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Essay 2

Question 3: Nicholas C. Burbules argues that hyperlinks are not neutral in their signification, but that "they have effects - whether intentionally or inadvertently." Discuss the ways in which hyperlinks create meanings and possibilities that are unique to electronic documents. You should also describe in what sense hyperlinks are "unique" - and perhaps discuss in which ways they are not. (Feel free to argue against the question.)


  • "The significance of links within a hypertextual environment is often underestimated; the textual points or nodes are taken as givens and the links are regarded simply as matters of preference or convenience. Their ease of use makes them appear to be merely shortcuts. They are seen as subservient to the important things: the information sources that they make available. Their speed in taking a user from one point to another makes the moment of transition too fleeting to be an object of reflection itself; the link-event becomes invisible." (Burbules)
  • Indeed, we are all too familiar with a link to pay any attention to it. More often than not, when we hyperread, we are so quick to click on a link that catches our attention and jump from one page to another, to another… We know what the result of our clicking will be: we will be 'transported' to a new page with, again, more links. To add on to Burbules' argument that hyperlinks are not neutral in their signification, I would like to also argue that readers get caught up in some kind of a 'link frenzy'. That is, they are often too preoccupied with looking for links to click to even pay attention to what's been read or what they are clicking, much less to be conscious of their actions. They would not probably recognize this preoccupation until they encounter a page where there are NO LINKS. "Oh my goodness," they would exclaim, "where are the links?"

    So what is the point I am making? The point is, links do have signification, and the reason why we often failed to see their signification has to do with this preoccupation of ours. We are too familiar with them to be able to 'see' the effects they have on us. In the subsequent paragraphs, I shall discuss the ways in which links can have effects or meanings, some of these may be unique to electronic documents (henceforth, I will use this interchangeably with hypertexts) while others may not be so unique. With an awareness of the signification a link can have, we will be able to "enhance our understanding of both the possibilities and limits of hypertext" (Ess). Such understanding is definitely crucial, not only for writers and theorists, but also for readers in this electronic era.

    First of all, we should recognize that a link is itself unique to electronic documents. It has been argued that hypertexts or electronic documents are actually closer to how a human mind functions, via association. It is, however, not my concern here to argue for or against this proposition. If we assume that human minds really work by association, then we can see how a linked text has the potential to allow human minds to function more 'naturally'. And if human minds are associative in nature, it is important, therefore, to examine what a link can do.

    Links certainly have the ability to associate things, be it the linking of related themes by identity, or the juxtaposition of two unrelated text by metaphor. [i] Of course, one can argue that print texts make use of theses rhetorical tools like metaphor and metonymy too, so there is nothing unique about links in this sense. The point is, a print text and a hypertext achieves the same rhetorical effect DIFFERENTLY. In this sense, the different kinds of rhetorical effects of a link are unique to electronic documents. In its ability to associate, a link can imply and generate assumptions.

    The way links achieve a rhetorical effect in hypertexts is very different from that found in print texts. Let's take the metaphor "Love is a journey" as an example. In a print text, the author would achieve this metaphorical effect by putting the set of lexical items typically for describing a journey into the context of love e.g. 'Our relationship has hit a dead-end street', 'Our marriage is on the rocks', 'Our relationship is off the track'. For electronic documents, however, a mere juxtaposition of two totally unrelated texts is enough to create a metaphorical effect. For example, to borrow from Burbules, linking a page listing Political Organizations to a page on the Catholic Church might make a reader think about politics and religion differently.

    Besides the rhetorical aspect, next let us move on to the structural aspect of hypertexts. Obviously, a hypertext is structure quite differently from a print text, if it has a structure to speak of. Many postmodernists and poststructuralists have argued that hypertexts are 'formless', 'shifting', 'decentered' and 'nonlinear'. But this really mean that hypertext has no form? [ii] Well, "non-linearity is itself a form" (Brent) too, isn't it? Therefore, links create a new kind of genre i.e. that of 'nonlinearity' and 'decentredness', and they present readers with choices. Instead of reading a text linearly, hypertext readers can choose the path they want to take through a particular hypertext by following some links but not others. This implies that now two readers will have the same interpretation about a particular hypertext. Or is this not so?

