How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Hypertext

By Mark Baker, Analecta Communications Inc.Mark Baker

The Hypertext Nobbling Committee (HNC), that secret cabal of marketers, publishers, writers, and designers dedicated to breaking the Web, has been busy of late. Their latest ploy: the one page site in which all the content is presented in one continuous scroll and any links simply lead from one part of the page to another.

The aim of the HNC is to reestablish linearity and hierarchy in the creation, management, and consumption of content. The one page site fits this mission perfectly. It makes it harder to find information within the page via search, since the search will land the reader at the top of the page, not the item they are looking for, thus obscuring the information scent the reader is following. And it is bound to make it more complex for a search engine to identify the page as a good source for a particular subject. It tells the reader, in no uncertain terms: you are supposed to come here directly, you are supposed to read all of it, and you are supposed to read it in order.

This is, of course, a profoundly anti-Web message. It is the antithesis of hypertext. But the membership of the HNC has good reason to fear hypertext, and to try to nobble it. In David Weinberger’s words:

Hypertext subverts Hierarchy.

The aim of the marketers, publishers, writers, and designers who make up the HNC is to control the narrative: to control the selection and ordering of ideas that are presented to the reader, so as to influence the reader in some way favorable to the writer. Hypertext strips the writer of the ability to control the selection and ordering of ideas. It gives that power firmly and irrevocably to the reader, and to readers acting collectively in their mutual interest to link the world’s information in ways that are useful to readers.

cluetrainAs the Cluetrain Manifesto noted:

The potential connections are vast. Hyperlinks are the connections made by real individuals based on what they care about and what they know, the paths that emerge because that’s where the feet are walking, as opposed to the highways bulldozed into existence according to a centralized plan.

Weinberger, David; Locke, Christopher; Levine, Rick; Searls, Doc; McKee Jake (2009-06-30).
The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition (p. 193). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

The Hypertext Nobbling Committee, of course, is in the business of preventing those connections from being made, of ensuring that the reader’s feet stick to the path bulldozed in accordance with their official content strategy.

Content Strategy Versus Readers

While content strategy usually gives lip service to the idea that the user’s needs are paramount, the fact is that content strategy is a business activity done for business reasons, and the business may not always see the user’s interests as being identical to its own, a point that Paul Bryan makes about the related field of User Experience in his post User Experience Versus Users:

The field of user experience has, from its inception, championed the notion that meeting users’ needs is the path to success for digital products. Recently, however, it seems that user experience is increasingly playing a role in formulating designs that diametrically oppose users’ wants and needs for the sake of generating greater profits

And, of course, there is a legitimate business concern here. UX and Content Strategy both exist to meet business goals, and the principle of making the user’s needs the sole criteria of either practice is not an absolute moral imperative, regardless of its business consequences. It is, in fact, based on a the idea that the business’s ends are best served by serving the customer’s ends, and while that is a good principle within bounds, there are genuinely cases where it is not the case, and serving the customer’s best interest is not in the business’s best interest. In these cases, we can expect that the businesses interests will prevail.

Interests of writers not identical to those of business, or of readers

But there is a big difference between when the business’s interests and the customer’s interests actually diverge, and when people making decisions for the business think they diverge, or when they fail to understand where the customer’s interests actually lie. Sometimes hypertext nobbling is attempted in the sincere (though incorrect) belief that it actually serves the reader’s needs.

Also, the interests of the employee making those choices may not always be well aligned with the interests of the company that employs them. There are many examples of this:

  • A sales person who makes a false promise to a customer to meet quota, even though it damages the company’s long term relationship with the customer.
  • A software developer who wants to pad their resume with experience in a particular tool or language, even if it creates an additional maintenance burden for the company.
  • A writer who wants to compile a magnum opus as a showpiece for their portfolio, or simply as an artifact of their ego, when Every Page is Page One content would better serve the user and the company.
  • The employee in any role who is used to doing things a certain way and is not interested in doing the work to acquire new skills and adopt new standards of quality in a world that has radically changed.
  • A manager who is driven more by the need to feel in control than by the need to let talent work and product flow.

hypertextThe activities of the Hypertext Nobbling Committee, therefore, may not be aligned with the true business interests of companies whose employees serve on the committee. But that does not stop the committee from having a profound effect on how content is written, organized and presented. In fact, I would suggest that hypertext nobbling is almost always bad for business.

Why do so many companies and so many writers, information architects, content strategists, and designers continue trying to nobble hypertext? The answer, I think, is twofold. First, it involves admitting that the power you are used to wielding has gone. We are attached to our power, and will struggle to keep it or to recover it — often to our own detriment, if it leads us to ignore new sources of power.

