Ancient Marginalia: Stretchtext Parade

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Hypertext allows one to experience content in a somewhat ‘chutes and ladders’ manner.  Any asset in any hypertext experience, be it text, image, video, audio, can serve as a hyperlink, a portal to another asset or set of assets.   A collection of interlinked hypertext documents, then, is a sort of exploratorium – a multidirectional multidimensional warren to wonderland (MMWW).  You might call it a world wide web (WWW) of hyperlinked assets.  We’ve got this –  and it’s grand.  The humble hyperlink has transformed communication, commerce, and the semiotics of cats forever.

As we’ve opined in earlier posts, hyperlinked e-reading will usher in new post-book ways of experiencing information and story, ones that include reading behaviors lost with the proliferation of print.  Multitexting, shared marginalia, and orality are all poised for a hypertext homecoming.  And I want to be in the parade.  But there’s something else – a hypertext feature that deserves a big float and its own marching band.  A feature that has not enjoyed the massive success of the hyperlink: stretchtext.

Feed your head

Feed your head

Personally I would have preferred a ‘world wide warren’ metaphor, casting us as clock clutching rabbits as we traverse the hyperlinked ecosystem on line.  But alas, spiders we are.  Web or warren, however, the effect is the same. We travel from site to site, leaving one page via a hyperlink to experience the content of another. This journey aspect saturates the web with the terminology of travel – sites and browsers both offer means of wayfinding and wayfaring; navigation and signage, histories and breadcrumbs, tabs and new windows are all an effort to pin ‘you are here’ on the spontaneous maps of our hyperlinked sojourns.

Travel is disruptive.  Hyperlinked texts offer at least two interruptions: decisions and trips.  When reading a hypertext, users are always aware that the hyperlinks offer flights out. Each is a little billboard advertising an attractive destination. (BTW, when you read a hyperlink, does the voice in your head differ?) One must reflect and decide. Then, of course, there is the click – the commitment to leave a text.  Pack your bags, call a cab, make plans to have the plants watered, you’re gone.

This makes for a potentially disjointed reading experience – which may be fine if you are reading news or researching celebrity gossip.  But what of stories and histories and narratives – things like that?  Where’s that illusive ‘immersion’ we expect from a powerful storytelling experience, that flow.  Enter stretchtext.  This hypertext feature was first imagined by Ted Nelson in 1967 (!) and well described in a 1970 article thusly:

“This form of hypertext is easy to use without getting lost.

As a form of writing, it has special advantages for discursive and loosely structured materials—for instance historical narratives.

There are a screen and two throttles. The first throttle moves the text forward and backward, up and down on the screen. The second throttle causes changes in the writing itself: throttling toward you causes the text to become longer by minute degrees. Gaps appear between phrases; new words and phrases pop into the gaps, an item at a time. Push back on the throttle and the writing becomes shorter and less detailed.

The stretchtext is stored as a text stream with extras, coded to pop in and pop out at the desired altitudes.”

Read all about this (and his amazing dead-on description of what would become Google Maps and the Anatomy and Physiology Revealed app) in the full text here – page 315.

Ted Nelson knows Photo by Dgies

Ted Nelson knows
Photo by Dgies

While we do indeed inhabit a science fiction universe of Mr. Nelson’s imaginings, we do not navigate the web with ‘throttles’ (a shame, that).  Nor do we have stretchtext, for that matter.  And that’s too bad.  There are some notable javascript examples and narrative experiments, but this does not get you a place in the parade.

I suggest interaction designers and engineers alike add this hypertext feature to their toolkits.  Stretchtext can allow for non-disruptive navigation to relevant assets in situ.  It can be leveraged to deliver varying levels of complexity, as Mr. Nelson suggests, or to provide deep dives without having to leave the scene.  No bag packing, no plant watering.  Just bring a little oxygen – you’ll be right back.


Expert Publishing Blog
Corey Pressman (@cspressman)

About Corey Pressman (@cspressman)

Corey is an anthropologist, futurist, author, and speaker. He is busy imagining and enacting our digital future as Director of Experience Strategy at Neologic, a Portland-based agency and imagination lab. A Fellow of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, Corey regularly publishes and presents on the past, present, and future of media. He recently contributed the closing chapter to the book Examining Paratextual Theory and its Applications in Digital Culture.

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