Being digital matters - differences in Web browsers and computers mean that online texts do not appear the same to all readers. Digital texts differ from printed ones in other ways too:

Hyperlinks and interactivity - hypertexts can be read not only in a linear fashion, but also include links through the text, enabling the reader to follow multiple paths through a work. This is not unique to digital documents - printed works often include foot- and endnotes, referencing and quotes to make links from within the text to other documents. However, digital texts, particularly those online, enable the reader to leap instantly from one point in the text to another, and outside the document to another work. Digital texts are therefore more interactive than printed ones, and are thought by some to empower the reader, giving her a role in creating a narrative from the digital document. Although this may be apparent in literary hypertexts composed for the medium, digitised versions of printed material are invariably published to improve access to the authors' works, with the assumption that they will be read in similar ways as the printed editions. Following the same genres in digital and print media helps readers to study material in different formats using the techniques they have acquired through reading printed material. Some students may, however, find the hyperlinks and interactivity inherent in digital texts confusing, and prefer to follow a set route through material.

Placing a text in its context - documents are placed on the Web for many different reasons; the intentions of Web authors may be stated in an introduction, or can be inferred from the Web sites and documents to which the Web author links. This can influence the way in which the text is received.

Reading practices - have varied across the centuries, with digital texts marking yet another step in how literature is received, and by whom. The Reading Experience Database (Weedon 2001) documents reading practices in Britain from the arrival of the printing press to the First World War. The traditional approach towards texts for academic study is very particular, and we should not be surprised by new media leading to changes in reading practices.

Modern works written for hypertext take a very different notion of reading and readers compared with texts written for printing. An example is Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl - a reworking of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Patchwork Girl is published digitally in fragments, with no single path through the text. Readers literally read the body of the narrator⁄monster by clicking on an image of her body. Hayles' review of Patchwork Girl argues that such radical hypertexts cannot be critiqued using theories developed for printed texts, because they use multiple media, and do not conform to traditional genres (Hayles 2000). Landow (1994) is a good introduction to hypertext theories.

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Last updated: Wed Aug 21 2002

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