Hypertextual Analysis

In the video “The Machine is Us/ing Us,” Professort Wesch demonstrates many aspects of the power of hypertext. Its flexibility, its ability to separate form from content, its innumerable effects on things we take for granted, like privacy and free speech. The idea he seems to be getting at by emphasizing the ability hypertext has to link from what one reads to what the person writing it was reading, we are teaching “the Machine” – which is us – about the connections between things. When we link from one document to another, we are saying there is a connection between the two. When we tag a photo on Flickr or a video on YouTube, we are saying that this bit of media is related somehow to all those other bits of media with that tag, if only by sharing a subject.

What is unclear is whether the meaning inherent in all of the linking hypertext contains is being interpreted correctly. An implied link is there, but like all implication, the interpretation of the reader shapes meaning. When I linked to the EFF above, is there an implied assumption that I agree with their mission? What about the “Echelon” Wikipedia page? Do I agree with the “neutral” opinion therein displayed? Have I even read that page? The reader can not know. Maybe I just googled “internet privacy” and copied the first result that looked informative. Maybe not.

The point is that the reader must guess what I mean by any link or tag I place in hypertext. And, even if they guess correctly, there are still uncertainties. For example, assuming I actually read the “Echelon” page I linked, one must continue to remember that Wikipedia is the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Maybe when I clicked on that link, there was some spurious misinformation placed there by an anonymous troll. Maybe there wasn’t, but some was added before the reader of this post clicked it. Without reading the edit history, the reader can only hope. Even with the edit history, it’s speculative whether the reader and I actually read the same source.

Even worse, maybe the page I linked isn’t even there anymore. Dead links are increasingly common the further back one reads. While the Wayback Machine and Google Cache help, they only ameliorate the problem; they do not solve it.

One last problem with hypertextual analysis is simply that not everything has been digitized just yet. If I read something new and exciting on Slashdot, I can give the reader a link with reasonable certainty. If I read something interesting in an arbitrary relatively obscure book from the 1980s, the best I can give the reader is a link to the Amazon.com page and hope they can track down a copy to read themselves. Which is a shame, because that is actually a really good book.

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4 comments on “Hypertextual Analysis

  1. “What is unclear is whether the meaning inherent in all of the linking hypertext contains is being interpreted correctly. An implied link is there, but like all implication, the interpretation of the reader shapes meaning.”

    I’ve been trying to play the game “What Would Socrates Think?” as I read all of these techno/digital/literacy articles, not because I agree with Socrates, but because he seems like a good character to use when thinking about my own (stodgy?) Luddite tendencies, and where they may be useful, and where they may be useless or harmful, as an educator.

    So…I think that (Plato’s version of) Socrates might lament the fact that the author’s meaning behind the linkage is not clear, that allowing a reader the power, the opportunity, to interpret a text is a dangerous thing for a philosopher/ author/thinker to do. Socrates is so concerned about winning, with proving, that he seems to me the epitome of the academic asshole, or the political debater, who is less concerned with real learning and/or communicating, than with proving and transmitting knowledge. Whereas writing is a technology that inheres this danger, once we get into the digital age, writing (blogging) is a technology that allows its users the opportunity to constantly rectify the natural misinterpretaions that abound when readers (mis)read. I understand that much can be gained in this sort of dialogic exchange between author and reader, but is something lost in the pursuit of this possiblity for constant correction?

  2. I think you raise some great questions about the potential for hyperlinks to infer meaning in a sort of hyper-semantic layering. Per Kory’s comments in class today about “link dropping,” I think “good” digital writing would commonly introduce, attribute, or explain a link in some way if the relationship to the external text/data is not obvious, as is the examples below from a dictionary and news source.

    In both of these cases, the hyperlinks lead to dictionary-like entries which provide background information. So I guess a common stylistic usage would be for the writer to use hyperlinks where s/he wishes to provide optional (and convenient) schema-building information for the reader.

    >>>Hypertext is text displayed on a computer or other electronic device with references (hyperlinks) to other text that the reader can immediately access, usually by a mouse click or keypress sequence. Apart from running text, hypertext may contain tables, images and other presentational devices. Hypertext is the underlying concept defining the structure of the World Wide Web, making it an easy-to-use and flexible format to share information over the Internet.[1]
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypertext<<>>CAIRO — President Hosni Mubarak declared Tuesday night that he would step down in September as modern Egypt’s longest-serving leader, but that did not go far enough for the hundreds of thousands who poured into Tahrir Square in a sprawling protest that cut across entrenched lines of piety, class and ideology.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/02/world/middleeast/02egypt.html?_r=1&hp<<&lt;

    It might make a good research project to survey common practices and characteristics of hyperlinks in discourse (such as journalism, blogs, marketing copy, etc.), as well as other usages where links actually impact the meaning or interpretation of the text in some way (Online metafiction?).

    • OOoops, that was a bust. Just discovered a limitation with moodle comments: there is no way to include inline hyperlinks in the comment text! So my examples above of dictionary-like schema-building links unfortunately don’t work.

  3. I think you can use HTML to do that in comments, but I’m not sure. I’ll give it a try with this link. Yep. It works. If you remind me, I’ll show you how to do this in class next week.

    Also, once you’ve posted a comment, you can “Edit” it, and there you’ll see an option to add links. Not sure why this isn’t in the default.

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