In Defense of Links, part three: In links we trust

This is the third post in a three-part series. The first part was Nick Carr, hypertext and delinkification. The second part was Money changes everything.

Nick Carr, like the rest of the “Web rots our brains” contingent, views links as primarily subtractive and destructive. Links direct us away from where we are to somewhere else on the Web. They impede our concentration, degrade our comprehension, and erode our attention spans.

It’s important, first, to understand that every single one of these criticisms of links has been raised against every single new media form for the past 2500 years. (Rather than rehash this hoary tale, I’ll point you to Vaughan Bell’s excellent summary in Slate. For a full and fascinating account of the earliest episode in this saga — Socrates’ denunciation of the written word — I recommend the elaboration of it in Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid.)

Throughout history, the info-panic critique has been one size fits all. The media being criticized may change, but the indictments are remarkably similar. That tells us we’re in the presence of some ancestral predilection or prejudice. We involuntarily defend the media forms we grew up with as bastions of civilization, and denounce newcomers as barbaric threats to our children and our way of life.

That’s a lot to hang on the humble link, which — in today’s Flash-addled, widget-laden, real-time-streaming environment — seems more like an anchor of stability than a force for subversion. But even if we grant Carr his premise that links slow reading and hamper understanding (which I don’t believe his evidence proves at all), I’ll still take the linked version of an article over the unlinked.

I do so because I see links as primarily additive and creative. Even if it took me a little longer to read the text-with-links, even if I had to work a bit harder to get through it, I’d come out the other side with more meat and more juice.

Links, you see, do so much more than just whisk us from one Web page to another. They are not just textual tunnel-hops or narrative chutes-and-ladders. Links, properly used, don’t just pile one “And now this!” upon another. They tell us, “This relates to this, which relates to that.”

Links announce our presence. They show a writer’s work. They are badges of honesty, inviting readers to check that work. They demonstrate fairness. They can be simple gestures of communication; they can be complex signifiers of meaning. They make connections between things. They add coherence. They build context.

If I can get all that in return, why would I begrudge the link-wielding writer a few more seconds of my time, a little more of my mental effort?

Let’s take these positive aspects of linking in ascending order of importance.

Links say “hello.”

A link to another site can serve as a way of telling that site, “I just said something about you.” This invites spammy abuse, of course. But it remains an elegantly simple device. Many bloggers still check their referrers today as they did a decade ago in the early days of weblogging. High-traffic sites can’t and won’t bother paying much attention to this, but out in the middle and nether reaches of the Web-traffic curve, this kind of link remains a valid and valuable social gesture.

Links show a writer’s work.

Any post or page with hand-selected links provides a record of the writer’s research, reading and sourcing. Some people are happier with this stuff collected at the end, as we did for centuries in print. But linking in situ gives the reader the information right where it’s needed. (If reading a link adds to “cognitive load,” surely the effort of scanning down to a footnote or, even worse, flipping back to an endnote piles on even heftier brain-freight.)

Links keep us honest and fair.

If you’re quoting someone and you link to the original, you’re saying to the reader, “Check my work — see if I’ve presented the other person’s point of view accurately and fairly.” This provides a powerful check on bullying and misrepresentation. It’s the rant without links, the disconnected diatribe, that’s suspect.

In a media environment where a dwindling number of participants believes that objectivity is either possible or desirable, the best yardstick for fairness we have is this: does a writer present the perspectives of those he disagrees with in a way that they feel is fair? Linking to those perspectives is a way for a writer to say: Go ahead — see if I got you right.

Links enhance trust.

Let me quote Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen, from 1999 (in a text I reread thanks to a link I followed from a discussion of my earlier post at Crooked Timber):

Not being afraid to link to other sites is a sign of confidence, and third-party sites are much more credible than anything you can say yourself. Isolated sites feel like they have something to hide.

Links knit context into the Web.

