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EL3209 Writing In Electronic Era - Essay 1


Hypertext vs Print Text: Any Difference?

In this essay, I wish to look into this question of whether there is any difference between a hypertext and a print text, and examine some of the differences and issues pertaining to them.

For a start, let me begin with a first-hand account of my experience with hyperfiction. Before I took this course, I did not even know that such a thing called 'hyperfiction' existed, even though I may be a self-proclaimed, net fanatic. So when I was being introduced to this concept, my initial reaction was one of puzzlement, as I wondered to myself, "What in the world is this hypertext thing?" Is it something like a printed text, one that you would read as per normal and the only difference being that a print text is on paper while a hypertext is on the computer screen? I did not quite know what to expect until I had the chance to read a piece of hyperfiction for Tutorial 2.

I chose to read " A Woman Stands on a Corner Waiting for a Stranger", a collaboration between Linda Carroli and Josephine Wilson. This isn't really a story (at least in my opinion), as the name would suggest, about a woman standing on a corner, waiting for a stranger. It did not seem much like a normal story one would find in a novel or fiction book. While I was reading the hyperfiction, I felt as if the authors were sitting next to me, as I wasn't reading somebody else's story; I was reading what someone felt about certain issues and ideas. Of course, the authors wrote something on this woman standing on a corner, waiting for a stranger, but in between the story, they would inject their own opinions regarding certain issues into the whole piece, just like what you would expect when someone tells you a story, live. He would inject his or her own views, biases etc into the story, wouldn't he? For example, when I was reading something on what happened to the woman while she was waiting, I clicked on the word "waiting" that was hyperlinked, and I was brought to a page where the authors expounded their ideas and views on "waiting" i.e. how they felt waiting should be like, could be like, and probably was like, for somebody, especially a woman, in wait. Hence, this became a kind of a personalized fiction I was reading. Even though it was supposed to be fictitious, there was something about it that made it feel closer to reality. It was the injection of the authors' opinions.

At the same time, I was overwhelmed by the variety of choices that I was presented with as I navigate through the pages. I was determined to follow the story so as to make sense of the story, but I found that the more I tried to do that, the more impossible it seemed, for it did not take long before I was completely lost in the web of links! The pages that the links took me to either did not have connections or have little connections with the previous page. Thus, it was so easy to get lost. I realized very much later that I have to give up the conventions of print text reading in order to be able to enjoy this hyperfiction. I could not expect the story to follow any logical sequence; neither could I expect it to have an end. There was no beginning to begin with! Having read printed text for the last 21 years of my life, I was, of course, disoriented by this strange, new, limitless, borderless, centerless, shifting, and yet, captivating hypertext. Very soon, I was even inspired by this piece to write a creative piece.

Let me get back to the question, then, of whether hypertexts is different from print texts. Isn't it obvious, now, that there are differences? No doubt one could argue that one still reads from left to right and from top to bottom, be it for print texts or hypertexts. But for one, the conventions for hypertexts differ from that of print texts, as exemplified in my account of reading hyperfiction above. Furthermore, the possibilities that hypertexts present to the reader and also the writer are those that print texts had not been able to provide. For example, one could argue that hypertext provides the opportunity for communal sharing by making it more accessible to the masses. Some people in some parts of the world are actually denied access to some print texts, due to one reason or another (e.g. rare books). If the hypertext version of this print text is made available online, this good book can then be shared by a lot more people.

Hypertext allows for greater interaction between the reader and the writer, whereas for print text, interaction is kept to a minimum, if not at all. In fact, I would like to argue that it allows for a more 'humanized' interaction of the human mind, not only with the imaginary, but also with the reality simultaneously. One could respond to a piece of hyperfiction immediately by sending an electronic mail to the writer. Alternatively, one could do a review on the hyperfiction he has read, post it on the web, and link it to the original hyperfiction so that other Net users can read it as well. This form interaction is immediate and spontaneous, more like that of human interaction, when compared to that of the reader with the print text and the writer. As a reader of print texts, I could only read, understand, imagine, and perhaps either agree or disagree with the writer. But I could not tell the writer, much less the rest of the world, how I feel. With hypertext, everyone can be a publisher or a writer. In addition, the hypertext reader plays an active role in the construction of meaning, for it is he who decides which link to follow, which link to exclude, and whether to stay with the writer or sidetrack to a different topic altogether. However it must be brought to attention that the reader does not have complete freedom here, much as it seems so. The links are the creation of the writer, constructed in such a way that it reflects how the writer wants his readers to 'see' his work or argument. Why I chose to hyperlink this word and not the other is a reflection of what I feel should be the case, or simply what I want my audience to see. Hence, much as the hypertext includes (via the provision of links); it excludes too (by not creating certain links).

And of course I can go on and on to talk about the differences between a hypertext and a print text, but that is the least I want to do here. What I hope to achieve with this piece is to bring to attention that there ARE differences between hypertexts and print texts, and create awareness to some of the differences and issues pertaining to these differences, through a first-hand account of my experience of reading hyperfiction (I felt that it would be more interesting to share my experience here, rather than to embark on the topic on a serious note). It is definitely pointless to cough out an exhaustive list of differences, for I believe, first of all, that this is mission impossible. Secondly, I believe that many people would have already tried to do it, and it is definitely better to consult their work [i] .

What then, as one would naturally ask, are some of the cultural ramifications of this electronic era? Has a 'lazy' reader been produced? What will the future generation, or even the present generation be reading? Given the new possibilities opened up by hypertexts, and the limitations of print texts, will print texts die out in this rat race? I don't know how the rest feel, but certainly for me, I would not like to see the death of print texts. It is true that hypertexts offer so much convenience and advantages, but it is also true that what a print text can offer, you cannot find it in a hypertext. While it is true that de-spatialization creates room for endless information, at the touch of your fingertips, perhaps one may like to think about this question of whether in this age of information-explosion, is it not a blessing, sometimes, to have a sequenced text to follow, one that doesn't give you a headache or painful back from long hours of sitting, even when all you want is just to relax with a good story to read?

[i] Here is a site to visit for a discussion of concepts, terminology and issues pertaining to Hypertext:

Keep, Christopher, Tim McLaughlin and robin. The Electronic Labyrinth. 1995. (18 Feb 2000).

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Copyright Renee's Realm. 2000.