Many of you here are already more familiar with hypertext than some of your instructors are. You've used a kind of hypertext since grade school, and you continue to use it today: the World Wide Web. As we'll see, the Web is not all there is to hypertext, but it is a very familiar type of hypertext. Such familiarity, however, can lead to complacency — we are so familiar with the Web as a type of hypertext that there doesn't seem to be anything worth analyzing there. And for most web pages online, that's probably true. Online newspapers, personal home pages and blogs, corporate web sites, these types of texts are no more literary than their print equivalents (print newspapers, corporate advertisements, though I don't think there is a print equivalent to the personal home page).
Hypertext is a medium, as print, film, and stage are media. Each of these media gives rise to its own genres of art and literature. Print has given us poetry and prose genres. The stage gave us drama. Hypertext, an electronic medium made of linked passages of text and images, has yet to give rise to a distinct genre of its own.
But just as print technology gave rise to literary genres, so can hypertext.
Hypertext literature is so new, however, that the entire field is generally treated as either a single genre, or as an extension of existing genres (hypertext fiction, hypertext poetry). The genre distinctions that we make in print are not clear yet in hypertext: the author of Hejirascope calls it a "hypertext fiction"; I think it's a poem. It is a new genre, variously called hypertext, hypermedia, cybertext, interactive fiction, and terms which are still being invented. The technology has only been developing since the 1970s, which means the literary uses are still immature. The very structure of the genre (or perhaps genres) of hypertext is being delineated now. Analyzing (and better yet, creating) work in this field allows you to help make the rules that students 100 years from now will be studying in classes like this.
But we can begin to see the general shape that hypertext literature is taking today.
To begin, let's look at the parts which make up the hypertext form.
We can then look at definitions of hypertext and begin to see how it differs from print, and what it has to offer as a literary form.