I’m reading old documents to prepare a first sketch of a paper I’m writing on early (pre-2000) electronic literature communities. I was intrigued to find Jakob Nielsen’s trip report from the very first ACM Hypertext conference held in 1987.

By now, the real difference between Nelson and most other hypertext proponents is that he still argues for the universal hypertext which is to contain all literature in the world with interlinked references. To do this, he has invented an addressing scheme called tumblers which has the potential to give an unique address to every byte in all documents in the world. Of course such an open, universal hypertext system should expect to accumulate 100 Mbytes of info every hour and this may seem unrealistic at the present moment. But Nelson reminded us that it had also seemed unrealistic to have several 100 millions of telephones all over the world, all able to call each other.

Nielsen’s focus is on technical and not unsurprisingly, usability aspects of hypertext, but he also has a summary of the discussions about hypertext in the humanities, and a short mention of Jay Bolter and Michael Joyce’s presentation of Storyspace, the hypertext authoring tool that became the primary tool for hypertext fiction until the web. (Read the full paper in the ACM digital library: Hypertext and Creative Writing)

Another talk on the use of hypertext in the humanities was by Jay Bolter from the University of North Carolina on the Storyspace system. It is implemented on the Macintosh and is intended as a vehicle for creative writing of interactive fiction. Interactive fiction has existed for some time in the form of adventure games, even the simples of which can be viewed as a hypertext structure as the computer presents a different text as the result of reader/player action. Other movements have also tried to break down the traditional structure of text, e.g. the DADAists.

Mind you, Stuart Moulthrop talks about how he and his friends and collaborators stressed that hypertext is not a game, and that they distanced themselves from interactive fiction in those early days. That all changed in the 90s.

I’m going be delving deeper into early hypertext fiction history for a paper I’m writing for the ELMCIP project. We’re researching how creative communities develop, using the communities of electronic literature as our main object of study. At this point, I think that the early community revolved largely around the technology, and in particular around Storyspace. With the web, that community was somewhat dispersed as technology opened up and many alternative ways of writing, disseminating and accessing electronic literature appeared. Stuart Moulthrop’s trip report from Hypertext 1996 gives some idea of the dual excitement and suspicion with which hypertext veterans viewed the web.

4 thoughts on “Jakob Nielsen on hypertext in 1987

  1. Mark Bernstein

    I’m not sure that “That all changed in the 90s” is precisely right. “This is not a game”, for example, is the nav bar of Sarah Smith’s King Of Space,which appeared in ’91. I think Joyce maintained an opposition between hypertext and games through the ’90s and, to some extent, I think perhaps he still does. Other people in the area (Moulthrop, you) did embrace games, but I think that happened somewhat later. Games weren’t your main concern in ’99, anyway. (Whether Interactive Fiction, as we currently understand it, is a game at all is actually an interesting question; I bet a time-travelling EmShort would be right at home in Nancy Kaplan’s Hypertext Kitchen, and Nick Montfort wouldn’t be terribly out of place either.)

    One catch with your interpretation that “the early community revolved largely around the technology, and in particular around Storyspace” is John McDaid, who was clearly central to the TINAC community and who worked, even in the 1980’s, with HyperCard rather than Storyspace. And Moulthrop always did plenty of HyperCard work.

    I think there’s a lot of history to be written here!

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