Second, hypertext is hard. It upsets our traditional ideas of how information is created and organized, and perhaps worse, it defies traditional approaches to managing information. In no small part, organizations engage in hypertext nobbling simply in order to make their traditional internal management processes and tools work.

Anti-hypertext strategies and their defects

One of the Hypertext Nobbling Committee’s most successful innovations was the native app. Diverting mobile readers away from your website onto a mobile app seems like a great way of ensuring that they follow your path, not their own. If readers can be persuaded to start your app rather than searching Google, there is no danger of losing them to the competition. Thus readers visiting websites from their phones often have to dismiss annoying screens asking them to download the site’s own app.

But no, I DON’T WANT TO DOWNLOAD YOUR APP!

appsYou know why? Because I am on your site only because one page on it looked interesting in my search results. Just because I want to read (or glance at for a couple of seconds) one page on your site in no way means I want an app that shows me your site and nothing else. Nor do I want to clutter my phone with dozens of apps for individual sites.

Apps that do things are great. Apps that aggregate content from many sites according to filters that I create myself (such as Flipboard) are useful. Apps that merely show information from one site are pretty much pointless. Eddie Vassallo reports that the tablet magazine, launched with such fanfare such a short time ago, is sinking fast:

It’s also no secret that tablet magazines are simply not being read – the form factor and technology is basically making the standardized magazine page a near anachronism in a world of dynamic live canvases of the caliber of a Flipboard or Zite.

While Flipboard is, of course, an app, it is a hypertext app, pulling in resources of interest from all over the web. More specifically, Flipboard and its ilk are essentially search engines that allow you to store one search to be executed on a regular basis, and which allow you to continually refine the search terms to tweak your results over time.

The nature of hypertext

It is perhaps useful at this point to say a little more about hypertext. It may to too easy to dismiss hypertext today as a kind of relic of the 80s, to associate it with such abortive projects as the hypertext novel. But what many of the 80’s experiments with hypertext missed was that hypertext is not a tool for writers, but a tool for readers.

We don’t tend to say it much these days, but the Web is a hypertext medium. We should remember that the “HT” in HTML and HTTP stands for Hyper Text: they are Hyper Text Markup Language and Hyper Text Transfer Protocol respectively. The links that connect one page to another are properly called hyperlinks.

But hypertext is not just about linking. Hypertext is about the non-linear traversal of information spaces. When hypertext and the Web were being dreamed up and the terms defined, links were the principle mechanism for such traversals. Today, while links remain important, search, social curation, and dynamic content APIs also play key roles.

More importantly, search and social curation make hypertext a tool for readers, a tools that they can use untrammeled by the limits of the links that writers provide, and untrammeled by all the machinations of the Hypertext Nobbling Committee.

flipboardThere is a reason, after all, why you still need a mobile website, even if you would rather people used your app: content in apps is invisible to search. The kind of content apps that work, like Flipboard, exploit hypertext tools to put the reader in charge of the experience.

The most profound effect that search and social curation have on content, though, is that they make all content hypertext. Before search, it was up to the author to decide if a text was to be a hypertext. With search, the reader can treat any text like a hypertext. If they come to some phrase they want more information about, they can simply highlight it and initiate a search on it. This provides links where the author neglected to provide them. Search makes all texts hypertexts.

This even includes information on paper, as well as movies, TV shows, and billboards. Most of the world is walking around with a search engine in their pocket. If they want to link from the text they are reading, or the video they are viewing, they have the means to do so, and are increasingly habituated to doing so. The only downside of this off-Web content in a hypertext world is that all the links lead outward. No links point back to this content.

Every text that is not designed to be a hypertext is effectively a one way hypertext, with user-generated links leading out but not in. Thus every trick the HNC dreams up for preventing people from leaving your content ends up doing more to keep them out than to keep them in.

Smartphone with appsOn the Web, content that is not designed to be a hypertext, and even content that is deliberately designed to nobble hypertext, is a hypertext not the less. Readers can search on the terms it contains, and search and social curation can find it and point to it (unless it is nobbled to the extent of diverting all links to a landing page, or is, (God help us!) a tri-pane help system that provides no reliable way to link to individual content pages).

Thus the fundamental problem with the HNC’s tactics is: you can’t prevent people from using you content as hypertext. But you can prevent it from working well for people using it as hypertext, and you can make it difficult to find it in a hypertext environment. Any discussion about the virtues of having your content be a hypertext or not are therefore moot: you can’t prevent the undesirable aspect of hypertext (the ability of the reader to leave), you can only limit the desirable aspect of hypertext (the ability of readers to come in). You can’t nobble the reader; you can only nobble yourself.

