On the Road to Hypermedia

Which brings me to the Summer of 1992, the year hypermedia exploded into my imagination.



It was another summer on the road, driving cross country, living out of my truck. The World Wide Web did not yet exist.


Bill Clinton was still governor of Arkansas, and it was the summer his campaign bus was also driving cross country. I met up with it three times that year in three different states: Georgia, Arkansas, and Wisconsin. Arkansas, my adopted home state, was having a Fleetwood Mac Attack. I had worked in public relations for the state university, so I knew Clinton had a record of supporting new media technologies and the growth of the Internet. I plastered campaign stickers on my camper and got honked at wherever I went.


I liked to turn the radio off during long 15 hour drives and go into deep thought. That summer I was thinking about multimedia and literature, particularly fiction, and how new media technologies would affect storytelling. I had seen a local production of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods that summer and on a whim had bought the soundtrack, so when I wasn't listening to the overheated wind roar through my truck, I was playing the cassette over and over. Its theme is centered around a romanticized symbol of the woods as an unknown, uncharted place of adventure and danger. Well-worn fairy tales intersect throughout a magical forest. I was also thinking about the nonlinear structure of certain Shakespearean comedies where lovers chase each other all around the Forest of Arden. My mind seemed to be jumping around randomly with no direction or purpose, yet everything I did seem to resonate with everything else. That in itself is not unique, but that summer I started noticing it more often than usual.


A summer of heavy flooding had turned the Midwest, one of my destinations, into one sprawling, smelly, muddy lake, from Arkansas and Missouri, on up through Iowa and Minnesota. Once familiar landscape had turned alien and unknown. I had to route around certain damaged bridges in Missouri, and drive through the drying mudfields in Iowa. A former photojournalist, I still took a loaded camera everywhere I went. As I drove I considered what it meant to navigate such a disaster from behind the mediation of my windshield. My professional instincts made me want to venture off the path in Missouri and engage the landscape, to explore, find stories, collect narratives of how people's lives had been affected by the water. I called around to friends at several papers in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but they all told me their editors were content with the shots that came over the Associated Press, the same shots that were running everywhere. Discouraged, I stayed on the path. The disrupted landscape forced me to think about exploratory styles and levels of engagement, themes that echoed an article I had just read that summer.


New York Times Book Review, June 21, 1992.
The End of Books?



Robert Coover's article on the "End of Books" influenced a lot of people, and I'm not the first who has written about it. However, I can't describe the effect that the timing of Coover's article had on me in a way that makes sense to most folks. Many life-changing events have happened to me on the Summer Solstice, such that I have always come to expect the unexpected on the longest day. In Alaska it is a day for celebrations, picnics, and all-night parties, staying up with the Midnight Sun. Now that I live in the lower 48, the Solstice is a day I take to remember myself as an Alaskan with some unusual activity of considerable duration.


I picked up the New York Times Book Review in Little Rock in the afternoon, read the article over dinner, and then sat down at my computer and wrote all night. The article gave voice to so many things I had been thinking, but I could not pull them together into a coherent thought. I was on fire, but I would have to wait until I got out on the road again before it would make sense.


I believed none of the conjectures about the "End of Books," that electronic hypertexts would eventually replace printed books, that nonlinear, associationally linked structures would replace conventional linear structures, especially in fiction. Rather, I saw the medium as a kind of clay that, in inventive hands, could lead to a greater audience for the texts that make up books, in whatever form those texts evolved into. One of my former professors tried to warn me that I was on a mission to destroy books, but that couldn't be further from the truth.


I may not wax poetic over the smell of binding glue, but I live in a home overflowing with books. My computer simply allows me space to have more without the added expense of shelving. I do sometimes resent my computer for locking texts inside the compact box, because it can be difficult to reach in and grab one in a moment's browsing, to splatter in the bathtub or turn translucent with suntan oil in the yard.


But Coover's topic is really about the death of the linear line, the tyranny of plot, the received forms that have become hardened arteries in the book and magazine publishing industry. It resonated strongly with me because I never felt completely at ease with linear writing conventions. They did not fit my experience of the world, which was exploratory, partial, parallel, tangential, associative, and cumulative, as I try to show both in and through this rambling narrative. This dissertation for me isn't whole without its tangential pathways and serendipitous understandings. When I read Coover's article, the entire eccentric movement of my life made sense. I was on no identifiable path, but for some reason I trusted the journey.



