AskDefine | Define hypertext

Dictionary Definition

hypertext n : machine-readable text that is not sequential but is organized so that related items of information are connected; "Let me introduce the word hypertext to mean a body of written or pictorial material interconnected in such a complex way that it could not conveniently be presented or represented on paper"--Ted Nelson

User Contributed Dictionary



hyper- + text; coined by Ted Nelson circa 1965.



  1. Text, in a form readable by a web browser, in which the reader may navigate from one passage to another by clicking on hyperlinks within the text.


Extensive Definition

Hypertext most often refers to text on a computer that will lead the user to other, related information on demand. Hypertext represents a relatively recent innovation to user interfaces, which overcomes some of the limitations of written text. Rather than remaining static like traditional text, hypertext makes possible a dynamic organization of information through links and connections (called hyperlinks). Hypertext can be designed to perform various tasks; for instance when a user "clicks" on it or "hovers" over it, a bubble with a word definition may appear, a web page on a related subject may load, a video clip may run, or an application may open.


The prefix hyper- (comes from the Greek prefix "υπερ-" and means "over" or "beyond") signifies the overcoming of the old linear constraints of written text. The term "hypertext" is often used where the term hypermedia might seem appropriate. In 1992 Ted Nelson - who coined both terms in 1965 - wrote: By now the word "hypertext" has become generally accepted for branching and responding text, but the corresponding word "hypermedia," meaning complexes of branching and responding graphics, movies and sound - as well as text - is much less used. Instead they use the strange term "interactive multimedia" - four syllables longer, and not expressing the idea that it extends hypertext. - Nelson, Literary Machines 1992

Types and uses of hypertext

Hypertext documents can either be static (prepared and stored in advance) or dynamic (continually changing in response to user input). Static hypertext can be used to cross-reference collections of data in documents, software applications, or books on CDs. A well-constructed system can also incorporate other user-interface conventions, such as menus and command lines. Hypertext can develop very complex and dynamic systems of linking and cross-referencing. The most famous implementation of hypertext is the World Wide Web.


Early precursors to hypertext

Recorders of information have long looked for ways to categorize and compile it. Early on, experiments existed with various methods for arranging layers of annotations around a document. The most famous example of this is the Talmud. Various other reference works (for example dictionaries, encyclopedias, etc.) also developed a precursor to hypertext, consisting of setting certain words in small capital letters, indicating that an entry existed for that term within the same reference work. Sometimes the term would be preceded by a pointing hand dingbat, ☞like this, or an arrow, ➧like this.
Later, several scholars entered the scene who believed that humanity was drowning in information, causing foolish decisions and duplicating efforts among scientists. These scholars proposed or developed proto-hypertext systems predating electronic computer technology. For example, in the early 20th century, two visionaries attacked the cross-referencing problem through proposals based on labor-intensive, brute force methods. Paul Otlet proposed a proto-hypertext concept based on his monographic principle, in which all documents would be decomposed down to unique phrases stored on index cards. In the 1930s, H.G. Wells proposed the creation of a World Brain.
Michael Buckland summarized the very advanced pre-World War II development of microfilm based on rapid retrieval devices, specifically the microfilm based workstation proposed by Leonard Townsend in 1938 and the microfilm and photoelectronic based selector, patented by Emmanuel Goldberg in 1931. Buckland concluded: "The pre-war information retrieval specialists of continental Europe, the 'documentalists,' largely disregarded by post-war information retrieval specialists, had ideas that were considerably more advanced than is now generally realized." But, like the manual index card model, these microfilm devices provided rapid retrieval based on pre-coded indices and classification schemes published as part of the microfilm record without including the link model which distinguishes the modern concept of hypertext from content or category based information retrieval.

The Memex

All major histories of what we now call hypertext start in 1945, when Vannevar Bush wrote an article in The Atlantic Monthly called "As We May Think," about a futuristic device he called a Memex. He described the device as a mechanical desk linked to an extensive archive of microfilms, able to display books, writings, or any document from a library. The Memex would also be able to create 'trails' of linked and branching sets of pages, combining pages from the published microfilm library with personal annotations or additions captured on a microfilm recorder. Bush's vision was based on extensions of 1945 technology - microfilm recording and retrieval in this case. However, the modern story of hypertext starts with the Memex because "As We May Think" directly influenced and inspired the two American men generally credited with the invention of hypertext, Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart.

The invention of hypertext

Ted Nelson coined the words "hypertext" and "hypermedia" in 1965 and worked with Andries van Dam to develop the Hypertext Editing System in 1968 at Brown University. Engelbart had begun working on his NLS system in 1962 at Stanford Research Institute, although delays in obtaining funding, personnel, and equipment meant that its key features were not completed until 1968. In December of that year, Engelbart demonstrated a hypertext interface to the public for the first time, in what has come to be known as "The Mother of All Demos".
Funding for NLS slowed after 1974. Influential work in the following decade included NoteCards at Xerox PARC and ZOG at Carnegie Mellon. ZOG started in 1972 as an artificial intelligence research project under the supervision of Allen Newell, and pioneered the "frame" or "card" model of hypertext. ZOG was deployed in 1982 on the U.S.S. Carl Vinson and later commercialized as Knowledge Management System. Two other influential hypertext projects from the early 1980s were Ben Shneiderman's The Interactive Encyclopedia System (TIES) at the University of Maryland (1983) and Intermedia at Brown University (1984).


