Linkrot

by Henry on August 31, 2010

Scott Rosenberg has a good go at Nick Carr’s claims about what the Internets is Still Doing to our Brains. BRRRAINNNZZZ ! ! !

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.” … [The] 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 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 … 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 … 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.) … . 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. Carr also makes reference to a meta-analysis … 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.”

It’s certainly possible that hypertext (even of the moderate version associated say, with blogs that set out to inform rather than to create SEO-clickfarms) imposes a high enough cognitive burden to outweigh e.g. the benefits of being able to look at the source material that authors are drawing on. It’s also possible that Carr’s proposed solution – of having a selected group of links at the end of the text, along the line of footnotes or endnotes, is a superior one. I’d love to hear from people who have seriously thought about these issues (Anthony Grafton – if you are reading this post, consider this to be an explicit invitation to weigh in). But if Rosenberg’s summation is on target, these studies (and in particular the study that he singles out) are simply not informative in the ways that Carr suggests that they are informative (it would of course be nice to see studies which were informative on this question). Rosenberg notes that it is rather peculiar that he seems to have been the first person to actually look up the studies that Carr draws upon. He doesn’t explicitly note the irony that if Carr had actually linked to the studies, people would have been more likely to have clicked through and read them. But I imagine the thought has occurred to him.

This can be generalized into a broader point on the role that research should play in public debate (see also Fernando Pereira on this ). I’m not inclined to be as harshly critical of Carr as Pereira is – he is not unique. My understanding is that people who want to write non-fiction bestsellers are, shall we say, strongly encouraged to make strong forthright arguments without cavils and hesitations if they want to see their work published and promoted. This does not provide incentives for trustworthy engagement with the existing body of research, which (on most interesting questions in the social sciences and communication studies) is shot through with hedges, doubts, disagreements and qualifications. But this also means, I think, that work which draws upon academic sources should be hyperlinked – and hyperlinked quite extensively too. This in principle would allow people to read the relevant studies for themselves (if they have enough training to make sense of it), and make it more likely that they will see the alternative interpretations of those who do have such training, if they themselves do not. Of course, this also points to the broader need for ungated academic research – if academic work is to have an impact in general public argument, it needs to be broadly accessible to people engaged in these arguments.

Update: See also Mark Liberman .

{ 55 comments }

1

ajay 08.31.10 at 4:34 pm

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. … The pragmatic linkers have thrived in the Web era; the literary linkers have so far largely failed to reach anyone outside the academy.

This risibly ignorant statement completely fails to acknowledge the impact of hypertext in popular culture: specifically the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which deployed links as part of a larger experiment in blowing up not only the structures of traditional narrative but also the Dread Fortress of the Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

2

Leo Casey 08.31.10 at 5:02 pm

In this context how, pray tell, is a hyperlink in a text any different from a footnote in a text? Was our reading less efficient all of those pre-Internet years of reading academic texts laden with footnotes?

3

DCA 08.31.10 at 5:20 pm

Having duly clicked the link and read Rosenberg’s article, I’ll note that he leaves out (or perhaps just ignores as bad practice) a third class of links: the pointless cross-reference. At the moment these are largely confined to Wikipedia (which seems to welcome them). With any luck they won’t spread.

4

Tom 08.31.10 at 5:22 pm

Careful, ajay. I’m sure somewhere out there someone is actually working on an article explaining how the Choose Your Own Adventure books not only predicted the rise of the Internet, but were in fact the key catalyst in its creation.

5

MikeM 08.31.10 at 5:41 pm

I, for one, am waiting for both fiction and non-fiction writers to embrace hypertext. I read a lot of thriller set in other countries and like to see the terrain (or street grid) about which they’re writing, so I often have Google Earth open. Similarly, when reviewing a journal article, I open JSTOR to some of the references. And I’m waiting for the development of good mobile versions of, say, Science magazine so I don’t feel like I’m an automaton going down the stairs to get my copy, reading through the 4-5 articles I understand, and then taking it out to the recycle bin. And if the references are in hypertext, so much the better.

6

ben 08.31.10 at 5:50 pm

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.

