Links have become an essential part of how I write, and also part of how I read. Given a choice between reading something on paper and reading it online, I much prefer reading online: I can follow up on an article’s links to explore source material, gain a deeper understanding of a complex point, or just look up some term of art with which I’m unfamiliar.There is, I think, nothing unusual about this today. So I was flummoxed earlier this year when Nicholas Carr started a campaign against the humble link, and found at least partial support from some other estimable writers (among them Laura Miller, Marshall Kirkpatrick, Jason Fry and Ryan Chittum). Carr’s “delinkification” critique is part of a larger argument contained in his book “The Shallows.” I read the book this summer and plan to write about it more. But for now let’s zero in on Carr’s case against links, on pages 126-129 of his book as well as in his “delinkification” post.The nub of Carr’s argument is that every link in a text imposes “a little cognitive load” that makes reading less efficient. Each link forces us to ask, “Should I click?” As a result, Carr wrote in the “delinkification” post, “People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form.”This appearance of the word “hypertext” is a tipoff to one of the big problems with Carr’s argument: it mixes up two quite different visions of linking.…For Carr and his sympathizers, links impede understanding; I believe that they deepen it. Back in 1997 Steven Johnson (in his book “Interface Culture”) made the case for links as a tool for synthesis — “a way of drawing connections between things,” a device that creates “threads of association,” a means to bring coherence to our overflowing cornucopia of information. The Web’s links don’t make it a vast wasteland or a murky shallows; they organize and enrich it.…Links, you see, do so much more than just whisk us from one Web page to another. They are not just textual tunnel-hops or narrative chutes-and-ladders. Links, properly used, don’t just pile one “And now this!” upon another. They tell us, “This relates to this, which relates to that.”
Thank you. I remember reading about Carr’s campaign a while ago and being mystified. I’ve always loved the ability to link, for aesthetics as much as the extra informational content. Prose is able to flow much more smoothly when you don’t have to break it up in order to add a long-winded, explanatory parenthetical aside, and I find footnotes in a book to be far more distracting than links on a webpage.