Monday, Jun 7, 2010 12:07 AM UTC

Nick Carr inspires new Readability feature

The great hyperlink debate takes an interesting turn

Nick Carr may be right or wrong about whether the Internet is making us stupid*, but one thing’s for sure — he knows how to get the whole web talking. Carr has published a new book, The Shallows, in which he apparently argues (and, to be fair, cites supporting research) that hyperlinks inhibit reading comprehension. In her review, our critic Laura Miller focused a bit on that aspect, excluded the usual links from the review, grouped them in a very clear and organized fashion at the end of the review, and asked readers to weigh in. Since the book’s release and that action by Laura, the staff email here at Salon has been buzzing with debate about the pros (reader service, great for SEO, good way to make a sly joke …) and cons (distracting, opaque, crutches for lazy writers …) of embedded links. And we’re far from alone. Carr himself has used Laura’s review to bolster his argument, and countless others have weighed in.

Now it turns out Carr has also inspired a whole new feature in Readability. If you’re not familiar with it, Readability is a browser extension that displays a given web page in an altered format — stripping out all the … well, the stuff that helps web publishers stay in business, and admittedly spitting out very spare, readable pages. Following on Carr’s thesis, Readability now offers the option to have links automatically converted to footnotes. I’m neither a fan nor foe of Readability, but I do find it hilariously counterintuitive that they explain how the content provider can add title tags to their links for the recontextualizing benefit of anyone who might be using Readability to avoid seeing that content in its native state or form. I’m not expecting wide adoption of that practice.

* See how I just dumped that link in there with no explanation, leaving it to you to ferret out the context and backstory for yourself? Perfectly standard web practice. It could be argued that’s lazy and inconsiderate, or that it’s efficient and also assumes you’re clever enough to know exactly what I was talking about, or interested enough to go find out. Which way do you see it?