But in fact tons of links are, if not the dream of hypertext artists and theorists, in fact closer to that than to the pragmatic ideal described in the text. An example ready to mind: BSNYC somewhat regularly makes a link out of text containing an overblown claim; the link goes to a picture of a boat named “JUST KIDDING”. Doing that isn’t cross-referencing related information; it’s using links to present information while simultaneously commenting on it—in this case, undercutting it (a rhetorical possibility also presented, in a different way, by

7

ben 08.31.10 at 5:51 pm

By, as I was saying[1], strikeouts or the “[caret]H” convention). It’s not undermining linearity, true. But the same purpose couldn’t be served by a list of links at the end. Nor is it all that uncommon.

[1] Attempting to actually use the title attribute on an anchor tag seems to have unexpected results.

8

ben 08.31.10 at 5:52 pm

Ah, the actual problem was that the supposedly “smart” text conversion plugin thing you’ve got here managed to completely barf on the caret in the title attribute’s text.

9

Ted 08.31.10 at 6:07 pm

FWIW: For text that’s designed to help users get through complex and/or tedious technical procedures, the consensus seems to be that links at the end of a block of text, or in some other well-defined separate space from the main text, do the job better than in-line links, most of the time. Ease of maintenance for the person delivering such text is another consideration that points in the same direction. So the use patterns and the scale of the content are probably what define people’s choices.

10

zamfir 08.31.10 at 6:11 pm

Pointing to kidding boats is simply assholery, of the type you can have among friends to show you are friends, but still.

another problem with the hyperlink disaster claim is that it assumes that we read most informative texts to be informed about that particular topic. but often youjust read something because it is interesting in an amusing way, and if you switch to something else, nothing is lost. if you are reading because you have to, skipping links is much eas ier.

11

mds 08.31.10 at 6:18 pm

Was our reading less efficient all of those pre-Internet years of reading academic texts laden with footnotes?

I would actually say yes. Footnotes that are anything other than citations play havoc with my ability to move smoothly through a work, especially ones that are continued on the following page. Even when I attempt to make a first path that resolutely ignores footnotes, my eye is often drawn into the more substantial ones. Hypertext linkage actually helps with this difficulty, since the “footnote” is hidden from view barring deliberate action by the reader.

This risibly ignorant statement completely fails to acknowledge the impact of hypertext in popular culture: specifically the Choose Your Own Adventure books

That’s because, thanks to all that mucking around in the Cave of Time, the Choose Your Own Adventure books have no longer had any such impact.

12

John Quiggin 08.31.10 at 8:22 pm

As far as I can see, everything in Carr comes down to the proposition that, if we (writers and readers collectively) were only allowed One Book, that book would be written and read very carefully. The argument works even better if there is no writing at all, so the one story has to be memorised.

13

Emma in Sydney 08.31.10 at 9:32 pm

There are attempts to make links that warn the reader of where they might be going so that they can decide whether or not to follow them at this point. The project I work on used rollovers to do this precisely to avoid suspicion of in-text links that arises in readers who have been annoyed by Wikipedia-style links on trivial (non) connections such as days of the week or numbers or whatever. You can see it in action here.

But John’s right — this is latter day luddism. There’s a lot of it about, especially among academics. Some of them have built whole careers on being able to read and write very boring text. Why would they want people to have a way to get out of it?

14

Ginger Yellow 08.31.10 at 9:39 pm

I get hung up on the idea that “cognitive load” is supposed to a bad thing.

15

LFC 08.31.10 at 9:46 pm

mds@11 — if you’re distracted by long footnotes in books as much as you say and you want to read the text only, you could take, e.g., an index card or folded piece of paper and cover the footnotes up while reading. That should solve the problem (and also remove the grounds for your hyperlinks-are-superior-to-footnotes-because-they-are-hidden argument).

16

Substance McGravitas 08.31.10 at 9:50 pm

I’ve seen people write things that assume the links are followed and therefore the body of the text doesn’t make sense on its own, but that’s a writing problem and not a reading problem.

17

Alex 08.31.10 at 10:00 pm

@14: It’s Nick Carr! Of course it’s a bad thing – this is Alli literature, intended to pass through your digestive tract without leaving any deposit of information, so your precious individual plumage of preconceptions can wave unhindered. Side-effects include oily anal leakage all over your blog.

What would be really interesting would be to look at the percentage of references in print that anyone ever follows up vs. those in hypertext. I recall trying to list stuff from Peter Hennessy’s The Prime Minister that I wanted to read, and y’know? I got as far as underlining them and wondering what it was this ibid guy knew…

18

nick s 08.31.10 at 10:24 pm

I’ve seen people write things that assume the links are followed and therefore the body of the text doesn’t make sense on its own, but that’s a writing problem and not a reading problem.