    While it cannot be denied that links indeed result in nonlinear texts, much less can be said about the so-called more choices available. Due to the way hypertexts are structured, I argue that links limits choices and room for interpretation by the reader by setting out specific paths to follow. A reader who may well have interpreted a particular word or phrase in some other way can only interpret it in the way the author has set out for the word or phrase to be interpreted, via links. The author thus imposes a kind of constraint on the reader "by making it easy to follow preordained links and harder to chase after other material" (Brent). Hence, much as a link opens up possibilities for choice, it has as much potential to limit and conceal, and this potential to be both a possibility for choice as well as a constraint is unique to hypertexts indeed.

    Allow me to dwell deeper into this. A link can be both a possibility for choice as well as a constraint, depending on how a reader sees it, isn't it? A well-read person reading a piece of text would not have the same interpretation as a less well read person. The former would probably find the piece of text lacking or limiting because a lot of things that he had read about elsewhere that should have been included are not included. In contrast, the latter would be more oblivious to the inadequacy simply because he had not read enough to know what is lacking. This kind of interpretative ability of readers to make sense of texts is perhaps quite universal i.e. regardless of the kind of genre. And if this potential of a link being both a possibility as well as a constraint is a result of interpretation by the reader, this potential is not so unique for hypertext in this sense. After all, readers interpret all the time, be it for print text or hypertext. If readers can interpret hypertexts in that way, why can't they do the same for print texts?

    One last thing I would like to raise is the aesthetics. Links can add aesthetics to texts because it allows many different things to be linked. From sounds to pictures to animations, there is nothing a link can't be linked to. Hence, if we were to transform a print text into an electronic one, the same text would definitely increase in its aesthetics value, not only in content but design as well. Under aesthetics of content, links make a text more interactive and clear. Under aesthetics of design, links allow colorful graphics and animations like movie clips to be linked to the main text, making it visually stimulating. Texts become more reader-friendly with the use of links to break lengthy chunks of text into several pages, allowing for more space to rest the eyes on. And of course, links provides a balance of freedom and constraint, as discussed earlier. This balance is part of aesthetics too.

    To sum up everything, I have managed to cover the rhetorical effects, the formal or structural effects, as well as the aesthetics of content and design that a link is capable of. What I hope to have demonstrated in this essay is that links are not as 'neutral' as they seem as they can take on many meanings and functions. They are not merely information nodes or 'shortcuts' to more important information because we have seen that "they imply choices; they reveal assumptions; they have effects - whether intentionally or inadvertently" (Burbules). My research on this topic has revealed that there are not too many papers dealing with this topic solely (because I have difficulty finding relevant works). This is quite puzzling because in my opinion, all the hypertext theories that so many theorists and writers talk about could not have been possible without the notion of the link. What I would like to propose here, extending Burbules' argument, is an appreciation of the meanings and effects of links because with "the apparent inclusiveness of the web and neutrality of the associations it establishes, such an awareness needs to become a particular virtue of hyperreading" (Burbules) as well as hyperwriting.


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    [i] Burbules gives a rather detailed outline of the different kinds of rhetorical effects links can create, and rather than regurgitating from him, I shall not go too much into it again.

    [ii] For more discussion on this, please read Annotated Bibliography 2.




    Brent, Doug. "Is Hypertext Formless?" in Rhetorics of the Web: Implications for teachers of literacy. (

    Burbules, Nicholas C. "Rhetorics of the Web: Hyperreading and Critical Literacy" in Page to Screen: Taking Literacy into the Electronic Era, edited by Ilana Snyder. New South Wales: Allen and Unwin, 1997. (

    Ess, Charles. "Modernity and Postmodernism in 'Hypertext Notes': A Call for Theoretical Consistency and Completeness." EJournal 6(3), 1996. (

    Robert Crossman, "Do Readers Make Meaning?" in The Reader in the Text, edited by Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman. Princeton University Press. 1980.


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    Copyright Renee's Realm. 2000.