To link or not to link – and how?

In a post on Salon.com about adding links to posts, (http://www.salon.com/technology/feature/2010/06/06/nick_carr_readability), Karen Templer writes about Nikk Carr’s new book, The Shallows, discussing the impact of hyperlinking on reader comprehension and intelligence. There’s also a related but less crucial discussion about whether hyperlinked material should be linked from the main text, or linked from footnotes or endnotes that are collected and organized for readers who care, where they can be bypassed by readers who don’t.

Basically, there appear to be two main schools of thought.

There’s the stupid, wrong-headed, dumb, and moronic view that it’s OK to make any word a hyperlink, even without including enough context to give readers a hint about the meaning of that hyperlinked word (which might be only a generic marker like the words “this” or “here”). Eric Alterman, smart but arrogant, does this kind of linking to the point of rendering whole paragraphs of his column totally unintelligible unless you follow those hyperlinks to find what the f*** he’s talking about. To the extent a writer leaves the meaning of a written piece “out there” in the links, instead of directly within the current text, he or she is forcing readers to click on these links.

Then there’s the perfectly reasonable and smart idea that hyperlinks should be considered an option for readers to utilize or not as they see fit. In this view, a written piece should be perfectly understandable without ever forcing readers to click on a single link. Material “out there” in the links might add to the depth and breadth, the background, perhaps even the nuances of the message (as do my links, above), but links are not a place for what’s essential.

I subscribe to this second view, and I wish everyone else would.

To be fair, I should mention a third way, in which the writer gives some general information and also gives a specific example or list of details hidden behind a hyperlink. As used by Patrick Smith, writing in Salon, it goes like this:

“I can’t tell you for sure what might work, but I can tell you with reasonable certainty which measures won’t work: some of the most oft-touted ideas among them. For details, click here.” The link on “here” will take the highly interested reader to “http://www.askthepilot.com/questions-and-answers/chapter-3/#c3-q18”. The rest of us can just pass it by.

Lately, I’ve stopped clicking on almost all the links I’m offered, unless the material is just so interesting that I want to wring out of it every single drop of meaning, nuance, implication, side-talk and background. But if a writer is so impudent, arrogant, and controlling to make the main text unintelligible without my following hyperlinks, then I now refuse to do him/her the honor of reading it.

It’s not like there’s a shortage of good things to read.

And it’s not like most of these overly hyperlinked pieces are so important that my life will be impoverished or threatened if I pass them by.

Where do you stand on this question of whether and when to hyperlink? What are your hyperlink preferences for writing? for reading?

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