Screens, Research and Hypertext

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The Digital Ship of Theseus

What would it mean to produce a piece of nonfiction that can only be a digital text?

What would the web version of The Ship of Theseus look like? What are the extratextual elements—the web equivalent of writing in the margins?

I’m not sure I totally know yet. But there are a few contenders.

It’s not linear. The phrase is generational, but “surfing the web” is (I hope!) still a thing. We get halfway through something, then get distracted by an interesting link. Before you know it, we’re experts on capybaras or we’ve documented three reliable suppliers of realistic vampire teeth.

It’s distributed. It’s rare that we find The One Definitive Article on something. We assemble a full picture of things by reading a bunch of different sources.

It has multiple authors. Bouncing around from source to source usually means hearing from a lot of different people.

It's contextless. We find stuff by way of Google. We’re not going to homepages. We look stuff up by typing in some keywords and going directly to content pages.

It’s not just text. Even us olds go to YouTube for how-to videos.

Who knows what all that means. But it almost certainly doesn’t mean that we can just cut-and-paste from print documents to the web.

For more context

What makes a piece of content work?

What to read next

Tell me more about this future web.

Other items of interest

This isn't how the web works. But it could have been.

What makes a book a book?

What's so great about hypertext?