Hypertext means more than just text with a bunch of links in it
Hypertext is something of a neglected subject these days. Everyone is talking about the Web, but nobody is talking about the class of thing the Web is: a hypertext environment. But to neglect this essential fact about the nature of the Web is to risk getting your approach to the Web seriously wrong.
Perhaps people associate the term hypertext purely with linking. But I would suggest that there is much more to hypertext than links. Hypertext is about the non-linear traversal of information spaces, and while links were the first tool created for this, there are now four key drivers of hypertext:
- Search: Search engines allow readers to begin with their own ideas or questions and generate a collection of related texts. They also allow readers to generate a link from any piece of content whenever they want one. Thus, like links, the enable non-linear traversals of information spaces.
- Social Curation: Social curation, in all its forms, from tagging to liking to tweeting, links creates a non-linear, non-authorial links across the Web.
- Dynamic content: The dynamic generation of content, based on whatever information an individual supplies, creates content that is data-driven rather than linearly structured.
- Links: Links remain the backbone of hypertext (the other drivers operate largely by generating links). But of the four, links are the one that is most in the hands of writers rather than readers, and therefore one of the writer’s sharpest tools in crafting hypertext.
Together, these four drivers account for the vast majority of the content and services that make up the modern Web. Unfortunately, many writers, particularly technical writers it seems, are ignoring all of them and continuing to create content as if for a linear static media such as a book, or for an isolated media such as a help system.
Content created in this way does not work well in a hypertext world. Nor do the tools and management structures designed to create such content work well for creating and managing hypertext. To understand why, let’s look at four key characteristics of hypertext:
Local over global
While the Web is a global phenomenon, it works because any given hypertext page is highly local. Each page tends to be short. It tends to treat a single local subject, often for a particular local audience. It links to topics on other subjects closely (locally) related to its own subject. The Web never offers you the 100,000 foot view. It does not show you the whole universe spread out before your feet (as some of the early encyclopedias attempted to do). Nor does it attempt to categorize and organize all of human knowledge. Its global scope is composed not of global structures, but of a web of untold billions of local pages connected by local links.
Wherever you are on the Web, you are always somewhere particular. You are never at 100,000 feet. You are always on the ground. Thanks to search and social curation you can explore your local area or you can leap half way around the world, but no matter how big a leap you make, you will always arrive somewhere local and specific.
This defies our old notions of how information is organized and found, but hypertext is a whole new way of organizing and finding information, and very clearly it works.
Item over collection
Hypertext prefers the individual item over the collection. This does not mean that there are no collections. The Web is full of collections, such as Wikipedia (a collection of encyclopedia articles), IMDB (a collection of movie information) and Amazon (a collection of goods for sale). But in none of these does the collection predominate over the individual item. Any article, movie entry, or product page on these sites can be added, edited, or deleted without anything having to be done to update the collection as a whole.
The collection is essentially the set of its pages, and it is the pages that place themselves in the collection, not the other way round. This blog post adds itself to the collection of Every Page is Page One posts. The same is true for forum discussion, Facebook posts, Tweets, LinkedIn discussions, or Google Plus posts. It is also true of the collection of technical help articles on sites like Stack Overflow that have been shown to provide better coverage of some popular APIs than their own documentation sets.
An important aspect of this stress on the item is that different people can add items to the collection at any time. There is never one climactic moment of publication towards which every contributor’s efforts must be directed and coordinated. Rather, each person contributes as appropriate by adding to the collection when there is information to add.
What this means, for purposes of tracking and managing, is that it is the pages that have revision histories and publication events, not the collection. There is no such thing as this year’s edition of Wikipedia (as there would be in the book world). There is only the members of the collection, appearing, changing, and disappearing as local conditions related to their own subject matter dictate.
Dynamic over static
Web pages are appearing, changing, and disappearing all the time. New links are being forged and old ones broken. The Web never stands still, and trying to create a stable citation to a resource on the Web is likely doomed to frustration.
This dynamic character is further enhanced by the many services that generate or aggregate content algorithmically. If you read an interesting story on Flipboard yesterday, don’t expect to be able to go back and find it today. It’s gone, and something else more topical is in its place.
Extraordinary measures are required to ensure that something will always be present and always at the same address on the Web. Actually a great deal of content that is sticking around should probably have been taken down a long time ago. Permanence and immutability are not natural characteristics of hypertext, which tends much more to favor immediacy and mutability.
In the paper world, we actually had to go to great measures and considerable expense to compensate for paper’s lack of immediacy and mutability, as anyone who has had to deal with change pages can attest. But much of our management structure and practice is still based on the permanence and immutability of printed content, and is hard to adapt to the opposite properties in hypertext.
As readers we have the same expectation as everyone else: we expect what we read on the Web to be perpetually current. As writers, though, we have not adapted to the dynamic nature of hypertext. We still want our content to be fixed in time and immutable.
Bottom up over top down
Because it prefers the local over the global, the item over the collection, and the dynamic over the static, hypertext does not fit comfortably into top-down forms of organization.
Top down imposes a more global focus while inhibiting the full expression of a page’s local connections to other subjects.
Top-down emphasizes the collection rather than the item, allowing items into the collection only by blessing from on high, rather than by their own action. It thus inhibits individual contributions and funnels decision making through a single point, often introducing delay and compromising immediacy.
Top down favors the static over the dynamic, wanting each piece to be fixed in its assigned place in the hierarchy. It inhibits spontaneous addition, editing, and deletion, for fear of compromising the structure of the top-down edifice.
Finally, hypertext is bottom up because readers traversing a hypertext field are always at the bottom, always on a particular page with its particular local connections. They might parachute in from on high with a search or by following a curated link, or even an entry in a table of contents, but once on the individual page, all their subsequent navigation begins there, at the bottom. Every page is a hub from which further exploration proceeds bottom-up.
Adapting to a hypertext world
We live now in a hypertext world, but learning to create and to manage hypertext is no small undertaking. It should be clear from the above exploration of the nature of hypertext why putting your manual or help system up on the Web is no way to deliver Web-like hypertext content. It should also be clear that the change that is required goes beyond writing style or even tools. It involves a very different view of what the task of creating information is about and how it will be managed and governed.
Where should you start in the exploration of these changes? The first and most basic idea to grasp is this: Every Page is Page One. This is the implication of all the characteristics of hypertext, that it is local, individual, dynamic, and bottom up: Every Page is Page One.
If you wish to explore this further, I can recommend a good book on the subject.