Other Hypertext Nobbling Activities

Other notable efforts as nobbling hypertext include endless scroll (no need to go elsewhere; this page will never end) and ebooks (get off the web: download this and read it in isolation). Both these things have their place. Endless scroll makes sense for a feed, such as Twitter. Ebooks make sense for, well, books. (But – newsflash – rebranding your 20 page PDF whitepaper with the word “ebook” doth not an ebook make.) But to impose them on what ought to be regular Web content is just an annoying form of hypertext nobbling that does neither you nor your reader any good.

help-toc

The techcomm branch of the HNC has its own particularly vicious device (which thankfully has not caught on with the rest of the committee): the tri-pane help system. Conceived as a way to show help in a desktop application, these systems are designed as if they were the whole information universe. In contemporary incarnations, they often have a single TOC that includes the content of dozens of books in a hierarchy that is utterly unnavigable, and often with pages made out of sections of books that make no sense or contain no useful information when viewed individually (something I have dubbed the Frankenbook). This is to say nothing of the problems they cause for linking and for SEO on the Web.

Unfortunately, people are still coming up with new tools for delivering documentation on the Web using this outdated and inappropriate model, and with new authoring tools for creating it.

A schoolroom approach to readers

A big part of the reason that this model persists today is that many writers, particularly in technical communication, it seems, are deeply suspicious of hypertext. Partly this may be born of a fear that user-generated content shared on the Web may put them out of business. But more deeply than is, I believe, they share a belief, most notably expressed by Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, that the Web is shortening attention spans and robbing people of their ability to focus.

But this belief is built on a schoolroom definition of attention and focus, on the assumption that the measure of attention and focus as the ability or willingness to focus on a single piece of content. It is assumed that if the reader is moving rapidly from one piece of content to another that they are not focusing and not maintaining a sustained level of attention to what they are reading.

Children_reading_1940In Too Big to Know, David Weinberger argues that our civilization’s long dependence on the book has warped our understanding of what it means to know. It has caused us to think that knowledge is shaped like a book, that to know something is to know the texts about it, and therefore that to study is to study texts. While the modern world does not have quite the reverence for texts of earlier centuries, we still largely compose curriculums around text books and evaluate students on their ability to learn texts.

In the 20th century classroom, the text, not its subject matter, but the text itself was the object of the lesson. The task was to understand what the text said, and it was evaluated by measuring the student’s comprehension of the text.

This is exactly how many of the studies of reading on the web are conducted today: by watching how readers read individual texts and measuring their comprehension of the text.

But that is not how hypertext works. Hypertext works by allowing the reader to traverse information spaces in search of understanding of a subject. The point is to comprehend the subject, not to comprehend the text. And while writers would love to believe that to understand their text is to understand their subject, such is rarely the case. We learn a subject better by working with it, by talking about it, and by reading multiple different views on it, than we do by reading a single text. That has always been true of how we learn about subjects, but hypertext puts that learning process on overdrive, allowing us to accumulate more divergent perspectives on a subject quicker than ever before, and giving us access to data on which we can run our own experiments and from which we can draw our own conclusions.

A person traversing a hypertext field may spend little time on any one page, but that does not mean they are not focused, or that their attention span is limited. Rather, their attention is focused on the subject they are pursuing, not the individual texts they encounter.

Hypertext and information foraging

A look at information foraging theory is useful to understand this point. Information foraging theory is based on the discovery that the patterns that readers use in seeking information are essentially those used by wild animals in search of food. Foraging is all about the most calories consumed for the least calories used. Thus a foraging pattern that burns the fewest calories while finding the most food is optimal.

Screenshot 2014-02-05 07.23.23This means that how a forager behaves in a rich environment is different from how they behave in an environment where food is scarce. If it is a long way from one berry patch to the next, then the best strategy is to pick the current patch clean, spending the extra time and energy to get to the fruit that is hard to reach and putting up with the thorns that scratch your nose. If it is a short distance from one berry patch to the next, it is more efficient to take the easily-accessible fruit from one patch and move on to the next one.

The forager’s behavior in switching from one berry patch to another in an environment where berries are plentiful is not a sign that the forager lacks focus or has a short attention span. Their focus is on food, and their attention is on consuming the most calories while burning the fewest. An optimal foraging pattern is not a sign of a shortened attention span, but of attention focused on the correct goal.

The Web, the largest hypertext system in existence, is the ultimate rich information foraging ground. Not only is it full of rich information patches, it also makes it easy to move from one information patch to another using links, search, social curation, and dynamic content resources. Information seekers will naturally adapt to this environment by switching more rapidly between different information sources. As with animal foraging, this is not a sign of shortened attention spans, but of attention focused on the correct goal.