That insight was reinforced by my physical journeys that summer, explorations of the interstices between destinations: stopping at midnight in Tennessee to shoot time exposures of a lightning storm,or taking a weekend side trip to New Orleans. I had a vision of the future of new media technologies stretched out over the interstates in a long technicolor daydream. On the road I realized I was enacting an exploratory hypertext, moving from place to place, collecting information in non-sequential order, participating in numerous dialogues and tangents. My path intersected or ran parallel to other paths, even the routes of my fellow travelers, the future president and vice president of the U.S. We were, all of us, exploring an archetypal woods, wandering through the forests of Arden. If one path, perhaps Clinton's, enacted a somewhat linear, climactic plot like "Hamlet," there were other paths that intersected and branched off into less linear forms, like Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead."





In a rush I felt I could see what shape the as-yet-undeveloped new media technologies would take. Bubbling over with excitement, I shared my ideas with friends and colleagues and encountered many nay-sayers. "It's a fad." "It will never make money." "There will never be enough people with computers to make it worthwhile." In 1992 there were few CD-ROM titles on the market. Time-Warner had not yet even discovered new media. I remember feeling disappointed in the few commercial offerings I could find. I felt like people were putting any old thing into shrink wrap in the hopes that it would sell. My journey that summer had given me a goal. I wanted to know what it would take to make new media good, or at least compelling.


I'd had an Internet account since 1990, but it was of the command line/blinking cursor type. I remember having to scramble to justify to my department head and the Academic Computing office at the school where I taught why someone in English needed an email account. Academic Computing asked me pointedly who was going to pay for my downloads, and I almost didn't get the account until my department head figured out that it cost a fraction of what the department allocated to me for copying course materials. I wasn't interested in downloads anyway. All I wanted to do was talk to people. But in my frustration with the command line interface of the Internet, I could not have predicted what a graphical interface like the Web could do to the Internet, turning it into an information superhighway that resembled my summer travels, only in cyberspace. At the time all I knew was that something big was coming. I was certain of it.


So much has happened to the Internet since that Summer of '92. The World Wide Web has swallowed the Internet whole, and is now beginning to absorb mass media forms into its "docuverse" as well (Nelson). The nay-sayers have long since forgotten their earnest arguments from 1992. While some of Coover's specific predictions have not come to pass, the triumph of the hypertextual link as the coin of the realm on the Web certainly vindicates the spirit of Coover's prescience.



Oddly enough, the Xenaverse itself inadvertently answers Coover's concerns about whether writing will become so "slackly driven" and "lose its centripetal force" in a way that much literary hyperfiction does not. The Xenaverse sustains an enormous volume of fan-written hyperfiction which readers find so compelling and strongly driven that the biggest fan fiction web sites report a range of 1,500 to 7,000 hits a day, far outstripping sales of books for most titles except best sellers. In these sometimes formulaic stories, Xena and her sidekick Gabrielle wander endlessly through a darkly violent, anarchic landscape, have similar struggles and victories, and then go on to fight evil another day. And still the readers return for more, creating numerous instances of the "repeat hit," a hot commodity in web design circles because it means people value the site enough to return repeatedly, something that does not happen very often on the Web at large. Why do they do it? What makes the noncommercial Xenaverse good? These are several of the questions this dissertation seeks to answer, both through an understanding of the nature of the online culture of the Xenaverse, and the virtual landscape it has created, a landscape built for both episodic journeys and community connections.





The next narrative link (Gabrielle' Staff: The Bard) will take you on to my data node, and a story of how I came to find the Xenaverse in the first place. To go to a more traditional introduction to the arguments that thread through this dissertation, continue on the path of Xena's Sword. The icon of Xena's Breastplate examines constructions of authority in communications technologies. As always, the Chakram takes you to the Navigational Map, which can take you anywhere in this dissertation. Feel free to chart your own path.


The Ballad of the Internet Nutball: The Xenaverse in Cyberspace

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