Experiments in delinkification

A few years back, my friend Steve Gillmor, the long-time technology writer and blogger, went on a crusade against the hyperlink. He stopped putting links into his posts and other online writings. I could never quite understand his motivation, and the whole effort struck me as quixotic and silly. I mean, wasn’t the hyperlink the formative technology of the entire World Wide Web? Wasn’t the Web a hypermedia system, for crying out loud?

My view has changed. I’m still not sure what Gillmor was up to, but I now have a great deal of sympathy for his crusade. In fact, I’m beginning to think I should have joined up instead of mocking it.

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.

The link is, in a way, a technologically advanced form of a footnote. It’s also, distraction-wise, a more violent form of a footnote. Where a footnote gives your brain a gentle nudge, the link gives it a yank. What’s good about a link – its propulsive force – is also what’s bad about it.

I don’t want to overstate the cognitive penalty produced by the hyperlink (or understate the link’s allure and usefulness), but the penalty seems to be real, and we should be aware of it. In The Shallows, I examine the hyperlink as 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. To understand the effects of the Web on our minds, you have to consider the cumulative effects of all these features rather than just the effects of any one individually.

The book, I’m pleased to say, has already prompted a couple of experiments in what I’ll call delinkification. Laura Miller, in her Salon review of The Shallows, put all her links at the end of the piece rather than sprinkling them through the text. She asked readers to comment on what they thought of the format. As with Gillmor’s early experiments, Miller’s seemed a little silly on first take. The Economist writer Tom Standage tweeted a chortle: “Ho Ho.” But if you read through the (many) comments her review provoked, you will hear a chorus of approval for removing links from text. Here’s a typical response:

Collecting all the URLs into a single block of text at the end of the article works very well. It illustrates Carr’s point, and it improves the experience of reading the article. It also shows more respect for the reader – it assumes that we’ve actually thought about what we’ve read. (Which is not to say that all readers merit that level of respect.)

Now, Neuroethics at the Core, the fine blog published by the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia, is carrying out a similar, informal experiment. As Peter Reiner explains, at the end of a lengthy, linkless post:

So here at the Core we are embarking upon a small experiment. For the next little while, we will try not to distract you from reading our blog posts in their entirety by writing them without hyperlinks in the main body of the text. We will still refer you to relevant posts, papers, etc., of course, but we will do so at the end of the post. Oh, the horrors, you might say, but really it is not so bad. One of my favourite science writers, Olivia Judson, regularly writes lovely articles for the New York Times in which she cites the relevant literature at the end of her article, and rarely includes links. If you have not read her posts, I highly recommend them. It would be great if you could share your experience of reading sans hyperlinks. Do you find it irritating? Does it allow you to read an entire blog post without skipping off to some other corner of the internet? Do you jump to the bottom of the post to get at the links anyway? Feel free to let us know.

My own feeling, in reading these works, is that I much prefer the links at the bottom. I do find that the absence of links encourages more concentrated, calmer, and more enjoyable reading. Of course, I’m biased. Try it yourself. You may be surprised.

And here, patient reader, are the links:

Salon review

Neuorethics at the Core post

Standage’s tweeted chortle

The Shallows site

UPDATE: Wow. This post really seems to have ticked off the Self-Appointed Defenders of Web Orthodoxy. Jay Rosen, the NYU journalism professor and ubiquitous web presence, even accused me of wanting to “unbuild the web.” Don’t worry, guys, no one’s going to take your links away. If you’d taken the time to read the post, you’d see that it is about some simple experiments (note headline) aimed at improving our understanding of the Net’s effects on attention, comprehension, and reading.

I don’t want to unbuild the web, but I do want to question it. Is that allowed, Jay?

UPDATE2: And now the king of the linkbaiters, Jeff Jarvis, accuses me of writing “that piece about links to get links.” Yes, Jeff, whenever I write a post with the craven intent of harvesting a lot of links I always make a point of publishing it on the morning of Memorial Day.


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69 Responses to Experiments in delinkification

  1. Mikewhitehouse1

    I’d be very interested to see time on page data for content with heavy linking, with sparse linking, and with no linking. My hypothesis is that time on page is inversely proportional to link density. Certainly, time on page doesn’t necessarily equate to comprehension, but it could be a useful starting point.

    Nick, I see that you’re running Google Analytics, so you can measure this with precision. Please let us know if you see time on page increase with your new “endnote” link deferral method.

  2. As always, a thought provoking post Nick. It could just be that it’s memorial day and as such my feed reader is a tad less full than usual, but I did get the impression that my reading of your post was longer, more considered and that, at the end of it, I had a better notion of what you wanted to get across – sans hyperlinks.

    Of course this means that Tim Berners-Lee will want to burn you at the stake but then again, that too would guarantee a few more book sales! ;-)

  3. Phiberoptik

    As someone who is active in the SEO industry, it would be interesting to find out how adding the links at the bottom of the page, as opposed to wrapping them in keywords in the text will affect your optimization.