Hypertext nobbling practices designed to trap the reader in one information patch will backfire because, ultimately, they offer the reader a less fertile ground for their information foraging. Good information foragers will always gravitate to the richest information foraging ground. Basic evolutionary forces will always favor the organism that gets the most food from the least effort.

Hypertext in local information systems

Of course, there are cases in which the Web is not the richest information field for particular subjects. In some cases, the Web either has less information than another source, or the information is hidden in a thicket of thorns that make it difficult to get to. In these cases, a separate information source, specially cultivated (curated and edited) to keep down the weeds, may make a better foraging ground for a particular class of readers.

Even so, such an information source should still be constructed to work as a hypertext field. Why? First, because hypertext creates a richer information environment which is easier to traverse, and therefore one that is more attractive to information seekers. Second, people’s information seeking habits are increasingly formed by the Web and the way the Web works. Frustrate those habits and your information set becomes harder to use.

And creating such an information source is no small undertaking. In particular, it is not created by putting up walls to keep hypertext out. It is only created by assembling a comprehensive collection of excellent content and linking it well. Fences don’t make orchards. Fruit trees make orchards. Nobbling hypertext won’t keep information seekers in; it will keep them out.

Hypertext nobbling is not good content strategy

Ultimately, therefore, hypertext nobbling is not good content strategy. Our content strategy goals would be better served if we learned to stop worrying and love hypertext. The way to win in a hypertext environment, after all, is to make better hypertext than the next guy. The bears will always come to the bushes with the best fruit. And if hypertext makes it harder to stop eyeballs and attention from wandering off your content, it equally makes it easier to attract them to your content. Do hypertext well and readers will flock to you.

The key to Hypertext: Every Page is Page One

The key to embracing hypertext is to acknowledge that Every Page is Page One. In a hypertext field, readers traverse texts non-linearly looking for the scent of information. To attract such readers, each piece of content needs to act as a new page one: establishing its context, sticking to its subject, conforming to its type, and linking richly to content on related subjects.

It is time, therefore, to stop worrying and learn to love hypertext, and to learn to do it well. That means embracing a world in which readers traverse a web of information, only some of which you own, and focusing on making your individual pages give off a strong information scent, and then following up that scent with satisfying content. You will catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Stop trying to nobble hypertext. Every Page is Page One.

BIO

every page

Mark Baker is a twenty-five-year veteran of the technical communication industry, with particular experience in developing task-oriented, topic-based content, and technical communication on the Web. He has worked as a technical writer, a publications manager, a structured authoring consultant and trainer, and as a designer, architect, and builder of structured authoring systems. He is currently President and Principal Consultant for Analecta Communications Inc. in Ottawa, Canada. Mark blogs at everypageispageone.com.

The blog is focused on the idea that on the Web, Every Page is Page One. It is Mark’s firm belief that the future of Technical Communications lies on the Web, and that to be successful on the Web, we cannot simply publish traditional books or help systems on the Web, we must create content that is native to the Web.

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4 Responses to “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Hypertext”

  1. Paul Griffiths February 5, 2014 at 8:43 am #

    Look, I think that the EPPO concept is intriguing and thought-provoking, and much of what Mark says about the way people find and use information on the Web is both insightful and correct.

    But there are still huge areas of technical communication that are not, and may never be, Web-based.

    When I have a problem with Microsoft Word, I usually Google it rather than access Word’s Help. I do likewise for many of the other consumer applications I use daily.

    But my job is writing user assistance for non-consumer applications. These are often niche or bespoke products. Our customers and their users would not expect to find, and in some cases be alarmed to discover, information about their IT systems on a publicly-accessible website. In this situation, my documentation really is “the whole information universe”.

    I still think there’s a l could learn by applying EPPO principles to my work. Even if my documentation set is self-contained, it is interesting to wonder how the reader might be encouraged to “forage” within it.

  2. Mark Baker February 5, 2014 at 2:22 pm #

    Thanks for the comment, Paul. I definitely agree that not all documentation — or all content — will or should be on the Web. Documentation for bespoke products would certainly be a prime example of when it should not be.

    Niche is a little less certain. So far, every time someone has told me their product it too niche for there to be any third party content about it on the Web, I have found lots. And, of course, users don’t know how much or how little content there is on the Web. The beauty of the Web is that you don’t have to think about stuff like that. You don’t have to think about *where* to look for stuff. You just search the Web.

    But for a bespoke product that no one else is supposed to have, then naturally the user does expect the docs to be private.

