The Hyperlink Grows Up: The Times Releases New Linking Features

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Almost sneakily, the New York Times rolled out an update of the trusty hyperlink on its website's stories. New code embedded in the pages allows you to link to and highlight individual paragraphs and even sentences. The changes seem especially significant for bloggers who want to call attention to specific portions of Times' stories.

Here's how it works. In the story above, the base URL is: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/01/world/americas/01colombia.html

While the Times' system is the most sophisticated linking system I've ever seen, it's not entirely unprecedented. Paragraph-level links were first executed by Dave Winer on his website and have since even appeared in a Wordpress plugin created by wunderkind Daniel Bachhuber. Winer points out that the Times' implementation isn't quite perfect, as it can be broken when a story is updated.

The linking system is sufficiently complicated that I don't think it has been designed for every day users. Rather, it's a much-appreciated addition for us power users, who routinely link to the Times.

Still, I think the deepening of the information contained in a hyperlink is significant. Even a small change to one of the fundamental structures on the Internet could end up having far-reaching (and not necessarily salutary) impacts.

Take URL shorteners like bit.ly. Until their rise, when you saw a link, you knew, at the very least, to which domain it would take you. Now, that's not always so clear. URL shorteners made linking on Twitter more convenient, but less safe and harder to scan. Another way of thinking about it: they made a little more work for the linker and linkee, in exchange for a reduction in characters. The whole thing is a net loss. Still, given how Twitter works, it was a necessity.

On the other hand, the Times' linking system is a win for everyone, I think. It makes a little more work for the linker, but has the potential to seriously reduce and clarify which has been linked. It's a positive evolution of the hyperlink and I hope other sites take note and get busy.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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