December 1996


Where Has All the Hypertext Gone?

by John December

Maybe it's geeks like me who make it hard. I'm always writing about HTML this and that, and hypertext this and that, and information sources this and that. You'd think the secret of creating meaning on the Web was in mastering intricate systems of syntax in service of technology. Or in developing the ability to sit at a computer terminal for a long time, surviving on a poor diet and a non-existent social life. But, if it is not merely mastery of the technologies that leads to compelling hypertext content, what does?

A professor in the creative writing program I attended asked me what I would give up in order to be loyal to my craft. At the time, I was working as a software engineer during the day, taking courses in writing poetry at night. I told him I wasn't going to give up my day job to write poems. He said that a true artist sacrifices everything for his or her art. I realized then that I wasn't going to be an artist anytime soon.

But I don't think it is a monetary sacrifice artists must make, as I had assumed it was when answering my professor's question. Instead, being an artist requires a willingness to give yourself over to the creative process--the incessant, obsessive, passion that keeps you sculpting and understanding a medium, following a vision without regard to money, fame, attention, or the praise or criticism of others.

Of course, those same qualities go into making a good stalker. But when in the service of the imaginative expression of what it means to be a human being, an apprenticeship fired by passion creates artists.

Isn't art overflowing emotion, reconstructed in tranquillity?

Too much of what I see on the World Wide Web that purports to be art is merely posing, displaying neither a sensitivity to the medium nor passion. The creators of Web works are perhaps seeking the cachet of being "cool." (After all, isn't it cool to be on the Web?) These poseurs talk about "killer" Web sites that show a remarkable sparkle and trendiness, but no passion, nor even a competent ability to convey meaning. The stress in "killer" Web sites is on visual cues reflecting the latest trends in graphic design. The result are Web sites that are pretty, but not compelling.

And while there's much talk about how the Web is a new medium, there's very little indication that the artists who seek to create art using this medium are willing or able to serve an apprenticeship. An apprentice discovers a medium's unique qualities and abilities long before he or she attempts to claim an ability to create works of mastery. The process of knowing one's medium for any artist requires a long period of exploration, literally getting the "feel" for what nuance gives rise to an affect. Sculptors in wood learn that medium's unique qualities--how the grain of the wood lends itself to shape, how shape subtly reflects light, gives a sense of form, and attracts the eye of a viewer. Sculptors in metal, glass, or soap learn a whole different set of feelings for their media.

The strength of a Web developer's insistence on the importance of employing cutting edge technologies is often inversely proportional to their ability to use those technologies. I'm not saying artists need be grim, but I think the sacrifice of the artist lies in balancing enthusiasm with the hard work of disciplined competence in their chosen medium. Instead, I see the best minds of my generation strung out on HTML, Shockwave, Java, and screaming for a fix of technologies to keep them at the crest of some "cutting edge." Unfortunately, being conversant with the latest technological buzzwords doesn't necessarily lead to a better ability to shape meaning. Instead, calling oneself a "Web designer," while knowing nothing of the Web's unique qualities as a medium, does give oneself a certain marketability.

What artists who seek to express themselves in hypertext on the Web have before them is the excitement of discovering something new--Web hypertext is not StorySpace or other standalone hypertext systems. The Web has its own qualities, and there's a certain excitement of working in a medium without any masters. I find that challenge humbling, requiring me to sacrifice a good dose of my ego in order to proceed. At the same time, working in the World Wide Web as a medium for expression requires all of my imagination and all of my attention to the steadfast passion that keeps me online.

John December ( is editor of CMC Magazine. His most recent book is HTML 3.2 & CGI Unleashed, Professional Reference Edition (Indianapolis:, 1996).

Copyright © 1996 by John December. All Rights Reserved.

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