Hypertext Writing

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Every medium has its strengths. There are considerable strengths inherent to a digital, web-based, way of thinking — first and foremost is the sheer amount of interactivity and connections you can make.

Now some of these strengths are not inherent to the web. As Ted Nelson points out in his video Visible Connection the written word has used its ability to provide context visually through side by side content, marginalia, paragraph summaries and more ever since the Rosetta Stone.

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But the web allows writers to do crazy things like use bidirectional links, or have additional content appear when hovering over text, or reference the text of entire books like The King James Bible or The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

The key with any medium is knowing what its strengths are and knowing when you are trying to do something that might be cool, but is not useful. The law of unintended consequences still applies to the web.

What are the side effects of links? You can provide so much information that you end up distracting your reader. Dense links are helpful for your notes, but are they helpful to your reader?

Links interrupt the flow of your reader’s thought — that is their inherent strength and weakness. In all writing it’s important to know when you introduce a new concept,

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and links provide a convenient way to introduce new concepts — linking directly to the sources that helped you understand a concept. However, if you offer a link you are also offering your reader a door down a rabbit hole from which they might never emerge.

Ted Nelson and other internet thinkers have leaned heavily on links — Project Xanadu’s promise of visual connection to every source referenced in a text sounds great in theory, but the reality is an interconnected web of colored lines that is difficult to interpret. It is cool technology, but does it help you become a better reader?

Screenshot from XanaduSpace - a 3D implementation of project Xanadu.
Screenshot from XanaduSpace - a 3D implementation of project Xanadu, with visual links connecting an essay with the source texts it references.

The other danger is that the sheer amount of links will dilute what you’re saying. Sometimes it is easier to pay attention to the meaning of a text if it is all one color. Furthermore, one of the most valuable things I learned from my English degree was that it is sometimes better to assert your opinion without without any hedging or hiding what you, the author, actually think — and references or links are a way of hiding behind someone else’s thoughts.

If you don't state your opinion, what sets apart your writing?

Of course there has to be a balance — and in an age where anyone can have a platform to say anything, it is important to know what you know, but also what other people might know better.

Writing in hypertext is valuable

Of course throughout this essay I’ve been using links as I write, because while I do believe that links could be a distraction and that they can dilute meaning, I also firmly believe that it is not my job to decide what you the reader can handle and somehow trick you into reading every word I’ve written. I write knowing that you might have followed my link to the 1995 Wired Article on Ted Nelson that was buried in a footnote up above, and you might not come back after opening that link…that’s just fine.

As a writer the internet medium has strengths that I haven’t fully utilized before. I believe this digital format allows all of us — writers and readers — to make connections in new ways and explore ideas robustly. Certainly it is important to know the power of putting a link in place and to limit the number of links to what could be reasonably explored — but if each link represents an idea worth exploring, then who am I to prevent exploration.

As I wrote this post I explored different notes I’ve written about these subjects as well as other resources, and that process helped me make new connections and improved both my understanding and this article. It comes at the cost of distraction, but that cost was there in the old medium too — anyone who has lost hours in a library as a child knows that it has always been possible to fall down a rabbit hole and discover the worlds that are buried underneath.

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