Nick Carr, hypertext and delinkification
For 15 years, I've been doing most of my writing -- aside from my two books -- on the Web. When I do switch back to writing an article for print, I find myself feeling stymied. I can't link!
Links have become an essential part of how I write, and also part of how I read. Given a choice between reading something on paper and reading it online, I much prefer reading online: I can follow up on an article's links to explore source material, gain a deeper understanding of a complex point, or just look up some term of art with which I'm unfamiliar.
There is, I think, nothing unusual about this today. So I was flummoxed earlier this year when Nicholas Carr started a campaign against the humble link, and found at least partial support from some other estimable writers (among them Laura Miller, Marshall Kirkpatrick, Jason Fry and Ryan Chittum). Carr's "delinkification" critique is part of a larger argument contained in his book "The Shallows." I read the book this summer and plan to write about it more. But for now let's zero in on Carr's case against links, on pages 126-129 of his book as well as in his "delinkification" post.
The nub of Carr's argument is that every link in a text imposes "a little cognitive load" that makes reading less efficient. Each link forces us to ask, "Should I click?" As a result, Carr wrote in the "delinkification" post, "People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form."
This appearance of the word "hypertext" is a tipoff to one of the big problems with Carr's argument: it mixes up two quite different visions of linking.
"Hypertext" is the term invented by Ted Nelson in 1965 to describe text that, unlike traditional linear writing, spreads out in a network of nodes and links. Nelson's idea hearkened back to Vannevar Bush's celebrated "As We May Think," paralleled Douglas Engelbart's pioneering work on networked knowledge systems, and looked forward to today's Web.
This original conception of hypertext fathered two lines of descent. One adopted hypertext as a practical tool for organizing and cross-associating information; the other embraced it as an experimental art form, which might transform the essentially linear nature of our reading into a branching game, puzzle or poem, in which the reader collaborates with the author. The pragmatists use links to try to enhance comprehension or add context, to say "here's where I got this" or "here's where you can learn more"; the hypertext artists deploy them as part of a larger experiment in expanding (or blowing up) the structure of traditional narrative.
These are fundamentally different endeavors. The pragmatic linkers have thrived in the Web era; the literary linkers have so far largely failed to reach anyone outside the academy. The Web has given us a hypertext world in which links providing useful pointers outnumber links with artistic intent a million to one. If we are going to study the impact of hypertext on our brains and our culture, surely we should look at the reality of the Web, not the dream of the hypertext artists and theorists.
The other big problem with Carr's case against links lies in that ever-suspect phrase, "studies show." Any time you hear those words your brain-alarm should sound: What studies? By whom? What do they show? What were they actually studying? How'd they design the study? Who paid for it?
To my surprise, as far as I can tell, not one of the many other writers who weighed in on delinkification earlier this year took the time to do so. I did, and here's what I found.
You recall Carr's statement that "people who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form." Yet the studies he cites show nothing of the sort. Carr's critique of links employs a bait-and-switch dodge: He sets out to persuade us that Web links -- practical, informational links -- are brain-sucking attention scourges robbing us of the clarity of print. But he does so by citing a bunch of studies that actually examined the other kind of link, the "hypertext will change how we read" kind. Also, the studies almost completely exclude print.
If you're still with me, come a little deeper into these linky weeds. In "The Shallows," here is how Carr describes the study that is the linchpin of his argument:
In a 2001 study, two Canadian scholars asked seventy people to read "The Demon Lover," a short story by the modernist writer Elizabeth Bowen. One group read the story in a traditional linear-text format; a second group read a version with links, as you'd find on a Web page. The hypertext readers took longer to read the story ,yet in subsequent interviews they also reported more confusion and uncertainty about what they had read. Three-quarters of them said that they had difficulty following the text, while only one in ten of the linear-text readers reported such problems. One hypertext reader complained, "The story was very jumpy…"
Sounds reasonable. Then you look at the study, and realize how misleadingly Carr has summarized it -- and how little it actually proves.
The researchers Carr cites divided a group of readers into two groups. Both were provided with the text of Bowen's story split into paragraph-sized chunks on a computer screen. (There's no paper, no print, anywhere.) For the first group, each chunk concluded with a single link reading "next" that took them to the next paragraph. For the other group, the researchers took each of Bowen's paragraphs and embedded three different links in each section -- which seemed to branch in some meaningful way but actually all led the reader on to the same next paragraph. (The researchers didn't provide readers with a "back" button, so they had no opportunity to explore the hypertext space -- or discover that their links all pointed to the same destination.)
