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ZDNet > PC Magazine > Opinions > Michael J. Miller

The Web as a New Art Form

By Michael J. Miller
July 2, 1999

I've seen a lot of applications of the Internet, but every once in a while I still run across something that makes me go "Wow!" Usually, it's some cool new technology that is unlike anything I've seen before, or a new Net-based business that really changes the way we work. I had an opportunity recently to talk with some people who are on the verge of creating a new art form, one in which the Web could play an integral role. I'm talking about hypertext-based fiction and poetry, which may reinvent creative writing.

Creative writing is one discipline that really has not been changed much by technology. Yes, word processing has changed the writing and editing processes for many books, and new printing and distribution technologies (including electronic commerce) have changed how books are sold. But in most respects, the final product isn't all that different from the way it was 50 or 100 years ago. We still read the linear kind of story people have been writing throughout recorded history.

I recently came away from a forum at Brown University entitled "Technology Platforms for the 21st Century" convinced that it doesn't have to be that way. New technologies now offer the possibility of changing methods of telling stories and writing fiction and poetry.

The forum, hosted by novelist Robert Coover, focused on the interaction of writers and technology. Half the attendees showed products or talked about what technology has to offer. The other half did something far more interesting: They showed off hypertext-based creative writing and talked about what they needed from technology.

The examples were fascinating. Deena Larson's "Ferris Wheels" showed different parts of a story depending on where on the wheel you clicked, and the order of your clicks changed your perception of the work. Bill Bly's "We Descend" used hypertext and a set of images as a way of expanding and changing the story. A group of authors gave a reading of a funny hypertext novel called "The Unknown," which had different tracks you move among. Rob Wittig's "Fall of the Site of Marsha" used the changes in Web pages to tell a story.

I didn't care for every story or poem, and I certainly don't expect or want hypertext-based fiction to replace novels or poems. But that's not the point. This all shows ways in which technology can change the whole process of reading fiction. And it isn't just one new model of creative writing, it is a whole host of new methods.

Not all of the works were created for the Internet. In fact, many of the authors are partial to a program called Storyspace, from Eastgate Systems, which allows a great deal of flexibility in things like page layout and design.

These authors are creating more works that can be read on the Web, because they want to reach a wider audience. Still, many were unhappy with the tools for creating Internet-based hypertexts. Though we saw demonstrations of a number of interesting tools, ranging from The Brain to Trellix to Vignette's StoryServer, none are designed specifically for the hyperfiction author.

In fact, some authors were skeptical of or openly hostile to HTML, because it doesn't allow for the flexibility of character placement or the number of different actions they would like. Could the Web and Web creation tools evolve in a way that is more comfortable for creative writing? Absolutely. Will they? For the most part probably not, because most of the people designing tools or setting standards seem to be more concerned with programmers or business users.

Still, that may not matter. Authors either will find new ways of using existing tools or will create their own tools. That's always been the case.

Like much of the Web, hypertext-based creative writing is still quite primitive. Compared with the medium's potential, it's like the Wright brothers' airplane compared with today's aircraft. But it's a fascinating example of the way the Web is helping to spawn a new art form with new tools, a new audience, and new conventions for writing and reading.

Post Talkback

Hypertext-based stories are in ... - Keith Oustalet
Poetry has never been restricte... - Stacey Knapp

Michael J. Miller

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Bill Bly, We Descend
Denna Larson, Ferris Wheels
Rob Wittig, Fall of the Site of Marsha
Michael Joyce
Word Circuits
Brown University

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