January 28, 2023

Save the Net Books

Blogazine on Books, Arts, and Music

Why is writing stuck in the paper age?

As someone who is equally devoted to books and the internet, I am endlessly fascinated by how online writing falls short of its potential as a form. I have previously written about how interactive e-books were once seen as the future of books and have completely failed what has been projected about them. They’re such a small niche that it’s debatable whether they even count as books — where’s the line between a pick-a-path video game and an interactive e-book?

To a certain extent, I can see that interactive e-books never really took off. They pose a formatting challenge because ePub or AZW is expected to be mostly text with the occasional static image, and e-readers and e-reading apps are built around it. They are also more difficult for authors to produce. And maybe that’s just not what readers expect from books; Perhaps the appeal of a book is that it’s a text-only medium — the opposite of something like TikTok.

But e-books aside, why is almost everything written online written exactly as if it were on paper? We have so many more tools available in this format. Online short stories might have an embedded soundtrack, perhaps one that changes as you scroll. (This sure feels like something we should be able to do by now.) Articles could include embedded polls, perhaps with a responsive article that changes with the results. While there are some online articles that contain interactive videos and images that change as you scroll, these are rare and still pretty easy to use.

So why is our online writing so static when it could be formatted in an infinite number of ways? Check out this post. I am writing this on a plane with no internet connection. But that’s fine, because I can just type out a Word doc and copy it later, and then maybe add a few links. The process isn’t very different functionally from typing on a typewriter, although it will find its home in the frenzied explosion of color of the internet.

There is definitely no shortage of content vying for your attention online. There might even be a video ad embedded somewhere on this page that is way more eye-catching than these words. And when you open other tabs or apps, there’s TikTok, a visual stimulus firehouse, or a collage of images and text on Twitter, or a host of other options. With so much competition, shouldn’t that be innovation? Instead, no matter what website you open, from the New York Times to Book Riot to a scam blog full of SEO gibberish, you’ll see the same basic format: black text on a white screen, the occasional link, and maybe a few embedded images or videos.

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When I first started writing online it was for a site called Everything2 which was something like Wikipedia when Wikipedia had voice over and also had short stories, poems, essays etc. It was a fun place to get my feet wet in the writing world as a teenager, and while writing for them I fell in love with writing with Pipelinks. Like Wikipedia, your posts would contain many links, but unlike Wikipedia, those links could go anywhere. Hovering over a link will display the title of the page you were referred to, meaning your writing has literal subtext.

I couldn’t get enough of this style of writing. It gave poetry (yes, my teenage poetry, yikes) more layers of meaning, it clarified idioms without clunky presentation, it added nuance and humor, or even tension through contradiction. It also opened up different ways for readers to interact with the text. It was perfectly coherent without interacting with the pipelinks at all, but readers who hovered over it got this Easter egg with extra content. Of course, they could also choose to click through all of these links, and these parts could interact with my own in ways I didn’t even anticipate. And then they would lead to more links, and those to more, and those to more.

While I can still paste links into this post or almost anything else I link to online, the pipe link served a different function. It was the text (in the title) that took center stage, more than the URL itself. I sometimes miss writing this way, even though I’m completely out of practice: it’s an art form in its own right.

If just this tiny feature, included on a fairly small website 15 years ago, can change my writing so much, I can only imagine what other tools I’m missing out on. I wish more online writing would reward attentive readers like these pipelinks did.

Honestly, it’s hard to imagine what writing detached from the paper age would look like, but I imagine it would include interactive elements, visual elements, and (optionally) sound. It would take advantage of all the opportunities that online writing hosting offers. That’s not to say there isn’t room for plain black text on a white background, even online, but some alternatives could be used.

My programming skills are so regrettable that I probably won’t be the one to lead us into this brave new world of online writing, but I’m confident it’s coming and that it will allow me to discover whole new ways to write and even think. It is time for the medium of writing to go beyond the paper format that has been the only one for a long time. From stone tablets to papyrus to books and e-books, I believe a new evolution in writing is coming and I can’t wait to see it.