Here's an illustration from the study:
Bowen's story was written as reasonably traditional linear fiction, so the idea of rewriting it as literary hypertext is dubious to begin with. But that's not what the researchers did. They didn't turn the story into a genuine literary hypertext fiction, a maze of story chunks that demands you assemble your own meaning. Nor did they transform it into something resembling a piece of contemporary Web writing, with an occasional link thrown in to provide context or offer depth.
No, what the researchers did was to muck up a perfectly good story with meaningless links. Of course the readers of this version had a rougher time than the control group, who got to read a much more sensibly organized version. All this study proved was something we already knew: that badly executed hypertext can indeed ruin the process of reading. So, of course, can badly executed narrative structure, or grammar, or punctuation.
In both "The Shallows" and his blog post, Carr also makes reference to a meta-analysis (or "study of studies") on hypertext reading studies, a paper that examined 40 other studies and concluded that "the increased demands of decision-making and visual processing in hypertext impaired reading performance." But a closer look at this paper reveals another apples-and-oranges problem.
Carr is saying that Web links slow down our brains. But none of the studies the meta-analysis compiles looked at Web-style links. They all drew comparisons between linear hypertexts (screens with "next" links, not printed articles) on one side, and on the other, literary-style hypertexts broken up into multiple nodes where "participants had many choices in sequencing their reading."
Every other study that I've looked into in this area shares these same problems; I'll spare you the detail. These studies may help explain why there's never been a literary-hypertext bestseller, but they don't do much to illuminate reading on the Web. Carr talks about links having "propulsive force," but does anyone really experience them that way today? Maybe in the early days of the Web, when they were newfangled, people felt compelled to click -- like primitives suddenly encountering TV and jabbing their fingers at the channel selector, wondering what will magically appear next.
I think we all passed through that phase quickly. If your experience matches mine, then today, your eyes pass over a link. Most often you ignore it. Sometimes, you hover your mouse pointer to see where it goes. Every now and then, you click the link open in a new tab to read when you're done. And very rarely, you might actually stop what you're reading and read the linked text. If you do, it's usually a sign that you've lost interest in the original article anyway. Which can happen just as easily in a magazine or newspaper -- where, instead of clicking a link, we just turn the page.
Yes, a paragraph larded up with too many links can be distracting. Links, like words, need to be used judiciously. This is a long post and I have included only a modest number of links -- all that I needed to point you to my sources and references, and most of which most of you won't ever click. Overuse of links is usually a sign that the writer does not know how to link, which on the Web means he does not know how to write. But such abuse hardly discredits linking itself. Many writers still don't understand that comma-splicing is bad grammar, but does that get us talking about the "de-comma-fication" of our prose?
For Carr and his sympathizers, links impede understanding; I believe that they deepen it. Back in 1997 Steven Johnson (in his book "Interface Culture") made the case for links as a tool for synthesis -- "a way of drawing connections between things," a device that creates "threads of association," a means to bring coherence to our overflowing cornucopia of information. The Web's links don't make it a vast wasteland or a murky shallows; they organize and enrich it.
"Channel surfing," Johnson wrote, "is all about the thrill of surfaces. Web surfing is about depth, about wanting to know more." As the Web has grown vast, that desire has grown with it. To swear off links is to abandon curiosity. To be tired of links is to be tired of life.
Money changes everything
The Web is deep in many directions, yet it is also, undeniably, full of distractions. These distractions do not lie at the root of the Web's nature. They're out on its branches, where we find desperate businesses perched, struggling to eke out one more click of your mouse, one more view of their page.
Yesterday I distinguished the "informational linking" most of us use on today's Web from the "artistic linking" of literary hypertext avant-gardists. The latter, it turns out, is what researchers were examining when they produced the studies that Nick Carr dragooned into service in his campaign to prove that the Web is dulling our brains.
Today I want to talk about another kind of linking: call it "corporate linking." (Individuals and little-guy companies do it, too, but not on the same scale.) These are links placed on pages because they provide some tangible business value to the linker: they cookie a user for an affiliate program, or boost a target page's Google rank, or aim to increase a site's "stickiness" by getting the reader to click through to another page.
I think Nick Carr is wrong in arguing that linked text is in itself harder to read than unlinked text. But when he maintains that reading on the Web is too often an assault of blinking distractions, well, that's hard to deny. The evidence is all around us. The question is, why? How did the Web, a tool to forge connections and deepen understanding, become, in the eyes of so many intelligent people, an attention-mangling machine?
Practices like splitting articles into multiple pages or delivering lists via pageview-mongering slideshows have been with us since the early Web. I figured they'd die out quickly, but they've shown great resilience -- despite being crude, annoying, ineffective, hostile to users, and harmful to the long-term interests of their practitioners. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of media executives who misunderstand how the Web works and think that they can somehow beat it into submission. Their tactics have produced an onslaught of distractions that are neither native to the Web's technology nor inevitable byproducts of its design. The blinking, buzzing parade is, rather, a side-effect of business failure, a desperation move on the part of flailing commercial publishers.
For instance, Monday morning I was reading Howard Kurtz's paean to the survival of Time magazine when the Washington Post decided that I might not be sufficiently engaged with its writer's words. A black prompt box helpfully hovered in from the right page margin with a come-hither look and a "related story" link. How mean to Howie, I thought. (Over at the New York Times, at least they save these little fly-in suggestion boxes till you've reached the end of a story.)
If you're on a web page that's weighted down with cross-promotional hand-waving, revenue-squeezing ad overload and interstitial interruptions, odds are you're on a newspaper or magazine site. For an egregiously awful example of how business linking can ruin the experience of reading on the Web, take a look at the current version of Time.com.
For some people perhaps Time really is, as editor Richard Stengel told Kurtz, "the nirvana that people are looking for." I find it more like purgatory. Some time ago, the website of the venerable news weekly began peppering its articles with red-colored links inserted into the crevices between paragraphs. Here's a random example:
So you're reading this little piece about local news startups online, you finish a paragraph, and some person or program at Time waves in front of your eyes and yells, "Go read our review of netbook computers!" What, in the name of Tim Berners-Lee, is that all about? Is it "related reading"? An advertisement? Who exactly is it at Time that has so little respect for the work of its own staff, or the attention of its readers?
In the meantime, note that Time is conspicuously not providing the link that might have been useful in this passage -- to the Block by Block conference the story refers to (which, coincidentally, I'll be attending).
This kind of irrelevance is the norm for Time's little red paragraph busters. Sometimes they're worse than irrelevant: For instance, you could be reading an account of how Colombia drug gangs are terrorizing a small town in Colombia (and, incidentially, intimidating victims using Facebook messages) and then get offered a chance to "See pictures from inside Facebook headquarters."
Other news organizations do this kind of SEO-driven linking a bit more elegantly. Over at the New York Times, for instance, there are tons of links to the Times' topic pages. Although these are occasionally useful, they're there primarily to serve the Times' business interests: they boost these topic pages' prominence in Google. But they have a perverse side-effect. When I read Times stories I tend to ignore the links because I've learned that most of them will be generic –machine-generated rather than hand-crafted. In other words, the Times has made me link-blind -- which is too bad in those cases where its writers (Frank Rich comes to mind) make a point of linking well and often.
In most newsrooms, business and editorial realms are ostensibly separated by an ethical wall. But Web links often exist in a no man's land instead. Sometimes links are imposed by the business side; sometimes they are inserted by editorial staff; sometimes they're fought over. In my days at Salon we tried to establish a clear line: Navigation, ads and peripheral space might be up for grabs, but links within stories were -- like the words and images -- under the control of writers and editors. Plenty of publications today still adhere to this rough policy. But it's a hard one to enforce unless your editors and writers are composing their links as they prepare their articles.
I think that practice remains the exception. Consider this sad fact: 15 years into the era of Web publishing, most print publications still don't link at all from inside the text of their articles posted online. They began shoveling their print stories, sans links, into the content-management system way back when; today, they're shoveling still.
How did we get here? Partly it's because too many editors and reporters waited too long to learn Web basics, and many of the more enthusiastic early adopters fled the newsroom and took their expertise with them. Partly the problem is generational, and thus gradually being solved.
