what is feral hypertext?

Several people have been writing about my concept of feral hypertext in the last few days (Beth Kantor, Tags/Network/Narrative, a discussion in English 518’s Course Blog (taught by Chutry) – or see Technorati’s up-to-date list), so I thought I should provide a brief description of what I mean by it, for those who don’t want to read an 8000 word PDF. Though of course, I recommend the full paper! Here’s my slideshow from the talk I gave (fonts a bit weird and notes missing, but still), followed by a quick resumÈ of my argument.

I proposed the term in a paper I gave at Hypertext 2005domestication of technology, that is, the way technology is becoming an everyday, safe tool for homes and businesses. I propose seeing hypertext (and the web) from the exact opposite perspective. Hypertext is a technology that was bred in captivity (i.e. in research labs), and it was intended to be used as an intimate technology, for private individuals. It started off by being tame, and it was expressly intended to help tame our overloads of information. You see this in early researcher’s focus on standardisation, typologies and various methods of disciplining links. This never really worked. Throughout the nineties, researchers anguished about the difficulties of disciplining links. They talked about being “lost in hyperspace”, about the lack of closure, about how to use breadcrumbs and guides to help users feel confident that they know exactly where they were in the confusion of links everywhere. The semantic web may be the last grand project to attempt to discipline hypertext. Research was all about keeping hypertext under control, keeping it disciplined.

Fortunately it didn’t work. Hypertext broke free and went feral, just as rabbits in Australia. We know today that we can’t discipline links. We can, however, be quite happy with a messy network of information, conversations and ideas that will never be fully under our control. We just have to give up our ideas that we can discipline it from above in an all-encompassing way. What does appear to work is decentralised organisation that matches the feral nature of the hypertext itself: folksonomies, tagging, and just accepting that the streams of information are endless and that we will never and need never try to read everything.

Feral species are glorious in their success, but they can be disastrous. Those who still think we should try to control hypertext (the web, blogs, social software) might want to combat feral hypertext as we’ve fought feral rabbits in Australia: myxomytosis, the rabbit proof fence (ban Facebook from universities! No Myspace in libraries! Block blogs in China!) but it’s not going to work. Fortunately, unlike feral rabbits, feral hypertext isn’t going to destroy us – so long as we accept that top-down control is a thing of the past.

The full paper has lots more details: Feral Hypertext: When Hypertext Literature Escapes Control (PDF)

10. March 2007 by Jill

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