“ The reaction of the hypertext research community to the World Wide Web is like finding out that you have a fully grown child. And it’s a delinquent. ”
With this, Ted Nelson, who coined the term ‘hypertext’ in the early 60’s, summed up the reaction of one particular academic community to the explosive growth of the Web. The occasion was HyperText 97 , the Eighth ACM Conference on Hypertext, the place was Southampton, the date was April 6-11th 1997.
This conference featured one of the first organised collaborations between the hypertext world and the Web world; a live video linkup had been arranged between Southampton and Santa Clara, where the Sixth International World Wide Web Conference  was taking place at the same time.
To many people, the idea of separate communities of web researchers and hypertext researchers is a curious one; isn’t all web research hypertext research by definition, and given that the web is the most widespread hypertext system, isn’t the majority of hypertext research web research?
From the point of view of the hypertext community, the answers to these questions are partly yes and partly no, though not necessarily in that order. To many in the hypertext community, the development of the Web seems to be a somewhat erratic affair which has often ignored their research and so proceeded to make the same fundamental errors which they’d examined decades before.
In particular, the development of the web has not always (the more cynical would say hardly ever) settled on either the most elegant, the cheapest, the richest or the most scalable solutions. Indeed, once you start reading through the literature, many of the more recent inventions in the Web world are long established and mature concepts in the hypertext world (Netscape frames are equivalent to composite documents, Atlas-style bidirectional links have been featured in a number of systems from Xanadu to Hyperwave).
This was my first hypertext conference, and I was quite surprised to see the diversity of the disciplines from which delegates had come. I was expecting a predominance of engineers and computer scientists (hypertext is something on a computer, right?) with a smattering of information specialists, and so didn’t expect to see english researchers, authors and poets also in attendance.
The papers, posters and demonstrations at the conference were similarly wide ranging, from the design of open hypermedia systems to hypertext rhetoric; I can’t hope to adequately sum up the sheer breadth of the conference as a whole.
The elib projects made a showing during the weekend, with the launch of the Journal of Digital Information  (an electronic journal supported by the BCS and the OUP, a stablemate of the Open Journal Project) and a poster from the On Demand Publishing in the Humanities  project at Liverpool John Moores University.
The main theme of the conference was the examination of the future role of the hypertext research community in a world where hypertext (as exemplified by the Web) is considered to be a mature technology capable of few improvements; several of the organised events (and rather more of the informal discussions over coffee) were concerned with this.
In his keynote speech, John Smith, the chair of the first hypertext conference at Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1987, voiced the realistic, if less than popular, opinion that due to its success, the Web is now the basis for any future infrastructure, and that the hypertext community should consider basing their researches on Web technologies if they wanted them to be noticed by the Web-at-large.
This was later expounded on at some length in a panel session organised by Helen Ashman, in which opinions were voiced for everything from subsumption of the hypertext conferences into the Web conferences as a SIG, to a further separation of the two groups. It was mentioned that at times the Web community didn’t seem to be that interested in hypertext itself; the conference in Santa Clara had not actually mentioned hypertext in its call for papers. Also, now that the Web development was run by an industrial consortium, would they even pay much attention to academic researchers?
Ideally, this debate would have been taken further with the live linkup to the States, but despite the valiant efforts of David De Roure, Gary Hill and the rest of the technical crew, the transmission remained patchy through much of the session and the timelag made discussion difficult.
The consensus by the end of the conference was that the hypertext community still had much to offer the Web development effort, and that if they wanted to be taken notice of, they needed a higher profile at the Web conferences - a mood of general optimism.
Thanks are due to the conference chairs, Wendy Hall and Hugh Davis, and all the other staff of the conference (yes, I may have been a volunteer, but this doesn’t mean that I can’t thank the rest of them…)
- Hypertext Conference Web Site,
- Sixth International World Wide Web Conference,
- JoDI (Journal of Digital Information),
- On Demand Publishing in the Humanities Web Site,
Author DetailsNick Gibbins
Tel: 0131 226 1834
Address: Department of Artificial Intelligence, Edinburgh University, Edinburgh