In the last couple of days there’s been quite a buzz among bloggers about Nicholas Carr’s proposal that web content creators experiment with taking hyperlinks out of their texts and gathering them instead at the end. He calls it delinkification. Now that the thoughtful Jason Wilson, who is, among other things, a columnist here at Slaw, has joined the experiment, I thought it might be interesting to bring it to the attention of our readers to see what they think about it.
Carr’s basic concern about visible links within the text has to do with his claim that they distract readers, too often sending them away from the article prematurely and at times repeatedly. His worry is of a piece with his work generally: his forthcoming book is titled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
What makes sense will depend on the kind of writing, I suppose. If the text is “idea heavy” and closely reasoned, the fewer distractions the better. If, at the other end of those spectrums, the piece is largely informational and essentially a signpost, hyperlinks within the text are convenient indeed.
And then there’s the matter of convention about parenthetical material. We’re used to seeing citations in practical legal writing, and hyperlinks to legislation or judgments here would be unlikely to distract. Academic legal writing, some would say, is almost all parenthetical material: a few lines of text (sometimes “idea heavy,” usually, one hopes, closely reasoned) sit atop a swath of footnotes like a child on a horse. Those of us trained to read texts like these have learned to ignore or otherwise cope with the distractions that ugly law journal pages offer. Hyperlinks are also a matter of convention and many of us who spend time reading material on the web have learned to ignore the link signals pretty much as we might ignore the little footnote numbers in the text. But clearly this is not the case for everyone, and so you’ll see a fair bit of furor about delinkification in the next little while, I’d guess.
This is in part because, elderly though the web is, its conventions are still in the developmental stage — something like the matter of English spelling back in the sixteenth century, perhaps. It tends to be the case that the humble hyperlink is signified either by colour, once red (if you can believe it) and now more usually a form of blue, but certainly different from the colour of regular text, and often by underlining, that disfiguring form of emphasis that has otherwise pretty much disappeared along with typewriters. But difference from surrounding text is the key — hence, of course, the possibility for distraction. (Something must be in the air because I’ve recently been thinking about what might be a good and perhaps novel typographical convention for hyperlinks and wondering how slightly back-slanting text might function.)
As well, there’s the sometimes pesky matter of appropriate link text: you want to enable your reader to go to the source of something but there’s no graceful way to use some of your text as a link and so you wind up being explicit, commonly with “here” or with the leaden “link”. For a while here on Slaw I (and one or two others) played with using a blue dot as the anchor for a link in such situations, but it didn’t catch on.
So whatever your view about Carr’s worry, hyperlinking is in fact a matter of concern when it comes to style and efficiency. One relatively easy solution would be to use technology to make links within the text optional: an easily distracted reader could turn them off with one click. Or, as one person who commented on Carr’s piece suggested, links might not appear until you moused over them (though I’d suggest that it’d be better if they appeared when the cursor was place in a paragraph; otherwise you’d be mousing for links all afternoon). And there’s nothing wrong, and some things right, about gathering links at the end of an article — provided they are clearly, um . . . linked to the relevant material in the text somehow.
[ Links for this entry: