Reading And Consuming Hyper(digital)text

By the very fact that you're reading this weblog now, it's clear that this isn't your first exposure to digital text, or to hypertext, so I think by hook or by crook we've all adapted to reading text on the computer. What I want to think about here, with you at the moment is not so much "how to read" hypertext, but rather, how hypertext changes the way we read and interact with text. So for our purposes in this discussion I'm going to take the term "text" and "hypertext" to mean the digital representation of letters and words on a computer; perhaps this was obvious to you, but I've been living with English Majors and cultural studies folks for long enough that I feel the clarification is worthwhile.

I've long said that the digital text or hypertext presents a number of key features in contrast to "dead tree" text. Hypertext is searchable, easily replicated, easily referenced, and easily modified for a maximum degree of accessible. These are all, too my mind, good things.

One of the common design assumptions of presenting text on the internet has been to just throw text on a page in long swaths of text. Though various organization or heading levels are theoretically useful for organizing texts, these features are frequently not used uniformly and can sometimes be hard for the eye to find. The quick move to digital text, got removed a couple of very important features of printed/hard copy text: defined column width and the page to constrain the presentation of text, and the organizational factor of the chapter or section. The act of looking at a page of text in a book or a magazine requires a completely different mindset from looking at a web-page. But this isn't a call to return to old ways of reading, but rather a call to re-think the way that we consume hypertext.

For instance, one thing I've realized is that weblog entries work better when they're about 750 words, and vertical columns of text work best when you don't have to scroll up and down to read adjacent columns. While my current goal of keeping all the entries each of my current TealArt series under 1000 words, helps (I think) make these easier to read, the issue that I'm struggling with--and I think this is a key issue of reading on a computer screen--is the idea that we are completely to scroll down and down forever, but less willing to scroll side to side for additional programs. I think the program Tofu, for OS X is a welcome advancement, but in general we need to put some thought in to this.

I also don't want to subsume a concern regarding length in a discussion of text presentation, nor do I want to collapse a discussion about what kind of forms work best for the internet, into a discussion of "shrinking attention spans" in the digital age. Not only would this not be particularly constructive, I think that the issue is that we can't assume that "print" content will function the same way digitally that it will on pulp.

So for example, I don't think that "click next" page options like the way that the New York Times presents its articles is quite the answer either. And to be fair, I don't know that there are concrete answers to any of the issues that I'm presenting here, other than "we need to think about reading behavior some more."

My last thought on the subject (for this week) bridges the border between reading and writing,which I hope to cover next time. This is the issues of citationality, more simple than just a pagination issue, one of the things that we are able to do as readers of pulp is say. "X passage, located here in a text," but because the location of particular passages in hypertext is more fluid, we can't do this. I'll speak more to the academic/scholorly impact of this on writing next time, but in a sense the difficulty of conversational citationality (lets call it, for now) in hypertext, definitely affects how we interact with words on our computers.

I'll see you all next week, and I'm fully aware that this is a topic that deserves a little more than a laundry list of complaints. Keep this in mind, because I hope that next week's discussion of writing will help resolve some of these concerns and ideas. Stay tuned!

Read Well, tycho(ish)

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