But a big part of it is Google's responsibility. Google is a great tool because it draws meaning from links. And it is a profitable company because it has placed a tiny but real financial value on many links. But by making links a business, Google also made it harder for editors and writers to defend responsible linking. Links became the province of the publisher, not the editor. Even so, Google -- and the Web itself -- works best when links are made freely, motivated by passion or professional dedication or fun. When the links are made for a fractional cent or buck, we get spam and malware and wastelands of zombie splogs.
Rich Skrenta has been arguing for years that Google's "PageRank wrecked the Web," and it's a fascinating notion. (Do note that Skrenta now runs a company that aims to compete with Google.) I don't believe the Web is wrecked, but I do think the monetization of links has warped it.
Of course, it's possible for links to make meaning and money at the same time; one doesn't have to exclude the other. But when driven by the prospect of profit, bad links can begin to swamp good ones. Every link that's motivated by some affiliate kickback, screen-scraped by a spam blog, or nail-gunned into the body of a news story perverts the original value of linking -- and dilutes the Web itself.
Can we resist this? Can we change it? Corporate linking says, "Go home! Sit back, get cynical. This medium is as corrupt as every other one you've experienced. What else did you expect?"
But we do expect more from the Web, and we can still get it. Careful, creative linking -- dare I say conscious linking? -- can build trust and authority in ways the corporate linkers can't even imagine.
In links we trust
Nick Carr, like the rest of the "Web rots our brains" contingent, views links as primarily subtractive and destructive. Links direct us away from where we are to somewhere else on the Web. They impede our concentration, degrade our comprehension, and erode our attention spans.
It's important, first, to understand that every single one of these criticisms of links has been raised against every single new media form for the past 2500 years. (Rather than rehash this hoary tale, I'll point you to Vaughan Bell's excellent summary in Slate. For a full and fascinating account of the earliest episode in this saga -- Socrates' denunciation of the written word -- I recommend the elaboration of it in Maryanne Wolf's "Proust and the Squid.")
Throughout history, the info-panic critique has been one size fits all. The media being criticized may change, but the indictments are remarkably similar. That tells us we're in the presence of some ancestral predilection or prejudice. We involuntarily defend the media forms we grew up with as bastions of civilization, and denounce newcomers as barbaric threats to our children and our way of life.
That's a lot to hang on the humble link, which -- in today's Flash-addled, widget-laden, real-time-streaming environment -- seems more like an anchor of stability than a force for subversion. But even if we grant Carr his premise that links slow reading and hamper understanding (which I don't believe his evidence proves at all), I'll still take the linked version of an article over the unlinked.
I do so because I see links as primarily additive and creative. Even if it took me a little longer to read the text-with-links, even if I had to work a bit harder to get through it, I'd come out the other side with more meat and more juice.
Links, you see, do so much more than just whisk us from one Web page to another. They are not just textual tunnel-hops or narrative chutes-and-ladders. Links, properly used, don't just pile one "And now this!" upon another. They tell us, "This relates to this, which relates to that."
Links announce our presence. They show a writer's work. They are badges of honesty, inviting readers to check that work. They demonstrate fairness. They can be simple gestures of communication; they can be complex signifiers of meaning. They make connections between things. They add coherence. They build context.
If I can get all that in return, why would I begrudge the link-wielding writer a few more seconds of my time, a little more of my mental effort?
Let's take these positive aspects of linking in ascending order of importance.
Links say "hello."
A link to another site can serve as a way of telling that site, "I just said something about you." This invites spammy abuse, of course. But it remains an elegantly simple device. Many bloggers still check their referrers today as they did a decade ago in the early days of weblogging. High-traffic sites can't and won't bother paying much attention to this, but out in the middle and nether reaches of the Web-traffic curve, this kind of link remains a valid and valuable social gesture.
Links show a writer's work.
Any post or page with hand-selected links provides a record of the writer's research, reading and sourcing. Some people are happier with this stuff collected at the end, as we did for centuries in print. But linking in situ gives the reader the information right where it's needed. (If reading a link adds to "cognitive load," surely the effort of scanning down to a footnote or, even worse, flipping back to an endnote piles on even heftier brain-freight.)
Links keep us honest and fair.
