The airing of the idea of delinkification did not, you’ll be relieved to know, set off a catastrophic implosion of the World Wide Web. It did, however, set a few minds to pondering. At the Columbia Journalism Review, Ryan Chittum considered the distracting qualities of the link and their influence on our ability to pay attention:
Think about reading a newspaper pre-Web that decided it wanted to turn a few words blue here and there. Isn’t that in itself distracting? Now think about how many times you jump in and out of a story to follow some link. It can’t not be distracting.
It’s not a trivial question to ask what the Internet is doing to our attention spans. I know mine, for one, is shot to hell. And my suspicion (totally unproven and based only on personal observation!) is that you scan more than you read on the Internet. With a printed publication, you read more than you do on the Web. Why is that? Well, you’re not distracted by hypertext for one … Dismissing the question of what links do to attention and readability as some anti-link nonsense does nobody any good.
At the Economist, Tom Standage – yes, the chortling twitterer – looked beyond the question of distraction and pointed out that making a piece of writing sufficient onto itself is a worthy pursuit, and a self-contained article or essay can be subtly undermined, rather than enhanced, by inserting lots of links:
I don’t mind piles of links in sidebars, but I find links in text can be irritating if there are too many of them. Of course, it makes sense to link to sources, but links also invite the reader to go away and read something else, and they can imply that the item you are reading can only be understood by reading all the references. At The Economist we do our best to write articles that are self-contained and make sense without the need to refer to other sources, which leads to some characteristic Economist style quirks, such as saying “Ford, a carmaker”. (See? We saved you the trouble of having to ask Google what the company does.) When those articles are published online, there are very rarely hyperlinks in the body of the text.
Writer Russell Davies, on his blog, wondered how the fact that, increasingly, writers don’t know the form in which they’re work will ultimately be read will come to influence how they write. Once you wrote for a book or a magazine or a blog, but now the fate of a piece of writing is often unclear. An article written for a magazine “could end up read on a phone, a tablet, or a kindle. It could be read via RSS or instapaper or something else”:
I know this is terribly obvious and not terribly new. But it’s never fully struck me before. I’m used to thinking the design of things has been atomised, fragmented – that poor old designers for the web could never be sure how something was eventually going to look. But I hadn’t thought about it as something for writers to worry about. It’s just text, how different could it be? But it is different, if you wrote a book you used to have a reasonable idea what the reading experience would look like – no longer. That seems like a thing. That might change writing. A bit. Not a lot. But some.
On the other end of the spectrum, tech blogger and twitterer Mathew Ingram railed against the idea of self-contained pieces of writing. To him, people who don’t pepper their prose with links are lily-livered varmints hiding behind their own words:
not including links … is in many cases a sign of intellectual cowardice. What it says is that the writer is unprepared to have his or her ideas tested by comparing them to anyone else’s, and is hoping that no one will notice. In other cases, it’s a sign of intellectual arrogance — a sign that the writer believes these ideas sprang fully formed from his or her brain, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead, and have no link to anything that another person might have thought or written.
I guess this means that before the link was invented, all writers were arrogant cowards. Which, come to think of it, is probably true.
(Warning: the first idiot who writes a comment on this post pointing out the “irony” of its links will be tracked down, tortured, and shot.)
UPDATE: In a new comment on my earlier delinkification post, Salon’s Laura Miller reports on the reactions to her experiment in arranging links at the end of her articles:
My readers have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the change, but Web punditry seem to regard it as a kind of blasphemy. There’s been hysterical exaggeration (pretending that the proposal is to eliminate external links entirely) and other misrepresentations, intentional or not, which surprise me in a community that’s always presented itself as embracing change and flexibility. I wonder if the prospect of overturning a single longstanding tenet of the digital punditry is threatening because it undermines the prophetic powers of Web pundits as a whole (i.e., if they were wrong about this back in 1995, maybe they’re wrong about other things today)? The whole discussion takes on the quality of a doctrinal war.