Don’t save your links for the end — it’s more distracting!

One of the humble yet essential uses of the link is to help us avoid having to repeat what others have already said. I make no great claim to novelty for my “Defense of Links” series; much of what I said, others had already expressed earlier this year when Carr first floated his “delinkification” meme. In particular, Jason Fry’s excellent post at Nieman Lab surveyed the ground well.

Fry talked about the role of links in three areas: credibility, readability and connectivity. “Readability” is plainly the area where Carr had the most provocative and defensible case against links. My motivation from the start was to examine that case closely and evaluate the studies it was based on — to follow the links, as it were.

I found that the studies Carr relied on really didn’t support his case. Just as interesting to me was the fact that a lengthy and in-depth discussion of Carr’s argument had unfolded on the Web without anyone actually looking up the research. Would that have happened had Carr provided links to these studies? (That’s possible on a blog but not, of course, in print. Still, one can publish endnotes online and activate the links, as I have for both of my books. Carr’s book site is quite the link desert, which I guess should not surprise.)

Fry asked a question that several respondents to my series echoed: ” Is opening links in new tabs really so different from links at the end of the piece?” For me, it is: ironically, the end-linking style is, I think, far more distracting than simple inline linking.

If you’re reading along and feel the desire to dig deeper on some point and the link is right there, you can just open the link in a new tab. If it’s not, you don’t know whether the author has provided a link or not. You have an unhappy choice. You can file the question away in your brain to make sure you remember to check once you reach the end of the article (now there’s a cognitive load). Or you can stop reading and scroll down to the bottom of the story to look for the link, which involves reviewing the whole list, figuring out whether the link you seek is actually there, clicking on it if it is, and then scrolling back to the top to find where you were. All of which thoroughly disrupts the deep reading Carr aims to protect far more thoroughly than a handful of highlighted link-words.

For instance, when I read Carr’s “Delinkification” post and saw his references to the “cognitive penalty” of links, I wanted to know where the studies were that supported this claim. There are no links inline, but I knew the whole post was about the experiment of putting links at the end, so I went on a wild goose chase to the bottom of the post hoping to find the studies linked there. (They’re not.) How can this possibly serve the reader’s concentration?

Those with long memories will recall that the original incarnation of Slate, driven by Michael Kinsley’s naivete about the Web, actually employed links-at-the-end as a policy. The magazine gave it up some time later. Turns out Carr’s “experiment” already had some in-the-field results. (You can see what this looks like on this Internet Archive capture of a Jacob Weisberg piece from 1999.)

I got into some of this argument in the comments at Scott Esposito’s thoughtful response to my series. Mathew Ingram at GigaOm provided a nice summary of my lengthier musings. I would also recommend Brian Frank’s rich philosophical take.

Tomorrow, wider thoughts on The Shallows, which of course addresses far more than links!

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