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.

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  1. So we should make our links into endnotes. I prefer footnotes to endnotes, especially the ones that digress or elaborate, not just cite sources.

    I suppose this is an aspect of the multitasking discussion: can we multitask without losing efficiency?

    I don’t think a hyperlink is any more tempting than a footnote, anyway, and I agree with Simon that if the links are at the end, then there has to be something in the text as you go to tell you that there is a relevant note at the end.

    I used not to like Word’s checking my spelling (usually actually my typing) as I composed, and preferred WordPerfect’s program to check the text on a special command (in the olden days, when we were still allowed to use WP – I suspect WP has now copied Word on this.) But I got used to correcting as I go, and don’t think the coherence of my thinking has been affected.

    The basic thesis about Internet and brains may have some validity, but I am inclined to think that the point about hyperlinks is overstated.

  2. As my personal web writing style is informational – your signpost type post, I like embedded links. If a reader goes to another site after the first link rather than reading my post, rather than taking offense, I feel successful that I have connected someone to a dot [not a link dot, sorry].

    I like the idea of idea heavy articles saving links to the end. I think anyone reading from the web has a personal example of reacting without reading a complete work.

    I don’t think that audience is necessarily as relevant to this as we would like to think. Anyone can be distracted and even though Slaw readers have been reading concept heavy, footnoted works for most of their adult lives, it is easy to go off to a tangential link and never come back.

  3. Simon,

    I will be interested to see how much this idea catches on, at least as an experiment in writing, not reading. John and Shaunna’s comments are focused on the reader and the reader’s preferences. But for me, the experiment with delinking is more about how I write. I have written many posts and read more where the writer, whether intentionally or inadvertently, places unnecessary emphasis on an embedded link. [I’m excluding signposting here.] By “unnecessary emphasis,” I mean that the writer does not want to take the time to fully develop an argument, so he’ll say (by virtue of the link) “go see Simon’s post here, read it, and then come back to my post and you’ll understand what I’m saying, and why my argument makes sense.” It’s lazy writing, and despite what some people might think, it’s not more efficient for the reader. For the writer, sure, but not the reader.

  4. I think that this method could be a good idea if it was done more like the style used on Wikipedia. By using footnote numbers, readers will be able to tell where in your blog post, article, etc., the link is relevant. With the style you use above, a reader may need to re-read your post to understand why the link is relevant.

  5. For some reason it feels like a step backward to me, but I’m not sure why. Perhaps because I used to build little “related articles” lists at the end of my blog posts.

    In the above example it was more of a distraction because I see the list at the end and I think to myself “Now where was that mentioned?” and my eye jumps back up to see the context. But perhaps that is something I would get used to over time.

  6. Connie,

    This is a good point, which is why there is some issue to making the post link “relevant,” meaning understandable out of context. But honestly after I read Simon’s post, I didn’t really care much about selecting any of the links. I understood his point without them.

  7. I think its a step backwards. When I first started to blog a few years ago, I put all my links at the bottom. But as time went on I switched to embedding them within the text. I think they are more useful within the text, and personally don’t find them distracting.

    It puts them within the relevant context, and I can choose to either follow them or not.

    The key IMHO is to make the links relevant to the context, either by offering more explanation, definitions, or more detailed sources. It can make the post easier to read and follow if I can see relevant things along the way.

    Even if it is “idea heavy”, having access to explanatory material along the way surely can help the reader.

    And if people leave part way through and don’t come back? Perhaps you have convinced the reader of your position already – so mission accomplished. Perhaps the reader wasn’t really interested in the firast place. Or perhaps you have not done a compelling enough writing job to make the reader want to come back.

  8. While writing my upcoming Slaw blog post, I tried to put the links at the end and indicate to readers that sources were provided at the end of the blog post… did not work for me. Made the post to heavy and not flow… I prefer having links to the sources within the text.

  9. The more I think about “delinkification”, the crazier the idea seems. If it had any merit, someone other than Carr would have proposed it about 15 years ago.

    We judge from the context whether and when to click a link. Good linking practice will help us; bad practice will hinder or distract us.

    Footnote links may have a place for certain types of material, either instead of or in support of embedded links, but it’s likely to be a limited place. The examples I’ve just reviewed (Carr / Wilson / Slaw) don’t work for me.

    So that’s a thumbs down from me!

    Maybe we should ask Nielsen. http://www.useit.com/

  10. Jason, I agree that it’s important as a writer to think carefully about links; they are creative expressions.

  11. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that the text of Carr’s “The Shallows” on the link from Simon’s post is among the hardest passages of writing to read. It’s ragged left, very ragged left, and white on a black background. I can’t help wondering that, if this is what he thinks is a good way to communicate, perhaps we should worry about his ideas on effective communication.

  12. I also wonder how this would affect SEO (search engine optimization). If everything linking to my blog post was just the title of the blog without any in-context discussion around it, would that rank well with Google’s algorithms? What about linking out from my blog, would lists of links be seen as less relevant content than having links within the discussion? I’m curious to know if a distinction would be made by search engines.