Screens, Research and Hypertext

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Linear Writing

The web killed the author. Our stories haven't caught up.

Sure, it’s great to have readers for your writing. But a lot of reading is a pretty passive activity—a lean-back sort of affair where the author lays out a path and readers either follow along that path or don’t read at all.

These storytelling conventions have been shaped by the limitations of the media in which they originated, first as part of an oral tradition, and later as part of a print tradition. What both formats have in common is that they require us to consume stories sequentially.

For the last 5000 years or so, if we wanted to write something down, we had to do it on physical objects. And the one thing that clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, parchment or paper manuscripts, and typewriters have in common is that they are fundamentally linear. Sure, the narrative structure of a particular story might be nonlinear—think Naked Lunch or any Tarantino film. But those stories are still consumed one page at a time. After all, in print we can follow a sentence with only one other sentence. It’s always been the author’s job to figure out what that next sentence should be.

Not to go all McLuhan on you, but the medium really has dictated how we think about writing. (This shouldn't be all that surprising. Technology has always shaped how we approach rhetorical practice.)

Hypertext changes the author-centered paradigm.

On the web, readers are free to jump around from one piece of content to another, often not ever completely consuming one full story before moving on to the next. One day we may spend hours surfing Wikipedia. The next we may read 200 words of an article before moving off to Twitter to comment on it. Or we stop a video halfway through because the next recommended one looks more interesting.

Digital publishers have accepted that authors have little control over how readers use the web. Sure, we try some tricks with buttons and teaser copy, hoping to subtly influence readers to follow the path that we want them to take. But we know that if it works even 25% of the time, we’re doing well.

But while authors have (reluctantly) ceded control of the web to the reader, we have been slower to embrace the virtues of hypertext within our stories.

The web may be nonlinear, but our stories aren’t.

We still write content as if it will go into pages and chapters. We build some internal navigation to guide people to different chapters. We build sophisticated web publishing tools—then saddle them with WYSIWYG editors lifted from word processing programs that are meant to spit out pieces of paper. We drop nice, linear copy into boxes labeled “body,” then demand live previews or inline editing so that we can see how our page is typeset.

The web is full of possibilities for a new kind of thinking and for a new kind of writing. The medium is still pretty new, so we don’t have very many conventions for what this sort of thing should look like yet, though there are a few starting to pop up. We’ll have to do some experimentation. Some of it will work. Some of it won’t.

That’s kind of terrifying. But it’s also really fucking cool.

For more context

Sometimes the medium really is the message.

What to read next

Are there any good ways to craft stories on the web?

Other items of interest

Has anyone actually tried creating nonlinear research content?

But they are far from perfect.

Referenced in

On the Virtues of Hypertext

In short, we still write linear nonfiction. Each article or post or Vine or Snapchat story is (mostly) a self-contained argument. We use the hyperlink to create connections between these self-contained pieces.

The Internet Is a Mixtape

The cool thing about modular content is that it enables an entirely new kind of writing. In a document, the content is all linear, with an order determined entirely by the author.

Choose Your Own Adventure

I’ve been taken with the idea of nonlinear nonfiction for quite some time. All the way back in 2014, my team at The Century Foundation built one of the earliest think tank longform pieces, featuring a narrative that hopped around in time.