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:
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.