Give Your Blog Posts Some Ritalin

John Hudson at The Atlantic with the round-up.

Nick Carr:

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.

Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb:

Inline references allow a reader to explore, to look under the covers of a train of thought, to familiarize themselves with something casually referenced, in the middle of reading. It’s good to point at things sometimes, maybe even often. (In some cases, the writing on a site can be so bad that readers just want to find a link to whatever the blogger has discovered and leave to see it for themselves. I hope we always add more value than that here.)

I often advise new writers on our staff to place links inline with the reader’s mental voice and vocal emphasis in mind. Imagine that a link is like a chorus of angels singing – the words you link are going to be underlined and appear in a different color after all – and make those angels sing at just the right time in the sentence. Maybe those are little devils, though, and not angels after all.

I like to add links out to other sources at every opportunity in order to enrich what I’m writing, to broaden the conversation, and frankly because I think linking to other blogs is a good faith way to encourage other blogs to link to us. To act as if our blog is the only place online to learn about what’s important is the height of arrogance and a real disservice to readers. Internal linking is good business practice, but I think a balance is best.

Search indexing is largely powered by links, and the words linked inline are key. That’s a tough one. Links between documents are the foundation of much of the most innovative analysis being done online, but maybe those links could just be placed well away from a body of text.

Few of those other reasons for linking require that it be done in the body of the text, though. Most major blogs that put links in the footer of a post appear to do so as a formality, just to acknowledge debt to another blog but in the least likely way that readers would click off site to visit those other sources.

Mathew Ingram:

I could also link to a piece by Fred Wilson, a web native if there ever was one, about the “power of passed links,” in which he argues that links are the currency of the web. Like Nick’s criticism of links, currency can get in the way in our lives as well — it not only makes our pockets heavy with change, but it warps people’s minds in all sorts of ways. And yet, we couldn’t very well do without it. But links aren’t just useful to readers — I think adding them is also an exercise in intellectual discipline for the writer.

As I mentioned to a number of other people who were discussing Nick’s piece, including Chris Anderson and Vadim Lavrusik, I think not including links (which a surprising number of web writers still don’t) 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. Either way, getting rid of links is a failure on the writer’s part.

As I said in a comment on Nick’s post, I fully expect his next move will be to remove links of any kind — and then to ban comments as well, as “thinkers” such as Seth Godin have, since they just get in the way of all that pure thought. And then, perhaps, Nick will finally decide that the internet itself is rather over-rated, and will retreat to his books, where no one can argue with him. And that would be a shame, because arguing with him is such fun.

Ryan Chittum at Columbia Journalism Review:

The distracted-by-links thing has long been an annoyance for me—particularly when they’re not specifically selected links. For instance, here are a few paragraphs from a New York Times column today:

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.

Reading on the Web takes more self-discipline than it does offline. How many browser tabs do you have open right now? How many are from links embedded in another piece your were reading and how many of them will you end up closing without reading since you don’t have the time to read Everything On the Internets? The analog parallel would be your New Yorker pile, but even that—now matter how backed up—has an endpoint.

Links add another dimension to a story when used well for context, sourcing, and reference. They’re extremely valuable and a critical part of the value that the Internet brings. But some people are better linkers than others. Look at that New York Times screen capture above. Every one of those links takes you to a topic page rather than something specifically relevant to the point in the text. That’s not worth the distraction of the links.

Babbage at The Economist:

Mr Carr’s suggestion that this is not a bad idea has prompted responses from several web gurus: Jay Rosen at NYU has accused him of wanting to “unbuild the web”; Jeff Jarvis claims that Mr Carr’s post is, ironically, linkbait (insert joke about pots, kettles and the colour black here); and Mathew Ingram gives a robust defence of the link:

I think not including links (which a surprising number of web writers still don’t) 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. Either way, getting rid of links is a failure on the writer’s part.

Fair enough. But I have to confess that I have some sympathy for Mr Carr’s view. 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.

Admittedly, the advent of browsers with tabs means a link is less of an invitation to go elsewhere than it used to be, because you can open up lots of background tabs while you read without interruption. But I wonder what proportion of the web population actually does this. Anyway, having chortled (via Twitter) at Ms Miller’s idea of a list of links, footnote-like, at the end of the article, I feel the least I can do is give it a try. So here are the links. What do you think? Is this approach less distracting? Should we include more links in the text of our articles? Are we being arrogant, or cowardly, by not doing so?

Felix Salmon:

I’m sympathetic, in theory, to the whole issue of placing extra cognitive load on the brain. I have found myself of late using the Readability plugin a lot when I’m not reading text directly in my RSS reader. I’ve even been known to throw a minor diva fit with the style police at Reuters, who at one point insisted on turning every reference to the US into a reference to the U.S. That was something I hated, because I consider that placing a period in the middle of a sentence is a crime against readability: it draws you up short for no good reason.

I also dislike hyperlinks which give no indication of what they’re linking to (yes, Balk, I’m looking at you). It’s rude to make me click on links to understand what you’re saying, as though you’re still writing for Suck circa 1996. We’ve all grown up, at least a little, since then.

But for all that, links belong in hypertext. Indeed, they’re integral to it. Without links, blogs cease to be a part of the conversation and become instead essays with footnotes, a bit like Wikipedia articles. (And even Wikipedia, which puts links at the end of its articles, also makes very clear exactly which bit of the text each link is linking from.)

A blog entry with links at the bottom has aspirations to being self-contained, like say a newspaper column: the links are optional extras. I never have such aspirations and anybody looking to make full use of the power of the internet is doing themselves a huge disservice if they start thinking that way. In these days of tabbed browsing, there’s a difference between clicking and clicking away: most of us, I’m sure, control-click many times per day while reading something interesting, letting tabs accumulate in the background as we find interesting citations we want to read later.

Someone writing online should no more put their links at the end of their essay than a university professor should first give the lecture and then run through the slides. It makes no logical sense, and it does no good for the consumer of the information. So let’s nip this meme in the bud, and encourage the likes of Barry Ritholtz to always put their links where they belong, in the text, not buried at the bottom of the blog entries, where they’re easy to miss, or where they’d just pile up cacophonously if there were many of them.

Andrew Sullivan


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