Last Refuge of the Parentheticals?
August 15, 1999
Seems to me the web is the medium which marks the return of the aside to public discourse. Traditional media, dating back to the dawn of writing and speech, has always had a place reserved (can I say bookmarked?) for interjections from the author or from third parties, but we have drifted from that with the progressively increasing influence of a small number of media creators.
What it means is, TV and newspapers and radio and books, especially in the West in the last 100 years, have dwindled down from a stream of thousands of concurrent parallel conversations into the serial streaming of the Big Six or Seven media companies. The train-of-thought, rambling, narrative tradition of human interaction which dates back to the earliest storytelling traditions of our species has been abandoned for bullet points and the topic sentences that our sixth grade teachers demanded for the beginning of each paragraph.
While this is by no means an indictment of concise writing, it is intended to show that the hyperlinked, annotated world of the web is closer to the natural tangents and meanderings that human interaction has always entailed.
The richness added to a document by adding citations or references to back up its factual data is a tradition well-established in academia. But hyperlinks don't just enhance credibility, they can enhance meaning of a work. The arch placement of links can provide a new form of social satire; While this practice seems to be unique to computer-industry gossip columnists right now, it will undoubtedly be an intrinsic part of the writing of whatever online pundit assumes Andy Rooney's curmudgeonly role in the near future. Dave Barry's columns already nod in this direction, even in print.
Clarity Begins at Home
Even in my own (recent) adoption of the title element of the hyperlink tag, I have discovered that I can place three comments on a work almost effortlessly. The first is the link itself, the second is the link title, which appears as a ToolTip in visual browsers, and the third is a message in the status bar, where advanced web users are accustomed to viewing the URL of their destination. (If that URL is of any help to them... which is usually not true.) An example of this is the Dumb Pictures section of this page, where I've struggled to find three punchlines for every stupid picture. Needless to say, I have not always succeeded.
While this might seem to perpetuate an information inundation, it also provides the choice for the reader to get more details about a topic in advance, judging whether the content is worth perusing, or if the concept is worth pursuing. This is especially true if the link or URL itself provides useful microcontent to give the reader context for the information. Although this is more easily said than done, as my own inability in this area attests.
Perhaps the best evidence for this concept is the increasing ubiquity of ancillary content and commentary since the introduction of the web. Although the practice of taunting, mocking, or even praising a work from within the work itself can be found anywhere from asides in Shakespeare's plays to Moonlighting's attempts to break down the "fourth wall", the birth and increasing popularity of the web have presaged a marked increase in self-aware commentary and third-party comment in traditional media.
To wit, everything from VH-1's Pop-Up Videos to MTV's Beavis and Butthead critiquing music videos to There's Something About Mary's "Greek Chorus" approach to story narration, pop culture is inundated by footnotes. Even with the demise of Mystery Science Theater 3000, TV and movies are awash in snide, sarcastic, sardonic, snarky bitchiness about existing content. Not to mention Joan and Melissa Rivers' play-by-play fashion assaults that accompany every awards show.
(Actually, doesn't the whole E! Network qualify as meta-content? What is Talk Soup if not a weblog of talkshows?)
This trend manifests itself in pop music, too, where hip hop has made not just a tradition, but a cliche, out of information that would be presented in meta tags on a web page or on the title page of a book: Artists are not just allowed, but very nearly expected to give a shout-out to their record label, producer, friends, promoters, hometown, favorite car, and favorite alcoholic beverage. How long until the enhanced CD portion of their single includes a webpage with photos of their cat and links to their favorite search engines?
MTV's never discouraged this sort of thing, of course. The network's chyron is so distinctive it not only inspired commercials that began and ended with text captions, but I believe it indirectly caused the proliferation of semi-transparent logos that infest the lower-right corner of any TV screen. And on GeoCities, of course. It's no wonder performers feel carte blanche to give free ads for Lexus.
Question: if the music networks blur ad logos, why don't they mute the name-droppings of products? Gotta lotta Prada indeed...
But of course, the blurring of an individual's identity within a consumer culture and a corporation's successful attempts at subliminal product-placement is a topic for another essay, and one even longer than this. And with that I curtail today's entry.
Hyperlink Title Tag: Each hyperlink in a web document (the underlined words you click on) can have several properties associated with it, and one supported by recent versions of web browsers is that, in addition to their destination, hyperlinks can have titles which pop up as "ToolTips" when you point at the link with the cursor. Though I've known about them since they were introduced, I've only recently become evangelistic about their use.