As We May Link

I’ve talked about this before, but it seems to keep popping up in my thought process again. In discussing the cognitive effect of using the Internet, Nicholas Carr argued that the very nature of the medium; it’s hyperlinked text which spreads off into a web of connected text, is causing our mental processes to deteriorate. Citing neuroscience research, he argues that people who read text filled with embedded links end up “comprehending less than those who read traditional linear text”.

Whilst Carr tacks this from an end-user point of view, I thought today about this from the point of view of content providers. I was reading an article today in The Guardian about the Disney-built town of Celebration and recent troubles its been having. In the second paragraph, the article makes an intriguing reference to a recent ‘brutal murder’ and subsequent suicide and police shootout. The article then moves on, but tantalizingly offers you an avenue to explore this event further by way of the ubiquitous hyperlink.

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Photo owned by Noah Sussman (cc)

This mode of writing for the web is now the default. We are now living in the age of hypertext, as first envisioned by Vannevar Bush, in his 1945 article “As We May Think” and later coined as a phrase by Ted Nelson. A lot of blogs or online journalism is peppered with links inviting us off to other sources of information. This division of attention, Carr posits, is responsible for degrading our ability to absorb long pieces of text, and to develop deep understanding of them.

It occurred to me; what am I supposed to do when I come across that link? Do I read it now, or do I read it later if I want to? Will it illuminate what am I reading, or do I need to read it in order to get a full understanding of what is being said? In fairness to The Guardian writer the piece later explains and expands on the violent incidents alluded to earlier, but the dilemma still remains. Do I go off and read more about it now? Or wait? At the time I encountered the hyperlink I had no idea that the writer would return to describe in greater detail these intriguing incidents.

I could journey off down the hyperlink, and return, or like a rambling Billy Connolly stand-up story, I may never come back to my point of origin. What if I find another hyperlink on the next page…might I journey down a digital rabbit-hole of never ending links?

When this piece runs in the newspaper, it will not have these links. The piece holds up without them; the writer has done a fine job weaving the tale. But the default thinking is when a story appears online it should fire tentacles off in every direction, dragging you away from the text. There are worse examples out there too (i’m guilty myself) where the visible text of a hyperlink is incredibly vague, giving you no real clue as to what you are being led to, which gives you less scope to evaluate whether you need to click it, thus making it more enticing.

It seems to me that there is something about the very nature of hypertext, the fact that it naturally sits within the body of text, indeed as the very text you read, that makes it more distracting. This is its gift and its curse. The alternative could be ‘footnotes’ at the end of an article that invite you to explore more after you have finished the main body of text. Wikipedia, probably one of the greatest single hypertext resources out there, uses this method for citations alone; but also uses in body hyperlinks. This is, of course, one of the very great things about Wikipedia, and its a great example of just how powerful hypertext can be. But what is the net effect of this? Do we just skim through the material, feverishly clicking one link after another?

Hypertext is at the core of how the Web works, and we are no doubt richer for having such a vast, interlinked body of knowledge at our disposal. But I wonder sometimes if it is a case that we do it simply because we can. And is the result to the overall detriment of our reading experience?