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Thursday, July 1 2010

Are Hyperlinks Hyper-Jinxed?

Hyperlink HonestReporting's social media editor, Alex Margolin, contributes occasional posts on social media issues. He oversees HonestReporting on Facebook.

Who would have thought the humble hyperlink – that dynamic marvel that turns the Internet into a world wide web – would be blamed for our diminishing attention spans?

Well, media theorist Nicholas Carr, whose new book, The Shallows, claims the Internet is turning our brains to mush, wrote recently on his blog that the good ol’ link may be one of the main culprits:

Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they're also distractions. 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.

Even if we don’t click on the link, he continues, it has an affect on how much we understand about that we read:

Your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it's there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.

Carr’s solution for writers: put links at the end of a piece rather than sprinkling them throughout. Sounds like a reasonable solution, one that reinforces the idea that links work best when they function as dynamic footnotes.

At the same time, the New York Times had its own concerns about links. But its worries had less to do with the “bunch of neurons” than about the potential loss of traffic if bloggers and others stop linking to the paper.

The NYT plans to begin charging for articles in 2011. Readers will be allowed a certain number of free articles and will be charged for any beyond the limit. But according to Peter Kafka’s Media Memo, the Grey Lady has already begun assuring bloggers that readers will not be barred from reading links posted by third-parties (such as bloggers, Twitter, Facebook), even if they are over the limit.

So there are two sides to every hyperlink – the linker and the linked-to – and both are coming under fire by parallel developments. As readers spend more time on the Internet, pundits grow increasingly concerned about the effect the Internet has on our brains. But more time online means more demand for quality content. And that means potentially link-blocking paywalls.

At least it seems the NY Times has found a way to have a paywall and keep social media's incoming links working. Someone alert the Wall Street Journal.

Previously in Alex's series: Is There Life After Depth?



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Well the workaround that the NYT had when they instituted Times Select is that any URL with "rss" in it could get in for free, which presumably is what they'd do. Accordingly, when I blog, I try to use links to the URL's with "rss" in it.

Now the WSJ does have a way around the firewall. Go to Google and search on the title. If you get in through a Google search you can read the whole article. They're not exactly secretive about this. Now when you post the URL again, it will still give you the preview. It's an annoyance but it can be dealt with.

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