Hyperlinks, or the secret of the Internet’s extended memory…

Hyperlinks. Some of our bloggers love em (Mr Baker being the optimum case in point); some of commenters hate them (almost exclusively when Pete uses them). To begin with here’s how the Wikipedia page on the subject ascribes it’s conceptual origin (from 1945):

As We May Think,” was a popular essay by Vannevar Bush. In the essay, Bush described a microfilm-based machine (the Memex [or ‘memory extender’]) in which one could link any two pages of information into a “trail” of related information, and then scroll back and forth among pages in a trail as if they were on a single microfilm reel. The closest contemporary analogy would be to build a list of bookmarks to topically related Web pages and then allow the user to scroll forward and backward through the list.

A more recent account by Rick Garlikov of their practical uses on the net emphasises the degree of choice they provide the reader to make their own decisions about you they read the material. In particular he notes that:

…they allow readers to read in the order they prefer — the order that makes the most sense to them, reading details, reasons, explanations for major points, as they choose, rather than having to wait until they get to an explanation, or rather than having an explanation inserted in the middle of something when they are not quite ready for it yet and are instead seeking an overview or the “big picture.”

They have a role in building communities. Applications like Twitter and Facebook are driven by hyperlinks. They connect people with information and are the reason that the web feels like it’s getting faster and faster. For instance, Ian Paisley Junior being served by a summons at Stormont yesterday was almost instantly available to us yesterday, via Stratagem’s Twitter feed. It was quickly ‘reTweeted’ and the hyperlink passed on.

Some may argue that that’s fine over a 140 word sprint, but it disrupts the linear narrative of a blog post. This web style guide, aimed at web designers in corporations, government, nonprofit organizations, and academic institutions identifies exactly this problem:

The primary design strategy in thoughtful hypertext is to use links to reinforce your message, not to distract users or send them off chasing a minor footnote in some other web site. Most links in a web site should point to other resources within your site, pages that share the same graphic design, navigational controls, and overall content theme. Whenever possible, integrate related visual or text materials into your site so that users do not have the sense that you have dumped them outside your site’s framework.

This is the kind of cautious guidance which has provided the principles behind big corporate sites like the BBC’s. But it’s far from the norm in the blogosphere. Even the BBC is slowly (painfully slowly) abandoning some of its more arcane policies on this. Large traffic volume sites like Instapundit and Matt Drudge consist almost entirely of hyperlinks… Rather than decrease traffic, as the authors here imply, sending readers offsite via hyperlinks to other sites actually increases inward traffic. There’s even a guerilla term for it: link juice..

It’s something Slugger has not been great at, and which we want to address in the new site design. In general it is more commonly used as an aide-mémoire. It can operate as a way of almost seamlessly navigating the past. In researching this article, I came across an early mention of Slugger from the BBC Magazine site (courtesy of Mulley’s policy of relentless outlinking), which in turn brought me back to this little forgotten (by me at least) gem from 2005.

Without a doubt, in terms of Slugger’s bloggers at least, the person comes in for regular stick is Pete. Take the last paragraph of a recent post (Sorry Pete, I know you are ‘in the room’, please forgive the slightly formal style for the moment) on Brendan O’Leary’s presentation to a conference at UCD. The last paragraph contains 10 links, 9 of them containing back links to previous stories on Slugger.

The criticism is that these are self referencing, in that many of them go back to articles previously written by Pete himself. Whilst is largely true, what generally goes unacknowledged in these ‘conversations’ is that each backlinking becomes a document in itself, linking backwards in time to earlier iterations of the same story. Just randomly picking a couple of links I found the earliest I came back to was a story on 10th July 2006 entitled about a hurried review of the funding of parades and community festivals…

Perhaps the most compelling argument against backlinking is that it weakens the argument by providing distractions to the reader. It disrupts the integrity of the linear argument. However this is to a degree mistaking wood for trees. The backlink itself is integral to the argument, not a distraction from it.

So perhaps in relying on the backlink the blog itself does not explain itself clearly, particularly for new readers? That might be more compelling if it came from new readers (who either turn away, or dig in as the notion takes them). Yet the criticism is lodged almost entirely by commenters who have been around for years, and know very well what’s contained within the backlink.

Which brings us back to the ‘extended memory’ idea in Bush’s original 1945 concept. My suspicion is that it is the inconvenient introduction of memory, which has a tendency to disrupt the favoured narrative or talking point of the that’s the real problem niggling underneath.

Just as the DUP found to their cost that pretending they had not spent the last two years in an intimate alliance in government with Sinn Fein did not wash with the Unionist electorate, the internet puts an extended memory at the disposal of both journalists and bloggers.

Love it, or loathe it, it isn’t going away you know! Discuss?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty