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The Technology ClubWho am I?Why this Project? • Writing with Hyperlinks

Writing with Hyperlinks

"So it's not like such [hypertexts] are strange to read. They are strange to write."
--Vielstimming (1999, p. 109)
"[T]he author's freedom to take a story anywhere at any time in as many directions as he or she wishes . . . becomes the obligation to do so: In the end it can be paralyzing"
--Robert Coover, one of the founders of Brown University's Hypertext Fiction Workshops
(qt.. in Travis, 1996)

Because my discussion of hyperlinks is rather long, I have made it possible to skip directly to different portions of the text.

Links and Associative Thinking
The defining and essential characteristic of what makes a text a hypertext is the feature of linking. As Dewitt (1999) explained in his essay "Defining Links":

Links bring users from one text to another, from one hypertext to another. They dissolve and resolve textual boundaries. They present choice and they embody transition . . . They are what allow a hypertext to be recenterable and acenterable. They are the defining property of 'what hypertext is' (p. 117).

Potentially, depending on the nature of the links, by composing in hypertext writers provide greater freedom to readers, enabling them to navigate their own path through a text. These multiple pathways require that both reader and writer make relationships and connections between bits of information scattered across numerous windows. Because most of these windows lack the traditional textual markers--the transitional words and phrases, the summations--that exist in essays to help the reader track the evolving ideas presented, reading and writing hypertextual works requires greater sense of associational thinking, as numerous researchers and theorists have explained (Wenger & Payne, 1999: Golson, 1999; Sosnoski, 1999; Joyce 1996; DeWitt, 1999).

Of course all writing and reading requires associational thinking. In his book "Writing Space,"Bolter pointed out that "Association is always present in any text: one word echoes another, one sentence or paragraph recalls others earlier in the text and looks forward to still others. A writer cannot help but write associatively . . ." (qt.. in Hawisher, LeBlanc, Moran & Selfe, 1996, p. 185). Similarly, Vielstimming (the multivocal creation of Yancey and Spooner) asked and asserted, "But has the computer affected the way we think? Made us more 'associative'? I doubt it, substantially anyway" (p. 104). Although I recognize and agree that all writing and reading is associative, I feel that a great deal more associative thinking is required from me by hypertext than by traditional print media, especially as a writer of hypertext.

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Linear Thinking and Control
I find that I struggle with ways to make the various windows in this web site cohere, and I find, to my frustration, that I cannot make them cohere in that tight, linear way that I'm used to in writing traditional essays. Rather than simply hitting the return key and moving on to point B in my argument, I open a whole new file and suddenly I'm not so sure of how point B (how, for example, my discussion of access in this web site) specifically coheres to this page, but--and this is what is so disconcerting to me as a writer--a reader can, if he or she chooses, progress from the access page to here. Thinking about all the different ways a reader might navigate through this web site truly makes my head spin, and at times I feel like screaming, "Help! I'm lost in tangle of hyperlinks!" (I also sometimes feel like taking an ax to my computer, but that's a whole different set of frustrations. See The Technology Club.)

Even as I construct these pages, I realize I am not exploiting the full possibility of hyperlinks because I am still bound by linear thinking, as evidenced, for example, by the long scrolls of text on various pages, especially this one. Not only do I struggle with my desire to create a document with a definitive beginning, middle, and end, but I also want to have control (or at least a sense of control) over how a reader progresses through a text. I guess I could write a straight linear document broken into bits with back and next buttons, but that rigidity seems contradictory to the notion of hypertext. In fact, I wonder, as do the editors of the online journal "Kairos" if that's really hypertext at all (Inman & Eyman, 2000, par. 3).

I am trying with the double-ring-satellite structure I have chosen (see Comments on Site Design) to guide readers as much as possible without rigidly controlling their pathway through the text. I made the structure of this web page and the naming of the links as clear as possible so that readers will have some idea where a link will take them, and, more importantly, have an idea of what they have (and have not) visited in the site.

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Interactive and Intersecting Links
In her essay "Cognition, Meaning and Creativity," Golson (1999) distinguished between two different types of links--intersecting and interacting--that I find useful for conceptualizing my own writing process. Intersecting links tend to speak directly to what they point to, follow a structured schemata, and stress coherence. Interacting links tend to be ambiguous; that is, they are not clearly labeled, and they may not, at least at first, appear to be directly related to the source to which they are linked. Links such as those that occur in StorySpace texts like Joyce's "Afternoon" are examples of interacting links because different words in the narrative may (or may not) lead to new windows and the writer leaves only subtle clues to the possible connections to be made. As Joyce explained in his instructions to his readers, "The lack of clear signals isn't an attempt to vex you, rather an invitation to read either inquisitively or playfully and also at depth. Click on words that interest or invite you" (qt.. In Travis, 1996). Interacting links create what Golson called "random patterns" that initially resist readers' attempts to make meaning of them; readers have to "tolerate partial solutions at a local level" and they have to "be patient, for the expected solution may never be forthcoming or may appear in unexpected form" (pp. 157-166).

