The Internet can produce different new types of literature (often
grouped together under the term Hypertext-Fiction, or Hyperfiction),
those which are not possible in traditional print media. This is
because the World Wide Web is interactive and interconnected:
processes can be run automatically, texts can be algorithmically
created and randomized, they can flexibly adapt to different users,
settings, and output forms, and they can be easily linked together.
I would like to list and discuss the different forms possible and in
use on the Internet:
- eText/ eBooks
- Hypertext-referenced Literature
- Collaborative Writing
- Multimedia-enhanced Literature
- Direct Feedback on Literature
- Plot Votes
- Interactive Stories
------------------- eText/ eBooks
An eText or eBook is "simply" literature put online in form of a web
page. In this context we need to discuss only in the scope of the
differences between traditional print media and the web page medium:
1. A web page can adapt to different users (visitors/ readers) -- it
can be personalized to suit different tastes or needs (especially when
regarding the layout, font face, colors, page width).
2. A web page can be seen (or heard) in different media. One of them
is the screen; another is paper; yet others are Text-to-Speech or
Braille. In technical terms, the approach taken by the web page
language HTML (and nowadays, XHTML) is about structural mark-up
(followed in the near future, perhaps, by semantical mark-up).
Points 3 and 4 are common to electronic texts in general:
3. An electronic document can be easily published, stored, searched,
transferred, copied, and referenced.
4. An electronic text can be analyzed algorithmically. This can be
used for automatic content analysis, comparison, conversion -- even
translation, though as of today, that is still in its infancy.
------------------- Hypertext-referenced Literature
To put online literature means one has the option of including links
to other pages from within the text. Thus, new references and
implications are created. The traditional approach of footnotes in
books is limited and space. However online, one can create a footnote
(with no limit in length or complexity) which contains another
footnote, which contains another footnote, ad infinitum.
------------------- Collaborative Writing
This form of Internet literature, collaborative writing, is a
"multi-author" process. Traditionally, a book in the print medium is
written by one or two authors, but rarely by hundreds together --
whereas online, this is possible. The form in which this takes place
may differ, and it can be connected to Interactive Stories, which I
will discuss later. One possibility is that somebody starts to write a
chapter, which is then continued by a different, second author, who
then hands over to a third, and so on.
------------------- Multimedia-enhanced Literature
In a book, illustrations are static. In an online book, one can
include such diverse media as: sound, technical animations, and even
whole movies. This illustrative use of multimedia components can
enrich the text (especially if it is a technical and non-fiction one).
------------------- Direct Feedback on Literature
Internet literature often allows the reader to give direct feedback.
This may be a simple email link to the author at the bottom of the
page, send out and potentially received within minutes, no matter
where you are -- or a full-fledged discussion forum. One can also
implement shared notes directly attached to relevant paragraphs of the
piece of literature.
------------------- Plot Votes
Plot votes are another form of interactivity, but this time it's only
one author creating the story. However, he or she writes in the form
of single chapters, which then leave it to the readers and their
collected decision how to continue the story.
------------------- Interactive Stories
An Interactive Story is a novel where the reader gets to choose how to
continue. Often, these books feature the reader as protagonist of the
story. It was popular in the 80s in "offline" print form with
so-called CYOAs (Choose-Your-Own-Adventure) stories.
The scope of different plot alternatives may be finite, but the
identification can be very high. This is a form of art that some may
see closer related to a _game_ than classic literature, since the
author loses significant amount of control (and therefore,
This genre of Interactive Stories is often combined with collaborative
eWriting, in the sense that different authors are responsible for
different paths the reader can choose. And often, reader and writer
even become the same (it is quite common for those web sites to offer
an option to continue the story as soon as you reach a "dead end").
Now to the second part of your question; what are the strengths and
weaknesses of this new form of literature?
The strengths are largely what is already discussed above, namely, the
new opportunities this medium brings (interactivity etc.) -- what
about the weaknesses then?
In my opinion, a dynamic environment also decreases the attention
span, and may reduce focus on a single topic, since new information is
so easily transferred.
Take this simple example: One sits home with a book and read about
historical Person X. One is less likely to go to the library the same
instant to find out more about Person X. However online, the name of
Person X may be a hyperlink in itself. In this way, attention is
diverted to a whole new web page. (Of course, one still has the choice
wether or not to follow-up on the link and onto the new topic; but the
likeliness is much higher, since it becomes so easy to do so.)
Also, every interactive or collaborative writing effort's quality can
_potentially_ suffer because not a single author controls the outcome
of the story. One might wonder, would have some of the classics of
world literature ever been created -- if not for the fact that one
single person, with one unique vision, and the strength to flesh it
out from beginning to end, with no interference?
However the biggest weakness I see with 'net fiction is a technical
limitation not inherent in the _theory_ of Web literature, but very
much in today's devices to _display_ it. The resolution and
portability of screen devices in this day and age is, compared to a
book, very low. And the more portable the device, the lower the
resolution, screen refresh rate, screen size, and so on. (This is true
for notebooks/ laptops. And special devices produced to do nothing but
displaying eTexts also haven't taken off so far.)
There are enhancements and theories for the future (like electronic
paper/ electronic ink ) but in general, if someone has the choice
between reading a printed version of a text, or its online
counterpart, one currently would almost always prefer first. Less
eye-strain; can be dropped; can be taken anywhere. In fact, even if
you produce content for a web site, you might want to print the text
before publishing, to allow for easier proof-reading.
So that leaves us to hope there will be a portable device in the
future that merges the best of both worlds. We then might stop calling
it Internet literature and simply refer to it as -- _book_.
I hope this answers your question!
------ Further Resources:
The following is Raine Koskimaa's PhD thesis, which "develops critical
approaches to reading hypertext through close readings of several
Digital Literature - From Text to Hypertext and Beyond
And also, this MA thesis by Lisbeth Klastup, written in 1997:
Hyperizons - A study of interactive reading and readership in
hyperfiction theory and practice, with an outlook to hyperfictions'
future inspired by the reading of Sophie's World and The Pandora
 Electronic paper/ electronic ink [Word Document]
"For almost three decades, digital paper (also referred to as
electronic paper or e-paper) has been hypothesised as a way of
combining digital information with the familiarity, quality and
convenience of paper. Recently, technology has been developed which
makes this a realisable goal. Of the products that are emerging, some
enable digital information to be displayed on paper-like devices,
while others use paper and ink as digital input devices. This report
focuses on the former, and describes the efforts of two companies
(...), who have been working to create their own versions of products
which, until now, have been the stuff of science fiction."
------ Search terms:
online literature collaborative interactive