I’m asked this question quite often, and have rarely been able to come up with a short answer. It’s many things, and quite often, a work of “electronic writing” is so unique that it’s a genre until itself.
If I were to come up with a fortune cookie answer to the question, I would say that it is any form of writing that takes advantage of the possibilities afforded by digital technology – such as the internet, or graphics programs such as Illustrator or Photoshop, or animation / audio / interactive programs such as Flash – in their creation and presentation.
But it is also those forms of writing that are informed by new ways of thinking brought on by the way digital technology has impacted our world, i.e. forms of writing that are organized according to the principles of the database, or that work primarily as texts distributed over the internet, or that – in the manner of “Dispositions,” which was written with the aid of a GPS device – relied on computer technology in the writing.
Now for the long answer… Electronic writing can be:
- Classic hypertext fiction, in which different pages of writing (often called “lexia”) are maneuvered by the reader by clicking on words or images. These can be “choose your own adventure” type narratives, or more poetic interactive texts in which there are no fictional elements at all. Many of the better ones of these, such as “Patchwork Girl” and “Afternoon,” are not available online, and have to be purchased from Eastgate Systems. Online texts include works by Talan Memmott, Claire Dinsmore and Stuart Moulthrop. Robert Coover has championed hypertext as an advanced form for over a decade; you can read Coover on hypertext here and here.
- Animated poems, such as “The Dreamlife of Letters” or “Axolotl,” in which the viewer/reader is not asked to do anything but watch and listen while text performs before them. Think of this as the art of movie titles applied to creative ventures. “Bembo’s Zoo” is another classic example, and the Flash movies of “Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries” (and possibly “JibJab“) are distant cousins.
- Conceptual blogs and websites, such as “The Dullest Blog in the World” or “Dagmar Chili Pitas,” which are sites that explore a particular type of writing to the nth degree, such that you really can’t categorize them under anything in particular. “Entropy8,” by Aurelia Harvey, is a classic in this genre.
- Non-electronic conceptual writing, such as “The Tapeworm Foundry” or “Dispositions,” that explore some aspect of writing that relates to a “database aesthetic,” i.e. a collection of fragments that are organized in a mathematic or otherwise highly systematic (non-lyrical and non-narrative) way. Process or “uncreative” writing, such as Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Day” is another example of this.
- Parody and “hactivist” websites, which are conceptual sites that attempt to comment on the conventions public communication on the web, such as “whitehouse.org,” my own “Vaneigem Series,” or “Blackness for Sale,” which was really just a page of Ebay. These sites usually engage in some form of artistic plagiarism, i.e. taking graphics and design elements from corporate sites.
- Wordtoys, which are more sophisticated forms of classic hypertext, in which the user is invited to play with an experimental interface is such a way that new textual creations are manufactured in real-time, such as Camille Utterback’s installation “Text Rain” or the projects of Daniel Howe. Experimental interfaces such as on the “Eclipse” website or the “Visual Thesaurus” are a version of this.
- Interactive fiction and literary games, in which the user is the hero of a story, and must input commands to navigate the literary piece and solve it like a puzzle, in the manner of early text-playing or role-playing games. Nick Montfort has been the biggest advocate of this type of writing; his top ten list is a good place to start exploring. The blog Grand Text Auto explores the possibilities of video games and literature.
- Cave Writing and installation texts, which takes place in the VRML environment of Brown’s Cave or in galleries, like “Text Rain” or “Legible City.” Some installations, such as Mark Domino’s “glås,” are not interactive.
- Email and collaborative art, and other forms of writing that take advantage of the forms of communication peculiar to electronic media, such as “Implementation,” which is a fiction that requires the user to download stickers that they can paste up in the cities or towns they live in, or even writing that is primarily distributed via text messaging.
- Computer generated texts, in which a computer program helped in the creation of the text, or in which a web spider culled live text from the internet to create the work, such as in Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s “Regime Change & Newsreader.” A version of this is website translators like “Pornolize.com,” which converts the text of any website into a (kitschy) porn language.
- Documentary websites – such as ubu.com, a collection of concrete, audio and avant-garde video files, and rhizome.org, the premiere internet website – are often considered a form of art since they are often the expressions of very personal, non-commercial and often very obsessive artistic and political visions and often create distinct communities of users. William Poundstone’s electronic essay “New Digital Emblems” is a great example of a website that is both beautiful and informative.
There are a billion variations on the above, and in fact no piece is ever peculiar to one of these categories. A work called “They Rule,” which uses a database of CEOs of the major corporations of the world, is an interactive political cartoon that is almost entirely a textual experience, while “All Your Base Are Belong to Us” is just a crazy Flash movie made by any number of people spontaneously around the world.
Great electronic art can be created with little or no computer skills, which is kind of the drama of the entire venture. Some of the most effective forms of Electronic Writing are INCREDIBLY SIMPLE to create, such as “Blackness for Sale” and the “Vaneigem Series.” I have a soft spot for these types of projects, since they don’t require a team of computer scientists, and their impact is clean and immediate.