Rick Poynor | Essays

This Post has Been Declared a Link-free Zone

Top Google image search results for “links” (with a tip of the hat to Rob Walker)
Design Observer front page picture of 
“The Links” by Anne at ilike.org.uk

One of the simple satisfactions of writing online is putting in links, though I didn’t always see it that way. When I started blogging on Design Observer in 2003 I viewed the links as a bit of a chore and my earliest posts don’t contain many. We had yet to semi-automate the process and it was time-consuming and fiddly work. More than this, though, I thought that links would be a distraction from writing I hoped would be interesting enough in its own right to hold the reader’s attention.

But that was a long time ago and I soon came round. Today, when working on a post, I look forward to planting links that will shoot their tendrils outwards from the text. I want the links to be truly useful and I spend time trying to pick good ones. I work on the basis of an idealized image of a super-motivated reader who will be so committed to the subject that she will want to pursue every lead I can offer. In reality, this extra production effort is not such a stretch. I always gained a similar satisfaction from providing endnotes with proper citations in my books. I don’t expect everything I read to be written in an academic manner, but still I hate it when book authors withhold their sources. I don’t entirely trust this reticence and as a reader I feel cheated; the writers are denying me the chance to check things for myself and pursue new directions.

My most obsessively intensive link-fest came in 2008 in the two-part dialogue about film that I conducted for Design Observer with my friend and colleague Adrian Shaughnessy. That 9,000-word text contains around 175 links and the project amounted to weeks of work. Of course, digital is not forever, and some of these carefully garnered and inserted links are already dead. If you like cinema, though, give those posts a look — there is still a dense network of information to be found there.

I could have made that task a breeze for you by supplying a couple of links. I wanted to. But this post, as I gave fair warning in the title, is a link-free zone so if you really want to see that dialogue you will have to search “We Found It at the Movies” Part I and Part II. But stop! Don’t do it now. I’d much prefer you to keep on reading. You can always look them up later.

The signs are that many of us struggle these days to read in a concerted, attentive and linear fashion. In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that we have become incredibly adept at flitting from one thing to another, filtering, selecting and absorbing little bursts of information as we go. The screen environment, with its many competing nodes of interest, encourages this kind of scanning and scavenging, and we readily embrace every kind of electronic information source, priding ourselves on our quicksilver modern ability to multi-task.

But the part of our brain that used to be good at concentrating on a single activity for hours at a time 10 or 20 years ago, allowing us to follow intricate arguments in a long book, no longer works so well, according to Carr and the sources he cites. (He also has interesting things to say about the brain’s plasticity.) Today, we feel constantly distracted. There are always so many other things we could be looking at or checking. Lengthy, linear texts now seem like a very long-winded way of absorbing information that could surely be delivered much quicker. An amusing numbered list would be perfect. Just give us the bullet points. The paradox of the ebook is that it is sold as, and offers, a book-like experience with even more scope for distraction: simply click on this word in the middle of the paragraph you are reading to break off and watch a film.

And it isn’t only books that are causing problems. I’m always amazed by the number of young people, members of the digital generation, who tell me they can’t possibly read on a computer screen. Carr talks about the F-shaped reading pattern revealed by eye-tracking studies. The eye sweeps across the top part of the reading material and then it moves down and does the same thing again. After that is just tails off feebly down the left side. A bit of scanning is still going on, but reading has stopped. Any second now the fidgety, reluctant viewer will probably zip off to an ad, check out a tweet, or click on a link. Jakob Nielsen has a whole web page on this, complete with eye-tracking heat maps, which I’m sorry to say I can’t link to here.

Still with me? Great! Let’s stick it to those F-shaped “reading” patterns. I appreciate your unusually dogged powers of persistence, but I also don’t want to exhaust your patience, so I’ll cut to the chase, which is actually a dilemma. I love the possibilities of the medium and I want my texts to join hands in friendship with the infinity of other interlinked texts, rather than just floating in isolation. So rest assured that next time I post normal service will be resumed: there will be many salient links. Nevertheless, it seems to be asking a lot of you, the beleaguered online reader, to deal with both a longish essay and an in-built link-athon while also monitoring a plethora of other inputs. (Incidentally, you have to admire our sister channel, Places. Everything they publish is uncompromisingly huge.) Maybe providing too many pathways is just self-defeating now.

That’s enough speculation, though. What’s your own experience of reading on screen?

Posted in: Media, Technology

Comments [9]

If the writing is good enough, I pay attention.

While travelling recently, I read Bram Stoker's Dracula on my iPhone. While missing the joy of having the book as an object - of having a visual thing which would absorb my memory of the story, a thing which I could then stick on a shelf at home - I think I enjoyed the narrative just as much on screen as I would have on the page.

As for being distracted by links? Well, we're all grown ups, well used to having to focus while other things beg for our attention. I don't find it too much of a chore to open a link in another tab to read later. And actually, I'd say the opposite is true. If an online piece of text fails to provide a decent (and intelligent) set of links, I'll feel cheated, as if the writer is hogging his sources.
Alistair Hall

Good stuff, as always, Mr. Poynor. Read it all the way through and am now searching for a couple of your mentions. Bravo!

A technical point – long line lengths get me distracted, print or screen. And newer monitors/higher resolutions make some texts automatically smaller all of a sudden. Is 16pt screen text the new 11pt print text?

I wear bi-focals now and its hell. Developing…

Joe Moran

Rick- i never looked at this perspective-this is it perhaps: "I want my texts to join hands in friendship with the infinity of other interlinked texts, rather than just floating in isolation." Maybe that's what's disconcerting about being connected while reading. It removes an associated solitude in some way.

I think the distraction may have less to do with in-line links and more to do with the design of the website.

News related sites and popular blogs, often tend to have excessive contextual promotions for 'related content' along with distracting animated banner ads, tag clouds, pagniation etc.

Mac users on Safari can escape it somehow by using the "Reader" option, if Optima isn't a huge issue, it is actually a better way to read an article.

I prefer to read articles from various blogs in my RSS reader as much as possible, as the reading experience is more consistent there with little or no distractions.
Tushar Gupte

In this post on his blog, Carr writes about the strategy of saving all the links for the end, which if I understand correctly he's borrowed from Laura Miller (who did the same thing in reviewing his book):

I've forgotten if that's an idea he also offers in The Shallows itself. But either way, that post evidently inspired Readability (a service similar in spirit to the options Tushar Gupta is talking about) to add an option letting users convert links to footnotes:

As for the fact that I'm answering this particular post by offering up two links ... make of it what you will.
Rob Walker

I've been thinking it could be an interesting experiment to link in the style of A Pattern Language: a paragraph at the end of the post tersely explaining the links, rather than the more opaque and distracting inline links in common use.
ben judson

Rob and Ben, I hadn't seen Laura Miller's review of Carr's book (though someone sent me the link offline after reading my post). I had half a mind when I started this piece to provide the "missing" links at the end — it's the obvious thing to do. But then the title wouldn't have been accurate and I wanted to use it, so I didn't.

Thanks for the links. Readability sounds like the kind of answer we're looking for.
Rick Poynor

"I’m always amazed by the number of young people, members of the digital generation, who tell me they can’t possibly read on a computer screen."

this is totally me. I can write on a screen but for reading anything longer than a few pages i tend to print out, as un-green as that might be. even an issue for others at work, who also do this.

It is one of the reasons i decided to subscribe to the Sunday NYT edition. that and the new digital wall..

david stairs

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