Web-based and multimedia texts. Hypertext. Linearity v. hierarchy and threads. Learnability.
In this chapter we will be focusing on new text types, typically those related with the web.
What is a text? We often refer to a book as a text because it represents a wholeness, a complete story or a scientific report, for example. Texts also often include the beginning and completion of a story, an argument and whatever is the purpose of the text.
What, then, counts as text? We would likely not call this passage quoted from Shakespeare as the text of Hamlet:
"There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all."(V, ii, 208-211)
We would refer to the quoted passage as part of the text of Hamlet. But once it's included in another work, it becomes part of the new work. In essence, then, the same passage is part of two different texts. From a discourse perspective, linguistic structure s, as they are used incommunicative situations, are embedded in the whole social and historical context of culture.
They are but one system of signs among many that people use to give meaning to their environment. Other signs include not only gestures, facial expressions, body movements, verbal and non-verbal sounds, and proxemics, but also cultural artifacts such as traffic noise and folk music, pictures and billboards, and landscapes and city maps. Linguistic signs acquire their meaning because they point to other signs in the environment.
When learners go abroad and interact with the members of the host culture, all these signs are there, live, to be recognised and decoded. In a video or multimedia programme, however, they are inevitably filtered through the film-maker, the camera, and its lens, in other words, through the semiotic system of the video itself. Interpreting that semiotic system means understanding as much as possible why certain events might have been selected, others ignored, why certain people were focused on, others left in the background, and so forth.
What students need to understand, then, when learning the linguistic system through "authentic video, is the way language interacts with other sign systems, including those of the medium that represents them.
What is a hypertext? It’s a new type of text with short sections linked up to each other. The reader in a way chooses the order and constructs a text of their own. It is to be found on the wide world web. The reader can easily jump back and forth between the documents, looking at various parts of this text.
"Hypertext is a characteristic product of the late age of print. While still dependent on alphabetic literacy, linearity, hierarchy, and other trappings of Gutenberg culture, hypertext implicitly challenges the origins from which it came to life. It is a dynamic network of ideas, indefinite in its boundaries and mutable over time.
The precise nature and boundaries of a hypertext are hard to define. The experience of reading for any two people may be radically different: where multiple writers are involved, author voice and intention come in for serious questioning. In the World Wide Web and in multimedia texts, for instance, a single document may contain links and references to other texts stored by people around the Internet. A single reading may involve writings (and writers) from Argentina to Bombay; and since many documents on the Web are regularly revised, you get continuous updates.
On the Web, the type of "texts" differ significantly from traditional print media. On one hand, text, graphics, and sound can all combine to form documents on the Web and multimedia. Multimedia raises interesting issues about how we treat these elements in a work. Can there be "texts" that are primarily graphics and sound, with only a little written material? On the other hand, what about links? How do we treat documents made of links to other works not of the "author's" creation?
What Is the beginning of hypertexts?
Linear structures based on a beginning, middle, and end taken on a different guise in hypertexts. They are also difficult to discern on the Web. It’s like joining a highway. Certainly there are many places where you can get on, drive for a while, and get off, but would that constitute the beginning, middle and end of the Interstate system? It does constitute a beginning, middle, and end of a trip, but that's not the same as the system on which the trip took place. So, like a trip, it is possible to have a beginning, middle, and end in a Web session; the Web itself, however, does not have such structures.
The value of the section called ‘introduction’ loses its original meaning. Instead of introductions, hypertexts include a ‘general index’, which contains background information. Each item on this list is an active link that takes the reader to any one section.
What is important in this type of text is the concept of ‘thread’. What is a thread? It is an ‘itinerary’ that a given reader decides upon in terms of their knowledge of the world and particular interests. From a psycholinguistic point of view, the skills required to follow a certain thread imply being able to handle text structure, and how this is manifested in terms of topic development.
In this light it will be necessary to look at the difference between Print and Text.
Words in print and words in electronic formats mean the same thing. The only difference between hypertext and print text is perception. Looking at the digital nature of hypertexts, though valuable in terms of recognising the fundamental technology of computer generated works of art (be they writing, visual, etc.), is like looking at texts and painting as essentially the same thing: ink or paint on some kind of surface. Just because a poem and a painting are both comprised of a substance placed on a surface, doesn't mean they are "essentially identical."
The important difference between print and hypertext is not the fundamental technology of how the letters and words are displayed (ones and zeros or particles of ink), but what readers can do with the text. If text is "that which is woven," the difference between printed and hypertexts is in who does the weaving: in print the author is solely responsible for weaving the text, in hypertext the reader takes on the responsibility (with the help of authors who provide suggestions to the readeron possible directions--and this can be multiple authors in multiple works).
One of the problems with printed text is the fact that the text is limited to the particular thread being developed at hand. A paper version of any work would have a scope; and from the writer’s point of view there would points when they would like to go further on a particular subject.
Would that still make the text coherent?
The other aspect to take into account is space. Space imposes limits. To have such a piece published in most journals, newsletters, magazines, the writer have to get through my argument as efficiently as possible. Any long digression would likely take the reader away from the initial thread, and a reader might easily lose interest in the text when the topic has gone away from the main topic.
Hypertext is more versatile in this respect.
In this new mode of reading, readers also lose interest when there are too many links that take them away from the thread chosen. Links might take the reader to whole documents which might only be indirectly related to the main theme.
Using multimedia and web hypertext transforms our task from teaching language as a formal system to teaching language as "communicative practice," that is, a social activity that reflects and reproduces a speech community's stock of values and beliefs. However, as language teachers we are used to teaching the linguistic system the way linguists have described it (i.e., independently of its communicative practice).
To round off this chapter, a good idea would be to visit some site and see how it works. For example, a site on hypertext would be interesting. You will find one at http://www.dnai.net/~mackey/thesis/gindex.html There you will be able to choose what to read. You will find that some ideas presented in that hypertext have been incorporated in this chapter.
All the best.
Tuler, with Gray. How to Use the Internet, London, Longman, 1999.