Third Generation Electronic Literature

Critical Writing
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2018
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We are witnessing the emergence of a third generation of electronic literature, one that breaks with the publishing paradigms and e-literatury traditions of the past and present.

N. Katherine Hayles first historicized electronic literature by establishing 1995 as the break point between a text heavy and link driven first generation and a multimodal second generation “with a wide variety of navigation schemes and interface metaphors” (“Electronic Literature: What Is It?”). Even though Hayles has since rebranded the first wave of electronic literature as “classical,” generational demarcations are still useful, especially when enriching the first generation with pre-Web genres described by Christopher Funkhouser in ​Prehistoric Digital Poetry​ and others. My paper redefines the second generation as one aligned with Modernist poetics of innovation by creating interfaces and multimodal works in which form is invented to fit content.

Third generation electronic literature emerges with the rise of social media networks, the development of mobile, touchscreen, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) platforms. This generation is less concerned with inventing form and more with remixing and creating work within well established platforms and their interfaces, parallel to a return to recognizable poetic forms, Romantic subjectivity, and pastiche in Postmodern poetry. This includes Instagram poetry, bots, apps, kinetic typography, lyric videos, memes, Twine games, and works that take advantage of smartphone, touchscreen, and VR technologies. This generation leaves behind book and open Web publishing paradigms and embraces new funding models, such as crowdfunding and software distribution platforms.

Even though the first generation of e-lit ended about 20 years ago, the second and third generation currently coexist, much as Modernist and Postmodernist literature do. And while second generation works are currently more sophisticated, complex, and aligned with academia, the third generation will produce the first massively successful works because they operate in platforms with large audiences that need little to no training to reading them. So while second generation works will continue to attract critical acclaim with limited audiences, it is the third generation that will produce the field’s first #1 hit.

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Third Generation Electronic Literature

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Hannah Ackermans