Internet Heresy: The Case Against Hyperlinks

Nick Carr questions Web orthodoxy

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Are links like this distracting? Nicholas Carr thinks so. The technology writer--and author of Is Google Making Us Stupid?--argues that people who read text with links understand less information than people who read the same material in printed form. He describes links as a "technologically advanced form of a footnote" that violently distracts us from what we're reading:

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.

On its face, Carr's argument seems pretty reasonable. Isn't your brain curious what this underlined, light-blue font leads to? However, Carr is ultimately advocating that we remove internal links and relocate them at the footer of a post. That would make for a radically different Internet from the one we use today. A number of Carr's fellow technology writers jump on his case:

  • Ahem, Linking Is Less Distracting, counters Chris Edwards, an editor at Engineering & Technology: "Inline linking became popular largely due to blogging and is useful because it allows you to construct a post quickly - all I have to do is put in the link and assume if the reader is not up to speed on the subject they will click to find out. Those that are aware of what's at the end of the link don't have to read through yet another description of what the link's endpoint says, which is what happens if you bung the links at the end (and then provide some more description to remind people what the links are all about). So, I'd argue for someone who is aware of a thread of stories, the inline link format is less distracting because the knowledgeable reader does not have to wade through stuff they already know."
  • Other Benefits to Internal Linking Marshall Kirkpatrick at Read Write Web offers: "I like to add links out to other sources at every opportunity in order to enrich what I'm writing, to broaden the conversation, and frankly because I think linking to other blogs is a good faith way to encourage other blogs to link to us. To act as if our blog is the only place online to learn about what's important is the height of arrogance and a real disservice to readers. Internal linking is good business practice, but I think a balance is best... Most major blogs that put links in the footer of a post appear to do so as a formality, just to acknowledge debt to another blog but in the least likely way that readers would click off site to visit those other sources."
  • Not Providing Links Is Cowardly, argues Matthew Ingram, a senior writer at GigaOm: "I think not including links (which a surprising number of web writers still don't) is in many cases a sign of intellectual cowardice. What it says is that the writer is unprepared to have his or her ideas tested by comparing them to anyone else's, and is hoping that no one will notice. In other cases, it's a sign of intellectual arrogance -- a sign that the writer believes these ideas sprang fully formed from his or her brain, like Athena from Zeus's forehead, and have no link to anything that another person might have thought or written. Either way, getting rid of links is a failure on the writer's part."
  • Maybe Carr's on to Something, concedes Daniel Tunkelang, a technology blogger who works for Google. Though skeptical of Carr's argument, he opens the question up to readers of his blog: "I'm curious what folks here-especially long-time readers-think. Do I link so heavily that it's distracting? Would it be easier to read my posts if the links were in a block at the end? I write for you, so please let me know how I can make this blog better. I don't have the resources to conduct cognitive load experiments, but I'm very receptive to comments."
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