The Legacy of Hypertext Fiction and how Steven Johnson Gets it Wrong

afternoon-1-webThis week, Steven Johnson published a short article on Wired’s site called “Why No One Clicked on the Great Hypertext Story.” He opens by referencing and effectively contextualizing Michael Joyce’s foundational hypertext fiction, Afternoon, a Story, from the early ’90s. Back then there was a literary electricity about the possibilities for telling stories by linking together smaller chunks of text into a larger whole. The future was finally on its way, and it looked like hypertext.

Or not so much. Twenty years later, it would be hard to argue that hypertext fiction has found the cultural traction so many theorists thought it would. Johnson speculates as to why:

It’s not that hypertext went on to become less interesting than its literary advocates imagined in those early days. Rather, a whole different set of new forms arose in its place: blogs, social networks, crowd-edited encyclopedias. Readers did end up exploring an idea or news event by following links between small blocks of text; it’s just that the blocks of text turned out to be written by different authors, publishing on different sites. Someone tweets a link to a news article, which links to a blog commentary, which links to a Wikipedia entry. Each landing point along that itinerary is a linear piece, designed to be read from start to finish. But the constellation they form is something else. Hypertext turned out to be a brilliant medium for bundling a collection of linear stories or arguments written by different people.

I think Steven Johnson is a great writer. A certain kind of writer. Someone who learns important ideas and puts those ideas in conversation with each other in a way that’s accessible to a wide audience of readers. He is smart and has positive cultural impacts. But in this case, he’s just wrong. In so many ways. First of all, while his brief description of the rise of social media is clearly written, it is neither smart nor new. Cultural critics have been trotting out a version of that same summary every time blogs, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter have made news for the past ten years (or more, depending). The compressed history Johnson offers us is the answer to some other question–not about the legacy or failure of hypertext fiction.

And yet, I love the fact that Johnson’s using his stature in the world of culturally-recognizable intellectuals and Wired’s status as a respected institution for the discussion of digital culture, especially hypertext fiction. What I’d like to do is rewind Johnson’s article just a bit. To the point just before he offers us his answer. The strongest moment in Johnson’s article is when he reflects on why there was so much enthusiasm for hypertext in the early nineties:

The literary/philosophical world had been musing about the death of the author and fragmented, reader-centric text since the late 1960s, but suddenly all those abstract ideas were grounded in technological reality. [If you’re interested in these ideas, I’d start with Foucault’s “What is an Author?,” Barthes’s “Theory of the Text” and “Death of the Author,” Derrida’s ” Différance.” Among others, of course.]

Rather than looking at the literary theory and philosophy informing the enthusiasm for hypertext, I want to argue for–and eventually offer–is an alternative approach to understanding hypertext’s legacy (and future). That alternative approach involves certain orientations toward history, narrative theory, the publishing industry, literature, genres, authorship, distribution, intellectual property.

Essentially, we need to explore two fundamental aspects of storytelling. The first is understanding how and why the forms and practices of storytelling have mutated in the past. The nature of an entity affords and limits the ways it can possibly change, and those changes end up changing the ways it will be able to change again. What emerges is a unique continuity of change across an entity’s history. At any given time, an entity has a certain type of momentum fueling it’s changes, and that momentum is shaped by the current nature of the entity. In other words, as in Johnson’s case here, he attempts to comment on the nature of hypertext storytelling by focusing only on hypertext. He doesn’t invoke an understanding of the historical changes storytelling has undergone.

The second aspect of storytelling we need to understand is that of its cultural functionality. What does storytelling do for us as individuals? As storytellers? As a reader? As a member of an audience? Considering questions like these allows us not only to theorize what stories do, but also what we might want stories to do had we access to different technologies or cultural attitudes. For instance, Johnson mentions the excitement on the part of a tiny portion of writers and readers. It was the cultural euphoria and wonder regarding the nascent web that amplified the attitudes of this small community. Writers and critics were focused back then on the potential for what hypertext could do to stories. What they forgot to ask, however, was whether or not storytelling in its current social and cultural forms lent itself to these types of changes.

I plan to continue this discussion in subsequent (and likely sporadic) posts this summer where I’ll break out smaller pieces of this post and offer more detailed explanation and examples.