Hypertext Writers Workshop Position paper
The introduction and acceptance of hypertext in complex technology and business
April 28, 2000
In this short paper, I briefly sketch my research and professional interest in the introduction and reception of hypertexts in complex organizations, particularly in high-technology business enterprises. My experience, and that of many professional writers and editors who work in complex, bureaucratic commercial environments and are familiar with hypertext theory and practice, is that organizations deeply resist hypertext as a genre or type of writing, even though people in these organizations enthusiastically accept and adapt to the Web. That resistance stems from numerous sources. One of the main sources of resistance would seem to be an apparent conflict between the nonlinear nature of hypertext and the intensely goal-oriented nature of markets and the enterprises that operate in them.
From the standpoint of writers working on internal and external communications in complex organizations, hypertext offers a powerful alternative to traditional linear text. Readers in these organizations, though, often do not share the writers' enthusiasm. Even though technicians and business professionals across a wide range of disciplines routinely use the Web, they are often disinclined to engage with hypertexts, whether HTML-based or readable in other applications, such as Storyspace. My interest is in the sources of this resistance and whether understanding the resistance may lead to different approaches to hypertexts that would open the possibility of hypertexts to more extensive use within complex organizations.
Based on my creating and publishing Web- and CD-based hypertexts in a large information-technology enterprise, I hypothesize that there may be a fundamental discontinuity between the essentially non-linear nature of true hypertext and the intensely goal-directed nature of information search and application activities in commercial enterprises. While, from a writer's perspective, it seems to follow, for example, that a swift, excellent strategy for learning about a new technology or competitors' service offerings is to "wander" in a well-architected hypertext for a relatively brief time, users are often distracted by feelings of disorientation, of having their "just-give-it-to-me-straight-and-fast" mindset frustrated. As Wendy Morgan writes in Towards a Grammar of Hyperlinks, links "work against predictability, despite our inferring a prospective significance." Although it is a risky generalization, it seems safe to claim that business people, and many implementation-oriented technical people, appreciate few things more than predictability. Faced with multiple choices in a text, this population seems more likely to end the reading task than pursue a text where "they can't see where they're going."
The research agenda
I am trying to ask several related questions: Is it necessarily true that true hypertext is antithetical to an intensely goal-directed enterprise environment? What cues, strategies, and methods might make hypertexts more successful in an enterprise context? What can hypertext writers do to demonstrate the informational value inherent in the structure of links? Are there techniques used by writers of hypertext literature and poetry that would enhance the readability of hypertexts in technical and commercial organizations?
Back to HTWW