This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.
Electronic text can be defined on two different, though interconnected levels. On the one hand, electronic text can be defined by taking the notion of “text” or “printed text” as the point of departure. On the other hand, electronic text can be defined by taking as point of departure the digital format in which everything is represented in the binary alphabet. While the notion of text, in most cases, lends itself to be independent of medium and embodiment, it is also often tacitly assumed that it is, in fact, modeled around the print medium, rather than written text or speech. In late 20th century, the notion of text was subject to increasing criticism as in the question raised within literary text theory: is there a text in this class? At the same time, the notion was expanded by including extra linguistic sign modalities (images, videos). Thus, a basic question is this: should electronic text be included in the expanded notion of text as a new digital sign modality added to the repertoire of modalities, or should it be included as a sign modality, which is both an independent modality and a container in which other modalities may be contained. In the first case, the notion of electronic text would be paradigmatically formed around the e-book, conceived as a digital copy a printed book, but now produced as a deliberately closed work. Even closed works in digital form need some sort of interface and hyper-textual navigation, which together constitute a particular kind of para-text, necessary for accessing any sort of digital material.
In the second case, the electronic text is defined by the representation of content and (some parts of the) processing rules as binary sequences manifested in the binary alphabet. This wider notion would include, for instance, all sorts of scanning results, whether of the outer cosmos or the inner geographies of our bodies, and of digital traces of other processes in between these (machine readings included). Since alphabets, like the genetic alphabet, and all sorts of images may be represented in the binary alphabet, such materials will also belong to the textual universe within this definition. A more intriguing implication is that digital born materials may also include scripts and interactive features as intrinsic parts of the text.
The two notions define the text on different levels, centered on the Latin and binary alphabet, respectively, and both definitions will include hypertext, interactivity, and multimodality as constituent parameters. In the first case, hypertext is included as a navigational, para-textual device, while in the second case, hypertext is incorporated in the narrative, within an otherwise closed work or as a constituent element on the textual universe of the web, where it serves an ever ongoing production of (possibly scripted) connections and disconnections between blocks of textual content. Since we are only in the very early years of the globally distributed universe of web texts, this is a history of the gradual unfolding of the dimensions of these three constituencies (hypertext, interactivity, and multimodality). A still expanding repertoire of genres provides some emerging via path dependency, some via remediation, and some as new genres unique for networked digital media, including social media texts and a growing variety of narrative and discursive multiple source systems.