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The Battle Between the Two Gods of Hypermedia: The Reader and The Writer

by Nick Gall  |  September 17, 2010  |  2 Comments

[This is a continuation of a discussion of the “shape of the web” that started in Twitter and then moved to Richard Veryard’s blog: What shape is the Internet.]

Glad we agree on the 1st point. On the 2nd point, I’m not sure Tim’s vision of hypermedia was all that "innocent".

I think both Tim Berners-Lee, and Ted Nelson before him, understood that "hypermedia" implied not only following links to go from media to media, but also that such media would be (mis)interpreted, copied, rearranged, (mis)used, mashed up, etc.

In a speech from 2005, Tim presents a slide entitled "The two gods of literature", which goes as follows:

[begin slide]

according to Ted Nelson

* The Writer

* The Reader

A common benefit, overlap of need.–but a battle.

[end slide]

A bit cryptic, so I searched(!) for any discussion of the two gods by Ted. The only discussion that I could find is in this BBC interview: “I think of it as a form of writing – and writing is essentially what I would call a two-God system, because God the author proposes and God the reader disposes. The author is completely free to do anything on the page that he likes.” (I would have said “to the page”.)

I can’t be sure, but I think Ted (and Tim perhaps to a lesser degree) WERE plugged into the more general concept of intertextuality: “the shaping of texts’ meanings by other texts. It can refer to an author’s borrowing and transformation of a prior text or to a reader’s referencing of one text in reading another.” ( ). For a good discussion of intertextuality (if you like semiotics and literary theory), see this article.

What I think both are alluding to with the metaphor of “two gods”, the reader and the writer, is the idea that “hypertextuality increases intertextuality”: hypertext increases the (mis)use of text (really all media) by users (readers) in ways unforeseen (and often unapproved) by producers (authors). So I think both Tim and Ted are completely unsurprised (but not unconcerned) with how the web of hypermedia is (mis)used in ever more sophisticated ways. It is not just any battle, it is a Red Queen arms race among readers and writers!

The web of linked media enables easier exploration and exploitation of that media.

[The very movement of this discussion from twitter to blog to blog is a perfect example of the intertextual battle. As is my use of a link shortening service…]

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Nicholas Gall
VP Distinguished Analyst
14 years at Gartner
35 years IT industry

Nick Gall is a vice president in Gartner Research. As a founding member of Gartner’s Enterprise Planning and Architecture Strategies, Mr. Gall advises clients on enterprise strategies for interoperability, innovation and execution. Mr. Gall is a leading authority on middleware… Read Full Bio


Thoughts on The Battle Between the Two Gods of Hypermedia: The Reader and The Writer


  1. Clearly innocence is relative. Berners-Lee understood the conflict between \reader\ and \writer\, but as far as I am aware he has not explored the depths of structuralism and post-structuralism, where not only the text but all identities are potentially deconstructed.

    The article Semiotics for Beginners, which Nick references, mentions Genette’s notion of ‘transtextuality’ and proposes computer-based hypertextuality as a sixth subtype in addition to Genette’s original five. However, I believe the original five subtypes of transtextuality have much more interesting and subtle structural implications for the semantic and pragmatic topography of the internet.

    Meanwhile, the Internet is full of people who appear to be neither proper readers not proper writers, in the pure sense discussed by Tim Berners-Lee and others, but appear to spend their time replicating or linking to fragments of other people’s texts in the vain hope of randomly producing something either highly profound or massively popular. I’m not quite sure where this fits into Genette’s schema, but this phenomenon needs to be accounted for in the shape of the internet.

  2. Nick Gall says:

    Following Daniel Chandler, author (or so it seems) of the article “Semiotics for Beginners”, I’d call people who “spend their time replicating or linking to fragments of other people’s texts in the vain hope of randomly producing something either highly profound or massively popular” bricoleurs. One of my favorite concepts. It applies to toys as well as texts: http://www.arvindguptatoys.com/toys.html .



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