Link culture

1 June 2010

You’d think after 20 years, people would have worked out how to compose links on the World Wide Web. But Nick Carr, who is very exercised about distraction in modern society…

Oh look, kittens.

…has wondered aloud whether inline links, the very stuff of blog-writing, are a good idea or not. Because they convince people to stop reading here and go reading there.

One post recommended a technological solution: get the reader to decide how the links should appear. (And if you go there, you should at some point find a lot of what appears below in a comment). But this is applying a technological solution to a cognitive problem.

People need to take a step back and consider why inline linking gets used. I have to write using a number of different styles which use either inline links or links at the end. The two styles of writing turn out to be quite different – and I’ve argued against house styles using one or the other in different contexts because of this issue.

Inline linking became popular largely due to blogging and is useful because it allows you to construct a post quickly – all I have to do is put in the link and assume if the reader is not up to speed on the subject they will click to find out. Those that are aware of what’s at the end of the link don’t have to read through yet another description of what the link’s endpoint says, which is what happens if you bung the links at the end (and then provide some more description to remind people what the links are all about).

So, I’d argue for someone who is aware of a thread of stories, the inline link format is less distracting because the knowledgeable reader does not have to wade through stuff they already know.

However, if you want to do long-form writing, and feel that there is an audience for it, then presenting the text link-free, maybe with a Javascript-assisted hiding scheme, is arguably the better bet. In that case, an inline link plus the description is arguably a form of tautology.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that authors play with distraction all the time in the interest of maintaining interest in a story by scene shifting. With inline links, you’re just inviting the reader to do their own scene shifting if they feel like it.

Thinking about the Javascript angle, perhaps what would be handy would be a flag button or “open in underlying tab” so you’ve got the links for the sections that most piqued your interest when you’ve finished reading. Think of it as the Getting Things Done approach to dealing with inline links - stop thinking about that link now, make a note, deal with it later with your full attention. (There’s probably some Firefox addon for this isn’t there?)