The control paradox

Writers (and some editors) fear hypertext because they hope to control the reader's experience. Control seems important because without it, the reader may not get the message, or may get the wrong message.

Readers, however, have never been constrained to follow the order imposed by a writer. On the printed page, the reader's eye has always been free to bounce and skip, to return or not. Readers bring with them all their past experience and knowledge, which the writer cannot control (or even make many assumptions about); these determine the readers' interests.

We defend two arguments here:

  1. The writer does not give up control in hypertext.
  2. The reader has always had a large degree of control.

Pang (1998a) describes how authors for the electronic Encyclopedia Britannica become more important as they take on responsibilities to integrate their articles with other media and with the work of other authors. Britannica editors face new concerns about the interrelationships of different articles and the reader's experience in moving from article to article.

Rather than giving up control of these interrelationships, the authors evaluate possible connections, making choices about the links available to readers. In the encyclopedia, the perception of the discrete, stand-alone article is becoming obsolete (Pang, 1998a).

Readers experience any article in a personal way that envelopes them and the text in a singular universe, a universe where many other texts interact with the one being read, but where the reader is the only actual person. The author does not exist in that universe, except as a shadow cast by the text itself. During the time when reading takes place, all control belongs to the reader (Barthes, 1968).

The writer maintains control over the act of writing and creating in hypertext, just as in the act of writing for printed media. The writer chooses the words, examples, anecdotes, facts, scenes, characters. The writer imposes order in hypertext just as in print. When the writing is finished, however, the writer's control ends.

Online as on paper, with pixels as with ink, the reader controls the experience of reading.