If you're quoting someone and you link to the original, you're saying to the reader, "Check my work -- see if I've presented the other person's point of view accurately and fairly." This provides a powerful check on bullying and misrepresentation. It's the rant without links, the disconnected diatribe, that's suspect.
In a media environment where a dwindling number of participants believes that objectivity is either possible or desirable, the best yardstick for fairness we have is this: does a writer present the perspectives of those he disagrees with in a way that they feel is fair? Linking to those perspectives is a way for a writer to say: Go ahead -- see if I got you right.
Links enhance trust.
Not being afraid to link to other sites is a sign of confidence, and third-party sites are much more credible than anything you can say yourself. Isolated sites feel like they have something to hide.
Links knit context into the Web.
Most Web critiques includes ritual denunciation of the medium's disconnected, fragmentary nature. And certainly there are plenty of fragments out there in HTTP-land. But the disconnected ones, by definition, don't get read much. We read the posts and pages that get widely linked to.
A fragment that gets connected is no longer a fragment. It becomes a working part, a piece of a mosaic, a strand in a web. (There's a reason these words are embedded in Internet history.)
It always amazes me to hear the complaint that the Web doesn't provide readers with enough context. Then I realize that this criticism is usually made by print journalists. They are accustomed to having their words acquire a bountiful context on paper. Then, typically, their work is spat onto the Web by an automated content-management system -- and served up without a link in sight.
Theirs is an experience of loss of context. But for the rest of us, writing for the Web offers more frequent and potent opportunities to give our words context than we've ever had before.
What pages shall we connect our words to? We have the entire rest of the Web to choose from! And the choices we make say worlds about our writing.
The context that links provide comes in two flavors: explicit and implicit. Explicit context is the actual information you need to understand what you're reading. Here's what I mean, if I can go all recursive on you for a moment: Let's say you landed on this article out of nowhere. Someone sent you a link. (Now, right there Carr and the link-skeptics might say, "There's the problem! If you were reading a magazine or a book, that would never happen." To which I can only say, if the opportunity to receive pointers to interesting reading from a network of friends is a problem, it's one I am very happy to have.)
So you land on my page and you might well have no idea what I'm talking about, since this was originally part three of a series. Links make it easy for me to show you where to catch up. If you don't have time for that, links let me orient you more quickly in my first paragraph with reference to Carr's post. I can do all this without having to slow down those readers who've been following from the start with summaries and synopses. Again, even if the links that achieve this do demand a small fee from your working brain (which remains an unproven hypothesis), I'd say that's a fair price.
By implicit context, I mean something a little more elusive: The links you put into a piece of writing tell a story (or, if you will, a meta-story) about you and what you've written. They say things like: What sort of company does this writer keep? Who does she read? What kind of stuff do her links point to -- New Yorker articles? Personal blogs? Scholarly papers? Are the choices diverse or narrow? Are they obvious or surprising? Are they illuminating or puzzling? Generous or self-promotional?
Links, in other words, transmit meaning, but they also communicate mindset and style. By this, I don't mean "stylish linking." There have been fads in linking -- the first and best-known was probably the playfully ironic, self-deprecating style pioneered by Suck.com in 1995 (I wrote about it in Salon a long time ago). They come and go, just as catch-phrases and tics in casual writing do. As with other link mannerisms, remnants of the Suck style survive in a few places; but mostly, Web users have rejected the practice of links that obscure or misdirect or joke. We prefer links that clarify.
The history of Web linking has been a long chronicle of controversies we didn't need to have: irrelevant debates over issues like so-called deep linking (if you really don't want to be linked to, why are you on the public Web?) or the notion of a power-law-driven A-list in blogging (if you want to become a celebrity, other media are far more efficient). To this list, we can now add the "delinkification" dustup.
It's hard to imagine the benefit for ourselves, or for the Web, of a general retreat from linking. Writing on the Web without linking is like making a movie without cutting. Sure, it can be done; there might even be a few situations where it makes sense. But most of the time, it's just head-scratchingly self-limiting. To choose not to link is to abandon the medium's most powerful tool -- the thing that makes the Web a web.
A long time ago, I wrote a column titled Fear of Links about the then-burgeoning movement of webloggers. I urged professional writers to stop looking down their noses at links and those who make them: "A journalist who today disdains the very notion of providing links to readers may tomorrow find himself without a job."
That was 1999. Today, we live in that piece's "tomorrow."