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)

9 thoughts on “what is feral hypertext?

  1. PART

    Go wild in the hypercountry…

    Notes towards Jill Walker’s “Feral Hypertext”….

  2. Beth

    Wow, thanks for posting that slide show … I’m more of picture person versus a word preson , and ven though I did read the paper, this is really helpful.
    Thank you.

  3. Knud Mˆller

    This is interesting! But, even though I don’t object to what you are saying about the nature of hypertext, I think you have misrepresented the Semantic Web ideas. The Semantic Web as it is advocated today is not about restricting or controlling the web, hypertext or anything else. The only thing that is standardized are the languages for expressing the semantics, and a formal model for how to interpret them. That last sentence may sound very restrictive, but in fact it’s not, because the formal model proposed is an open-world semantics (as opposed to the closed-world semantics of most databases). I.e. you never assume that you know all the facts, and as a result you can hardly ever restrict anyone in what they want to say. Instead, it allows anyone to extend, reuse and interlink to their heart’s content. This kind of semantics was chosen precisely to do justice to the open and sprawly nature of the web (as opposed the the closed and controlled nature of a centralized database).
    Actually, other people have explained this much better than me. Check for example Jim Hendler’s post over at Mindswap (which was made in reply to a post by Tim O’Reilly about the Freebase project). A short quote from there: “If you look at what Iíve been writing since 2001 […] I, and many others, have not been arguing for controlled ontologies – rather, we designed the Semantic Web technologies, and especially OWL, to encourage linking and reuse. […] Weíve said all along the Sem Web is open, Web friendly, and that openness and linking were the key, just as they are on the text Web.”

  4. Chuck

    Thanks for the update and the slide show, Jill.

  5. […] In Case You Missed It… Filed under: Uncategorized — chutry @ 3:18 pm Jill Walker posted some additional information about her “Feral Hypertext” essay, including a slide show from a talk she gave on the topic.¬† I’ll go ahead and mention here that I’ve been (a) at a conference and (b) sick with some kind of sinus infection, but hopefully I’ll be back up to speed on Tuesday. […]

  6. Jill

    Ah, thanks for that correction, Knud. I think we’ve had this conversation before, and mischievously I persist in my delusions 😉 I’m commenting on semantic web as I’ve often seen it presented, but you’re right that there are clearly other less discipline-focused understandings of semantic web technology.

  7. Christina Chau

    I’ve just read your article on feral hypertexts. I love the fact that there are narratives that exist in (and outside) the the internet, ubiquitiously and horizontally, as feral narratives do.

    I seem to be a little confused on you perspective though… do you think that these kinds of narratives are created by their writing tools and cultural context, or are they a genre of their own? I know that this has been long debated but I wast just wondering what your stance is.

  8. William Patrick Wend » Thesis Reading

    […] Oh, it looks like that is all I am reading this week. Dr. Rettberg discusses Feral Hypertext a bit more on her own blog. Bookmark to: Hide Sites […]

  9. […] Walker, J. (2007) jill/txt ¬ª what is feral hypertext? [WWW] Available from: [Accessed: 12/3/07] […]

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