To Link Or Not To Link?

This is more about blogging than football, but Nicholas Carr at Rough Type has a provocative piece about the potential distraction that links in blog posts provide that I would be interested in hearing your opinion on:

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.

At Pitch Invasion, our essays usually feature plenty of links, though while Peter Wilt peppers his weekly pieces with often very clever and even sometimes snide links (that provide a commentary on the topic linked), others here like Andrew Guest are more restrained, though he still uses links to note where information has come and to provide further reading — often very helpfully.

But is this all distracting our brains from properly processing the points being made in the text?

One solution from Nicholas Carr? Instead of inline linking, collecting all the links at the end:

Laura Miller, in her Salon review of The Shallows, put all her links at the end of the piece rather than sprinkling them through the text. She asked readers to comment on what they thought of the format. As with Gillmor’s early experiments, Miller’s seemed a little silly on first take. The Economist writer Tom Standage tweeted a chortle: “Ho Ho.” But if you read through the (many) comments her review provoked, you will hear a chorus of approval for removing links from text. Here’s a typical response:

Collecting all the URLs into a single block of text at the end of the article works very well. It illustrates Carr’s point, and it improves the experience of reading the article. It also shows more respect for the reader – it assumes that we’ve actually thought about what we’ve read. (Which is not to say that all readers merit that level of respect.)

The comments to Carr’s piece delve further into other possible solutions, such as using CSS to hide links unless the user mouses-over looking for a link — though I suspect this would prove more distracting, as users “hunt” for links with their pointers.

In general, I wonder: should we try essays here without links in the text?

Comments are closed.