Most Web critiques includes ritual denunciation of the medium’s disconnected, fragmentary nature. And certainly there are plenty of fragments out there in HTTP-land. But the disconnected ones, by definition, don’t get read much. We read the posts and pages that get widely linked to.

A fragment that gets connected is no longer a fragment. It becomes a working part, a piece of a mosaic, a strand in a web. (There’s a reason these words are embedded in Internet history.)

It always amazes me to hear the complaint that the Web doesn’t provide readers with enough context. Then I realize that this criticism is usually made by print journalists. They are accustomed to having their words acquire a bountiful context on paper. Then, typically, their work is spat onto the Web by an automated content-management system — and served up without a link in sight.

Theirs is an experience of loss of context. But for the rest of us, writing for the Web offers more frequent and potent opportunities to give our words context than we’ve ever had before.

What pages shall we connect our words to? We have the entire rest of the Web to choose from! And the choices we make say worlds about our writing.

The context that links provide comes in two flavors: explicit and implicit. Explicit context is the actual information you need to understand what you’re reading. Here’s what I mean, if I can go all recursive on you for a moment: Let’s say you landed on this article out of nowhere. Someone sent you a link. (Now, right there Carr and the link-skeptics might say, “”There’s the problem! If you were reading a magazine or a book, that would never happen.” To which I can only say, if the opportunity to receive pointers to interesting reading from a network of friends is a problem, it’s one I am very happy to have.)

So you land on my page and you might well have no idea what I’m talking about, since this is part three of a series. Links make it easy for me to show you where to catch up. If you don’t have time for that, links let me orient you more quickly in my first paragraph with reference to Carr’s post. I can do all this without having to slow down those readers who’ve been following from the start with summaries and synopses. Again, even if the links that achieve this do demand a small fee from your working brain (which remains an unproven hypothesis), I’d say that’s a fair price.

By implicit context, I mean something a little more elusive: The links you put into a piece of writing tell a story (or, if you will, a meta-story) about you and what you’ve written. They say things like: What sort of company does this writer keep? Who does she read? What kind of stuff do her links point to — New Yorker articles? Personal blogs? Scholarly papers? Are the choices diverse or narrow? Are they obvious or surprising? Are they illuminating or puzzling? Generous or self-promotional?

Links, in other words, transmit meaning, but they also communicate mindset and style. By this, I don’t mean “stylish linking.” There have been fads in linking — the first and best-known was probably the playfully ironic, self-deprecating style pioneered by in 1995 (I wrote about it in Salon a long time ago). They come and go, just as catch-phrases and tics in casual writing do. As with other link mannerisms, remnants of the Suck style survive in a few places; but mostly, Web users have rejected the practice of links that obscure or misdirect or joke. We prefer links that clarify.

The history of Web linking has been a long chronicle of controversies we didn’t need to have: irrelevant debates over issues like so-called deep linking (if you really don’t want to be linked to, why are you on the public Web?) or the notion of a power-law-driven A-list in blogging (if you want to become a celebrity, other media are far more efficient). To this list, we can now add the “delinkification” dustup.

It’s hard to imagine the benefit for ourselves, or for the Web, of a general retreat from linking. Writing on the Web without linking is like making a movie without cutting. Sure, it can be done; there might even be a few situations where it makes sense. But most of the time, it’s just head-scratchingly self-limiting. To choose not to link is to abandon the medium’s most powerful tool — the thing that makes the Web a web.

A long time ago, I wrote a column titled Fear of Links about the then-burgeoning movement of webloggers. I urged professional writers to stop looking down their noses at links and those who make them: “A journalist who today disdains the very notion of providing links to readers may tomorrow find himself without a job.”

That was 1999. Today, we live in that piece’s “tomorrow.”

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  1. James Evans

    Right on. Links are like citations and footnotes, sure sometimes they distract, but generally that distraction is the result of me (the reader) finding something else I need to know.