    I’m all for making it easier on the readers, but at what cost for your own page rank?

  4. Kelly Roberts

    I dislike links as footnotes because it makes, in many cases, lazy writers. “It’s too much work to source, so if you don’t believe me, click here and check it yourself.” When I write something, I’ll use links, but I never assume that readers will click on them. It can be a pain in the ass adjusting the text to conform, but I feel better about myself.

    So yes, having the links at the end of the post/article looks much, much better in my opinion.

  5. Guillermo123

    “My own feeling, in reading these works, is that I much prefer the links at the bottom. I do find that the absence of links encourages more concentrated, calmer, and more enjoyable reading.”

    These were my exact feelings after reading Laura Miller’s review of The Shallows last week on Salon. I didn’t realize how distracting hyperlinks were until I read an article without them. Hopefully this link “format” can gain traction.

    On a side note, I’m no software engineer, but what about designing a browser extension (say, for Google Chrome) that removes all hyperlinks and placed them at the bottom of an article? Would this be possible? Seems like a reasonable solution that I would welcome.

  6. Rob Mackintosh

    Reading on the internet allows our natural curiosity to get the better of us, consistently dragging us off task. When reading a book or a magazine article an idea may pop into your head, but to follow it through would require getting up and pulling another book off the shelf, or going to the library or bookstore to obtain the book i.e. a physical act that when weighed against the interest of what you are reading isn’t attractive enough to pull you away. It’s not that text in a book pulls harder, it’s that it requires more effort to shift your focus than on the net. Never mind the hyperlinks embedded in online articles, on my mac it’s simply three keystrokes to a new google search, in a new window, and a new focus. It requires a great deal more mental discipline to stay “on task” when reading on the net, not just because of the myriad distractions that are manifest in hypertext, but because the technology allows the ongoing distracting influence of our own thoughts to be acted upon.

  7. What happens if the hyperlinks are where they logically should be (the word or phrase) but they are invisible and only show up if you “request” them, say with a mouseover? They would not be distracting unless you wanted to be distracted.

  8. Karlstrope

    I’ve thought about this before, and I believe that the best solution to this problem is easily done with CSS and your blogging engine. Depending on how you link out of your post, the links would be hidden by styling them the same as the main text. If you wanted to see the links, a simple JS button would re-render everything with links being obvious.

    I’m not sure if it would be better to show the links by default, or by option, but am I missing any reason that this wouldn’t work?

  9. Mathew Ingram

    I’ve got an even better idea, Nick — why not just leave the links out altogether? That way we can concentrate on the brilliance and erudition of your prose instead of being lured away by some connection to the outside world.

    Then once people get used to that, you can quit having comments too, just like Seth Godin — like links, they just get in the way anyway, and muddy things up with other people’s opinions. And who wants that?

    Thanks for bringing this important issue to light.

  10. Now that you mention it, Mathew, I can’t say the links in your prose have ever bothered me. They kind of come as a relief.

  11. as usual it’s more about what you will do with technology then what you will do without. when well done technology hides itself.

    CSS with:

    .) links off/links on

    .) hide/show list of links (+ open them in new tabs)

    will do the job. (this is something which would be quite useful on mobile phones when thumb-scrolling.)

    for most of the articles i use http://lab.arc90.com/experiments/readability/ extension. it

    improves (w/ or w/o links) a reading experience a lot.

  12. Retheauditors

    My blog, re: The Auditors, is very, very linky. In fact, I spend a lot of time choosing just the right link. Sometimes they’re tongue-in-cheek or ironic. Makes it fun for me, like “easter eggs” in software. I consider my work to be reference material for my readers and, as such, am compelled to provide them all the sources for my facts and for most of my opinions and analysis. I do have a readership that is dominated by auditors, accountants, lawyers and regulators, so they’re very picky about evidence and attribution. I also credit other writers often.

    In spite of this, more than 22% of my readers spend more than one hour on the site each visit.

  13. On the other, links provide us a way out to instantly escape some incoherent piece that demands more than what our brains can comprehend.

    Wholeheartedly agree that the web turned ‘focus’ into a far more difficult discipline, still the onus is on the writer and his content.

  14. How about something in between like Wikipedia’s hyperlinked citations, so that the reader knows to which portion of the text, the reference corresponds?

  15. There is content (C), there is call-to-action (A). What is your intention with an article like this one?

    I assume, in this prioritization

    C1 Let the user focus on your article.

    A1 Sell your books.

    A2 Provide navigation to related (own) posts.

    A3 Provide links to related (foreign) posts.

    C2 Provide the comment space (for reading and writing).

    That’s how you structure your page from upper left to bottom. A3 being the endnotes, end-of-text links – not inline links.

