From UBC Wiki

This page was originally authored by Paul Klintworth (2009)

Edited by Helen DeWaard (2011)


Hypertext is defined by the World Wide Web Consortium to be a concept that is non-linear and contains links to other textual information. Hypertext is the structure that defines the world wide web where text can reference and link to other text and be accessed by a click of the mouse or a keypress.

The Oxford dictionary defines hypertext as a “noun - Computing a system allowing extensive cross-referencing between related sections of text.

George P. Landow has defined hypertext as an information technology in which the 'link' has an instrumental role. Text is electronically linked along multiple paths, chains, or trails and is described as being multisequential and multilinear. The concept of hypertext includes the notion of linking, nodes, network, web, path and connecting.

Claire Harrison (2002) extends the definition of hypertext as being "a web of relationships" and maintains that hypertext is dependent on human choices. It is defined as a "social/cultural phenomenon based on the ideologies of the particular community". Hypertext links are semantic in nature, can be static or dynamic, explicit or implicit, or can be strongly authored or weakly authored.


Early attempts

When text moved from papyrus scrolls to the book form it still retained its linear origins, yet it was now possible to access more easily other associated parts of the text. Rudimentary attempts at associating text within a document were made in the Talmud. Dictionaries and encyclopedias continued to develop the connections between ideas, concepts and words.

Vannevar Bush

File:Vannevarbush.jpg File:T0 story memex.jpg

In 1945 Vannevar Bush wrote the article 'As We May Think', describing in detail the Memex machine which was designed to file, categorize, associate, and retrieve data. It was based on microfilm technology, along with various displays, and it had random access to data, as well as the ability to produce personal history trails. "A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory." (Bush, 1945)

Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson

Doug Engelbart was profoundly influenced by the Memex vision of Bush. Shortly after he researched and developed his theories about augmenting the human intellect through efficient communication and working systems. He set up the Augmentation Research Centre, and developed the NLS (On-Line System)using hypertext links, which was demonstrated via video link in 1967 at what became known as the 'Mother of all Demos'.

Ted Nelson is attributed with inventing the term 'hypertext' in the early 1960's, publishing it in 1965. He founded the Xanadu Project in 1960, which is designed to compare and directly link text using transclusion. The main purpose is for attribution in research. He has continued to be a visionary in terms of document networking, and is still working on Xanadu as well as a project called ZigZag.

A key difference between Nelson and Engelbart lay in their views of the user. For Nelson hypertext was for the individual to compare different versions of texts, not merely using links, but also transclusion, where included material is referenced back to its origin. In contrast, Engelbart viewed individual hypertext use within a group, in order to augment group communication and efficiency (Bardini, 1997). Both Nelson and Engelbart were influenced by the associative views of Vannevar Bush and the connectivist views of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Essentially Nelson’s hypertext use was more literature based, thus favouring the more free associative thinking, whereas Engelbart looked at hypertext supporting a close hierarchy in order to network users’ symbols and ideas, more connective in practice (Bardini, 1997). It is interesting to note that neither Nelson’s Xanadu hypertext system nor Engelbart’s Augment system were adopted for mainstream use, and both hypertext visionaries have shown dogged persistence in adhering to their original visions.

Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web

In the 1970's and 1980's researchers were using many different systems that were not compatible with each other. Much time and energy was spent collating information, and the problem was essentially the same as examined by Vannevar Bush in 1945. Tim Berners-Lee worked on the problem on behalf of CERN, and in 1989 wrote a proposal for a world wide hypertext system to share and link documents. This was implemented in 1990, and expanded on a massive scale once the Mosaic graphic browser was launched in 1993.

The currently used standards for hypertext are developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and provides a consistent outline of styles and criterion for the use of hypertext. The standard affordances for hypertext includes the colour blue for a word that is linked, the change of the pointer to a graphic hand once it is moved over the hypertext, the action of movement once a mouse click is made, and the change in colour once a link has been activated.