One of the things that Suck.com did back in the now-ancient history of the web was use links for ironic purposes, which I suppose is part of a grand tradition. (Most of the links are now long-dead, somewhat like the namedropped poets of The Dunciad, another somewhat hypertextual creation.)

Like most reactionaries, Carr’s historical foundations for defending a particular long-form model are pretty shallow — seemingly grounded in a bastardised mid-20th-c formalism — and his objections to links are on a par with his complaints about short-form content. The encyclopaedic sensibility is about three centuries old, and the exegetic tradition is much older. I wonder what kind of reception he’d get at a yeshiva.

19

Western Dave 08.31.10 at 10:41 pm

Can we send the “intertubes rewire your brainz” dunderheads to go live with the “kidz brainz are different, therefore you must pay me to explain to you how to teach” assholes off to live on the island of “I better hope nobody checks the research I’m citing ’cause it doesn’t say anything remotely close to what I claim.” and let the rest of us get on with the business of reading, thinking, teaching, and learning with and without new technologies?

20

Zora 08.31.10 at 11:24 pm

Does Carr believe that clicking a link implies reading the linked site immediately? That would be distracting — if you left-click on the link. If I’m interested in a link, I right-click on it and choose “Open in new tab”. I finish reading (or skimming) the article or blog post, and then I work my way down the line of tabs. Sometimes I read, sometimes I decide that it would be a waste of time. Efficient and not at all distracting.

Is Carr using an old version of IE that doesn’t support tabbed browsing?

21

sg 08.31.10 at 11:44 pm

this guy would change his tune after a single visit to the tvtropes website, where the power (and infinite evil) of hyperlinks can be seen in all its glory.

22

Doctor Science 09.01.10 at 3:08 am

I don’t have time for the full critique here, but Carr is 100% wrong, Rosenberg mostly wrong.

How can I tell? Because neither of them cites (or links to) Jakob Nielsen, the Guru of Web Usability studies, including how people actually read online. Nielsen’s most important discovery for this discussion: outbound hypertext links increase your credibility:

Links to other sites show that the authors have done their homework and are not afraid to let readers visit other sites.

Writers — like Carr — who don’t link are making their arguments from authority: “trust me because I’m me!” The Web is *ideal* for scholarship because it makes it extremely easy for readers to check that writers have in fact done their homework, that they’re not just outgassing.

Emma in Sydney’s project is a superb example of how good linking can be done. The only thing comparable I’ve seen on any high-profile site is Frank Rich’s column at the NY Times, which recently started using popup-explicated links.

John @12:

if we (writers and readers collectively) were only allowed One Book, that book would be written and read very carefully

– and as nick s points out @18, that reading and writing would *become a hyptertext*, so Carr would *still* be unhappy. No, he wants the Authority of the Author to be an absolute monarchy: only one Book, read only one way, and no passing notes, neither.

23

Harry 09.01.10 at 3:31 am

mds and leo — surely endnotes are worse. Part of the story is how practiced one is at reading with notes — personally I read ignoring notes, returning later only if I think something is missing. But at least with footnotes a single half-glance tells me whether they might be worth looking at. Endnotes require me to open the bloody book to the back, find the note, and then decide whether its worth reading.

I have to say that I read hypertext the same way as books with footnotes — I just ignore it until I have i) figured out whether what I am reading is worth reading to the end and if so then ii) have actually read to the end. Isn’t that what everyone does?

24

Doctor Science 09.01.10 at 3:53 am

Harry @23:

I just ignore it until I have i) figured out whether what I am reading is worth reading to the end and if so then ii) have actually read to the end. Isn’t that what everyone does?

Assuming you are not being sarcastic, the answer is: No.

In the first place, as Nielsen shows, the nature of those links is a major factor in most readers’ decisions about whether the text is worth reading to the end. The limiting factor in online life is human attention: it is the most precious, unexpandable resource. Thus, the decision “is this worth reading to the end?” is a much more crucial one for an online reader than for a hard-copy reader, and she’s going to be much more cynical and distractable (= motivated by her own agenda, not the author’s) than Carr would like.

25

John Quiggin 09.01.10 at 5:33 am

To defend Wikipedia’s link style, it’s an encyclopedia which is a very special kind of text, and uses links in a very special way. Readers know that a link within a Wikipedia article will point to the Wikipedia article on the topic of the linked text. That means there’s much less risk of distraction, missing important links among a sea of trivial ones and so on. References and external links are generally fewer and are marked separately.

