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.

69 thoughts on “Experiments in delinkification

  1. Dan Schmidt

    Nick, I would love to hear your thoughts on this passage from George Siemens book, “Knowing Knowledge”:

    “Once flow becomes too rapid and complex, we need a model that allows individuals to learn and function in spite of the pace and flow. A network model of learning (an attribute of connectivism) offloads some of the processing and interpreting functions of knowledge flow to nodes within a learning network. Instead of the individual having to evaluate and process every piece of information, she/he creates a personal network of trusted nodes: people and content, enhanced by technology. The learner aggregates relevant nodes…and relies on each individual node to provide needed knowledge. The act of knowing is offloaded onto the network itself. This view of learning scales well with continued complexity and pace of knowledge development.”

    Perhaps, when one encounters a web page for the first time, the most valuable thing to do is situate it appropriately within one’s personal network of information (e.g., through bookmarking, tagging) so that one can precisely and efficiently find it later when desired. Hyperlinks are a useful visual queue for quickly assessing the context of a web page within the broader web.

    However, the skill to organize a web page within one’s information network only has value if one also has the capacity to read the page with concentration in depth. In this mode, one is best reading in a cocoon, void of hyperlinks and without a keyboard. I’ve personally found the iPad valuable for this mode.

  2. Hamish O

    I really like this experiment. I actively try to minimise distractions while reading on the internet – using adblock addons and the like. I definitely see the links adding to cognitive load. And I’m quite tempted by an ereader for reading PDFs and longer web essays for exactly the reason of getting my mind into the text better, without distractions. And for less eye strain.

    The delinkification experiment reminds of an unusual way of doing footnotes I’ve come across in “Le Ton beau de Marot” by Douglas Hofstadter (fascinating book by the way). He has a notes section at the end of the book, but does not have any indication in the main text that there are notes. In the notes section the references start with the page number and a few words to identify the bit of text the note is about. Here is his introductory paragraph at the start of the notes section:

    In the hopes of providing a graceful alternative to the standard but often intrusive style of annotation through pedantic footnotes and text-disrupting citations, I have chosen to do things more “invisibly” here. I assume that readers will sense when a bibliographical reference is in order and will flip to this section; in addition they find it pleasant to browse herein, now and then discovering some amusing tidbit or curious embellishment.

    There is an author who cares deeply about the reading experience.

  3. Chuck Aksamit

    If you are going to put links at the bottom, annotate them like a reference list. Another option is to not differentiate links from content unless the cursor is over the paragraph. That’s simply some CSS (p:hover a{}).

  4. Hamhoagie

    Yes – let’s remove the links from HTML (HyperText- the link part – Markup Language) documents. That makes perfect sense!

    How is it that new-media writers are so clueless about how the underlying technology of what they are writing about works?

  5. Kelly Roberts

    Hamhoagie: If you had bothered to read more than the title of the post, you might have spared yourself some agitation. No one said anything about removing links altogether. How is it that new media enthusiasts are so clueless about how the underlying technology of words work?

  6. Nick Carr

    One additional question, re: people who don’t feel that in-line links are an interruption because they open the source links in new tabs. Is this really so different from links at the end of the piece?

    Laura, that’s a very good question. My answer, like yours, is No. Also, it’s not like left-clicking on a link to save it in a tab solves the underlying distraction problem.

  7. Hamhoagie

    KellyRoberts – Thanks for the quick update. I did read the article, and the entire premise was flawed, which, had you an understanding of what HTML actually was, you would have understood. The basis of the web, which is HTTP, and HTML, are the links – the very definitional terms of the Web. The links contextually within the content is a feature, not a bug. In fact, the term “hypertext” was initially coined by Ted Nelson as a connective idea:

    “As he considered the design of this system, Nelson applied his experience as a filmmaker with the conception of complex motion picture effects, moving from one shot to another, and conceived of the idea of hypertext. He became profoundly convinced of the enormous value of such a system[.]” (do you see what I did there with the link thing?)

    Why is it that new media types think that because they have an idea of how the web should work, that others who “invented” the technologies or concepts haven’t already thought it out?

  8. www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=500603616

    Nick, I think your recommendations make a lot of sense for anyone trying to write an argument.

    (Interestingly, all of the long pitch sales copy guys have adopted this technique many years ago and continue to thrive on internet.)

    What would be interesting to is serve up the linked and non linked version, in an A/B test, and figure out how comprehension was changed.

    Look forward to reading your book, as this is a very important topic.

    (Oh, and it is mean to dull your rapier wit on Matthew Ingram.)

  9. Bill Pawlak

    I wrote a short article about this concept way back in 2001, mostly as a response to my own findings in the cognitive disruption I’d experience when reading a page full of inline links (see http://www.inovdesigns.com/inline_links.php). I just couldn’t stay focused on the main article; always wondering what I might be missing in those links. Now, I’m a middle-click junky, essentially opening up most of the related links in new browser tabs as I read along, just in case there’s more for me to read.

  10. nmw

    I think a bigger problem is people who seem to be unable to organize the ideas in short, coherent messages — instead, many people meander through a multitude of long and winding paths that end up leaving the reader in a mesmerized state of delirium.

