Just what is "hypertext"?

The term "hypertext" was originally coined by Theodor Nelson and defined as "fully non-sequential writing." 15 Nelson created the term while in the process of attempting to describe a new concept of data storage by computers. In the early use of computer software, information stored in one program could not be accessed by a different program: they did not "communicate." For example, a text file created in one word processing program could not be read by a different word processing program or a spreadsheet program. In order to allow files to be stored in such a way that different programs could access the same text or data, a new system had to be devised. HTML or hypertext markup language is one system that allows data created in different programs to be "marked" in such a way that they can be "communicated" to other types of software programs. "Browsers" are programs that can read HTML documents posted on the Web and project them onto the user's computer monitor. "Servers" are software that can access and deliver HTML documents to the client browsers.

When an author wants to make an HTML document available, she goes through several steps. First she creates the document using a program on her personal computer, for example, by creating a text document in Microsoft Word. Next, she adds HTML "tags." Then, she sends the text with HTML tags to the server in the form of a "file," usually over a phone line. The server would store the text until someone wanted to access it.

On the other side, when someone wants to view the text, he would connect to the server, again by a phone line, and using a browser program he would ask to have the text displayed. While this may not sound like a profound innovation, it is. HTML can be added to text, graphics, music, and tables of data created in many different types of programs. The result is a huge amount of information available to a massive audience that can be accessed at previously unimaginable speed.

It was Nelson's vision that the texts stored in the server would be accessible not only as complete units but also in smaller "chunks." He states that, "any part of any available document will be accessible from any port on any computer in the net at any time." 16 The chunks of information from various files could be blended into a new document that suited the needs of the individual. Nelson called this a "compound" document.

Hypertext is not a document or a file, but a system of non-linear writing. It has linear components such as the movement from chunk A to chunk B, but the speed at which the reader can move back and forth between these two chunks and any other chunks allows for a spiral effect that is the essence of hypertextuality. Hypertext files can be created and displayed on a single computer, but when these files of data are "uploaded" to an internet server then all or part of the file can be accessed by anyone else with access to the internet. As the user "browses" through links or searches, different types of information will be encountered from a myriad of sources and the user (reader) must filter out what is of interest. A user may digress from the original topic, or return to a specific site at intervals of his or her own choosing.

This spiraling feature allows for such immediate side-gression that the precise occurrence of a particular communicative act may not be predicted or explained by many literary theories. With all this roaming about through quantities of perhaps tenuously related information files, proponents of more structured literary and communication theories might begin to wonder whether author intention will have any bearing at all on the reader in the virtual library.