By contrast, the NY Times typically hyperlinks to something like “search the NY Times archives for articles on this topic”, so you mostly end up with rubbish, and there’s no way to tell except by clicking.

26

Substance McGravitas 09.01.10 at 5:43 am

Because neither of them cites (or links to) Jakob Nielsen

Here is a link to follow.

27

nick s 09.01.10 at 6:07 am

Endnotes require me to open the bloody book to the back, find the note, and then decide whether its worth reading.

Endnotes are primarily a modern publishers’ convenience at the expense of the reader, especially in monographs and similar texts which may have long citations. While digital typesetting makes life easier, footnotes are a bugger to set in aesthetically pleasing ways, and tend to require more pages (and thus more expense) than an endnoted equivalent. The argument that footnotes break up the body text is pretty flimsy.

I tend to read hyperlinked texts with sporadic right-clicks to tab out whatever catches my eye, whether for immediate glossing/juxtaposition or for reading afterwards. I was also a CYOA kid with lots of odd encyclopaedias and reference books on my shelves, and became adept at five-finger-bookmarking for nonfiction long before being exposed to digital hypertext.

28

alex 09.01.10 at 7:35 am

footnotes … tend to require more pages (and thus more expense) than an endnoted equivalent.

Footnotes must be written in magic space-eating language, then, because they’re usually printed at least 2 pts smaller than body-text, whereas endnotes are full-size.

I’m sure, also, if publishers learned to make do without a full 1.5-inch lower margin, it would help their costs…

29

Doctor Science 09.01.10 at 8:03 am

The cost of footnotes is in the layout. They are an incredible pain and take a lot of human-hours to get right — and then a new one is added and throws off the pagination and thus the index, and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

30

dsquared 09.01.10 at 8:26 am

While digital typesetting makes life easier, footnotes are a bugger to set in aesthetically pleasing ways, and tend to require more pages (and thus more expense) than an endnoted equivalent

Donald Knuth wrote a program, called LaTex, which doesn’t help with that.

31

sg 09.01.10 at 8:49 am

I think John Q has it right. The wiki is an excellent idea, not just the idea of multiple people editing it but also just the notion of a hyperlinked collection of information. As tvtropes has proven beyond refutation. Flat text doesn’t really have anything to compare to hyperlinked pages + ctrl-tab.

An even better example of the power of the hyperlink is rikaichan, a tiny firefox add-on which, when you roll your mouse over a Japanese word, produces a tiny pop-up window that gives you the reading and the main translation. This is a godsend given the physical barrier that is kanji. It’s not full hyperlinking, but it’s a similar idea and physically impossible in paper text. An equivalent example would be an eBook reader with a dictionary that would enable you to tap on words to read them.

This sort of thing is invaluable when you’re learning a language, or using your second language to read outside your field. I do a lot of (literally) very arcane reading in Japanese and if I had to do it the old-fashioned way my language learning would be hideously slower. Hyperlinks are Teh Awesome!!111

32

ajay 09.01.10 at 8:53 am

1 was being mostly but not completely unserious: how is it possible for someone to say “hypertext hasn’t had any effect on wider culture”? OK, the CYOA books and so on weren’t a massive pancultural phenomenon, but most people would know what you’re talking about if you refer to one. (Many times more than would have heard of, say, Jorge Luis Borges.)
And then there’s other forms of interactive text like, say, computer games? Interactive text-based games are one of the oldest forms of gaming. The games industry’s bigger than Hollywood these days.

And that’s not even brushing against the point that, shock, texts refer to other texts.

33

sg 09.01.10 at 9:01 am

and surely CYOA came long before hypertext, at least as far as popular culture was aware.

34

Zamfir 09.01.10 at 9:44 am

Many software UIs today have blue or underlined text in places where they would have a button 10 years ago. Hypertext is now so ingrained in people’s experience that a blue text feels clickable, in the same way a drawn picture of a button used to do.

On choose your adventure books: I heard about Borges long before I heard about those. I don’t think I have actually seen one in real life, while Borges books are on many random bookshelves. It might be a generational thing, or perhaps they never made much choose your adventure books around here.

35

Ginger Yellow 09.01.10 at 10:26 am

One of the things that Suck.com did back in the now-ancient history of the web was use links for ironic purposes, which I suppose is part of a grand tradition.