    On a related note, what do these phases mean?

    1. Salon review

    2. Neuorethics at the Core post

    3. Standage’s tweeted chortle

    4. The Shallows site

    See also http://news.english.net.in/33/the-wisdom-of-the-html-the-difference-between-the-link-and-the-url (unfortunately also not exactly as concise as I wish it could be ;) )

  11. Gary Ares

    WOW! It’s amazing how one Wired Mag article, about “The Shallows” is altering my life; online and off.

    Huge number of revelations about how my naturally high level of distractiblity is multiplied by skimming and the anxious compulsion to find out what’s behind click (door) #3.

    Reading interviews, reviews, and comments has opened up a wide range of views and ideas on the topic by many people much more knowledegeable than I.

    Finally, the READABILITY application is exactly what I had thought of, but hadn’t a clue as how to even start. Thank you ARC090!

    Please visit my blog which attempts to personalize how The Shallows affects my life, in an attempt to help myself and others; http://www.velorep.com/b2b-blog/bid/33398/Internet-Multi-Taskers-Beware-you-could-be-harming-your-brain

  12. opendna

    Putting links at the end means I can (a) check the credibility of sources all at once, (b) find them without searching through every hyperlinked “this” and “that”, and (c) read the biblography before the body. I approve. …Mind you, I’m also one of those perverts who prefers footnotes to end-notes and maintains that quality is more important than quantity. I clearly have no place in the SEO-driven graphical linkonomy 2.0.

  13. Jonah Sprout

    You might be interested to look into the book House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. It has the most aggressive footnoting I have ever seen and in some ways mimics the experience of reading a heavily hyperlinked website.

  14. Cliff Tyllick

    I’m amused by those who think we must design sites to follow the largely hidden rules of SEO.

    The rules of SEO are merely an attempt to better recognize which information on a topic is more valid and more valuable than others. Just a few years ago, you could tune the meta data of your site so terms never used in your pages or in links to your pages would nonetheless, when used in a search, make your site rise to the top of the list.

    People started abusing that ability. In response, Google — and presumably other search-engine providers — changed its SEO rules. They now ignore meta data.

    If the maintainers of authoritative sites change the way they link to other sites, the search engines will follow. Their purpose is not to tell us how to present information effectively. Their purpose is to lead people who need the information we provide to our sites.

  15. Marcy Dunagan

    I don’t believe text with lots of links in it is automatically more authoritative; I tend to read text the same way whether it is on a screen or printed on paper. There are various ways of evaluating the accuracy and authority of text. If you are expanding on ideas in someone else’s article then a reference (if on-line, a link) is certainly warranted. If we are voting I’ll vote for putting them at the end.

    Distraction can be a problem in modern life. I sometimes like to print something out so I can curl up in a comfy chair with it and read it as though it were a book or magazine. This helps my thought process. Words themselves have multifarious links in our own memories which may echo in a more harmonious fashion, so to speak, in isolation, i.e. off-line.

    I’m a bit mystified by some folks’ declarations of dependence on these links–it seems to me that search engines work so well that links are hardly even needed. For example, if I wanted to share this article with friends, I could simply mention a few bare facts such as author’s name and the subject of the article (“links”) and my readers could Google it themselves. (I’ve tried this; it works.)

    On the other hand, links are great for articles or other items that are hard to find. It just bothers me when people lose faith in their own minds. Intelligent conversation devolves into a game of electronic ghost-tag. Let’s talk, instead. Thanks for reading.

  16. Dpigera

    Great article.

    To be completely honest, I was completely skeptic when I started reading your article. Now that you mentioned it, I can’t argue anything you have put out. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I’ve read a 5-6 page blog without getting distract-**ooh shiny link!

  17. Gil

    “I should have joined up instead of mocking it.” Dude, they’re not opposites, you can do both.

    I found your post interesting for a few paragraphs. Then all that black text with no shiny gadgets, pictures, or blue links to break it up lost me. Links wake me up. Even when I write e-mails to co-workers I never write more than a few sentences without bolding some words and phrases. Maybe you have the last few humans with discipline and an attention span. The rest of us need to use things like Links to liven up the post. No, great writing isn’t enough, at least not for most of us.

  18. cornell

    I love it, Nicholas. For a blogger/writer as highly established as Steve Gillmor, he risks little doing an experiment like this, as compared with someone like me with a few thousand (extremely valued!) subscribers. For us others, “link love” is an important way to create importance in the ever-crucial Google search indexes. I’m not sure I’d take a chance.

    I’m creating a philosophy of life based on the scientific method where you treat everything as an experiment (I’m calling it Think, Try, Learn), and the one you mention is a nice experiment idea for others to try. Here a are a few other random blog-related ones I can think of:

    o Write many short posts with pictures (traditional blog style).

    o No-picture blogs.

    o Picture-only.

    o Write few long essays (what I’m guilty of).

    o Try stream-of-consciousness a few times.

    o Tell an out-of-character personal story.

    o Ask readers to guest post.

    o Ask someone famous you respect a one-question email interview.

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