  2. Good stuff, but in my view, the linking question is a second-order concern. The number of links tells you almost nothing about the quality of the piece. Links are no more inherently righteous than a solid bibliography or set of footnotes. And it’s abundantly clear that some bloggers have the idea that, if you ain’t got nothin’ to say, bamboozle ’em with links.

  3. Rebecca

    I read all three of your posts about Links with much interest, and went so far as to click over and read Nicholas Carr’s piece as well. Then I followed a couple of his links to the Salon site and the Neuroethics at the Core site, read those posts and many of the comments.

    I’m currently a student in a master’s level professional writing program at Kennesaw State University and am taking a class on Writing for the Web. You raise some interesting questions – as does Nicholas Carr – about the use of links, though I think after reading through all the posts and the related sites, I am falling on the side of agreeing with you.

    When I read through your posts, I read all three without clicking any of the links. I read all the comments. Then, I went back and clicked over to Carr’s site and found that I was annoyed by the fact that I was reading about these experiments that were taking place and yet I was going to have to Google to find them so I could see them for myself. Of course, halfway through I had the duh! moment and realized that he would have all the links placed at the end of his post, which he did.

    I then visited the Salon site and read the review of Carr’s book, with links all posted at the end. This one did not annoy me, one because she stated early on that she was posting the links at the end; and two, because she didn’t write anything that interested me enough to probe further. I did, however, read through a good bit of the comments of the Salon article and thought that Carr’s take on the comments was interesting. He wrote: “But if you read through the (many) comments her review provoked, you will hear a chorus of approval for removing links from text.” There were many (96) comments, but I did not find a “chorus of approval” for removing links throughout an article and placing them at the end.

    Granted, I only read a little more than half but there was a wide variety of discontent about many things interspersed throughout those comments, including itself, television, Tolstoy, the Internet, the other commenters, etc. The comments certainly did not constitute an overwhelming approval of Carr’s argument and some plainly stated that it was nonsense.

    I do feel that many sites, as you said, use pervasive links for purposes of upping their Google rankings or bringing in ad revenue. And many sites are designed in such a way that it is impossible to read even the smallest of text without becoming instantly distracted. However, there are also plenty of sites that do use links judiciously to inform and enhance the experience of the reader. I support that practice.

    And, apparently, so does Nicholas Carr. As part of my unofficial research, I went back to Carr’s site and checked out the posts after the May posting. While he uses links judiciously, he does use them and not just at the end of the article, as he seemed to promote back in May. However, I think any of his posts stand as a good example of the correct use of links — they are spare and seem to link only back to the referred article or text.

  4. The notion that blogs follow or followed a power-law distribution is a statistical myth, born of shoddy data analysis. A long-tailed distribution, yes, and for the purposes of this discussion, that’s probably enough; but an actual power law, no, not likely.

  5. Scott Rosenberg

    Blake, thanks for that link. I spent a lot of time researching that controversy for Say Everything but never saw that analysis. Did Clay Shirky ever respond to it that you know?

  6. Thanks for this post. I have always equated links with easier-to-use footnotes. I don’t read all footnotes and I click on few links, but I don’t see how they slow things down much.

    In my own writing, I have gone back and forth on the quantity of links to supply. I don’t want to look spammy, but some subjects are rich with related content–the context you talked about. For example, this piece on Christians facing persecution ( could have used even more links. But sites like won’t allow any links above the fold (is that like saying no footnotes on the first page?). And only one “self-serving” link, by which they mean to anything I have ever written or worked on. That seems like overkill in the pursuit of spammers.

    Thanks for the insights. It is helpful in my search for the right out-bound and in-bound links.

  7. > or the notion of a power-law-driven A-list in blogging (if you want to become a celebrity, other media are far more efficient)

    Strawman. The point is that IF YOU’RE NOT ON THE A-LIST, YOU DON’T GET HEARD! This was debunking the evangelism of the time, the sales-pitch that the web was a way for the little guy to have voice. Except it turned out that a few thundered from on-high, while everyone else squeaks at the bottom.

