Warning sign on chain link fence, German, image source: wikimedia.org

Too many links, a pause for delinkification

hyperlink hysteria
Touch this link, go on …

A couple recent articles around author Nicholas Carr’s writings present a negative symptom of hyperlinks, mainly: reduced reader comprehension. The hyperlink or “link” issue is a negative affect for the reader to process and understand.

Mr. Carr’s call? Delinkification.

Is the effort to hyperlink a hyper waste?

Search engine optimization (SEO) aside, for the moment, the whole goal of communication is to be understood. I find Carr’s thoughts on what hyperlinks are doing relevant to social media communication and marketing.

Well, the recent Wired article is subtly title:  The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains that title will grab your attention – for a second or two. The premise: too many links reduce reader attention, lower reader comprehension.

I often get befuddled when I think about the page I’m on and how I got there? What was the original article or link?

Worse yet, what did I came looking for or was intrigued by, to find myself here, and now, where am I? Apologies to Lewis Carroll, I do often find myself down a rabbit hole …

Back in the 1980s…there was much enthusiasm about the apparent advantages of digital documents over paper ones. Many educators were convinced that introducing hyperlinks into text displayed on monitors would be a boon to learning. Hypertext would strengthen critical thinking, the argument went, by enabling students to switch easily between different viewpoints. Freed from the lockstep reading demanded by printed pages, readers would make all sorts of new intellectual connections between diverse works. The hyperlink would be a technology of liberation.

By the end of the decade, the enthusiasm was turning to skepticism. Research was painting a fuller, very different picture of the cognitive effects of hypertext. Navigating linked documents, it turned out, entails a lot of mental calisthenics—evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats—that are extraneous to the process of reading. Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension. A 1989 study showed that readers tended just to click around aimlessly when reading something that included hypertext links to other selected pieces of information. A 1990 experiment revealed that some “could not remember what they had and had not read.”

Hyperlink Hysteria

However, the web’s hyperlink [strangely, the word hyper seems an all-too-accurate explanation of our attention span] system does seem to increase certain functions, but this is at the decrease of other, important functions.

The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it. There’s the problem of hypertext and the many different kinds of media coming at us simultaneously. There’s also the fact that numerous studies—including one that tracked eye movement, one that surveyed people, and even one that examined the habits displayed by users of two academic databases—show that we start to read faster and less thoroughly as soon as we go online.

A 2009 review of more than 40 studies looked at the effects of various types of media on intelligence and learning ability concluded “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.”

Plus, the Internet has a hundred ways of distracting us from our onscreen reading. Most email applications check automatically for new messages every five or 10 minutes, and people routinely click the Check for New Mail button even more frequently. Office workers often glance at their inbox 30 to 40 times an hour. Since each glance breaks our concentration and burdens our working memory, the cognitive penalty can be severe.

While I might make an argument that SEO hyperlink strategies expose you to a larger audience of potential readers, if those readers don’t get what you are presenting or writing, what is that value? What is the value of half-understood blogs? Half-read public relations articles? Half-read news releases?

There are enough barriers already and it seems we constantly navigate some communication obstacle course.

Link to Site or Cite

The ultimate trump to hyperlinks is compelling content, always. But you can not provide compelling content [and I am guilty of this] when you have a bunch of hyperlinks buzzing around people’s head, distracting more than contributing.

A solution to this might be to use more end notes or references at the end of the post? That might let a reader read without interruption:  the old research paper method.

And on Rough Type, Nicholas Carr’s own blog, that seems to be his alternative, with reason:

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.

I don’t want to overstate the cognitive penalty produced by the hyperlink (or understate the link’s allure and usefulness), but the penalty seems to be real, and we should be aware of it.

But is this progress from the paper-based world?

I’m not sure we need to push the envelope on everything.

Again, what is your goal? My goal is to be understood, not just to blast out blog posts no one reads or understands in the name of good SEO.

We’ve seen spammers since the 90s try creating flashy, and flashing, web-based neon signs to get our attention, let’s take a pause from multi-tasking, from communication saturation for single-tasking and for comprehension.

Let’s not call this a new issue, I found a blog post using hyperlinks as an engine optimization tool from 2004 bringing up many of the same points. Something I missed before.4

telwin amajorc nicholas carr "the shallows:  what the internet is doing to our brains" amazon.com buy book

The Shallows:  What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

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