The Web and New Media Literacy: Hypertext is Dead and There is Nothing New About New Media Anymore

by Michelle Kendrick

The volume of academic writing about “hypertext” has dwindled recently.  The hype of early hypertext – the ecstatic visions of Joyce, Landow and others regarding the “freedom” that hypertext would grant — has shifted to a low-key grumble regarding commercialism on the World Wide Web.  No longer are essays published, in hard copy or digital, which euphorically celebrate hypertext’s potential.  Revolutionary and utopian claims about hypertext are no longer in vogue in part because nothing particularly revolutionary or utopian happened.  The reality of 2003 is that hypertext is most often synonymous with the Web.  And as anyone with a passing knowledge of the medium will acknowledge, most Web sites are not created with free-form associative structures, most are not artistically or aesthetically inspiring, in fact, most Web sites are exceedingly linear and hierarchical.

It has become de rigueur in new media scholarship to point out the failure of the Web to instantiate earlier utopian prophecies. In my own work, I recently reviewed the discourse of hypertext over the last decade and I argued that the prevailing notions of writing and subjectivity were deeply troubled and that theorists usually substituted a simplistic and mechanistic sense of interactivity in place of a more complex view of “networks,” in the Latourian sense. [2] While I stand by my critique, and believe that the hype needed to be debunked, I’ve come to think that we have moved too far in that direction.

Certainly, some nuanced and critical scholarship has emerged to supplement the discourse of radical change.  Theorists– Hayles,  Gurak, Lessig, Manovich, Tabbi, among them — have contributed to a more historically grounded scholarship on New Media.  More such scholarship is needed.  For in our zeal to correct the excesses of early scholars on hypertext, many new media scholars and teachers now are in danger of eliding the “new” in new media.

In order to keep our theories relevant, new media theorists need rethink their relationship to literary theory and their relationship with literacy. And in order to do that new media theory must account for the Web as it actually exists, not as hypertext theorists desired it to be.  “New” new media theory needs to account for multiple semiotic registers, theorizing and analyzing new ones.  It is no longer sufficient, if indeed it ever were, to simply add a layer of “visual literacy” to our existing practices of textual analysis.  Towards these ends, in this essay, I argue  these claims:

-The Web is not about hypertext as we first conceived it.  Perhaps due to corporate control, perhaps due to lack of imagination, the Web is still exceedingly linear. Nonetheless, reading and writing are in fact completely different because of the Web, but again not in the way early scholars in literature and hypertext thought. The difference lies in the fact that hypertext is not just a text. It’s a combination of text and visuals, sound, color, movement, links action, line.  It requires rhetorics of the visual, textual, tactile and spatial. Also, importantly, every encounter with a Web site is a different encounter. As new technologies emerge to tailor pages for their audience and as “skins” become available and blogs take over the Web, this becomes even more apparent.

Web site creators are not just writers. They are designers, architects, and programmers.  And they are thieves — of content, form and code. In addition reading is not reading anymore. It too requires very different skills, including the ability to “read” behind the screen.  Computer code contains many powerful and definitional features that are rarely seen by the user/reader directly. A true evaluation of Web sites requires a “reading” of the underlying computational structure.

I will demonstrate my claims through an anecdote about teaching and grading a class Web site and through a detailed analysis of artifacts from white supremacist Web sites.  Using white supremacist sites as the most egregious example of the ways in which linked texts are manipulated and presented, I argue for the urgency of a more comprehensive vision of new media literacy – one that understands that literacies are inextricably linked to the older media (as argued powerfully in Bolter’s and Grusin’s Remediation) but also assembled into something that is “new,” something that requires a different and multilevel literacy strategy to expose, comprehend and critique.

My conclusion is that hypertext theory as we knew it was a dead-end; we must move to a new understanding of what we call new media.


September 27, 2010. Uncategorized.

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