Call me a nostalgist, but sometimes I like to plop my hoary frame down in front of the old desktop and surf the world wide web – the way we used to do back in the pre-Facebook days of my boyhood, when the internet was still tragically undermonetized. I was in fact on a little surfin’ safari this morning when I careened into a new post from Clay Shirky about – you guessed it – the future of the news biz.* It was totally longform, ie, interfrigginminable. But I did manage to read a sizable chunk of it before clicking the Instapaper “Read Later” button (a terrific way to avoid reading long stuff without having to feel guilty about it). It was a solid piece, as you’d expect from Shirky, if marred a bit by an unappealing new-media elitism (apparently the great unwashed never made it past the sports pages). But what interests me at the moment is not the content of Shirky’s post but its form, particularly the form of its linkage.
It’s been a while since I wrote about delinkification, but it’s still an issue I struggle with: How does one hang on to the benefits of having hyperlinks in online text while minimizing the distractions links cause to readers? Some people have taken to putting a list of sources, with links, at the foot of an online article or post, while leaving the main text unmolested. That works pretty well, but it strikes me as kind of cumbersome, and it also creates more work for the writer (which for a lazy s.o.b. like yours truly is a fatal flaw). You could also just dispense with links altogether – anyone who can’t by now Google a citation in two shakes is a moron – but for those of us who maintain a sentimental attachment to the idea of links as the coin of the internet realm (even while recognizing that the currency has been debased to near worthlessness), throwing in the towel on links seems like a moral failing.
But I like Shirky’s solution. He puts an asterisk at the end of a citation, and uses the asterisk as the link. I don’t know that it’s the best of all possible worlds, but it’s a nice mashup of the sedate footnote and the propulsive hyperlink. It’s much easier to tune out asterisks or other footnote marks than it is to tune out underscored, color-highlighted, in-your-face anchor text. And if you want to check out the cited document you still get the speed of the link. Click! Zoom! And you still make your little payment to the author of the cited work.
There was a time, many years ago, when having a crapload of links in a post or other piece of online prose was a sign that you were au courant – that you were down with this whole web thing. That time’s long gone. Arriving at a page covered with drips and drabs of blue link type is tiresome. (The equivalent today is using a Twitter hashtag to add a cute little ironic or sardonic comment at the end of a tweet. A year ago, the hashtag witticism was the mark of a hip tweetin’ dude. Now, it’s the mark of a dweeb.) It’s permissible these days – advisable, in fact – to offer a calmer reading experience to brain-addled netizens. Chill those pixels.
Given the revolting popularity of self-linking as a means to ratchet up page- and ad-views, I know that Shirky style and other forms of semidelinkification are unlikely to revolutionize the appearance of the web. So be it. I’m still going to go ahead and adopt Shirky style for my more discursive posts. For posts that exist purely to point to something interesting elsewhere on the net, I’ll continue to use trad text links. And I may change my mind and take a different direction in the future.
For the moment, though, Rough Type is officially shirkified.