Absolutely. See, for instance, Flann O’Brien or ETA Hoffmann.

36

ajay 09.01.10 at 11:18 am

33: certainly did. According to Wiki they go back to the 70s. (And apparently boomed in Bulgaria after the end of Communism. I did not know that.)

34: On choose your adventure books: I heard about Borges long before I heard about those.

I am comfortable asserting that this is an atypical experience by the standards of the general population, if not by the standards of CT commenters.

37

mds 09.01.10 at 2:41 pm

That should solve the problem (and also remove the grounds for your hyperlinks-are-superior-to-footnotes-because-they-are-hidden argument).

Um, yes, because moving an index card or piece of paper from page to page is indistinguishable from not following a hyperlink. But I thank you anyway, and will probably give it a try.

Donald Knuth wrote a program, called LaTex, which doesn’t help with that.

Theoretically, it does if you use it with Emacs. There’s a control-code sequence for flawless footnote layouts. Unfortunately, no one knows what it is, or even if it can be typed with a normal keyboard.

I am comfortable asserting that this is an atypical experience by the standards of the general population, if not by the standards of CT commenters.

Dude, Cave of Time. In this timeline, Borges is bigger than Seuss with the primary school demographic. All thanks to driving that SUV full of Selectric typewriters and Red Bull into a cave.

38

ben w 09.01.10 at 2:54 pm

Theoretically, it does if you use it with Emacs. There’s a control-code sequence for flawless footnote layouts.

This would be much funnier if LaTeX’s behavior when setting text could be influenced by something you did while editing the text.

39

Scott Rosenberg 09.01.10 at 3:16 pm

Henry, thanks for the summary and providing the occasion for such a wealth of commentary!

I should say that, yes, I was fully aware of the irony in the “what if Carr had linked to the studies?” question, wrote it into an early draft of my post, and removed it. I figured it was more fun for readers to make that connection for themselves.

Ajay: I will take your comment as a joke, right? We’ve got some old Choose Your Own Adventures on my kids’ shelves, but, um, Not Changed Our Culture, I think? I suppose they can be understood as starter drugs for RPGs. But most kids find their way there without any help from CYOA. (I did, as a ’70s teen who purchased the first edition of D&D to play.) And I think it’s a long stretch to read the popularity of World of Warcraft as an instantiation of the dreams of literary hypertext artists. Different goals, different audiences.

Ben: the sort of linking you’re referring to at BSNYC is what I think of as the Suck.com style. (Nick S. refers to this too. I wrote about it in 1997, and again in Say Everything.) It’s the link as ironic reference, scare-quote disavowal, or meta-commentary — certainly a lot closer to “the dream of hypertext artists and theorists” than utilitarian web linking. But it remains, I think, a fringe pursuit. Not something that can be usefully dragged in, pro or con, to a debate about the Web Rotting our Brainz.

Doctor Science: I have been reading Jakob Nielsen since the Web was wee. I agree that he offers valuable insights, but don’t take every word as gospel. Unclear to me how my failure to cite him discredits my argument. But certainly I agree with him that links improve credibility. And my forthcoming third post in this “Defense of Links” series is all about that very theme.

40

roac 09.01.10 at 3:43 pm

When and if hypertext completely replaces print, and links replace footnotes and endnotes, it will be interesting to see (I don’t expect to be around) what happens to novels which use contemporary conventions about footnotes and endnotes as part of their narrative strategy. The footnotes in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell will presumably translate into links without much dislocation; but the hypertext edition of Pale Fire will have to have an introduction explaining that here used to be physical objects called “books” and scholarly ones used to have big thick sections at the back with all the references in them.

41

mtraven 09.01.10 at 4:26 pm

It would take a good browser hacker about five minutes to make a plugin that could hide/unhide hyperlinks with a keystroke. Instead of all this outgassing, maybe Nick Carr or someone should make that happen and see if it makes him happy. My guess is not; he’ll just have to move on to something else to fuel his net.alter_kocker routine.

42

Bruce Baugh 09.01.10 at 5:02 pm

Mtraven, surely you mean either alt.alter_kocker or soc.subculture.alter_kocker.

Sorry. Nostalgia. I blame a birthday coming up.

43

Stuart 09.01.10 at 6:30 pm

I would also say that as tabbed browsing is becoming the norm, the problem of hyperlinks breaking up the narrative of the first page you start on is less of a problem – if I see a link that might be interesting to follow up now I can middle click and carry on reading and get to it later (or switch over to it and switch back later). Of course on some sites like Wikipedia/TVTropes this can rapidly start expanding towards infinite tabs all too easily if you get careless/interested.