The first hypermedia application was the Aspen Movie Map in 1977. In 1980, Tim Berners-Lee created ENQUIRE, an early hypertext database system somewhat like a wiki. The early 1980s also saw a number of experimental hypertext and hypermedia programs, many of whose features and terminology were later integrated into the Web. Guide was the first hypertext system for personal computers.
In August 1987, Apple Computer revealed its HyperCard application for the Macintosh line of computers at the MacWorld convention in Boston, Massachusetts. HyperCard was an immediate hit and helped to popularize the concept of hypertext with the general public. The first hypertext-specific academic conference took place in November 1987, in Chapel Hill NC.
Meanwhile Nelson, who had been working on and advocating his Xanadu system for over two decades, along with the commercial success of HyperCard, stirred Autodesk to invest in Nelson's revolutionary ideas. The project continued at Autodesk for four years, but no product was released.

Hypertext and the World Wide Web

In the late 1980s, Berners-Lee, then a scientist at CERN, invented the World Wide Web to meet the demand for automatic information-sharing among scientists working in different universities and institutes all over the world. In 1992, Lynx was born as an early Internet web browser. Its ability to provide hypertext links within documents that could reach into documents anywhere on the Internet began the creation of the web on the Internet.
Early in 1993, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois released the first version of their Mosaic web browser to supplement the two existing web browsers: one that ran only on NeXTSTEP and one that was only minimally user-friendly. Because it could display and link graphics as well as text, Mosaic quickly became the replacement for Lynx. Mosaic ran in the X Window System environment, which was then popular in the research community, and offered usable window-based interactions. It allowed images as well as text to anchor hypertext links. It also incorporated other protocols intended to coordinate information across the Internet, such as Gopher.
After the release of web browsers for both the PC and Macintosh environments, traffic on the World Wide Web quickly exploded from only 500 known web servers in 1993 to over 10,000 in 1994. Thus, all earlier hypertext systems were overshadowed by the success of the web, even though it originally lacked many features of those earlier systems, such as an easy way to edit what you were reading, typed links, backlinks, transclusion, and source tracking.
In 1995, Ward Cunningham made the first wiki available, which built on the web by adding easy editing, and (within a single wiki) backlinks and limited source tracking. Wikis continue to be a medium where features are implemented, which were developed or imagined in the early explorations of hypertext.


Besides the already mentioned Project Xanadu, Hypertext Editing System, NLS, HyperCard, and World Wide Web, there are other noteworthy early implementations of hypertext, with different feature sets:

Academic conferences

Among the top academic conferences for new research in hypertext is the annual ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia (HT 2006). Although not exclusively about hypertext, the World Wide Web series of conferences, organized by IW3C2, include many papers of interest. There is a list on the web with links to all conferences in the series.

Hypertext fiction

See main article Hypertext fiction
Hypertext writing has developed its own style of fiction, coinciding with the growth and proliferation of hypertext development software and the emergence of electronic networks. Two software programs specifically designed for literary hypertext, Storyspace and Intermedia became available in the 1990s.
Storyspace 2.0, a professional level hypertext development tool, is available from Eastgate Systems, which has also published many notable works of electronic literature, including Michael Joyce's afternoon, a story, Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl, Stuart Moulthrop's Victory Garden, and Judy Malloy's its name was Penelope. Other works include Julio Cortazar's Rayuela and Milorad Pavić's Dictionary of the Khazars.
An advantage of writing a narrative using hypertext technology is that the meaning of the story can be conveyed through a sense of spatiality and perspective that is arguably unique to digitally-networked environments. An author's creative use of nodes, the self-contained units of meaning in a hypertextual narrative, can play with the reader's orientation and add meaning to the text.
Critics of hypertext claim that it inhibits the old, linear, reader experience by creating several different tracks to read on, and that this in turn contributes to a postmodernist fragmentation of worlds. However, they do see its value in its ability to present several different views on the same subject in a simple way.

See also


  • Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print
  • Emanuel Goldberg and His Knowledge Machine
  • Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing
  • Hypertext 3.0 Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization: Critical Theory and New Media in a Global Era (Parallax, Re-Visions of Culture and Society)
  • Literary Machines 93.1

External links

Hypertext Fiction
hypertext in Breton: Hypertext
hypertext in Catalan: Hipertext
hypertext in Czech: Hypertext
hypertext in Danish: Hypertekst
hypertext in German: Hypertext
hypertext in Modern Greek (1453-): Υπερκείμενο
hypertext in Spanish: Hipertexto
hypertext in Esperanto: Hiperteksto
hypertext in Basque: Hipertestu
hypertext in Faroese: Hypertekstur
hypertext in French: Hypertexte
hypertext in Irish: Hipirtéacs
hypertext in Galician: Hipertexto
hypertext in Korean: 하이퍼텍스트
hypertext in Indonesian: Hiperteks
hypertext in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Hypertexto
hypertext in Icelandic: Stiklutexti
hypertext in Italian: Ipertesto
hypertext in Hebrew: היפרטקסט
hypertext in Georgian: ჰიპერტექსტი
hypertext in Latin: Hypertextus
hypertext in Latvian: Hiperteksts
hypertext in Lithuanian: Hipertekstas
hypertext in Hungarian: Hiperszöveg
hypertext in Dutch: Hypertext
hypertext in Japanese: ハイパーテキスト
hypertext in Norwegian: Hypertekst
hypertext in Polish: Hipertekst
hypertext in Portuguese: Hipertexto
hypertext in Romanian: Hipertext
hypertext in Russian: Гипертекст
hypertext in Slovak: Hypertext
hypertext in Slovenian: Nadbesedilo
hypertext in Serbian: Хипертекст
hypertext in Finnish: Hyperteksti
hypertext in Swedish: Hypertext
hypertext in Vietnamese: Siêu văn bản
hypertext in Turkish: Hypertext
hypertext in Ukrainian: Гіпертекст
hypertext in Chinese: 超文本系統
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