“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?