For this web page, however, I chose not to use interactive links because rather than make the experience ambiguous for readers, I want them to have a clear sense of where a link might take them. While not as immediately (and disarmingly) creative, I feel that intersecting links do have their creative aspects, and the organizational framework they provide is often useful, if not flat-out necessary. Because I have chosen to make the structure so explicit, I probably have reduced some of the intuitive, associative constructions, the "ah-has!" as Travis (1996) put it, that a reader (or that me as a writer) might make, but I have also made it a lot easier (and faster) for readers to navigate the pages. (Next semester when I teach in the computer lab, I hope to have my students compose two web sites based on the same essay, one with interacting links and one with intersecting links, and then we will discuss the different ways of writing and reading that each type of link inspires.)

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Hyperphoric Grammar
Another schema for conceptualizing links was developed by Norton, Zimmerman, and Lindeman (1999) based on their teaching several classes of composition students how to compose in hypertext and based on Charney's observation that without an appropriate framework for working in a new genre, "hypertext simply becomes a 'guessing game'" (p. 183). Norton, Zimmerman, and Lindeman created what they call hyperphoric grammar, which focuses on providing names for links with specific functions. Their grammar, without the explanatory images they provided, is quoted in the table below(p. 187).

Link Type Function
Chronophora Provides sequences; refers to texts that are categories, subsets, or linear transitions. The two types are listed below.
Anachronophora Provides sequence back one step at a time.
Catachronophora Provides sequence forward one step at a time.
Primaphora Refers to a starting point or location; is not bound by sequence.
Paraphora Provides nonsequential association between two texts; categorized by relationship to the node link from. The two types are listed below.
Endophora Provides dependent parallel information regarding a word, sentence or idea; adds to context; depends on origin node for context.
Exoparaphora Provides independent parallel information regarding a word, sentence or idea; range from context specific correlations to arbitrary connections; unlike any other referent, does not have to function within hierarchy or sequence.
Compuphora Performs an action or computer command other than jumping from one place to another; may start video clips, sounds, or search tools.

After teaching their students the terminology of hyperphoric grammar, Norton, Zimmerman, and Linderman had students analyze the link structure of various web sites, and then students created their own hypertexts. When the researchers compared the composing processes and the hypertexts produced of students who were taught hyperphoric grammar and those who were not, what they discovered was that "the grammar enabled the students to quickly grasp the concept of nonlinearity. Students stopped asking questions about what to link and began to include all the links we had defined. Besides making our task of teaching hypertexts easier, hyperphoric grammar provided a vocabulary for describing particular hypertext structures . . ."(p. 189).

Frankly I think some students (and some instructors) might be freaked out by the Latinate names. Even if the root word and suffixes and prefixes mean what they say, it might be easier to name the links something easier, such as forward, back, nonsequential, etc., but what Norton, Zimmerman, and Linderman's research shows is that students do need some understanding and exposure to various types of links so that they may incorporate them more easily into their writing. As instructors we may think our students understand all the different types of links because many of them have experience navigating the net, but directly teaching how and, more importantly, why to link are a crucial components of teaching students how to compose in hypertext.

On the other hand, there is a great deal to be learned by exploration, as DeWitt (1999) showed in his study of his students composing documents using HyperCard. He never defined for his students what hypertext was or even what links were although he did, of course, show them how to create them. In his research he recorded and studied the interaction between students' composing processes and "their self constructed definitions of hypertext"(p. 119), and he concluded that although his students' definitions did lack "key terms" such as "associative, nonlinear, hierarchical, intuitive" their composing did demonstrate to varying degrees these processes. Interestingly, though DeWitt and Norton, Zimmerman, and Linderman go about teaching hypertext in different ways, they do both reach the same tentative conclusions, that students' writing and reading processes benefit from composing in hypertext.

Most writing instructors have neither the facilities nor the time, what with the pressures of various departmental and curricula constraints, to include a unit (or even a course) about hypertext writing, but as departmental foci change, perhaps this will be possible. If so, it seems that it would work well to include first the exploratory approach of DeWitt, having students explore their way through hypertext, then, after students have created one document, to include more direct terminology and possibly theoretical background. That way students could bring to schemata like hyperphoric grammar their own knowledge, providing an opportunity for them to revise the schemata based on their own experience. In fact, possibly, by examining their own documents closely, students themselves could devise some sort of hyperphoric grammar. (See Tips for Teaching.)

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