Steve Johnson’s ‘Interface Culture’ And Hypertext

Around 2010 or there about, I wrote a small post discussing my thoughts about content providers(we still hate that word,”blogger”, huh?) and owning multiple sites. My main concern at that time was with controlling against network effects. Fast forward seven or so years later, and I still hold to these thoughts. As a person that has operated several sites at one time, I realize that multiple domain names can be a heady task to generate content for on a regular schedule.


I do, however, believe in that power of hyperlinks. Network effects is a nifty phrase that highlights social entropy. That is to say, people tend to continue their use of social sites they have built a network on as opposed to moving to other sites that are growing a network. This has created a dynamic whereby these users rarely click links(hypertext) leading outside of a domain name. Simply put, if a user is logged onto, most likely, they will remain on in some way. This phenomenon seems to occur exponentially when we factor in mobile apps. Today’s digital natives are kids in their favorite sandbox.


Legendary Ferguson activist and a long time cohort of mine, Bob Hudgins recently wrote a bit about this. I have also been reading Steven Johnson’s take on this in his book, “Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms The Way We Create And Communicate”. In this work, Johnson compares hypertext usage in its superlative form as slang.


He writes:

If the mid-nineties battle over Ebonics taught us anything, it’s that the lexicon of popular idiom and slang is never quite what it appears to be on the surface. Colloquial speech gets a bad rap, but more often than not slang is where language happens. The influx of new terms and intonations keep the word-world lively.

“Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms The Way We Create And Communicate”,
Steven Johnson, pg. 106

Johnson then begins to explain why he sees metaphors like “surfing” when applied to navigating hypertext as not only terrifically limited in analogy, but harmful.

His words:

So it is with the verb to surf and all its variations: Web surfer, cybersurf, surfing the digital waves, silicon surfer: Not only are the iterations inane, but the concepts of “surfing” does a terrible injustice to what it means to navigate around the Web.


What makes the idea of cybersurf so infuriating is the implicit connection drawn to television.

Surfing at least implied that channel-hopping was more dynamic, more involved, than the old routine of passive consumption. Just as a real-world surfer’s enjoyment depended on the waves delivered up by the ocean, the channel surfer was at the mercy of the programmers and network executives. The analogy took off because it worked well in the one-to-many system of cable TV, where your navigational options were limited to the available channels.

The links that join those various destinations are links of association, not randomness…A Web surfer clicks on a link because she’s interested.

pg 107-109


Johnson then moves his attack from critics to Silicon Valley operators:


That success is a direct measure of the power and the promise of hypertext–all those links of association scattered across the infosphere–and yet most Web-specific start-ups have studiously ignored hypertext, focusing instead on the more television-like bells and whistles of grainy video feeds adn twirling animations.

pg 109


Johnson is writing this in late 20th century perspective. While my hindsight on his shortsights is to be noted, it is quite noteworthy that even still in 2017, companies like Snapchat and Facebook are battling it out over dominance of video driven content.

Continuing his praise of hypertext, he uses another symbol set borrowed from more grammatical spaces to frame them: punctuation. In his words:


The link is the first significant new form of punctuation to emerge in centuries, but it is only a hint of things to come. Hypertext, in fact, suggests a whole new grammar of possibilities, a new way of writing and telling stories.

But as a general interface convention, the link should usually be understood as a synthetic device, a tool that brings multifarious elements together into some kind of orderly unit.

pg. 111


From this strategic position, he begins to lay down his arsenal of explanations regarding hypertext and link usage to define what Web can be:


The Web should be a way of seeing new relationships, connecting things that might have otherwise been kept separate. Clicking on other people’s links may be less passive than the old, sendentary habits of channel surfing, but until users can create their own threads of association, there will be few genuine trailblazers on the Net.



Today’s technologists may be too trapped within the “surfing” paradigm–clicking absentmindedly on links supplied by others–to recognize the value of being able to link back, to blaze your own trail through information-space.

pg 123


Johson concludes this chapter by returning to that metaphor he initiated this stream of consciousness with:


The slang evolves out of the way you string together information, the way you make your references, and not the words you use.

pg. 136