To link, or not to link? That is the question.

IT SEEMS like a curious question to ask: should links be deliberately excluded from online articles, essays and blog posts? The link, after all, is the very currency of the web. But that is the question Nicholas Carr poses in an intriguing blog post. Needless to say, his post does not contain links, at least not in the main text; instead they are listed at the end, like footnotes. Why? Because, Mr Carr argues, links lead us astray:

Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.

This is part of Mr Carr’s broader argument, detailed in his new book “The Shallows”, about how the internet is changing the way people think. The hyperlink, he says, is “just one element among many—including multimedia, interruptions, multitasking, jerky eye movements, divided attention, extraneous decision making, even social anxiety—that tend to promote hurried, distracted, and superficial thinking online.” Laura Miller, who reviewed the book at Salon, took Mr Carr’s words to heart and put hyperlinks at the bottom, inspiring Mr Carr to do the same. And in a similar vein, he notes, a blog published by the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia is carrying out an experiment in which hyperlinks will be excluded from the text blog posts, and listed at the end instead. The bloggers in question have for their part been inspired by the writing of Olivia Judson, formerly of this parish, at the New York Times; she also lists her hyperlinks at the end, rather like the references in a scientific paper.

Mr Carr’s suggestion that this is not a bad idea has prompted responses from several web gurus: Jay Rosen at NYU has accused him of wanting to “unbuild the web”; Jeff Jarvis claims that Mr Carr’s post is, ironically, linkbait (insert joke about pots, kettles and the colour black here); and Mathew Ingram gives a robust defence of the link:

I think not including links (which a surprising number of web writers still don’t) is in many cases a sign of intellectual cowardice. What it says is that the writer is unprepared to have his or her ideas tested by comparing them to anyone else’s, and is hoping that no one will notice. In other cases, it’s a sign of intellectual arrogance — a sign that the writer believes these ideas sprang fully formed from his or her brain, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead, and have no link to anything that another person might have thought or written. Either way, getting rid of links is a failure on the writer’s part.

Fair enough. But I have to confess that I have some sympathy for Mr Carr’s view. I don’t mind piles of links in sidebars, but I find links in text can be irritating if there are too many of them. Of course, it makes sense to link to sources, but links also invite the reader to go away and read something else, and they can imply that the item you are reading can only be understood by reading all the references. At The Economist we do our best to write articles that are self-contained and make sense without the need to refer to other sources, which leads to some characteristic Economist style quirks, such as saying “Ford, a carmaker”. (See? We saved you the trouble of having to ask Google what the company does.) When those articles are published online, there are very rarely hyperlinks in the body of the text.

Admittedly, the advent of browsers with tabs means a link is less of an invitation to go elsewhere than it used to be, because you can open up lots of background tabs while you read without interruption. But I wonder what proportion of the web population actually does this. Anyway, having chortled (via Twitter) at Ms Miller’s idea of a list of links, footnote-like, at the end of the article, I feel the least I can do is give it a try. So here are the links. What do you think? Is this approach less distracting? Should we include more links in the text of our articles? Are we being arrogant, or cowardly, by not doing so?

Nick Carr’s post on “delinkification”
Laura Miller’s review of “The Shallows”
Mathew Ingram defends linking

(Cross-posted from Babbage, The Economist‘s technology blog)

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: