Looks like Nicholas Carr’s new book just came out, so I’m going to have to buy it. Sorry, Stevie, but it’s going to take precedence over the book you lent me. While I don’t have Carr’s book yet, I have been reading his blog, and it has got me rethinking the concept of the hyperlink. I used to think of links as a categorical good. However, littering your text with hyperlinks can be distracting. Carr explains:
Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But 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. 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. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form.
All this distraction can inhibit understanding what we read. It’s frightening. I’d like to compare this to something I wrote in 2003, where I marveled at the power of the link. To me, the hyperlink was about connection; I didn’t even consider distraction. I proclaimed:
Take away almost anything else and the internet still works. Take away e-mail. Take away instant messenger. Heck, even take away search engines. The internet still works. But take away the hyperlink, and there’s no more internet. All you have is a bunch of unconnected works.
It’s all about being connected. You connected to me. Me connected to you. Everyone connected to everyone. And once we’ve gone forward, we can’t go back. We’re stuck being connected to each other, whether we like it or not.
That being said, I should make it a goal to link more often. This is the internet. I should embrace what defines the internet. I should embrace sharing and being connected. If I expect others to (eventually) read what I write, I should expect myself to read what they write. And the only way they know that I’ve read, is to respond when I see fit.
I thought that the hyperlink facilitated what I loved about the web. I wanted to share and be connected to others. I implored myself to link more.
I don’t want to reject this. I like connection and reciprocity, and I think it can build community. However, there’s no rule that every link has to be an in-line link. Links can be put at the bottom, like in Laura Miller’s review of The Shallows in Salon. It’s good to at least experiment with this, if in-line links are inhibiting comprehension. There’s no point to linking if there are no nodes. There’s no network if there are no islands of content. Connection should not be a goal in and of itself; content must be king.
Some of the things I said echo what I say now, but the tone is pure triumphalism. I was amazed at how “relatively instantly, [a link] can take you anywhere, relevant or irrelevant.” Today (actually, yesterday, haha), I’d say that this lack of distinction flattens our experience of the world. There’s also this: “It’s that amazing little concept of the hyperlink that lets you create something with multiple pages, that you can view in any order. Hyperlinks create a non-linear environment.” Back then, this non-linear environment felt revolutionary. Indeed, it was revolutionary, but now I feel like Edmund Burke decrying the murder of Marie Antoinette. What beauty books have by engaging our focused minds. Linearity is a good thing! The non-linear environment causes our minds to scatter.
Well, non-linearity isn’t entirely bad. Exploration leads us to unexpected places. These are the seeds of new ideas. But to develop these ideas, we need time to focus.
Here are the links to the things I was talking about:
Experiments in delinkification – Nicholas Carr’s blog post that set off this train of thought
What Makes the Internet the Internet – my blog post
Yes, the Internet is rotting your brain – Laura Miller’s review of The Shallows on Salon