The aesthetics of hyperlinking

This post is long, overdue, and wordy, and some of it was written while I had a fever. So I present as a pre-emptive antidote a very enjoyable and quite silly browser game about information overload.

When a fiction author chooses to use the possibilities of a linked and interwoven form in print, the result is something like Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a hugely ambitious first novel that’s been critically acclaimed for the way it melds form and content.

It’s about a labyrinth with a minotaur in it, basically, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. But the book itself becomes a labyrinth. It uses multiple chained footnotes like a chain of hyperlinks, splitting narratives like opening new browser tabs, and all sorts of typographical tricks up to and including one section that’s printed as though it’s become 3D – it’s reverse printed on verso pages so the words actually burrow through the pages of the book.

Offline, this is innovative and daring. Online, it’s normal for every one of us to create labyrinths of reading with no goal in sight. Before the days of tabbed browsing it was much more difficult, forcing wanderers to retrace their steps along chains of links to find a new pathway to explore. Now, thanks to ctrl+click, readers can stack up reading material and pass seamlessly from a dead end to a fresh path of content. With tools like Instapaper and Google Reader, online navigation options are far more complex than anything Danielewski can create on the page.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to something Nick Carr said a while ago. Nick Carr seems to believe hyperlinks are essentially evil footnotes, whose immediacy is a drain on the reader’s attention span and whose ubiquity is a drain on our brains.

He said:

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. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.

The link is, in a way, a technologically advanced form of a footnote. It’s also, distraction-wise, a more violent form of a footnote. Where a footnote gives your brain a gentle nudge, the link gives it a yank. What’s good about a link – its propulsive force – is also what’s bad about it.

Plenty of other people have commented on other elements of his post, and I don’t want to repeat them. To be fair, his position is much more nuanced and complete than the snippet I quoted may make it seem – after all, he’s written books about it, as well as a more detailed look at his wider thesis. I don’t really want to get into that argument. Instead, I want to tease out yet another interpretation of the function of the hyperlink – two, in fact.

First: the inline link is very important for fluid reading experiences online.

One major element of Carr’s “literary reading” – as I understand it – is ludic reading. Literary reading doesn’t have much meaning as a descriptive term (though it does neatly sets up a false opposition between literature and the web).

There’s a very interesting pre-widespread-Internet academic look at ludic reading here (warnings: PDF, academic syntax/dialect/voice, loooong). Particularly interesting is the first study, which draws the conclusion that gratifying reading comes from the effortless extraction of information from the printed page.

Elsewhere, Nell suggests that response demands (such as being forced to write a blog post or book review afterwards) jolt a reader back into work reading, not the trance-like state ludic reading involves. But as media consumers we are becoming more and more used to response demands, from user input in games to “press the red button now” to, yes, hyperlinks. We’re used to taking control of our narratives and directing them – perhaps a logical extension of the unexpected variations of reading speed uncovered in study 2 in that looong PDF link.

One of the main features of ludic reading is that the physical book is forgotten, and the page becomes a window allowing the mind to freely associate within the words. Essentially you forget you’re reading, you lose track of time, you become engrossed and absorb new information, visual and textual, very readily. There are plenty of ways – including links – to facilitate easier online reading, helping the screen to become a window. But where reading online truly becomes trancelike is in link-rich environments like Wikipedia or Tv Tropes where a simple query becomes four hours of browsing.

And I’d posit now that we have tabbed browsing that ludic reading is easier than ever online. Long form and short form can co-exist simultaneously on our screens; we can open interesting links for later; we can lay out huge webs of narrative and navigate among them at will, choosing our own adventure. Without links we’re trapped in a dead end, jolted back to reality and left adrift at the end of an article.

Second: the link is a rhetorical and aesthetic device whose use amounts to a new grammar.

Links can be distracting in part because they carry extra information, not just text and the page behind it but in their associations, insinuations, destinations, context and positioning.

For instance, one of those links up there is an affiliate link to Amazon. Many – most? – people won’t notice, and of those that do very few will care, but the link carries extra information beyond the simple accessibility of another informative page. It might tell you that I’m trying to monetise this blog (though the lack of ads would contradict that). It might make you wonder whether those top few paragraphs about the book are really all that important for context for this post. You might even think subtly less well of me for introducing transactional elements into this space.

So what happens if, for instance, I link approvingly to someone who you violently disagree with? What happens to my credibility if I link to a debunked scientific study?

There’s an art to it, but links can also inject subtle humour, sarcasm or irony into a post. They can acknowledge opposing arguments while simultaneously refuting them. The choice of anchor text or title text can be informative, humourous, derisory, or share covert or overt jokes with the reader. And links can back up your points and convey authority.

Links can also act as visual markers for the form of blog post or article that you’re about to read. One link near the top of the page and a block quote might signal a re-blogging, a signal boost or note of approval for someone else’s work, or an extrapolation of an element of their post that the writer thinks merits more attention. Multiple links scattered through a post might suggest a synthesis of ideas, or a roundup of a current conversation. No links at all might signal a writer trying out new ideas, or not being able to find anything to substantiate what they are saying, or simply a lack of netiquette. Or the writer could be Nick Carr, of course.

That’s what you give up when you stop linking, or when you decide to restrict yourself to a single expression of the evolving grammar of the hyperlink. Links are tools that can be used well or badly. They’re rhetorical devices that can reinforce, trouble, illuminate or counterpoint the writer’s words.

And they represent a new grammar, just as font faces and illustrations and binding and cover decoration began to do after the invention of print. Sure, they can be distracting in certain situations, and they can be used incredibly badly at times (probably by me, too). But deliberately cutting them out of our writing online just because they can be badly used is like sacrificing everything but Times New Roman just because Comic Sans exists.

Finally, consider this a bibliography and a seed for many of these ideas.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

3 thoughts on “The aesthetics of hyperlinking”

  1. Excellent read, and thanks for the ribbonfarm link 🙂 Had me going back and re-reading my own piece and rethinking some of my ideas.

  2. Thanks – and my pleasure. That post was the seed for a lot of my thinking on hyperlinking, especially the idea of the link as a lexical tool with its own rhetorical flourishes and rules that can be flouted or bent for effect.

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