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Why is Writing Stuck in the Paper Age?

Danika Ellis

Associate Editor

Danika spends most of her time talking about queer women books at the Lesbrary. Blog: The Lesbrary Twitter: @DanikaEllis

As someone who is equally devoted to books and the internet, I am endlessly fascinated by the failure of online writing to live up to its potential as a form. Previously, I wrote about how interactive ebooks were once seen as the future of books, and how they have completely failed to live up to what was projected about them. They are such a tiny niche that it’s arguable about whether they even count as books as at all — what’s the line between a pick-a-path video game and an interactive ebook?

To some extent, I can see how interactive ebooks never took off. They are a formatting challenge, since ePub or AZW is assumed to be mostly text with the occasional static picture, and ereaders and ereading apps are going to be designed around that. They’re harder to produce for writers, too. And maybe that’s just not what readers want from books; maybe the appeal of a book is that it is a text-only medium — the opposite of something like TikTok.

But setting aside ebooks for a second, why is it that almost all writing online is written exactly as if it was on paper? We have so many more tools available to us in this format. Online short stories could have an embedded soundtrack, perhaps one that changes as you scroll. (That sure feels like something we should be able to do by now.) Articles could include embedded polls, perhaps with a responsive article that changes with the results. While there are a few online articles that include interactive video and images that change as you scroll, those are rare, and they’re still fairly basic uses.

So why is it that our online writing is so static, when it could be formatted in an endless array of ways? Look at this post. I am writing this on a plane with no internet connection. But that’s fine, because I can just type away at a Word doc and copy it over later, maybe adding a few links then. The process is functionally not very different from writing on a typewriter, despite that it will find its home on the churning technicolor explosion of stimulus that is the internet.

There’s definitely no shortage of content competing for your attention online. There might even be a video ad embedded somewhere on this page that is much more flashy than these words. And if you open other tabs or apps, there’s the firehouse of visual stimulus that is TikTok, or a collage of visuals and text on Twitter, or a multitude of other options. With so much competition, shouldn’t that be breeding innovation? Instead, no matter which website you open, from the New York Times to Book Riot to some scam blog stuffed full of SEO word salad, you’ll see the same basic format: black text on a white screen, the occasional link, and maybe a few embedded images or videos.

When I started writing online, it was for a site called Everything2, which was sort of like Wikipedia if Wikipedia was voiced and also had short stories, poetry, essays, etc. It was a fun place to get my feet wet in the writing world as a teenager, and what I fell in love with while writing for them was writing with pipelinks. Like Wikipedia, your posts would include many links, but unlike Wikipedia, those links could lead anywhere. Hovering over a link would show the title of the page it was directing you to, meaning there was literal subtext in your writing.

I could not get enough of this writing style. It gave poetry (yes, my teenage poetry, yikes) more layers of meaning, it clarified figures of speech without clunky exposition, it added nuance and humor or even tension through contradiction. It also opened up different ways for readers to interact with the text. It was perfectly coherent without interacting with the pipelinks at all, but readers who hovered over them got that easter egg of additional content. Of course, they could also choose to click through all of those links, and those pieces might interact with my own in ways I didn’t even predict. And then they’d lead to more links, and those to more, and those to more.

While I can still insert links in this post or in most anything else I link online, the pipelink performed a different function. It was the text (in the title) that was the focus, more than the URL itself. I sometimes miss writing in that way, though I am completely out of practice: it’s its own art form.

If just that tiny function that was included on a fairly small site 15ish years ago can change my writing so much, I can only imagine which other tools I’m missing out on. I wish that more writing online rewarded attentive readers like those pipelinks did. 

Truthfully, it’s hard to even imagine what writing that was disconnected from the paper age would look like, but I imagine it would involve interactive elements, visuals, and (optional) sound. It would utilize all of the possibilities that hosting writing online introduces. That’s not to say that there’s no place, even online, for simple black text on a white background, but it could use some alternatives.

My coding skills are such that sadly, I will likely not be the one to lead us into this brave new world of online writing, but I’m hopeful that it’s coming, and that with it, I’ll be able to find whole new ways to write and even to think. It’s about time for writing as a medium to move beyond the paper format that was the only option for so long. From stone tablets to papyrus to books to ebooks, I believe that a new writing evolution is coming, and I can’t wait to see it.