44

Ken 09.01.10 at 7:25 pm

I’ve read several books that use unmarked endnotes, such as Erik Larson’s “The Devil in the White City”. It’s nice in some ways, since you aren’t interrupted by the numbers and that nagging “should I look it up” feeling, but on the other hand you also don’t have any indication that there is something to look up – I didn’t even realize “Devil” had notes until I got to the end of the book.

The reverse references, by the way, are handled by starting the note with a small quote from the main text. I have also seen this used for glosses and annotations.

45

nick s 09.01.10 at 9:12 pm

This would be much funnier if LaTeX’s behavior when setting text could be influenced by something you did while editing the text.

Indeed. There are, however, a few dozen LaTeX packages, which, if arranged in the correct order and accompanied by the sacrifice of a cockerel, have the potential to produce reasonably typeset footnotes.

But it remains, I think, a fringe pursuit.

And perhaps an attempt to perpetuate an old-school web sensibility — that Salon link reminds me that so little of the web c. 1997 is readily accessible — that came out of having a disproportionate number of crit-theory types online in the early years. It’s hardly surprising that this has faded over the past decade, and I suspect the autogenerated linking mechanisms that arrived with Blogger had a big role in that, but it’s going to be interesting to see whether the technology of agglomeration — tweets in your Facebook, Foursquare in your Flickr, linked content injected into your blog — becomes the new norm.

46

Neel Krishnaswami 09.01.10 at 10:00 pm

Dr Science @22: Bravo! Bravo!

You (a) perfectly illustrate how Nielsen’s advice produces aesthetically horrible and unreadable results (b) with text which apparently praises him, and (c) takes suck.com ironic links and reverses it, so that it’s the boldfaced text and underlines and blockquotes (and not the links!) which carry the irony.

This is a tour-de-force, and definitely the best thing I have read all day.

47

James Wimberley 09.01.10 at 11:54 pm

Dr Science: writing as a blogger rather than a commenter, I find Nielsen’s result that links improve credibility comforting. It goes far to justify the work I put in to a blog post – for me, typically about as much getting the links right in as writing the text.
It’s not just that an unopened link says “this writer has gone to the trouble of sourcing this statement”. It also says “more context for this statement here”. This allows a much more more concise and epigrammatic style; the qualifications and nuances can often be left to the source. So links allow a certain compression of information, as well as a temptation to self-inflicted information overload.

48

tomslee 09.02.10 at 1:00 am

I find this discussion, and Scott Rosenberg’s piece, confusing.

First, it seems based on a caricature of Carr’s argument. I’ve read his post a few times (not his book though) and I just can’t see that he is constructing a “case against links” or a “campaign against the humble link” or that he is “swear[ing] off links”. The closest he gets are sentences like “Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions.” and “What’s good about a link – its propulsive force – is also what’s bad about it.” Even the title is about “Experiments” in delinkification, which is anything but dogmatic. And he provides links, of course. It seemed to me like he was trying an idea on for size rather than campaigning against links – and that it is not much stronger than “reading on the Web is too often an assault of blinking distractions” [Rosenberg part 2]

Comments, such as “Writers—like Carr—who don’t link” and labelling his article a “hyperlink disaster claim” also seem driven by a misplaced urge to paint him as some kind of “reactionary” – an Andrew Keen of the link. (Disclaimer, I have never met Nick Carr, but he has linked to me).

So in the end the answer will be that there are good ways to link and less good, and that some links are useful while others (New York Times!) are not. A middle ground. And Rosenberg does admit that “Links, like words, need to be used judiciously.”

This message has, of course, been around for at least 20 years, whether the academic studies are there or not. For my sins, I have written a fair few Windows Help files, and the practices of help authors changed over the course of the late ’80s and early ’90s from an over-enthusiastic Christmas-tree like jumble of links to a more restrained model where a few judicious links were collected at the end of a topic, and where links within the body of the text were sparse (as Ted says in a web context, above).

