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Semidelinkification, Shirky-style

July 10, 2011

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.


OK, I give up. How do I get rid of the underscore on my asterisk-link? I tried adding


to the tag, but it doesn't seem to have done anything.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 10, 2011 02:47 PM

You have the style right, the problem is you have it in curved quotes (”) instead of straight (").

Posted by: Mrteacup [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 10, 2011 02:59 PM

You've got the right text but bad quotes. Try replacing this(”) with this(").

Posted by: Patrick Conant [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 10, 2011 03:16 PM

Thank you. That was far too subtle for me.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 10, 2011 03:22 PM

I would think the underscore would hint that the asterisk was a link, that therefore it should stay. But what do I know.

Posted by: John Eadie [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 10, 2011 04:09 PM

I agree that the asterisk is much less distracting, but if you do want to click the link, you're forced to hunt for a mere handful of pixels.

That's tough if you're using a a touchpad or one of those little eraser nubbins on a laptop. Or if you don't possess the hand-eye coordination of a video game junkie.

In the case of this article, where it's clearly about one other specific piece of content on the internet, I think it's fair to use a few words to give your readers (and Shirky's) a decent target area.

Posted by: Dean [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 10, 2011 04:18 PM

Dean: Fair point.

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 10, 2011 05:29 PM

I have been among those who have railed against the use of links, and of late have quietly (some might suggest cowardly) gone back to including them. I do like the look of Shirky's workaround, but have to agree with Dean that the real estate taken up by an asterisk is too small to be practical. What I would really like would be to have hidden hyperlinks - no distractions, but if you hovered your pointer over a word that has a link, it might change color indicating that a click would transport you. People would usually do so prior to a google search (assuming they do a copy and paste as their search strategy), and the link would then be a courtesy to the reader rather than a distraction.

Posted by: Peter B. Reiner [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 10, 2011 06:17 PM

It's certainly interesting, and from an aesthetic perspective I do appreciate it - but there is the issue of backlink terms for search engines: Search engines will use the text of a link to inform what that link is about. As you said, this has certainly taken a backseat over the past few years, but it's still a concern.

What if the entire text in question was still a link, but unstyled - and then with the CSS "after:" selector you'd add the asterisk? Benefits of this are many:

  1. You've still got your aesthetically pleasing markup.
  2. You're preserving the semanticity of the web - search engines and screen readers will appreciate this.
  3. You're providing a larger hitbox for potential clickers.
  4. On hover, the text could be underlined or the like, giving the user a better hint about what they're about to be clicking into.

I think it could be a good middle ground.

Posted by: Chris Dary [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 10, 2011 08:12 PM

Why not just use a style that looks the same as your default text and has no underline or bold or anything else? Then you get the link and the SEO junk and the reader only has to notice it if he decides to mouse over it?

Posted by: Brad Murray [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 11, 2011 10:57 AM

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