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Electronic literature can, potentially, refer to two different things, depending on the particular meaning of the person who is referring to it. The most specific meaning is in reference to literature or written works of literary merit that are created in a digital medium that takes advantage of the format beyond the simple written word. These types of works are “born-digital” and not merely text that has been scanned or typed out in a digital format. Electronic literature can refer to works of literature that have been turned into a digital format, though this usage is increasingly moving out of favor to avoid confusion.
The primary identifier of electronic literature is that it is created in a digital format that takes advantage of electronic media. While someone may type up a text document in a word processing program, this does not necessarily constitute true electronic literature, it is merely a digital copy of text. Proponents of electronic literature as a separate form of literary work state that such literature should be created in a way that takes advantages of the differences between digital media and standard print media. This can be done in a number of different ways.
Someone might write out a poem, but rather than simply typing it out in a text document, he or she can create it as a digital animation. The poem might appear, word by word or line by line, utilizing the format of digital media to create the poem for the reader even as he or she is reading it. In this way, the poem exists as electronic literature beyond the scope of what is possible with a printed text. Other forms of media that can utilize such advantages include written works created on Internet websites, interactive media that includes a strong literary component, and stories told through email or short message service (SMS) or text messaging.
There are some people who may use the term “electronic literature” to refer to written works that have existed in print and are transferred into a digital medium. These works might be scanned or re-typed into an electronic format, usually to preserve the work or for use with electronic readers. Proponents of “born-digital” media, such as the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO), tend to argue against this usage as such works are merely transferred into a digital medium and not created for it. Other terms, such as “electronic books” or “ebooks,” are often used instead to refer to these works, which indicates they are simply digital versions of printed books.