From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

July 26, 2003*: Where's the Beef?

One of the ongoing themes of these columns has been that I know personally all eight of my readers. I have to admit, however, that numerous people whom I encounter, many of whom I've never met before, have told me that they read them, meaning there may really be a readership out there somewhere. If there is, I certainly won't complain. But the simple fact of having more than a handful of readers - readers who are aware of my attempts to purposely integrate hypertext into these columns, raises a different, and to my mind more interesting question than that of the extent of my readership. I often find myself asking just what reading these columns entails.

My mother reports to me that she enjoys reading the Boidem columns, though apparently more for their style (the fact that her baby son can actually string together a few coherent sentences) than for their content. But to the best of my knowledge, she reads them only after my brother has visited her, brought each new column up on her computer, and then printed out each of the pages individually. That most probably means that she doesn't click on any of the links to get to the second or third level pages that stem from the main page, but instead simply reads the pages in whatever order that they're stacked for her from the printer. Whatever order that may be, it certainly is not the order that I originally intended.

But that is basically only an extreme example of a very fundamental question: What does it mean to read one of these columns. If you read only the main page, have you the read the column? There's certainly nothing illegitimate in reading in that way. I'll readily admit that sometimes, when reading an article (either online or in a printed publication), I'll read the first few paragraphs and then skim down to the end, and yet claim that I've read the whole thing. A column with numerous links that branch out from the main stem of the article would seem even to invite reading of that sort. But what happens when the central point of a column isn't located on the main branch, but on a distant twig? In a situation such as that, reading the main page would ultimately give a false perspective on the content of the article.

Of course most hypertextual writing doesn't purposefully play jokes on the reader, doesn't try and fool him or her into thinking that they've caught the gist of something when actually they're missing the point. Most hypertextual links are of the footnote variety - the main text remains, unquestionably, the central focus, while the occasional links offer us a richer understanding of the basic text (if they offer us anything at all), but we're under no obligation to seek out, or digest, that additional enrichment. We're more than welcome to stick with the main text.

But what if it only looks like a footnote? What if it instead it's a contradiction, even a denial, of what was said in the main text? When we write we're supposed to clearly state our case, but what if we actually think that both (or more) sides of an argument are equally valid? Hypertext allows us to present those multiple sides with almost equal conviction. Yet someone reading only the main text wouldn't be aware that this is what is happening.

Some links in these columns don't carry any editorial content, but are simply explications of dropped hints. It seems that I've been doing this for many years. Take the 39th column, for example. In that column, a discussion of online romance led to a digression on Instant Messaging, which in turn led me to admit that I'm good at wasting time in various ways. That link led to a page with the title

I only read it for the interviews.
My assumption was that for anyone with the associations that I have, it would be obvious that the it linked to Playboy, and in that way suggest a somewhat self-deprecating orientation to the way I use (or used) Instant Messaging. Actually, the link should have been superfluous, except that not everyone has the associations that I have. It thus becomes necessary to explain what I was hinting at, and it was the link that revealed the hint.

Would it have been possible for the reader to understand the column without checking out that link and understanding the hint? Certainly. The link, however, contributed an additional dimension to the persona that I construct as the writer of these columns. Without that hint the persona wouldn't necessarily be understood in the proper light.

That, however, raises a different, even somewhat disturbing, question. Is the subject of these columns that aspect of our lives that finds expression in our use of the internet which I've chosen to (usually feebly) examine, or is the subject ultimately (and again and again) the person who's doing the examining? If the subject is one of the myriad aspects of internet culture, then chances are good that I'll be able to cast some light on it from numerous angles, and from both the main page and the side pages of these columns. Which approach among those numerous angles is the one I really subscribe to may be obvious, but since it's not also obvious to me, I guess we shouldn't be surprised that sometimes a subsidiary page suddenly suggests a different approach than the main page of a column. On the other hand, if the subject is me, well, I guess that only through examining all of the pages of a column can the reader accumulate and construct the various reflections that offer an almost accurate glimpse.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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