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Bad Links

It is my intention here to convince you that links are bad. They are bad when it comes to writing for the web in general, bad for books, bad for long-form journalism, and even worse in academic publication. It is not that I am against the idea of links. The problem lies in the way links are used. That is also to say that we make links better. But first, why are links so bad?

To start with, links are opaque. The worst of the lot are links like this and this. Of the two thises, the first leads to Google and the second to Bing search engines. It is impossible to tell, however, just by looking at the text. The best one can do is hover over the word, relying on the browser interface to show where the link is pointing. Once redirected, there are no easy ways to return. The writer must have faith in the browser to do the right thing in guiding the reader through an intertextual maze. And that is not right when it comes to writing. In most situations, authors should architect that experience explicitly. If you think about it, the old-fashioned apparatus of quoting an external text is itself a type of linking. But rather than including the whole text verbatim, authors “pull in” the relevant bits of the external text. Sending readers away to do that work on their own is lazy and irresponsible. Imagine a tour guide who tells his tourists to just go over there and look at some stuff—just come back when you’re done. Links can be that disorienting.

Links disrupt the reading experience, and that is the second reason for why links are bad. It is possible that you want the readers’ experience to be disrupted. In many cases you don’t. The reader is already distracted by the proliferation of parallel windows and devices that augment their reading in some way. Do we need to make that distraction easier? Should I link the Wikipedia article on media multitasking or is it enough for my purposes to simply mention Wikipedia and to trust my readers to look it up later, in a reference source of their own choosing? Better yet, I can help the reader by summarizing the relevant findings of the linked article: It mentions that many people read with a second screen in tow. It is not that unusual to see someone look something up on their phone or tablet while reading a newspaper or an e-book. Why? Because they don’t want to lose the flow of their first screen. There is great pleasure in immersive, uninterrupted reading.

Besides being disruptive, links are ugly. They are ugly together, as in when many links conspire to make a tangled mess. And they are also ugly when naked on their own, like this: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Jw2akGstb5wIJe0R3PFuTOYJfIThY74fXcMga5r7QAg/edit?. That string of characters is clearly not meant for human consumption. The question mark and the period at the end kill me entirely. Meaningless punctuation traffic inside of links coupled with regular punctuation ruins the sentence and the paragraph. Of course, I could just tell you to read something on Google Docs. That looks much better, but then we are making the opaqueness problem worse by hiding the address behind words that may or may not be related to the destination.

Links aren’t very secure to begin with, but hiding links behind words further compromises security. You’ve probably heard of link-baiting: the purposefully malicious attempts to trick a reader into revealing personal information when following a link that masquerades as a legitimate destination. You can visit my site to learn more about link-baiting. You shouldn’t have clicked that! (Don’t worry, that was a real, archived, Google login page.) Even if one means well, viruses and browser exploits can inject bad links into your otherwise legitimate ones. A common technique involves installing a browser script along with some seemingly useful search bar that will redirect all legitimate links to a site that makes money by advertising. Worse yet, you could end up on a site that attempts to further compromise your computer. Links are not secure because in linking, we outsource the relationship between reader and content to the browser.

Links are opaque, disruptive, ugly, unsafe, and they rot. Links don’t last because addressed online content is dynamic. It is not guaranteed to be there decades, months, or even minutes after our initial visit. We must think of a more robust mechanism for linking external content in any serious writing that hopes to survive to the end of the week. For robust, long-term preservation we need to cultivate sustainable, long-lasting, responsible practices of online citation. Links should work as well, if not better, than the familiar bibliographic citations in print. Digital linking practice should combat decay, not aid it. We need to think about the ways our links can be accessed, mined, and preserved with the archive-grade zeal of the rare book librarian.

Finally, links are terrible for accessibility. It is bad enough that clicking on a (that was a link) small word is difficult for people with any sort of fine-motor control problems. Being a little older in itself can make the online reading experience painful. Things are worse for those with Parkinson’s disease or for the blind. Sina Bahram, a blind usability expert (who is himself blind) reports that some sites contain thousands (!) of links in advance of actual content. Screen readers for the blind must read each one of them out loud. The screen reader cannot differentiate between superfluous links and relevant content. If you thought looking at ugly links is disruptive, imagine listening to a robotic voice that pronounces every slash and every useless number in: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92pM6hJG6Wo. Try reading it out loud yourself. That is why Sina Bahram listens to his reader at 950 words per minute.

Any one of these issues alone should give us pause. Together, they are a cause of grave concern. How did we get here? And what can we do to make links good again?

How did we get here is not an easy question. The excitement we once felt about hypertext is a part of the story. Links were supposed to break the hegemony of linear narrative, ushering a new interconnected world. To some extent that dream came true. But links also brought with them such manipulative publishing practices as Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Googles PageRank algorithm tracks, among other metrics, the number of incoming and outgoing links. This bias for connectivity encourages link farms: sites that attempt to game the system by aggregating links or cross-linking their own content. A sure sign of a vacuous SEO-driven piece of writing is a certain cynical and strategic use of links to other popular sources. How long until the SEO logic infects poetry, fiction, academic writing, or investigative journalism?

What can we do to make links better?

First, let’s use links more sparingly. Think smartly about whether you need to link or whether you can make do with a good, old-fashioned quote or a citation. Don’t link just because you can.

Second, link explicitly: youtube.com is better than this.

Third, realize that online content is dynamic. It makes no sense to link a dynamic resource when the intent is to create a link to a version of a document at a particular time and place. Tools like the Save Page Now service, hosted by the Internet Archive, do just that. You can find this essay at http://denten.plaintext.in/think.stack/bad-links but its earlier draft is best captured in a snapshot here: http://web.archive.org/web/20140208220625/http://sprintbeyondthebook.com/2014/02/bad-links/. The Chicago or MLA citation guidelines should be updated to encourage writers writers to archive their sources. A “visited on” note does not suffice for academic purposes.

Finally, do not neglect the humble footnote. Footnotes provide a nice blend between readability, concision, transparency, and good knowledge design.1

1 Published in Sprint Beyond the Book, Arizona State University (2014). Archived in February, 2014. http://web.archive.org/web/20141005021655/http://sprintbeyondthebook.com/2014/02/bad-links/.

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