  16. I think we can have different citation conventions for various online formats–just as we’ve long had distinct citation conventions across various modes of offline publishing. I don’t see the need for links within the text of long reviews at the New York Review of Books or articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but I don’t see anything especially strenuous about this post that requires quarantining all the links at the bottom.

    My experience has been that anything this length or shorter actually benefits from having (appropriate) links as structural cues–part of the rhythm of the text, like punctuation and capitalization, subtly suggesting divisions and highlighting key elements.

    And linking within pieces has become an essential part of how I cope with proliferating content. I wish we didn’t have to cope with that problem, but we do, and I use links to make quick assessments of whether something is worth reading, i.e. by rolling over them to see if they refer to reputable sources, and if I recognize what’s behind the link I can get a better sense of where an author is coming from based on what they’ve written about a shared point of reference.

    I welcome your experiment, and I appreciate that different writers & readers have different styles, and some readers might take a little longer to learn strategies for dealing with distraction (like opening links in new tabs for later), but I don’t see the need to impose such a presumptuous change (or rather, barrier) to evolving conventions.

  17. Mike

    I find links very helpful in making grand pronouncements which carry authority mainly by virtue of the links within the text.

    Normally of course the links actually go to highschoolmusical.com or something similar, but of course 97.2% of readers never actually click through.

    A hat tip to Brian above for his point too that it saves effort for scribblers: my average piece would be even longer than the 3000 words it usually is if I had to actually dot my I’s and cross my T’s on the same page.

  18. Maybe I’m not being aware, but I don’t find as distracting. I been “footnoting” all this time then because I command+click links so they open but don’t take me away yet.

  19. While I think this topic is something worth talking about, the thought of removing links or placing them at the end of an article to “Protect Us from Ourselves” is silly and elitist. There are greater dangers in the world to worry about than haphazard link-clicking.

    Personally, I just right-click links and open them in a new tab while I continue reading the current article. Problem solved – without fancy plugins or sage advice from David Allen or Anthony Robbins. Frequently, I don’t even return to those tabs for several hours. Sometimes my reaction is, “Don’t care about that anymore – close.” But often enough the reaction is, “Oh yeah, glad I didn’t neglect to read that.”

  20. I don’t think de-linking sources helps build your case when you’re making an argument. I can tell whether or not an argument or a position has validity just by looking at what a person links to. I try to remain cognizant of the fact that, by linking to reputable news sources or reputable organizations, I’m making it easier for a reader to judge whether or not what I’m saying is based on something tangible.

    The ethics of de-linking, well, who cares? If you want to make it harder for a reader, de-link away. Being “yanked” away by a link means this whole Internet thing is a little too advanced for you, I gather.

  21. Chris

    One of the things I like about Wikipedia is that the most useful links are those at the bottom. Yes, it has links throughout and they are sometimes helpful, but mostly a distraction. Yes, this is a hyperlinked medium, BUT the hyperlinks were meant to add value, not detract.

    De-linking doesn’t make it “harder” for a user. I mean, hell, anyone stupid enough not to know how to search for something is too stupid to be allowed to use the web anyway.

    Now if we could only kill those stupid obfuscated URLs. And you you don’t like that you can “bit.ly” my ass.

  22. With just a slight note of sarcasm; would you provide a reference for hypertext studies you mention?

    “People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form.”

    I would imagine the studies showed this to be true when ‘constructing’ certain types of knowledge and perhaps only from certain types of information. Without knowing which studies you’re actually referring to (!) I would further suppose that they did not consider important social aspects of reading and interpreting such as trust and credibility. Of course, these aspects are often over-rated.

  23. I like seeing the links in context, that is, within the post itself. Just because they seem similar to footnotes doesn’t mean that we have to treat them like footnotes. We’re presenting text in a whole different medium and we want to remain bound by rules that applied to the older medium? Why?

    When I insert links, I try to position them behind keywords in the text, thus using the links to “highlight key elements”, as one of the commenters said earlier. It’s a way of saying: This is the point I’m trying to make; it’s important!

    Furthermore, readers can right-click on the link and open it in a new tab, whilst staying on the same tab to finish reading the text. I do that all the time and don’t move on to the other links unless the page I’m reading is drivel or drop-dead boring. Since multi-tasking is now such an inescapable facet of online browsing and working at the computer, people have to learn how to manage all the various demands on their attention when they’re sitting in front of the screen. If a writer’s prose is not compelling enough to make readers read on, the lack of hyperlinks won’t help much.

  24. Everything has its purpose and I think putting the links at the bottom is a very good idea for longer texts that demand the full attention of the reader. Makes perfect sense.

  25. Fstai,

    Agreed. Lots of blog posts and other online writings (not to mention tweets) are intended largely as ways to point readers elsewhere or to highlight other pieces of writing or thinking. It would be silly not to include the links in the text in such cases.