Word Circuits


Afterpaper by Julainne Chatelain ( julianne@trellix.comjchat@world.std.com )
for Media Morphs the Messenger 98


Executive Summary

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 means.

  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 always right...).

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 want.)

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


Administrator's Page

  Selection of good reviewers is the #1 factor in a useful test.

  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 this piece?

[page given to Reviewer]

Thank you in advance for providing feedback on [this text]!



[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]



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