Hyperlinks in Digital Fiction

What did we do?

We looked at reader’s responses to the different types of hyperlinks that are used in digital fiction (specifically hypertexts). We were interested in:

  • what the different types of hyperlinks used in digital fiction are
  • what narrative purpose each type of hyperlink has in the story
  • how readers respond to each type of hyperlink
  • whether readers form expectations for each hyperlink they encounter; if so, how they make decisions based on these expectations
  • how readers reconcile their pre-click expectation for a hyperlink with their post-click interpretation of that link’s narrative purpose

Why is this important?

Hyperlinks are a defining feature of digital fiction, yet research often indicates that readers respond negatively to hyperlinks in fictional stories, even though contemporary readers are very familiar with hyperlinks in general, due to everyday Internet use. Digital fiction scholars have identified specific types of hyperlinks that are unique to digital fiction, employed for aesthetic and/or narrative purposes that are not in use on ordinary web sites; thus one of the key narrative tools implemented in digital fiction – the hyperlink – often causes confusion and disorientation for the reader. In our empirical work, we wanted to observe readers’ reactions to each of the different types of hyperlinks that are found in digital fiction, in order to shed light on what causes negative reactions, and potentially how digital writers can use these types to the advantage of the narrative. 

How did we do it?

In order to conduct an empirical study with readers, we had to take several steps to make sure we 1) had clearly defined hyperlinks types, and 2) had a digital fiction with all the types of hyperlinks we were interested in. For step 1, we reviewed all the current scholarship on hyperlinks types, and distilled these various systems into our own “typology”. Based on this typology, we identified four types of links in digital fictions based on their narrative roles:

  1. (basic) narrative navigation – links that are clearly just basic navigation. E.g., “next page”.
  2. narrative exploration – links whose text indicates narrative importance, but not a clear destination; often, the destination is not of key relevance to the narrative. E.g., a character’s name, which, when clicked, gives a profile of that character.
  3. affective navigation – links whose text doesn’t indicate a clear narrative relevance, but whose destination is of key narrative importance.
  4. affective exploration – links in which neither text nor destination offer reader clear narrative relevance or understanding.

The first two types are what most people are familiar with, as these are commonly used around the web. The latter two are unique to digital fiction, and thus we anticipated that these might cause the most negative responses from readers.

Once we had a working typology, we needed a digital fiction. We wanted a hypertext where we could be sure the effects we were seeing in the readers were from the links, and not other aspects (such as images or color), and we needed to be sure that all readers would encounter all four types of link, regardless of which narrative pathway they wound up on. We also needed to keep it relatively short, so that readers wouldn’t have to spend hours and hours reading hypertexts and answering questions about them!

In order to be sure we had just the right digital fiction, one of our researchers, Lyle Skains, created a hypertext especially for this study: The Futographer.The Futographer - Screenshot

The Futographer is a short story available as an online hypertext and a hyperbook available for e-reader devices. It’s use of the “you” perspective puts the reader in the protagonist’s position as they receive some strange photos of themselves on Facebook – photos of events “you” have never experienced. The story is told in a fairly straightforward fashion: through individual screens of text (known as “lexias”), which are shown one at a time and connected by one or more hyperlinks. The reader navigates the various hyperlinks to solve the mystery; like many digital fictions, there are multiple pathways through the story leading to multiple endings.

Futographer Lexia

We asked 19 Creative Studies & Media students at Bangor University who had little to no previous awareness or knowledge of digital fiction to read The Futographer. At various points during the reading, we stopped them to ask about a particular link.

Before they clicked the link, we asked which link they were choosing (if there were more than one available), and where they expected the link to go.  After they clicked the link, we asked how the link’s destination lexia corresponded with their expectations. We also collected demographic information about each participant, and conducted a post-reading interview with each. All reading sessions were observed by our research assistant, recorded, and later transcribed. The research assistant also noted the links and narrative pathways each reader took through the hypertext.

The interviews and transcripts provided us qualitative data that we could analyse, complemented by the links-clicked data. The idea is that the participants’ comments reveal something about the cognitive processes behind their expectations and interpretations of the hyperlinks they clicked.

We asked participants about 25 links across 11 lexias (out of 77 links across 59 total lexias). These examples were chosen to test a comprehensive range of the different types of links we had identified in our typology.

What did we find?

While we have yet to complete our qualitative analysis on the interview transcripts, our initial impressions of the participant responses generally comply with our expectations. For the more familiar link types (basic navigation and narrative exploration), readers’ comments indicate that they know what they are going to get when they click these links, and are satisfied that their expectations are met once they reach the narrative destination.

For Affective Navigation links (in which there is not a clear destination or connection for the link until after it has been followed), reader comments indicate that they are making some form of judgment about the “you” narrator (or player-character). Often, depending on the narrative content and how the reader feels about the “you” narrator, they will either refer to the character in first person perspective (e.g., “I wanted to be there for my friend”) or third person perspective (“s/he deserves to get smacked for that”).

At the moment, we can determine very little consensus about why readers choose Affective Exploration links. Participants gave varying reasons, usually personal, based on unique experiences or memories, for why they chose these links. Generally, they had no real expectations of where these links would lead; either readers selected these links because of their own personal connection to them, or they avoided them because they could not determine the link’s relevance.

These initial impressions indicate that readers – at least those new to digital fiction – are primarily reading for the plot, navigating the hyperlinks for the purpose of unfolding the story in the most understandable fashion. Readers are looking for meaning in the narrative, seeking out links that best indicate how the reader can find answers to the questions the narrative poses.

We also see evidence that readers identify with the characters in the hypertext, internalizing the second-person “you” narrator’s moral choices. When these choices are most at odds with the reader’s own sense of self and morality, they are more likely to refer to the narrator in the third-person (he/she/they); otherwise, they are comfortable identifying with the narrator’s choices in the first-person (I).

Where have we published the research?

We have presented our research at several conferences.