Types of Hypertext Uses in Web Site Design

The following table summarizes the functions of hypertext links as outlined by Claire Harrison (2002).

Type of link Function of Link Examples
Authorizing Describes legal, formal policies, contact information, etc. to give authenticity to content *About Us
  • Policies
  • Customer Services
Commenting Provides opinions relating to the site and information *press releases
  • personal testimonials
  • messages from internal members
Enhancing Gives more facts, details to site content *requirements for membership
  • site map
Exemplifying Gives detailed examples of content set into broad context *upcoming events
  • horoscope
Mode Changing Moves user from a reading mode to a different activity *online survey
  • shopping cart
Referencing or Citing Provides supplemental information *bibliography
  • related external links
Self Selecting Users can narrow a search through choice making based on age, gender, location, interests, life situation, etc. *for seniors only
  • single gamers only

Tim O’Reilly (2005) emphasized in his article Web 2.0 that “hyperlinking is the foundation of the web. As users add new content, and new sites, it is bound in to the structure of the web by other users discovering the content and linking to it. Much as synapses form in the brain, with associations becoming stronger through repetition or intensity, the web of connections grows organically as an output of the collective activity of all web users.”


Interestingly, hypertext purists are very dissatisfied with the World Wide Web due to it's fallibility, for example broken links. Some theorists feel that hypertext has been 'hyper-sensationalized', obscuring some layers of meaning. (Lindsay, 2006)

Traumgedanken - book created with threads to simulate hypertextual links

Hypertext in Education

The use of hypertext in education is linked to ideas from complexity theory, connectivist theory, constructivist theory and knowledge building theory.

Complexity theory states that learning is complex and non-linear. It assumes systems are always changing and unlimited. Learners construct their own knowledge and adapt to information in an open-ended learning environment. Hypertext systems mimic this type of learning environment.

Proponents of connectivism base their theory of learning on how connections are made between people through the use of technology. Through the creative use of hypertext, people, places and ideas can be linked together to build connections.

Constructivist theories refers to learning that is constructed by actions with objects. Within an online medium, actions with hypertextual objects lead the learner in undetermined ways. Learners can become proficient users and creators of constructed knowledge by using the linking action of hypertext.

Knowledge building theory includes the idea of learners creating connections. The Knowledge Forum® was designed to enable users to create notes that are linked and connected in multiple ways that enhances the meaning and creates connected concepts. Hypertext can similarly create connections to concepts in a global learning context.

Lavignino describes the change needed in the reading process in his statement “The focus, in other words, is on something that is rarely mentioned in any kind of literary scholarship: on reading as an involving process, not as interpretation or decoding. It is reading as an experience and not as mere collection of data…”

Within education, hypertext can be integrated into the reading and writing process. Examples of reading with hypertext based material include interactive stories and choose your own adventure stories. This form of reading provides the reader with choice and builds interactivity throughout the reading process. Writing a hypertext document begins as an interconnected web of ideas that can be directly linked in a linear or non-linear fashion. The writing process becomes more complex when multiple inter-connectivities and media forms are included in the published document.

File:Hypercard image.png
Hypercard Main Menu

Early educational attempts to help learners build connected knowledge using computer software that enabled linking and connecting was through Hypercard software. With this tool, writing and creating became non-linear and multi-layered with connected cards containing information that could be linked to other cards.

Hyperstudio was the next development in linking and connecting ideas that could include multiple media elements such as text, sound, images, animation and movie clips. The learner uses a card structure to create a stack of linked cards which can then link to other stacks.

With the advent of Web 2.0 tools, the idea of interconnected, linked items takes on new importance and meaning in the field of education. Direct, explicit instruction on how to read, write and create hypertextual documents will be necessary. Experiences in using and creating web based hypertext links will become an essential learning task. Strategies on how to link, why link and where to link will need to be taught.

Hypertext needs to be seen not merely as a tool to link, but an authoring tool to create unique forms of writing. Characteristics of good hypertext include lots of information, lots of links within the information, building in depth and breadth of information and correctly connected links. Additionally, authoring tools such as Storyspace have been available to writers since the 1990's.

