Reading. Links.

The commercialized web has turned links into distractions. Advertising links on news sites and Facebook pull your attention away from what’s brought you there. Related content links–in text or off to the side–scatter your attention around to create “click” revenue. In these contexts, links are obstacles to strong, effective reading and are best ignored.

But on personal sites, links are something else. At their least interesting, they point toward things the writer has noticed, wants to remember. They can also gather up, either within or across posts, a set of materials to be worked through and commented on at some point. At their best, links capture knowledge or express insight, developed in a piecemeal but ultimately coherent process of discovery and analysis.

Noticing things is, after all, the first step in close reading. Good readers mark things, and when they’re done, they look back and see what patterns have emerged. In paying attention to what they noticed, they discover the thing they need to think more about. Links serve a similar purpose on personal sites, and over time, their slow accumulation, organization, and development emerges as the real content of a blog or wiki. Links are what a blog knows.

Site designs that sacrifice or hide this emergent complexity for the sake of mobile access cast aside wheat and bake the chaff.

Order, Sequence and Hypertext

In English and French, order and sequence are nearly synonyms. [note]Which other languages is this true in? Is is rare or common to have the two words converge in this way?[/note] “To put things in order” generally means to organize them by putting them into sequence. This is especially true in a world shaped by the bullet lists in Microsoft Word and PowerPoint.

Hypertext seems to me like an effort to make order and sequence different.  Hypertexts try to order material without sequencing it. Hypertexts–fiction, essays, whatever–are celebrated for this possibility. They are also off-putting and difficult to read because of it.

But here’s the thing: order is central to knowledge and in writing order means sequence. To write something intelligible implies sequencing material. Sidestepping the challenge of sequencing words and sentences seems like avoiding the seminal challenge of writing (and reading). Sequence is hard, and hypertext, understood as anti-sequence, seems to echo one of the most common lies writers tell ourselves when we want to “work” rather than work: beyond a certain point, “I’m working out my idea” is building castles in the sky if words or aren’t going down on paper.

I’ve not read many hypertext fictions. So many of them have become inaccessible due to changing software platforms (a different problem), but those I have have troubled me. Actively non-sequential hypertext seems, ironically, to be open to a very naive sequentiality misunderstood as spatial. (For an example, see “Changed.”) Alternatively, descriptions of early hypertext which aimed to create obstacles for our expectations of sequence sound to me like stunts. A hypertext where every word is a link is simply unreadable.

The most interesting hypertext I’ve seen is the short and relatively simple essay “Why No One Clicked on the Great Hypertext Story.” Reading it I think of directionality in links and wonder if multi-sequentiality–rather than non- or anti-sequentiality–is what hypertext should be aiming for. But even there, I wonder how to manage the demands of such reading beyond the limited word-count of an essay. The very interesting hypertext novel Luminous Airplanes is nearly impossible to read because I can’t figure out how to remember where I am, where I have been and so feel like I have to read the entire piece in a sitting. But that is simply impossible. The text is too long.

And so, hypertext as a literary form fascinates me but seems also to be struggling to find its technological basis. I can’t figure out how to read or to write anything but the most basic of examples. Yet, I’m fascinated by the possibility…