We’ve been using linear text for centuries. Ever since written language became — well — written, we’ve been stringing words together into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into stories or essays or arguments. It’s very familiar. Pick up a book. Start at page one. Read every word, in order, until you get to the end. It’s easy.
About 45 years ago, people started talking about this thing called “hypertext.” Hypertext is kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure story. As you’re reading, you can follow hyperlinks to other information about a particular topic. As a writer, this allows you to have much more detail in your writing than most people would want to read. It also allows you to cite sources for the arguments you’re making.
Look at the previous paragraph as an example. If you read the first sentence, you might wonder what hypertext is. If you click the link, you’ll find that it goes to a Wikipedia article that tells you more than you ever wanted to know about it. If you know about hypertext, but doubt my claim that it has been around for 45 years, you can click on the “about 45 years ago” link. This will take you to an article about Ted Nelson, who founded Project Xanadu in 1960. What’s Project Xanadu? Click on the link two sentences back to find out. None of this information is critical for you, my reader. You’ll get a basic understanding of hypertext just by reading the text I’ve written in this post. But if you want more in-depth information, it is provided in a non-intrusive way.
That brings us to perhaps the most successful implementation of hypertext, the World Wide Web. Here you are, reading this blog post, which is essentially just a document on a web server. But the hyperlinks provide connections to other documents on other web servers that could be anywhere in the world. By publishing hypertext online, we are creating our own links, our own connections between different ideas.
Take this example: There’s a book on my bookshelf called Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. It’s a book examining the connections between the works of mathematician Kurt Gödel, artist M. C. Escher, and composer J. S. Bach. Where would you go in the library to find this book? If it’s a book on mathematics, Dewey would put it in the 510s. If it’s about art, it would go in the 740s or 760s. If it’s a music book, it belongs in the 780s. If it’s primarily about these three people, you might find it in the biographies over in the 920s. Sure, you can check the library catalog to find it, but its classification is relatively arbitrary. It can’t belong to more than one category at the same time.
But the web is different. We decide how ideas are connected, and what is related. Just create a web page or a blog post, and you can tie any ideas together just by making links to them.
Now, take a look at what I haven’t done in this post. The hypertext augments the text. It provides supporting information. This post should stand on its own, even without the links. Sure, they help the argument and provide clarification, but they’re not strictly necessary to get something out of this text.
Compare this approach to the following picture:
The words “Click here.” are a link to a PDF file. One could argue that the text loses a lot of its meaning if you don’t follow the link. The link doesn’t really provide supporting information; it provides all of the information. You could make the point, I suppose, that this article exists just to provide a link to the PDF file. But we’re making the reader jump through unnecessary hoops just to see what this item is about.
Let’s take a less extreme example. This one is from an old post on Midnight Musings:
This one isn’t nearly as bad. But the “details here” links could have been avoided by just linking the relevant text. In most cases, I tend to either highlight my point, or the part that needs the clarification or the source. For example, I would make “10 times more frequently” the first link, and “already been distributed” the second one. If I had a link to pictures of the city in 2005 and 2007, I would link to them from “still look like they did.” If I had a list of federal fund allocations for Katrina relief, I would link to them from “allotted federal funds.” See how this works?
Be nice to your readers. Provide links if they help clarify something. Don’t rely on the links to tell the whole story. Give them some context. And don’t let the links get in the way.