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June 7, 2010, 10 a.m.

Maximizing the values of the link: Credibility, readability, connectivity

The humble, ubiquitous link found itself at the center of a firestorm last week, with the spark provided by Nicholas Carr, who wrote about hyperlinks as one element (among many) he thinks contribute to distracted, hurried thinking online. With that in mind, Carr explored the idea of delinkification — removing links from the main body of the text.

The heat that greeted Carr’s proposals struck me (and CJR’s Ryan Chittum) as a disproportionate response. Carr wasn’t suggesting we stop linking, but asking if putting hyperlinks at the end of the text makes that text more readable and makes us less likely to get distracted. But of course the tinder has been around for a while. There’s the furor over iPad news apps without links to the web, which has angered and/or worried some who see the iPad as a new walled garden for content. There’s the continuing discontent with “old media” and their linking habits as newsrooms continue their sometimes technologically and culturally bumpy transition to becoming web-first operations. And then there’s Carr’s provocative thesis, explored in The Atlantic and his new book The Shallows, that the Internet is rewiring our brains to make us better at skimming and multitasking but worse at deep thinking.

I think the recent arguments about the role and presentation of links revolve around three potentially different things: credibility, readability and connectivity. And those arguments get intense when those factors are mistaken for each other or are seen as blurring together. Let’s take them one by one and see if they can be teased apart again.

Credibility

A bedrock requirement of making a fair argument in any medium is that you summarize the opposing viewpoint accurately. The link provides an ideal way to let readers check how you did, and alerts the person you’re arguing with that you’ve written a response. This is the kind of thing the web allows us to do instantly and obviously better than before; given that, providing links has gone from handy addition to requirement when advancing an argument online. As Mathew Ingram put it in a post critical of Carr, “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.”

That’s no longer a particularly effective strategy. Witness the recent dustup between NYU media professor Jay Rosen and Gwen Ifill, the host of PBS’s Washington Week. Early last month, Rosen — a longtime critic of clubby political journalism — offered Washington Week as his pick for something the world could do without. Ifill’s response sought to diminish Rosen and his argument by not deigning to mention him by name. This would have been a tacky rhetorical ploy even in print, but online it fails doubly: The reader, already suspicious by Ifill’s anonymizing and belittling a critic, registers the lack of a link and is even less likely to trust her account. (Unfortunately for Ifill, the web self-corrects: Several commenters on her post supplied Rosen’s name, and were sharply critical of her in ways a wiser argument probably wouldn’t have provoked.)

Readability

Linking to demonstrate credibility is good practice, and solidly noncontroversial. Thing is, Carr didn’t oppose the basic idea of links. He called them “wonderful conveniences,” but added that “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.”

Chittum, for his part, noted that “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 — no matter how backed up — has an endpoint.”

When I read Chittum’s question about tabs, my eyes flicked guiltily from his post to the top of my browser. (The answer was 11.) Like a lot of people, when I encounter a promising link, I right-click it, open it in a new tab, and read the new material later. I’ve also gotten pretty good at assessing links by their URLs, because not all links are created equal: They can be used for balance, further explanation and edification, but also to show off, logroll and name-drop.

I’ve trained myself to read this way, and think it’s only minimally invasive. But as Carr notes, “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.” I’m not sure about the matters part, but I’ll concede the point about the extra cognitive load. I read those linked items later because I want to pay attention to the argument being made. If I stopped in the middle for every link, I’d have little chance of following the argument through to its conclusion. Does the fact that I pause in the middle to load up something to read later detract from my ability to follow that argument? I bet it does.

Carr’s experiment was to put the links at the end. (Given that, calling that approach “delinkification” was either unwise or intentionally provocative.) In a comment to Carr’s post, Salon writer Laura Miller (who’s experimented with the endlinks approach), asked a good question: Is opening links in new tabs “really so different from links at the end of the piece? I mean, if you’re reading the main text all the way through, and then moving on to the linked sources through a series of tabs, then it’s not as if you’re retaining the original context of the link.”

Connectivity

Carr was discussing links in terms of readability, but some responses have dealt more with the merits of something else — connectivity. Rosen — who’s described the ethic of the web persuasively as “to connect people and knowledge,” described Carr’s effort as an attempt to “unbuild the web.” And it’s a perceived assault on connectivity that inflames some critics of the iPad. John Batelle recently said the iPad is “a revelation for millions and counting, because, like Steve Case before him, Steve Jobs has managed to render the noise of the world wide web into a pure, easily consumed signal. The problem, of course, is that Case’s AOL, while wildly successful for a while, ultimately failed as a model. Why? Because a better one emerged — one that let consumers of information also be creators of information. And the single most important product of that interaction? The link. It was the link that killed AOL — and gave birth to Google.”

Broadly speaking, this is the same criticism of the iPad offered bracingly by Cory Doctorow: It’s a infantilizing vehicle for consumption, not creation. Which strikes me now as it did then as too simplistic. I create plenty of information, love the iPad, and see no contradiction between the two. I now do things — like read books, watch movies and casually surf the web — with the iPad instead of with my laptop, desktop or smartphone because the iPad provides a better experience for those activities. But that’s not the same as saying the iPad has replaced those devices, or eliminated my ability or desire to create.

When it comes to creating content, no, I don’t use the iPad for anything more complex than a Facebook status update. If I want to create something, I’ll go to my laptop or desktop. But I’m not creating content all the time. (And I don’t find it baffling or tragic that plenty of people don’t want to create it at all.) If I want to consume — to sit back and watch something, or read something — I’ll pick up the iPad. Granted, if I’m using a news app instead of a news website, I won’t find hyperlinks to follow, at least not yet. But that’s a difference between two modes of consumption, not between consumption and creation. And the iPad browser is always an icon away — as I’ve written before, so far the device’s killer app is the browser.

Now that the flames have died down a bit, it might be useful to look at links more calmly. Given the link’s value in establishing credibility, we can dismiss those who advocate true delinkification or choose not to link as an attempt to short-cut arguments. But I think that’s an extreme case. Instead, let’s have a conversation about credibility, readability and connectivity: As long as links are supplied, does presenting them outside of the main text diminish their credibility? Does that presentation increase readability, supporting the ethic of the web by creating better conversations and connections? Is there a slippery slope between enhancing readability and diminishing connectivity? If so, are there trade-offs we should accept, or new presentations that beg to be explored?

Photo by Wendell used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 7, 2010, 10 a.m.
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