Links Don't Chop Up The Web — They Knit It Together

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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 criticised 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 civilisation, 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 realise 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 flavours: 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-sceptics 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.”

This post originally appeared at Wordyard and is republished here with permission.  It 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.

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