What I learned...
Most importantly, I learned that in many strong hypertext
fictions the structure illuminates / relates to /
recapitulates the plot or content. Deena said recently, "The
structure is the plot." I am being more tentative: there may
be strong hypertext fictions in which the structure is not
crucial; it's just that I haven't seen them (or no one has
written them). Attention to structure was exactly what was
missing from the piece I submitted. The workshop was an
encouragement to take the exploration of structure as far as
it could possibly go.
My experience with the works presented was that when
writers simply let each chunk be the size it naturally
wanted to be, reading the chunks felt more lifelike than
reading a linear narrative. The same is true for writing
chunks of hypertext - it feels more "natural" to me -
although other participants pointed out that it takes "about
nine times as long." I found it bracing to have a mix of
folks trained in literary criticism with other folks who
learned by the seat of their links. The more experienced
writers (another way to slice the workshop) expressed the
same excitement that I feel in working with HT nonfiction, a
sense of working without limits, before the "mores" become
established to hem us in. (Quick!) Mark Bernstein sat in,
and I was also impressed how many of those present
acknowledged the support / inspiration / teaching of Rob
Kendall. We talked about "conjuring the reader," a topic
upon which Bill Bly plans to expand in the future. My
contribution was a joke, "When the hypertext is ready, the
reader appears." Bill said that in his experience this is
not a joke. I am interested in learning more about what he
My thoughts on the question posed in my forepaper:
"...could we get good results by presenting outrageous form
& content *via* some expected mechanisms, with reader
control?" I am more confident than ever that this is the way
I want to go personally, and that studies of "flow states"
(with video games) have some applicability to hypertext
fiction. However, it became clear that the majority of
workshop participants believed that as of that date, reader
expectations were NOT yet jelled enough for me to be able to
"use" them...that the frontier was still quite open..and in
the work of writers such as Markku Eskelinen (upon which
I'll comment in detail after my Finnish improves) I also saw
the benefits to be gained from violating or confounding
readers' expectations...or perhaps one could say, "making
the readers work." [This is my bareknuckled restatement of
Espen Aarseth's neologism ergodic literature - "...a term
appropriated from physics that derives from the Greek words
ergon and hodos, meaning 'work' and 'path.' In ergodic
literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the
reader to traverse the text." Quotation from Aarseth's
Cybertext, Johns Hopkins, 1997.]
What I brought...
Instead of presenting my work, I used my workshop
slot to present a short introduction to the kind of "reader
watching" that I've been doing in my usability lab (at
Trellix Corporation and elsewhere). Then we did a "fishbowl"
in which we watched a brave reader, both listening to verbal
feedback and watching the reader's actions and work with
navigation. Below I've placed excerpts from the materials I
handed out. Anyone who wants to learn more about d be happy
to explain more about this and we could do some live
reviewing together (fishbowl practice, etc.). I could
explain the basic protocols (=> don't gasp, the reader is
I've found that readers like to have their efforts
rewarded in some way - and they like to feel potent and free
- they like to feel that the text is their oyster. (We may
or may not want them to feel that way, but that's what they
No matter how a text (or system) works, readers will make
their own utterly amazing mental models of how it works, and
act according to them. We humans are obsessed with
discerning meaning in chaos, online and elsewhere, and tend
to discern it whether it's there or not.
Reviewers are often too polite. Don't listen to what they
say: watch what they do. Performance-based tests are the
kind I prefer.
Reviewers are not writer/designers. A usability review
is excellent for finding where problems lie, but then the
problems have to be turned back to the writer for solution
(or at least another crack at it). A common occurrence: four
readers come to grief at the same point. Each one has a
different explanation of why, and a different recommendation
for how to remedy the problem. Those can be reported to the
writer if there is interest, but the most important thing to
report is "four readers all crashed at node X," and it's up
to the writer to take it from there.
Hypertext Fiction Real-Time Review
Selection of good reviewers is the #1 factor in a
Best practice is to obtain everyone's permission
in advance for any type of recording. When getting
permission, explain the purpose of the review and how the
results will be used. (Proposed language below.)
The pre-review "chat" can cover the following:
We are [or: the author is] incredibly grateful for
your time. You will be providing a valuable kind of feedback
that will help make the work a more [intense, wonderful,
your adjective here...] experience for future readers.
In everything you are about to experience, there
is no right answer. Whatever you think is right. [People who
have been over-conditioned by some types of schooling will
not believe this and will try to "trick" the right answer
out of you anyway.]
I'm going to sit with you during the review, and I
might suggest areas to explore. However, I'm not usually
able to answer questions about the text. This is not to be
cold-hearted, but because because what's important is what
you think, where you are looking for the next part of the
[story or other noun here].
Don't worry if the web site [or program] crashes.
We'll just start over. [Or: we have plenty of electrons. Or
a joke of your choice]
As you read, please "think out loud" - tell us
what's going through your mind. At some points we may ask
you to "surf" a bit more slowly than you would normally, so
we can talk about your reading choices. For example, when
you're about to click on a link, just hover over it with the
mouse and we'll talk briefly before you click and also
briefly afterwards. The questions will always be the same:
- Why are you clicking?
- What do you think this link will give you?
- Is this what you expected? Why or why not?
- (NEW & optional) After clicking this link,
do you feel closer, or farther, from "closure" within
[page given to Reviewer]
Thank you in advance for providing feedback on [this
[describe rough steps they'll experience]
Before we begin, do you have any questions?
[Normally each "task" is on a separate page. Can
introduce tasks as follows.]
1. Start [from a given point]. Please explore from this
point, reading as you usually read hypertext, but thinking
out loud to explain your reactions to the text and your
reading choices within it.
When you feel you have read enough, say, "I'm done."
[and so on]