A little less conversation, a little more action.

Links are great, but links also detract from deep processing & sustained concentration necessary to understand difficult & nuanced ideas (Carr, 2010). I rarely click on a link anymore in blogs because more often than not, the link goes to a site that, at best, is a stretch to be connected with the topic of the blog post. I also don’t do much linking in my posts (I know, a breach of bloggers code, but let’s be honest, these links to other amateur sites doesn’t actually bolster my case the way academic citing of sources does.). Rather than send your readers on a wild goose chase to figure out what you’re taking about, how about explaining what you mean. Posting a link is perhaps worse than dropping edu-jargon all over your post. If you can’t explain something, maybe you shouldn’t be writing about it. Maybe our links should appear as a bibliography at the end of posts rather than in text. This strategy still provides credit where credit is due, but encourages your reader to finish digesting your thoughts before moving onto the next thing prematurely.

Here’s an excerpt from Carr’s book highlighting the problem links pose for careful reading.

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11 Responses to A little less conversation, a little more action.

  1. johntspencer says:

    Personally, I think a blogger should be as original as possible. Not only avoid links, but create your own visuals, videos, words. It’s okay to quote a source (I really dig how you highlight from a real book and post it – very cool) but if I’m going to read a blog, I want the content to be original.

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  2. Dave Baker says:

    Interesting idea. Seems there are far more layers to this concept as well. If you’re reading blogs/sources whose in-text links only marginally relate to the subject at hand, you might just be reading the wrong blogs. Proper composition within a hypertext document is FAR more difficult than simply placing links to stuff you found somewhere randomly throughout the text. I would think that reading text from authors who masterfully insert appropriate links at the appropriate times and places is a much more fluid and gratifying process than reading a hastily-constructed text with poorly-chosen links.

    It’s not that I disagree with you (or Carr, for that matter), but this may also be a generational gap. I’d be interested to see the full statistics on Carr’s study. Are the results age-independent? Were demographics analyzed? If so, were comparisons made between tech-savvy youth and underprivileged youth? Between the younger cohorts and the older cohorts?

    Good post. Lots to think about here!

    (This comment brought to you without links, because I’m not tech-savvy enough to put them in!)

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    • Jerridkruse says:

      Dave, thanks for your thoughts, wish we would have talked more about philosophy back in college instead of just
      Chem & physics :)

      You make some very good points, but even carefully placed links encourage the reader to leave your thoughts midstream which, if you are discussing complexities, could be problematic.

      As far as Carr’s “study”, this is book highlighting other experts & studies. Carr himself is not a researcher.

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  3. Dave Baker says:

    Ha ha! Yeah, well, we were young and dumb, right? Okay, at least I was…

    I suppose we’ll just have to table the actual study for a time then. In the meantime, permit me to spitball here. I’m thinking about this as I type, so I’m not sure where I’ll end up. Hopefully it’s somewhere coherent!

    How about this take: Imagine two readers of the same blog. A blog written by a conscientious writer, whose links relate directly to the text, and are well placed. One reader is knowledgeable in the background (i.e. she’s heard of the information found in the links or is otherwise familiar with the topic at hand) while the other knows nothing of the background, but has an interest in understanding the blogger’s contribution to the subject. (I don’t know, I guess he’s just plain nosy.) Let’s call these readers “Reader A” and “Reader B”, respectively.

    Reader A goes through the text and, true to Carr’s notion, hiccups momentarily (“imperceptibly”) on each link within the text, choosing not to click on any link. According to Carr (whose name I will use in place of the actual authors of the studies here), her comprehension is subtly lowered by these hiccups, but overall retention (I would imagine) is still high enough that she could, without too much effort, regurgitate the main point of the text along with some subtleties because of her familiarity with the background.

    Reader B, knowing nothing of the background, decides that links are for jerks and plows through the text in spite of his ignorance. Much understanding is gained in the first round, but there are gaping holes in understanding based solely on the lack of supporting information. Reader B may be able to regurgitate much of the main point, but necessarily without the subtleties afforded by knowledge of the background. Had he decided that links were NOT for jerks after all and clicked on a few while reading the text to see what all the fuss was about, he would have discovered much. And, with effort and patience, Reader B will have learned the background as well as the (hopefully) important contribution that the blogger made to the subject at hand.

    So, what is a blogger/writer-of-articles to do, given these two very disparate possible readers? Both readers eventually got the point, learned something, and communication of ideas occurred. Reader A spent the time prior to reading the blog learning background information and therefore took much less effort (and, presumably, time) in comprehending the main points. Reader B had to play catch up, and therefore took lots of time and effort to understand the main points, but eventually, the two readers came to a similar understanding of the text.

    Carr’s sources would indicate that it is the writer’s obligation to construct his/her text in such a way as to create an uninterrupted and linear flow of ideas that anyone, regardless of prior understanding, can, well, grok.