In their article "Hypertext" McAdams & Berger outline ten link rules. These include

  • provide the reader multiple choices on each page
  • use different phrases to link to different pages; don't use similar phrases to link to different pages
  • if linking to similar places, use similar linking words or phrases; don't use different phrases to link to similar pages
  • do not provide links to lots of similar options
  • do not provide too many options by eliminating less important links
  • put important links where they can easily be found
  • include essential links and avoid using links that are unnecessary
  • link internally first; only send users to external sites for good reasons
  • provide an idea where the link will lead through good selection of link text
  • do not use the phrase "click here" since it does not describe anything and is a 'mystery link'.

Research of the impact of hypertext reading on proficient readers done by Hillesund heightens the concern that digital and hypertext reading can create disconnected and surface reading habits. This will interfere with learners' ability to read deeply for meaning or read for longer stretches. Hypertextual reading can be described as discontinuous and fragmented. Research on the impact of text technologies and hypertext reading environments on early readers, developing readers and students becoming proficient in reading will need to continue.

Related Information

See Also


Hypertext Fiction

Hypertext Now hypertext magazine linking hypertext ideas and concepts

Interactive Fiction

NLS - oN Line System - Douglas Englebart

Project Xanadu - Ted Nelson

World Wide Web

Zag Project - Ted Nelson

Related Terms

  • Hypermedia This term refers to interactive, linked media in all forms.
  • Hyperstudio is one educational application used to create and link text, visual, sound and other media in a randomly ordered and interconnected set of cards called a stack.
  • Metamedia This term was coined by Marshall McCluhan and refers to the mixing form and content of new media and new technologies.


  • Hypertext in Hypertext shows an electronic book written by George P. Landow to make full use of hypertextuality.
  • Storyspace is a software package that allows for the creation of serious hypertextual writing. Samples are available.
  • Traumgadanken is a book created by Maria Fischer that exemplifies the interconnectedness of ideas in a concrete way using multi-coloured threads woven through a book.


Bardini, T., (1997). Bridging the Gulfs: From Hypertext to Cyberspace. Journal of computer-mediated Communication, 3, (2).

Bush, V., (1945) As We May Think

Connected: An Internet Encyclopedia Hypertext defined

Harrison, Claire (2002) Hypertext Links: Whither Thou Goest, and Why. First Monday, Volume 7, Number 10, Retrieved Feb. 10, 2011 from

Hillesund, Terje. (2010) Digital reading spaces: How expert readers handle books, the web and electronic paper. First Monday, Volume 15, Number 4. Retrieved Feb. 10, 2011 from

Invisible Revolution, documentary about Doug Engelbart

Lavagnino, John (1997) Excerpted: Reading, Scholarship, and Hypertext Editions Journal of Electronic Publishing Volume 3, Issue 1, September, 1997 DOI: 10.3998/3336451.0003.112 Retrieved Feb. 13, 2011 from;view=text;rgn=main;idno=3336451.0003.112

Lindsay, K., (2006). When thou tookest the book/To view the scriptures, then I turned the leaves/And Led thine eye.'Literary Theory and Hypertext-A Faustian Predicament, Literary & linguistic computing, 21 (1).

McAdams, Mindy and Berger, Stephanie. (2001). Hypertext Journal of Electronic Publishing Volume 6, Issue 3, March, 2001 DOI: 10.3998/3336451.0006.301 [1] Retrieved Feb. 13, 2011 from;view=text;rgn=main;idno=3336451.0006.301

O'Reilly, Tim (2005) What is Web 2.0:Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software Published on 09/30/2005 Retrieved Jan. 2011 from

Oxford Dictionary Hypertext definition Retrieved Feb. 13, 2011.

World Wide Web Consortium What is Hypertext? Retrieved Feb. 13, 2011.

WIRED (1998) Upgrading the Human OS. Retrieved March 1, 2009 from WIRED