The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Posts and Comments: How Hypertext Fuses Together Two Cultures

One of my favorite things about jazz CDs is that a lot of it is recorded live. So, from time to time, you’ll hear clapping at different points in the piece (for example, listen to Miles Davis’ “All Blues”). The applause, loud and raucous or just a smattering, adds atmosphere to the whole performance. You get a sense of place that doesn’t come otherwise from the instruments themselves. That applause works its way into the song and reconfigures it. It clothes the song with a setting and a space.

The surprising thing about the audiences on recordings like this is that, while they are unnamed, they are just as much a part of the piece as the musicians. They are not listeners only. They are, you could say, “background ambience.” Their applause has given the performance a sense of place and an atmosphere—a sense that is not communicated through the music itself. The audience has joined the performance.

These recordings came to mind while reading a 1994 article* about the nature of “hypertext.” The word is a bit dated these days, but the concept is even more relevant today than when it was first coined. Programmers today are opining about HTML 5, in which the HT stands for “hypertext.”

The audience as performer is one result of hypertext. As the article puts it: “The electronic writing space is also shared between author and reader . . . the reader participates in calling forth and defining the text.”* In other words, just as the audience applause adds atmosphere and context to the recording, so a reader adds comments or links—hypertext—to the author’s original work. The author and reader are no longer clearly separate. They are collaborators. The work becomes a community event.

If the collapse between author and reader sounds theoretical to you, take a look at your Facebook news feed. In it, you have authors, but then you have “likes” and comments. Together, these original posts become communal products that everyone has added to. There is no single author anymore—perhaps only a first author.

And the “audience” has become participants. What they’re adding may not be the “atmosphere” or “context” like on a CD, but instead they draw together disparate views, they link to other web pages, they add humor or debate. All of these activities work backwards into the original post—illuminating multiple facets that a post might have, or projecting meanings that the original author did not intend.

And this collection of posts and comments is more than a “conversation,” which would be ephemeral (only remembered). Rather, the collection has become an object (a record). Is it art? Is it history? Minutiae? Is it something else? What is it? Do we have a word for this collection? Is there a category that could name it?

When a post does “take on a life of its own,” the first author can always clarify her meaning by adding a new comment. In this sense, these collections seem to approximate something a bit like preaching in a Black gospel church, where the preacher is encouraged to “Go on!” or “Preach it!” or “Mm-hmm” or “Praise Jesus!” This feedback loop can often shape the preacher’s message or infuse his delivery with energy. This “real-time” environment harks back to the heritage these churches have, a time when black people were oppressed and many could not read. The preaching, then, became a collective activity. The distinction between preacher and congregation is reduced—not to zero, but by more than most print-structured churches (see: Anglicans).

Facebook’s posts and comments retrieve this “oral culture” and reconfigure it in the Internet’s hypertext environment. Hypertext, then, is a hybrid, a fusion of print-culture and oral-culture, retaining characteristics of both while being distinct from either one.

Update: The New York Times published an article based on research in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication supporting these same ideas: "Comments from some readers, our research shows, can significantly distort what other readers think was reported in the first place." They argue the effect arises more from the tone of a comment than its content.