Citia and the promise of hypermedia — choose your own damn adventure

Looks complicated — can you summarize?

Once upon a time there was hypertext, as imagined by Ted Nelson. It was to become an enabler of a distinct kind of media, named, not surprisingly, hypermedia. An upcoming boom of non-linear entertainment was upon us. Every written work would come in “choose your own adventure” format and new modes of storytelling would be created. As digital media evolved, people experimented with it, with varied levels of success. If you’re old enough (and geeky enough), you’ll remember Pepe Moreno’s Hell Cab. Or maybe Laurie Anderson’s Puppet Motel.

1993 hypermedia is best hypermedia

And then came Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web. It soon became the first (some would say the only) real, widely distributed, mainstream application of hypermedia. Soon everybody was consuming internet-based hypermedia content through the magic of the Web. And though content adapted itself to the new medium, it wasn’t exactly revolutionized by it. A Wikipedia article has a beginning and an end. You may choose to jump from article to article without reading them whole, but you also could easily print an article and read it while sitting on a Chesterfield sofa with a Calabash pipe hanging from your lips and a trusted old corgi at your feet — like you would with an article from the Britannica, if the Britannica had an article on Furry Fandom.

[A somewhat related sidenote: Berners-Lee was very invested in the content creation side of the web. His first web client was both a browser and a content editor. In his book “Weaving the Web”, he describes how much time he spent prodding the makers of the early browsers like Viola and Mosaic to add content creation features to their browsers. He wasn’t very successful at that and it wasn’t until the advent of modern blogging tools that the less technically inclined became really able to publish on the web.]

But hypermedia isn’t dead (this correspondent was surprised to discover that Adobe is still shipping Director). And with the advent of “post-PC devices” (an euphemism for “the iPad”), now we have a myriad of hypermedia titles available — only we call them “apps” . Of course, some apps actually perform some sort of task, but many are storytelling programs that use hypermedia to deliver content. American Presidents or50 Places of a Lifetime are good examples. This is the kind of software you would buy in the multimedia CD-ROM section of CompUSA in 1993.

But given the widespread availability of the technology enablers, hypermedia was supposed to replace books, or at least that’s what they told us in the nineties. This is clearly not happening, though. While there are a bunch of hypermedia titles disguised as apps in the App Store, people are still massively going after the good old linear e-books acquired via iBooks or the Kindle store, and consuming them pretty much the same way books have been consumed since the St. Cuthbert Gospel was published.

That’s the market opportunity Citia wants to address.

From a user interface perspective, the solution is quite clever — Citia’s app lays out a book’s content as a 3D landscape, called the “glyph”, subdivided in the main ideas of the text. The main idea sections contain several “decks” which are then subdivided in “cards”. The cards are bite-sized concepts from the book and contain links to videos, other sources and additional text. If it feels familiar, that’s because it is — it’s a rehashed implementation of the old hypermedia promise. This time, however, it is quite well executed and pleasurable to use and read, with the exception of a few messed up UI affordances (it took this correspondent a little while to figure out how to change pages in the decks), and some weird UI oversights (the app doesn’t chart your progress through the text, so there’s no clear indication of what you have already read).

But the UI is only part of the problem, and usability issues are not the reason why hypermedia still doesn’t pose a credible threat to books. The proof of the pudding is in the content, and that’s where Citia still falls short. They have only one title out, “What Technology Wants” by Kevin Kelly. And while this is a fantastic book, that’s where things get a little funny. For the hefty price of $9.99 (in the deflationary app economy, any price about $0.99 is hefty), you won’t get a copy of the book, but a glorified CliffsNotes of it. The app offers you a summary of the main ideas of Kelly’s book in hypermedia format. If you enjoy it, there are convenient links to several bookstores where you can purchase the whole work for an additional $9.99 (if you’re getting it from Amazon). Nicholas Negroponte said “the value of information about information can be greater than the value of the information itself“. You should keep that in mind to avoid thinking you were just swindled out of ten bucks.

The promise of hypermedia is well known. Ted Nelson has been talking about it since the 60’s. And while the underlying technology to make it possible is finally here, the content is mostly not. And Citia’s approach doesn’t seem poised to solved that problem.


Originally published at uz00.com on July 22, 2012.