    Fair enough. Let’s do just that! What are the possible methods?

    (I just realized this is just a friggin’ essay. I should have a blog myself!)

    1.) “Screw the reader! If they don’t get the subtext, context, or plain-text, then EFF ’em! I’m not throwing any links in here at all, nor citing any sources, nor giving anyone any context for this work. Suck it, world!”

    Who suffers most from this approach? Well obviously Reader B suffers quite a bit. Without any context for the blogger’s words, Reader B is lost. There’s no guarantee that any comprehension of the text will occur at all for him. He might as well just not have read it. Consequently, the blogger suffers, because his message fails to reach one more person. Reader A makes “imperceptible” gains in cognitive throughput and comprehension. (Her mind is less tired after reading through the piece, and as a result, decides not to take a nap after lunch and instead writes The Great American Novel.)

    2.) “Let’s do this Wiki-style and put links to relevant background information after the text so that my ideas can reach the lowest common denominator. ANYONE can grasp this, given enough effort. Hooray for pandering to the lowest common denominator!”

    Who benefits? Reader B now reads through the text, but is confused by many things. But wait! There’s a list of references after the text! Huzzah! Now’s he’s got some more learning to do! With effort, he learns the background, and the blogger’s ideas are communicated. Took him a while, but he still has time for a nap after lunch. The blogger spent a little extra time thinking about the readers here, and is rewarded by having his/her ideas communicated to more people. Obviously, Reader A still does pretty well. In fact, her performance is almost identical to that in scenario 1! Perhaps she spends ten seconds after reading the article skimming the given links to see if she missed something, but overall, she didn’t spend too much extra brainpower worrying about the links. (She still decides to skip her nap, but instead writes a trashy romance novel with more 2-dimensional characters than deep, thoughtful prose. Oh well. Danielle Steel’s rich, right?)

    3.) “I’m going to place hyperlinks in the text. Hooray for context! Hooray for subtext! Hooray for the lowest-common denominator!”

    Who benefits? Reader B now has real-time contextual reminders that there’s more to what he’s looking at than perhaps he knows. Clicking on the links is time-consuming, and takes effort to grok, but he makes it through. Each link made the sentence it was connected to much more understandable, and tied it in very well with the rest of the work. Reader A skips the links and understands the material with the subtleties, context and all that. Sadly, she is mentally tired after having to decide what links are worth clicking. Turns out, none of them were. (Oh well. She’s totally taking a nap after lunch! Millions of Danielle Steel readers fail to spend their money on yet another trashy romance novel. Nobody knows whether this is good or bad.) The blogger has spent extra effort thinking about what context a casual reader might need to understand his/her ideas, and has gone to the trouble of placing those links in places where they make the most impact on the readers. It took effort, but (s)he thinks it was well worth it.

    4.) “Okay, I’m going to write a comprehensive piece of work, with background information and subtext and context and everything.”

    Who benefits? As for the readers, it’s unclear. Reader B reads a longer article than in any of the previous scenarios, but is rewarded with a rich experience leading to a good understanding of a new topic. Reader A still grasps the text, but because there’s so much that she’s already seen, she has to skim over a bunch of it, and she may have missed a few important bits she didn’t realize she hadn’t already seen. (Not to mention the fact that there’s nothing like Shakespeare in the original Klingon! (She understands the text quite well, but because she’s spent so much time skimming over the stuff she already knew, there’s no time for a nap after lunch, and she’s going to be late for work!) The blogger just spent four weeks researching the topic, making sure not to plagiarize, paraphrase, or otherwise infringe upon other people’s work. (It turns out Double Rainbow guy was really hard to incorporate, too.)

    I suppose after reading all of these odd little scenarios, one could readily understand my take on the whole issue. In these simplified scenarios, Reader B stands to gain the most from properly linked and/or referenced material. (Scenarios 2-4.) Reader A pretty much gets everything anyhow, regardless of the scenario, and the damages suffered are minimal. The writer stand to lose the most in scenario 1 and 4, but for different reasons. (S)he minimizes the workload in scenario 1, but at the cost of readers who have no context for understanding the ideas involved. In scenario 4, the writer spends an incredible amount of effort “reinventing the wheel”. Familiarizing the reader with all the background was taxing, but Reader B definitely made great gains! I would argue that is isn’t the writer’s job to reinvent the wheel, and their time is better spent commenting on the subject they’ve chosen than rehashing a complex background for uninformed readers.

    Wow. That was a fun little exercise! I’m sure I have more defenses of hypertext links, but I’ll leave it here for now. I really hope this is at least a little coherent.

    (See? I’m thinking now! Good work, Jerrid!

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    • jerridkruse says:

      Good God Dave!