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Henry 09.02.10 at 1:20 am

Tom – for me the takeaway is that the studies don’t seem to support the claim that Carr is making. The major study cited indeed seems to me to be a positively bad one – perhaps this is because I am unfamiliar with the debates, but the experimental protocol seems almost designed to produce the observed effect, rather than to test an interesting underlying question. More generally, Carr’s underlying argument – if I am not mistaken – is that the cognitive load of embedded hyperlinks in yer common or garden webpage, however defined exceeds any putative cognitive benefits. This is not a ridiculous claim – but I would like to see some real research on it. I agree that Rosenberg exaggerates Carr’s hostility to the hyperlink – at least on the basis of the blogpost (I haven’t read the book). I don’t think that Carr is a reactionary – but I do think that he has a tendency to reason back from the result he wants and to provide a somewhat selective account of the research. As I noted in the post, I think that this may be a structural problem relating to the incentives of commercial non-fiction book writing rather than his own personal failings.

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tomslee 09.02.10 at 1:42 am

I absolutely agree with your final paragraph and the incentives facing non-fiction authors. I guess I missed your buried lede. Must be because of the BRRRAINNNZZZ .

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Salient 09.02.10 at 3:01 am

This is not a ridiculous claim – but I would like to see some real research on it.

Me too. My own experience reading over hyperlinks is that they are cognitively equivalent to reading over a parenthetical phrase such as (which is online) or (available at JSTOR). They start to become a cognitive overload at the 2-4 per paragraph mark, or when I have to stop to think, what in the hell could this link be? (As in the case of Still being hyperlinked above: I had to mouse over, which meant pausing for a couple seconds. No biggie, but also not completely trivial. And I did pause mid-sentence to do that.) When I read Rosenberg’s name in red underline font, I was aware there was a link there to his article, but this was no more distracting than becoming aware of, “oh, Scott Rosenberg, that’s a person’s name” (which clearly takes zero to minimal effort).

I wonder whether I’m self-evaluating that experience accurately, and/or whether others — readers of all varieties — have a similar experience. As a volunteer, I remember feeling surprised at just how much a struggling/learning reader would struggle with any deviation from the main point of a text (a parenthetical aside like this one would probably leave such readers nontrivially disoriented, because they’re reading one word at a time so carefully and painstakingly that they’ve long since lost all sense of what this sentence was about). So I wonder in particular, for those readers who have to push their way through sentences like viscous jelly, what effect would a link have on their ability to comprehend? Would mouse-over pictures for nouns help with learning to read, or hinder the process? Etc.

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Doctor Science 09.02.10 at 3:48 am

Scott Rosenberg @39:

Possibly I should have been using the “rhetorical exaggeration” font, there. In saying that not referencing Nielsen discredits your argument (partially), I was using him as a synecdoche for “people who research online behavior all the livelong day.” I don’t take Nielsen as gospel, either, but his relentless focus on what *works* has extremely useful for clarifying my own thinking on the topic. I definitely look forward to the rest of your series.

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Doctor Science 09.02.10 at 3:56 am

Salient:

My observation is that very young or slow readers ignore the links to focus on the text. It’s true that the great press of time online tends to make readers impatient, less willing to tolerate (or unravel) very long sentences or paragraphs: imitating Hemingway is more likely to work than imitating Dickens. But that, of course, is true offline as well — and there’s also the fact that reading from a screen is generally more physically tiring than reading from paper.

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Andrew R. 09.02.10 at 1:19 pm

Western Dave @19, you pretty much made my morning.

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Scott Rosenberg 09.02.10 at 3:29 pm

Tom — the fault may lie in my effort to respond both to Carr’s “delinkification” post and to his larger argument against links in “The Shallows.” (Ironically, of course, I can’t actually link to the latter.) You’re right that the post is fairly moderate in its stance. Carr is always careful to qualify his arguments, and that makes him a far more valuable critic of the Web than many of his peers. He’s also an adept blogger (and linker) himself, which is one reason I find his position so confounding (and his willingness to exaggerate the meaning of these studies so surprising).

In “The Shallows,” the case against links becomes one piece of a larger indictment of the Web and online reading, and the antipathy towards links in general is much clearer (though still heavily qualified). The book makes a sustained argument that the Web, with its links and other distractions, cripples our ability to read deeply. The reader comes away with a pretty clear picture that Carr would be a lot happier to turn to a world without the Web, and without links. He admits all the good things the Web provides, and allows for how much time he spends on it himself, but the weight of his argument lands heavily on “turn back the clock!”

I do think the phrase “campaign against links” is fair, given that the post occasioned a sporadic (though, thankfully, fading) effort on the part of a variety of online writers to “delink,” or pile up their links at the end of their pieces.

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