directions.

      Can hypertext do more than “sophisticated footnoting”?

  15. I believe we are bedeviled by lexical demons of our own making. When we write about hypertext fiction or hypertext novels, there is semantic expectation in the terms “fiction” and “novel.” Both of these terms are loaded semantically, and unfortunately, the meanings do not obtain in the context of hypertexts. With “fiction” and “novel” appropriated from scribal traditions, we are accustomed to expect the embedded narrative of a readerly text. We know the cultural rhythms of the energy we will expend to “read” these kinds of embedded narratives, we know our cultural roles as consumers.

    However, “fiction” and “novel” belie the artifact that we actually encounter in hypertextual contexts. We must now come to terms with emergent narrative, participatory “authorship,” and the ambiguity of the role of “reader” … or is that role “author” as we make choices of which word to click next? We are terribly uncomfortable with this new cultural role thrust upon us, we react to having to labour more in order to participate in the narrative. I daresay in the back of our minds, we are surprised at the intrusion into our traditional role of reader, and we writhe at the aesthetic ambiguity of ending a narrative when we decide to stop clicking links.
    Afternoon and Patchwork Girl are exhilarating experiences of literary liberation but are perhaps best read within the dominant scribal environment in order to experience the liberation by contrast.

  16. Authors of hypertext literature didn’t “use” information from conferences; rather we actually *made* the information developed for the conference. The MLA 2012 Electronic Literature exhibit was a grass roots effort to present all types of electronic literature to literary and humanities scholars. In fact, my co-curators, Lori Emerson and Kathi Inman Berens, and I made a concerted effort not to focus on traditional notions of on genre like hypertext. Looking over the layout of the show, you will see, instead, that we organized the works first by medium (works on desktop, mobile and geolocative works, and readings and performances) and then broadly by approaches–literary games, multimodal poetry, multimedia narrative. (

    In 2009 French writer Andrew Gallix argued in the Guardian that e-lit was “dead.” I responded to him in an article published in ebr that it was not and laid out the various pieces of evidence that ran counter to his argument. Of course since that time the ELO has published its second collections of elit. The MLA 2012 exhibit has taken place and another will occur again at MLA 2013. The ELO media art show is forthcoming in June in Morgantown, WV. The ground-breaking reading in December at The Kitchen in NYC has taken place. And a large national event featuring elit is in the works for next spring. What is interesting about these activities is that new author of elit are involved along with those who helped to establish the field. Obviously, elit is not dead. As curator of three upcoming exhibits, I can say that it is exciting to see all of the new writers of elit emerging from around the world.

    So, in thinking about your question, “Is Hypertext dead?,” I have to say that if you consider that this technology you are using to publish your essay is built on, among many things, html, and that I can click on numerous of the hyper textual links to move around this blog and outside of it, then hypertext as a function is quite alive and very useful in expressing your views. Hypertext’s problem is its ubiquity. It is no longer a radically new technology but is the foundation of so much of what we do online. It has, in effect, become transparent, with all of the issues that transparency carries with it.

  17. As a current undergraduate student of Literature who missed the frenzy over hypertext fiction in the early ’90s, I lament the fact that nowhere in my curriculum is there any mention of electronic literature or new media experiments in textuality. I believe that, despite its apparent “failure” as a literary genre, creative applications of hypertext and electronic writing should remain a part of the literary discipline. What better way could the literary discipline boost its relevance than by allowing for experiments in new media?

    What worries me most about the failed experiment of hypertext fiction is that, with it came the refusal to accept new media and new technology as a means for advancing the field of literature. Instead, it seems, the Internet age has encouraged decreased literacy and fragmented or abbreviated writing habits. While hypertext fiction offered a hopeful future for literature, its milieu of practical problems resulted in its fade into obscurity and a subsequent refusal to incorporate literary reading and writing practice into today’s digital world.

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