      I love a good thought experiment, but your dichotomous results are a bit simplified, and, as you note, give away your bias :)

      I completely get your point about the utility of links, but let me propose one more option: write the post with citations (kruse, 2010), or footnotes & provide links to these resouces at the end of the post. This combines two of your ideas. This way the reader knows there is more to it, but encourages them to read the whole post before exploring the links. Also, those readers who are really not getting it can skip to the end to explore the links first.

      What do you think?

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      • Dave Baker says:

        Hah! Well, at least I pointed out my own confirmation bias before I wrote anything down, right?

        You’re right, and I think this was the conclusion I came to in that long, oversimplified set of examples. A well-informed reader need not worry about the links while reading a piece. For the uninformed reader, I like the idea of footnotes before the piece, depending on the subject.

        However, I’m not entirely sold on the idea that every bit of writing on the internets should follow this format for fear of distracting the reader.

        Another thought I’ve been mulling over has been the concept that ideas and communication simply aren’t quite linear. In the sciences, we’re taught some variant of the scientific method, wherein methodology is king. But even that would be a simplification of the types of things actual scientists do. Other writers said it best, so I’ll have to paraphrase from memory here, but essentially, science is often long periods of “shotgun” experiments designed to test the very nature of an unknown thing. We do hundreds of tests to get a handle on just exactly what we’re looking at. Only then, after some initial data come in, does the true methodology of the scientific method show up. My point here is that even in places where linear thought should reign supreme, reality turns out to be a different beast.

        Consider those times when you were growing up. Perhaps it was at school, or maybe you played the “2 minute mystery” puzzles with friends. These games required nonlinear (lateral) thinking. Certainly, logic is necessary, but a direct, linear path from one point to the next often only came after the puzzle was solved. The people who performed the best at these puzzles were those who thought about information as webs of ideas, or in terms of clusters of information. Their solutions involved connecting these disparate ideas or clusters into one contiguous whole, bypassing linear thought in favor of a quicker method. (British or “cryptic” crossword puzzles are also quite similar in their reliance on nonlinear thought.)

        If such a methodology works incredibly well for thinking, what are the implications for communication? Can coherent communication be nonlinear? Must human beings take in written information as linear expressions of ideas? Or, are there ways of communicating a bevvy of information simultaneously? Perhaps all we humans need is time to adjust our mental processes to follow a different methodology of information exchange. A method that, for us old farts, is going to be a tough transition, but for the young, who know nothing different, may be a fully-functional method of communication with its own strengths and weaknesses.

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        • Dave Baker says:

          Sorry. “Bevvy” = Bevy. I haven’t had enough coffee yet today…

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        • jerridkruse says:

          A whole-heartedly agree with what you say about science and thinking. See my writing about “the scientific method” here: http://k12science.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/no-more-scientific-method/

          When I teach, I make it a point to not stick to an linear sequence of events. I would call my teaching open-ended. I flexibly respond to students’ non-linear thinking. However, teaching and thinking are different than making a coherent argument.

          Yes, thinking is not linear, but even while someone is reading a linear text, their thinking is still not linear…they are thinking about related experiences they have had in the past, how what they are reading may apply to different situations, thinking about their own understanding, and attempting to figure out from where the author is coming…just to name a few. Now we take all these non-linear processes that the reader is ALREADY doing, and then encourage them to divert from our main point further with link seems to be encouraging incoherence in both argument and thought.

          Now, that said, I think there is a time and place for embedded links. I have written pieces for professional organizations that I purposely included many links…my point in these pieces was to make readers aware of other resources and different viewpoints rather than to follow my argument.

          So, in sum, I agree with your notion of thinking being non-linear, but see great value in making some communication linear.

          One last thing. The whole “youth get things faster” thing is a bit of a myth when considering cognitive research. Our brains are very capable of “rewiring” themselves. What we find to be different in ages is motivation and beliefs about learning new things. What is really interesting is that if you consider the great experience older people have, they ought actually be more flexible learners.

          Oh, and another thing (yes i’m writing this as i think). Non-linear communication is probably best done as a concept map or a web…something that can be “taken in” as a whole picture. With links the message is still linear, it’s just that everyone’s line is different. Let’s not oversell the benefits of “non-linearity” when the medium we are talking about isn’t actually non-linear.
          (I’m still thinking about that last statement. Let me know what you think).

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  4. Dave Baker says:

    Alright, I may have been thinking about my points, but I clearly wasn’t thinking about proper formatting and editing. Please forgive my sloppy punctuation and mixed-tense prose.

    Also, as I continue to think more and more about this, I’m not convinced my analogies serve the purpose I had intended. Maybe I’ll throw something better together in a bit.

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    • jerridkruse says:

      Oh, also, my concern is not the same as Carr’s. He is concerned about the hiccups. I am concerned about the extended pause in following an argument. The hiccupmis caused by determining whether to followmthe link, the extended pause is caused by actually following the link.

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