    Information foraging is interesting. It was on the Web that the pattern was identified and compared to animal foraging patterns. One of the nice things about the Web is that it allows you to generate the kind of data that enables you to see these patterns. But the behavior still applies in other media. As I note in my book, John Carroll observed the same kind of behavior with paper manuals during his studies that led to the development of minimalism. The Web changes information foraging patterns, by making more content readily available, but it does not change the fact that information foraging is how people actually look for information. (A book index, after all, is an aid to information foraging.)

    We know that people don’t make clear distinctions about how different search systems work, pretty much expecting them to all work like Google — which is bad news for local search systems that don’t have enough data or enough horsepower to do useful relevance ranking. For this reason, I actually think it is even more important for off-Web content to be an effective and highly linked hypertext in which every page has a strong information scent.

  3. Joe Pairman February 5, 2014 at 10:13 pm #

    Great stuff, as always, Mark. I don’t disagree with any of your conclusions. However, I think the recently fashionable single-page docsets you mentioned have a slightly different flavor than described, even if the effect is the same. I’ve noticed them particularly used for developer docs, sometimes by writers from a non-tech docs background. James Yu, the co-founder of Parse, writes:
    “It’s no secret that developers hate to click. Don’t spread your documentation onto a million different pages. Keep related topics close to each other on the same page.”
    (http://blog.parse.com/2012/01/11/designing-great-api-docs/ )

    I don’t agree, of course; there has to be a comfortable middle ground between clicking through endless tiny snippets and scrolling through reams of content, and your topic-based, EPPO approach to that middle ground is very convincing. (Also, if developers did hate clicking so much, would they even bother to use the TOC that these long single-page guides always have?) But I would suggest that there is a potential new audience for the EPPO message; people whose main job isn’t writing or documentation management.

    From a search point of view, there is one mitigating factor to these long single-page guides. Google sometimes links directly to anchored sub-sections of a page as a rich link within a search result. If you try a search for:
    svg on the web site:wikipedia.org
    you may see what I mean. I see a result to the main SVG page on Wikipedia, but with a link *within* that result to “Jump to SVG on the web”, a subsection of the same page. Now, I realize that you would characterize that whole page as a single topic, but you’ll see that from a technical standpoint the same principle could apply to an extremely long, multi-topic page, as long as the markup was alright.

    Nevertheless, your point stands: a subsection of a page doesn’t have nearly as rich an information scent as a separate page, and unless the content very clearly belongs in a sequence, perhaps it shouldn’t be laid out in sequence.

  4. Mark Baker February 6, 2014 at 10:52 am #

    Thanks for the comment, Joe. You raise an excellent point. In part a preference for one-page sites could be a reaction to the hyper-fragmentation produced by bursting manuals into help systems, and, unfortunately, by an overzealous and uncritical application of DITA’s task/concept/reference model. If, as so often happens, searching a help system leads you to a page with two lines of blah blah text on it, no wonder people look for an all-in-one source they can search and scroll through. The ongoing demand for PDFs comes from the same source in many cases.

    The seven principles of EPPO topics that I outline in my book are really all about making sure that a topic really satisfies the user’s need. Any so called topic that does not do that is really just a fragment, and fragments do no one any good.

    And while most advocates of topic-based writing would agree with this in principle, the sad truth is that even when people switch to a formal topic-based writing methodology, they usually create their base set of topics by bursting their existing manuals.

    I agree too that EPPO is likely to be the format that requires the fewest clicks. While EPPO certainly stresses rich linking as a fundamental means of supporting the foraging reader, it also stresses that links are for people who want to move sideways in the content set, not for people who want to read onward in the current article. No one want to link to keep reading the thing they are already reading, and we should not fragment content in a way that makes them do that.

    I also agree that EPPO principles apply to a far wider audience than just tech comm. (Interestingly, many in tech comm complain that many of the examples I use come from outside the tech comm realm.) One of the realities that we have to face in tech comm and content strategy is that an ever increasing percentage of the content we deliver (and our customers consume) is going to be produced by people who are not full time authors and have neither the knowledge nor the interest to engage with complicated content management and publishing processes. An EPPO information design is going to greatly improve the quality of the content we can assemble from a diverse set of writers to serve a diverse set of readers.

    Perhaps more importantly, our readers will not just be reading the content we produce, but a selection of content culled from many sources. (Include it all. Filter it afterwards.) The continuity or unity of our overall content set, therefore, means nothing to them. It is only the continuity and unity of the current page they are reading that will make a difference to them. An Every Page is Page One approach is designed to ensure that our content works when the reader is reading more than just our content.