    Typically, when this comes up, a bunch of misdirections are trotted out, per comments. Here:

    1) It’s not strictly a certain mathematical shape.

    Yes, but the structure is heavily, heavily, oriented towards domination by the BigHead (per topic).

    2) The total number of links in the bottom outweighs the top.

    The total number of conversations in bars outweighs the network news audience too – that’s a misleading base fallacy.

    3) You do get heard, by whoever hears you, be grateful for that.
    4) It’s more than the old days.

    Bait-and-switch. It’s harmful to be personally attacked by someone who can smear you to an audience of *orders of magnitude* more than you can defend.

    5) Even A-listers have limited influence in the grand scheme of things

    Indeed, but this distracts from the fact that Z-listers have none at all, and were being sold the Web and blogging as a means of having significant influence.

    Nick Carr did a great post about this, in his pre-Shallows days:

    “The Great Unread”

    Anyway, this is not to endorse Nick Carr’s quasi-neurological critique, which I find extremely unconvincing myself, and have disputed also. But the social rebuttal is also problematic, per fallacies above.

  8. Scott Rosenberg

    Seth, I don’t think you and I are ever going to agree about this. But here’s a couple things to chew on:

    (1) “were being sold the Web and blogging as a means of having significant influence.” I’m not selling anything. I recommend being wary of anyone who is. Anyone who starts blogging out of a desire to “have significant influence” should be advised that that’s highly unlikely.

    (2) My case for blogging — here and in SAY EVERYTHING — has always rested on its value outside of commerce and politics. The opportunity to write in public is an opportunity to learn. It’s good for us that this opportunity is distributed so much more widely today.

    (3) I do believe that blogging is a relatively more permeable environment than more traditional media, though less so over time. But even if it weren’t it would still be a Good Thing. That’s why, to me, the whole A-list argument is the red herring/straw man.

  9. Scott, briefly, when you say “controversies we didn’t need to have”, the phrase “we” is subject to much mischief. The marks being sold blog snake-oil benefit enormously from having it debunked, even if, for the sake of discussion, you were not selling it yourself. What you neglect is there is also a substantial opportunity to be exploited, in the manner of vanity press. And note, vanity press hucksters have similar arguments about writing being a Good Thing, and the fact that nobody reads the book is thus irrelevant (again, not to say anything against you personally, but just note the problem in the argument).

    I think there’s a deep connection here to a flaw in your rebuttal to Nick Carr on social grounds – to list only the positives, and to dismiss the negatives, is to provide a unreasonable estimate of worth (note much of your points above about honesty, etc could be satisfied by endnotes, so don’t really apply to links _per se_).

  10. Kevin O'Gorman

    I very much enjoyed your series of articles on links. I guess link detractors are fixated on the idea that the web should be faithful renditions of print forms be they books, magazine articles, etc. To me reading on the web is a different experience from reading a book. I’m happy to engage in both modes for discovering meaning.

  11. Scott, thanks for saying what needed to be said. I believe time and popular usage will favor your pro-link views. Folks will laugh about this argument in ten years the way we’d laugh today about concerns that photos or illustrations within articles distort their textual purity or that real news only comes from newspapers.

    When I see an article in 2010 without links, I assume it’s been produced or distributed generically – the links not surviving mastication as they move from author to whatever app/site is showing the material. Exceptions are fiction and internal dialog, neither of which need external reference.

    I love the name of your blog, btw. Wordyard evokes images of rivet-clanging, hardhat throngs in manmade industrial cradles raised to build ships that take men to sea.

  12. I think all of these is a case of the guards guarding the other guards. We are very,very social beings and it is instict that led us from sign language to links. And its also instict for people to follow our links and learn from them. So, thank you to all who thinks links are not very…let’s call it–“not really necessary”. At least you read our stuff.

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