Masthead CMC Magazine / May 1, 1996
 Two Years on the Web, by John December

Making the Most of Hypertext

[]Brain comments on the publication of both a text and Web version of a magazine.

The most commonly asked question we get is, "can I receive CMC Magazine by email?" The answer is no. The reason is that we can't afford to. Hypertext is cheap to produce and distribute from a Web site. To translate the magazine into a text-only format and distribute it via an electronic mailing service would add additional costs to a project for which we already receive no revenue.

Once I've accepted the fact that hypertext via the Web is the cheapest way to make and distribute this magazine, I now hope to more fully explore how hypertext can be exploited to shape meaning. Last fall, Amelia DeLoach showed me how a long article that was submitted to the magazine could be broken up to help in its readability. While I had felt the original article was way too long, her hypertext redesign of it--breaking its section and subsection structure into layers of meaning--demonstrated an important function of hypertext: to layer meaning so that the reader can choose his or her own level of involvement with it.

In the issues since December 1995, we've more aggressively explored (some would say overexplored!) breaking up articles up into separate files. I added style guidelines, and have encouraged authors to explore how they can shape and layer meaning with hypertext. I see definite benefits of using hypertext well. For readers, they can choose their involvement with an article--perhaps by just reading the surface text of "root" page of it, or finding a particular page within it that serves as their own best view of it.

Our access logs of the magazine show that some articles have interior pages which gain wide popularity--for example, the explanation of the difference between obscene and pornographic materials in Douglas Birsch's January 1996 article, "Sexually Explicit Materials and the Internet," achieved more requests than the root page of that article itself. My interpretation of this pattern is that this page met the need of some readers for a cogent summary of that difference--and they linked to this page rather than the front of the article. If a reader were to arrive on that interior page, the navigation and context cues designed into it should help him or her access the context in which the page occurs--in an article, in a magazine, in a whole series of issues which have been published. I like this kind of flexibility of access, and I think it is just one example of what a hypertext publication can uniquely offer.

Breaking up articles into meaningful units to take advantage of this "different views" idea is not easy. Kevin Hunt points out that to use hypertext effectively "requires unlearning a lot of what we've been taught throughout our years in school about writing and developing arguments. In short, this new writing requires breaking from the 2000 year-old rhetorical tradition that education in writing and communication is grounded in."

There's no doubt we want to learn more about hypertext's potential to shape meaning. I hope to foster a more incisive and vigorous body of hypertext theory and criticism. Most of what passes for critical thought about Web hypertext today consists of fairly shallow over-generalizations. For example, one criticism is that any technical effect in hypertext shouldn't be done "just because you can." This observation is indeed true: no doubt, using any technical effect for its own sake doesn't necessarily make a connection to readers. One wouldn't want to write an essay in which all paragraphs consisted of exactly twenty nine words, either, just because you could. The critics who recite only this only this kind of shallow observation just don't seem to get it: there's a real difference in the way we can shape meaning with hypertext that goes beyond its technical novelty. -

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