The Integrity of Hypertext – The Debate Continues

September 7, 2010

In May of 2010 a debate was spurred by an article by Nicolas Carr, arguing the negative implications of hyperlinks in bodies of text. There was some heated debates between Carr, Jeff Jarvis, and Jay Rosen, which ultimately led to a mood point in discussion. In the last two weeks, the online debate has reignited, led by a three-part article by Scott Rosenberg contesting Carr’s original dialogue on delinkification. Carr’s distaste for internal hyperlinks is obvious:

Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not.

This initial concept I have to agree with; whether you choose to click on the links or not, they are there and we must acknowledge it with mental capacity while reading. I doubt even Rosenberg would disagree on that point. Where the disparity seems to lie is in how much of an implication – whether positive or negative – this distraction can have on the reader.

What Carr doesn’t address thoroughly is the belief that this distraction makes us less interesting, if not more stupid, as he mentioned in a June interview with The Atlantic:

If we’re perpetually distracted from a young age…we will likely sacrifice some of the depth and distinctiveness of our intellects and our personalities. That’s not to say there won’t be compensations, and it’s not to say that we’ll be stupid, but it is to say that we’ll be less interesting.

With his initial argument now straying from this concept of stupidity to interest, I find fault. The concept of what can be deemed interesting is highly personal and volatile. The inclusion, or lack of links in a blog or other internet document cannot be the global indicator of whether or not we link-users are interesting people.

I would go so far as to say that using hypertext could have a serious and beneficial implication to education. For example, I choose to put links to Nicolas Carr’s article, interview and Steve Rosenberg’s article within the text to keep my readers informed. What point do readers have to read this article if they have no previous information on the topic? That doesn’t mean they cannot find the information on their own via Google or another search engine with ease, but I would rather keep them at close range with my initial article with easy access to the background information. Perhaps I’m creating lazy readers, as some media theorists would argue, but they are certainty not ill-informed. Even if you’re not an academic with several books under your belt, it can provide academic integrity for the author. Carr acknowledges this concept momentarily in his article:

The link is, in a way, a technologically advanced form of a footnote. It’s also, distraction-wise, a more violent form of a footnote. Where a footnote gives your brain a gentle nudge, the link gives it a yank. What’s good about a link – its propulsive force – is also what’s bad about it.

Rather than a distraction, I’ve yet to see a problem with optional, easily-accessible resources of information to further intellectual stimulation. If you’ve been on the learning side of the academic sphere anytime recently, you may remember the constant pressure to cite, to quote and to research before making an argument, and of course to cite those materials. We have an opportunity now to create texts that are more interactive, to allow readers to make their own conclusions with the information given to them, whether they choose to find more information or not.

Rosenberg makes a significant point to remind the readers on the history of the hyperlink:

This original conception of hypertext fathered two lines of descent. One adopted hypertext as a practical tool for organizing and cross-associating information; the other embraced it as an experimental art form, which might transform the essentially linear nature of our reading into a branching game, puzzle or poem, in which the reader collaborates with the author.

It would seem that Carr is in agreement about the practical uses of hypertext, or else he would not be providing links at the end of his articles at all. As an art form, we find conflict because there is no one way to determine the advantages and faults of a medium, and it is certainty not up to just one person to find it. By arguing against hypertext because it is a distraction, it can also easily be argued that access to information is a negative concept. If someone is willing to make a valid argument against information I’ll be listening.

I obviously don’t agree with Carr, but I can’t agree completely with Rosenberg either. What I can say for Rosenberg’s article is it is much more fleshed out and detailed (and the embedded hyperlinks help). I don’t claim this to be a perfectly detailed argument with a definitive conclusion either, but I’m curious to see the outcome of the revival of this debate. More ideas, more arguments and more voices on a topic always excites me, particularly because concepts and beliefs on media change as rapidly as the technology itself.

Photo from Flickr user Make a Scene Photography under Creative Commons License

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