Paper or Pixel: Revisiting Geoff Ryman’s 253

Abstract (in English): 

In 1996, Geoff Ryman released 253: or Tube Theatre, a novel that used hypertext linking to set the stage for his fictitious story about the crash of a London Underground train. The text is divided into seven sections, one for each of the train’s cars, which are further subdivided into passages, one for each of the 252 passengers and its driver. Two years later, a print version of the novel was released as 253: The Print Remix. The print version maintains the same structure, but uses an index to mimic the hyperlinking used in the original. Although the two texts are otherwise identical, they were not equally reviewed by readers, as many found that Ryman’s narrative fell flat in print; as Robert Kendall (2000) writes, “though the book was generally well received, some reviewers complained that it suffered from the loss of its interactive element.” Others more harshly criticized the print version as “an example of form obliterating content” (Mitchell 1998), while at the same time praising the hypertext version as a “curiously addictive form of storytelling, relying on both the illusion that the reader is shaping the story though choosing which links to follow, and the voyeuristic joy of finding out what people really think on the tube.” That these two texts, which share the same restrictions on form, were reviewed so differently reveals the necessity of investigating platform effects. Drawing on Jacques Lacan’s theories of neurosis and perversion, this paper examines how the two texts produce different forms of enjoyment that contribute to their disparate reviews. The change in platform, as I argue, does not only alter the text’s signification (Grossman 1997), but changing how readers navigate the text alters the voyeuristic fantasy conveyed by its narrative that promises to permit readers to peer into the lives of the strangers around them.

Although Ryman’s text is now 25 years old, it has been chosen in part as an opportunity to reflect on how audience’s thinking about electronic platforms has since shifted. 253 was once notable for its release on two platforms, though this practice is commonplace today. It was also fairly recently that Ryman’s novel disappeared from his website, According to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine ( and corroborated by websites that maintain records of domain registrations, Ryman’s ownership of the website ended in 2018. In its place, the website appears to have been taken over by so-called domain squatters and currently contains a number of short articles about Ryman, but its links now redirect users to more dubious sites. The challenges of preserving and archiving digital literature are well-known (see Abba 2012, Dene 2018, Schrimpf 2008), but thankfully 253 remains accessible through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which last produced a snapshot of the novel on August 5th, 2017. In analyzing this novel, this paper makes a case for its continued relevance to discussions of new media platforms in a contemporary context.

Works referenced:

Titlesort descending Author Year
253 Geoff Ryman 1996

Critical writing referenced:


ELO 2021: Platforms & Software 1, ending, May 26, 2021

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Daniel Johannes...